Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 34 (Round IV) "In the trenches": "Waal, the Stranger jist rode inta town" edition

Spent the last week on a UK campus as the guest of an old IU friend's department and lecture series. My buddy T has been after me for the past couple of years to come and give a talk as part of their colloquia on the minstrelsy project, but until this year we've never been able to work out the finances--not the fee (fee?!? ha!), because nobody in academia really has the money to be paying extra for scholars not on the payroll to come in and give extra presentations, but rather the adjacent/ancillary "Music & Migration" conference whose CFP ("call for papers") T was able to tweeze sufficiently to include both historical as well as ethnographic studies on the topic. That got a paper accepted, which in turn let me go to my own boss and Dean and request "international research presentation" travel support, which in turn made it possible for me to get here, and, by crashing with T and his family, spend the week at a cost T's colloquium could afford.

It's been a nice visit: lot of quality time with the family (knew both T and spouse at IU) including hot & cold running kids (ages 2, 4, 6), wander in the New Forest.

Actually pretty nice to spend time in the New Forest--not a terribly dramatic landscape (heath, bog, scattered trees), but with animals (pigs, horses, sheep, etc) running free. Because this is the largest remaining patch of "common land"--unowned by any private holder, but held "in common" by those who work and graze the land--the last vestige of the way that land was, before Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and the Acts of Enclosure that ensued when the rich realized they could lay claim to anything not newly-documented as owned (kind of what Certain Irish Musicians have done with anonymous tunes). I've done a lot of work on concepts of the Commons--the pre-Industrial, pre-copyright, barter-era social compact that says "as long as everyone in a community understands the vernacular rules by which the resources get used, we don't HAVE to nail down every last bit of who 'owns' what". It's ironic that the reason the New Forest has remained a "commons" area is that it was (originally) a private hunting domain established by William I (it's in Domesday Book), and it was a pleasure and a unique and precious experience to spend time in a landscape that has NEVER been "owned".

Also had a nice visit with Taiyo--first her, here, for a day of the Music & Migration conference. Felt a little embarrassed that she'd traveled and was spending money to hear a variant of a paper that she's heard at least twice before, but it was nice to introduce a friend from one Dr Coyote era (Lubbock) to a friend from another (Bloomington). And it was nice to see her coming along as a professional scholar able to hold her own in foreign climes.

Then to Oxford, which I commented upon briefly last night. Though it's a beautiful place, and the sense of history comes up between the cobbles and out of the walls of the buildings, probably the most enjoyable parts of that visit were the chances to meet her own friends and supervisors. I can do without the spotty little Children of Privilege with their posh accents and carbon-copy blazers and scarves and Potter-/Auden-esque spectacles and their general air of tentative privilege: "privilege" because they've always been told by Mum and Dad and their rich relatives and the family's corporate relations that they are Among the Elect, and "tentative" because, even in Oxford, they can bump shoulders with people of every different ethnicity, economic experience, and set of political convictions--including Very Large Americans with earned PhDs and contempt for the English Upper Classes coming off him like waves.

But it was a pleasure to meet the guys she works for. I won't go on at length about them--they're prime material for her OWN blog--but it was felicitous, after the toxic Privilege of the Oxford streets (not unlike what I feel in the streets of Taos, Boulder, or Cambridge MA), to be reminded that the English university system is still capable of turning out diametrically opposite personality types who are both, nevertheless, bright as hell and very approachable: one buttoned-down and understated, the other expansive and hyperbolic, but both of them obviously delighted to be dealing with people who are quick enough, and flexible enough, to alleviate the sheer intellectual boredom that comes from being way smarter than everybody else in the room (not an experience I know, but cf Dr Coyote's Elder Brother here). Nice guys, and it was delightful to see them both pleased with and proud of Taiyo's contributions to their operations.

After that, a late ride back through the darkling countryside of Oxfordshire and Hampshire, and being reminded that, had we in the US ever been able to escape the oligarchies of the Big Oil that demanded a the suicidal construction of superhighways and a dinosaur of an auto industry (thanks, Prescott Bush, damn you), we might have had a light-rail system that was a fifth as effective as the UK's. And, if we hadn't allowed ourselves to be so utterly cowed by the fucking Puritans, it might even be possible, en route on such a quick, clean, quiet train, to enjoy a split of a decent red wine and read about Samuel Beckett.

Now sitting in the cafe of the university (pretty good lattes, actually, as long as, in ordering, you say "one leh-tay and one bah-nah-nah, please", or they won't understand your Yankee accent), tap-tapping on the presentation (give me surplus time before a public lecture, and I will wind up rewriting) and waiting to be met by a posse of T's Master's and PhD students, who are tasked with taking me to lunch.

I sort-of remember such jobs, from my own 12 years as a graduate student. While I wouldn't wish my own graduate-student self on ANY visiting professor (large, ragged, skeptical, accustomed to the worst possible self-indulgent pomposity from professors), I actually enmjoy and value meeting other peoples' grads, and I go way out of my way to be as positive, engaged, and encouraging as I know how to be.

Because being in graduate school is fucking HARD. I have the impression from T, and from some other observations, that it's nowhere near as hard here as it is across the water--here, there are few classes, only the occasional seminar, you pick your own supervisor from the available faculty, you meet with your tutor once a week to discuss whatever has been your recent reading or writing. Master's in 1 year and a PhD in 2. I 'magine this does a very good job of preparing UK grad students (call 'em "post-grad" here) for work in the UK university system doing the same thing for more recent students, the contrast between the criteria of this system, and those of the US (massive coursework, allegations of comprehensivity, batteries of entrance and exit exams, extended dissertation approval and vetting process, many more years in the pipeline) helps me understand why it's so difficult and uncommon for UK PhD's to wind up teaching in American institutions: if the American school isn't of sufficient stature to provide "pure research" or at the most "senior single seminar" status, the UK people are going to have trouble displaying the range of expertise--or at least competence--to provide the service that a Stateside school needs.

Coming up on colloquium Zero Hero in about 4:00 minutes now. Here we go...

...Aftermath: went well. Nice selection of the faculty there, but much more importantly (sorry, T), good representation of the Master's and PhD students. As a mutual friend said, in the pub after the lecture, "It's really around the students that T lights up," to which my response was "that's exactly how it should be." Good kids, good questions, good energy, with all of which I'll be really happy to keep in touch.

On the London/Heathrow coach in less than 9 hours. Indian food on the horizon right now. 30 hours from now I should be Back Home.

1 comment:

sunshine said...

Sensei, that was a *fabulous* presentation! William Mount and his artwork completely fascinates me, and I know so little about it. It was, as they say: 'bloody brilliant.' :-)