Saturday, January 14, 2017

The importance of engagement

Yesterday I stood behind the podium of University of Helsinki small festive hall (surprisingly not that small) for the first time to give a lecture:

The author giving a lecture on the long history of icebreaking in Finland in the University of Helsinki main building on January 13th 2017. The lecture was arranged by the Maritime Historical Association of Finland and the Finnish Maritime Museum with the Finnish Transport Agency and Arctia Shipping. The three panelists taking part in the session sitting beside me are from left: Ilmari Aro (retired director of winter traffic and icebreaker chief), Tapio Bergholm (maritime and labour historian among other things), and Tero Vauraste (the director of Arctia).
I did not think this would happen, when I set out to do this icebreaker study with Saara Matala (her idea and instigation, for which I'm deeply grateful). I could tell many stories about icebreakers but for now, I'd rather focus on interaction and dissemination of academic research.

Public performance is now easy for me. This isn't always the case with everyone. In the long term history is a field of books and papers. It's often and easily perceived to be a solitary endeavour. The heroic historian amid a sea of dusty folios. Even I sometimes like to invoke this image regardless that I know it to be patently false. It might also be that these fables of vocation hinder us from identifying skills relevant to our profession and more importantly what it takes to teach them.

I learned to perform publicly over a long period of time from childhood to working life. I think I'm still learning but let me focus first on the implicit ways I became a person who welcomes and seeks out experiences like the one pictured above. For whatever reason I ended up in (what feels like) every school play. before long I was resigned to stand up, get on the stage and present my part. Once, as a teenager I rebelled. My school was doing a musical with the Finnish National Opera, and my music teacher asked me to come read for a part in the tryouts. In fact, she dragged me and my two friends into the auditorium from a math class. We had not prepared. More to the point, I had actively not prepared and consequently ended up reading a text brought by a friend, who'd caved in under the pedagogical pressure.

Guess who got called for the second round?

Yes, indeed. So I was given the script and told to prepare for a reading the next week. I threw that script in the cafeteria rubbish bin the minute my teacher's back was turned and went on ignoring the issue. This led to her dragging me from biology (or geography, can't really remember) class, "pushing" me on the stage. There I stand befuddled, look the professionals in the eye and say:
- Can I have a script to read? I've lost mine.

Guess who got the part?

Why is this important? In hindsight, I still don't know why I got picked. I don't know, what it was that these educators saw in me that made them believe, I should be put on stage time and time again. It must be said that evidently they were right, because after my acts of juvenile rebellion, I doubled down, did the work and played my part. I will be forever grateful for having played young John Cage at the Opera back then. But that's not the issue. By the age twenty I had learned to quell the butterflies and put on the role, whatever it was. A new job? Ok, follow the others and learn the process. Conference secretary? No problem, go out there and raise your voice: "ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention..."

I've since become interested in public performances and roles, we all use / are / embody. Gabrielle Hecht's technocratic pose was obvious to me as a way of understanding technical professionals in public office. Miia-Leena Tiili has ingeniously described a similar performance by coast guards in her work. The more I learn, the easier these performances come. I now routinely plan ahead in minute detail, on which particular Aaro Sahari performs and what. Different hats for different events.

And what is the point of all this then? Understanding your audience and helping them to engage with your performance helps you engage with them. This becomes far more important, when doing interviews, planning events with associates, or trying to line your interests with those of other actors – all things that are necessary in academia. The lone heroic historian can make important discoveries and have ideas, but interaction helps strengthen arguments and no one will find every book, dossier and document alone. Some 200 individuals have engaged with me in a meaningful way during my dissertation work. And it would be so very much worse without them.

Engaging others and putting on roles isn't easy. Knowing yourself well enough to stay true to your values is even harder. Engagements are always negotiations and they do take their toll. Still, the research I decided to do would not be possible without social interaction beyond the obvious and mandated. Presenting my ideas about icebreaking in Finland at a conference and yesterday have helped me gauge the significance of ideas and led to the emergence of new ideas. More on that hopefully in the years to come though.

I don't yet know how I could synthesise or deconstruct my learning experience. This might not be teachable, but I'll try to find out whether it is. Meanwhile, I will savour every constructive comment relating to the issue.

More importantly I do not have answers for those less privileged and hard-headedly malleable than me,  and herein lies the problem. Social skills need to be taught, especially to humanists. Without them, what are we?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sidesteps, detours and new ideas

Doing a dissertation can be a singular project. Doing a monograph is still quite the norm in history although the proportion of article dissertations is increasing. In the end, I think this boils down to the nature of one's argument. If it can be split into meaningful, independent arguments of limited length, then doing articles definitely has merits. If a more substantial argument has to be made, then a monograph of 250 to 350 pages will probably serve to make the point better. When I set out to make me choice, I interviewed some twenty researchers (not all of them historians though) and followed that with a light SWOT analysis.

