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?

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