The results were inconclusive. Half of my interviewees saw the article dissertation as a better route into academia in these lean and mean times. They tended to stress the future of profession and internationalisation of humanities. The other half though, argued in favour of a fully formed argument and saw merit in learning to write really long-form – as in a book. And so, I was nowhere.

Luckily there was a third way, or as it may be a third rail: do both!

Here's my logic. I set out to do something for and to the Finnish maritime historical community. My thesis is grounded in issues stemming from real and perceived issues in our understanding of some facets of Finnish maritime history. If I want to have an impact, my thesis should be available and accessible. I don't argue that an article dissertation cannot be either of these, but so far the monograph still seems to have the edge. Still, doing articles is a very educational and informative endeavour. It allows one to potentially engage a different audience, international academia. I have found out that it also forces one to develop somewhat different skills. The downsides are time and effort. You can only do so much.

Being the ambitious idiot I am, I decided to try. I had some article writing experience already, having turned my master's into a decent article in a Finnish yearbook. I do not have international publications to my name yet, although that is in the works. And thus today's salient point emerges. Some fourteen months ago a colleague decided to write about the long history of icebreakers in Finland. Why did they become important and how? She had the idea and the theory, but lacked much of the mind numbing archival work for a hundred-year scope. Luckily for her, I do mind numbing well.

We set out. Learned a lot about ourselves, one another and the process of collaboration. Not the institutionalised or rigid kind one encounters in article factories, but a free-wheeling journey of academic discovery with lots of detours, coffee and late night emails. Both of us worked with sources, wrote and edited all the time. We got feedback and we got help from our supervisors and many others until finally, last summer we let our words free into the world (a journal editor to be precise). The piece is now in peer review.

At times this effort felt like a huge sidestep. At others it was the best work I have ever done. It might be both. Without going into details now, we ploughed through a hundred years of Finnish winter seafaring, pack ice, snow and all. The work benefitted my monograph thesis in a few ways by allowing me to delve deeper into a few cases and strengthen my arguments. It also took a lot of time – double the work. By the time I set out to write concurrent bits of my dissertation, I learned that I was far better equipped to engage my materials.

Then things got interesting.

While prepping for a conference (we presented our preliminary findings) we received a call from the president of the Finnish association for maritime history. Some other actors were interested in collaborating on a series of lectures and workshops on icebreaking, he said. Would we be interested in participating?

We were. As a result, I will be giving a lecture on this issue in nine days time. My colleague got a Fulbright and can't make it. Another public speech is scheduled for February and a conference paper for March. Turns out that icebreakers are still something of a topic in Finland. Who knew?

The sidestep that became a detour turned into an idea is again starting to look like a sidestep. But what a frozen treat it is. It obviously takes time to prep for all of this. I've also had to undertake additional archival research. While this hasn't significantly stalled my thesis work, it is a rough ride at times. Understanding the value of my time has become more essential, and in this detail I find myself increasingly engaging entrepreneurs. It' really not that different being a budding academic or a self-employed specialist.

Then again, I get to do this:

Museum icebreaker Tarmo at the Suomenlinna shipyard in January 2017. The picture shows the bow of the ship from port and sea level. The distinct bow propeller and the curved intermediate bow form are easily recognisable.

I visited the oldest surviving icebreaker, Tarmo today. The Finnish Maritime Museum was fortunately granted a funds to put the old behemoth in great condition again. The north wind howled and chilled me to the bone, but walking under the hull and gazing into the marvel that is the Baltic icebreaker bow, I withstood it with uncharacteristic stoicism. After taking a bunch of pictures, I ploughed across the snowy yard to waters' edge, where a man was at work.

A second generation Valmet shipyard worker at work. The picture presents a man in a yellow safety jacket standing by a lifebuoy at the north end of the Suomenlinna shipyard. It is very cold and he is wearing a traditional fur cap.

Ever the humanist, I struck a conversation. Turns out he was the electrician, with the same nickname my dad, also an electrician, has. Also, he'd worked his whole life for Valmet and then the governing body of the UNESCO site, where the shipyard is. In fact, he told me, his father went to work at the same shipyard in 1929. Obviously, I was fascinated and interested and had some stories of my own. We chatted with vigour until the cold reminded us of our duties. I returned to the icebreaker and he to his repair work. Never in my life would I have dreamed of meeting someone with such stories, had I not embarked on my wintry historical passage through Finnish icebreaking.

Now this was nothing short of literal detour. But now, I have even more depth to my work.

I don't yet know, how this third route will end treating me. It has strained and stressed me but at the same time, it has given me great joy, new ideas and possibilities. How any of this could be turned into meaningful pedagogical tools, I don't know either. But I'll try to find out. Still, it's become evident that the way to academic competence might not be a straight and narrow path.