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Maybe I am superwoman, after all

A few months back, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my first few months as a Professor. I titled that post “I am not superwoman”. And I was right, mostly. But there were things I’ve not talked about publicly, things that traditionally and culturally we keep private. When you bring them into the frame, they start to paint a different picture. So maybe, just maybe, I am superwoman, after all…?

We were approaching the end of the academic year. Everyone was fractious after a tough semester. Some weeks earlier I’d had a fairly fraught conversation with the Head of School about the lack of admin support for some major roles we were undertaking in the team; I knew his hands were tied by the system, but it was having a knock-on effect on junior staff, and I couldn’t let that fly. Somehow we all just about made it to the end of the year. But for me, something was happening I couldn’t quite work out. It was during the final degree exam board of the academic year. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I made it to the end of the meeting. It happened to be my 35th birthday. And I was in the middle of having a miscarriage. The rest of the day, and most of the night was spent in various clinics with various medics and nurses whose faces told me the grim news I didn’t really want to hear. It was brutal, physically and emotionally. Countless women have been through a similar thing, and will tell you how, like me, your hormones take some time to catch up with themselves after an unexpected end to something that was supposed to last many months more. Over the next few days, colleagues very kindly stepped in to cover my workload for me, as we finalised all the post-exam-board paperwork and released results to students. But there was one work commitment I had to cancel altogether as I was unable to travel. I was supposed to be externalling a PhD viva. I had to cancel the viva. I could only imagine how awful it must have been for the doctorand to have their viva cancelled – so much effort and psyching-yourself-up goes into viva prep, and they had to put all that on hold because of me. (I am eternally grateful to the fabulous researcher whose viva this affected – we were able to reschedule for a couple of weeks later; my first day back at ‘work’ after my miscarriage). The knock-on effects also meant that I had to press pause on a major grant bid I was co-writing with a colleague in France. We ended up submitting the bid several months later, about 3 weeks later than planned in all, just as the new academic year was starting. It felt… momentous and draining all at once. But life went on.

I heard the outcome of the grant about 7 or 8 months later – we’d been successful! I was overjoyed, as it was my first major grant. But I suppose it felt doubly rewarding to have some success in my professional life, where I was struggling for success in my personal life. I was in the midst of going through rounds of tests to find out why I was struggling to conceive after my miscarriage. Doctors take ages to put you forward for tests; it takes ages to get a referral letter; it takes months to get an appointment with a specialist. A year or more was going by and still we had no real clue what was going on. But I kept focused at work, got the grant project underway, appointed a fantastic team, and started to make significant progress with my new book. At the same time, I was turned down for promotion. I was told that my major grant didn’t count towards my promotion case (I still don’t understand why). I was told not to talk too much about my grant success in case it might upset other people who didn’t have one. I was told that because I had my grant other people were having to take the strain of my workload. It made me feel pretty raw. I was successful but was being told I wasn’t. In the meantime, I was called by another university asking if I’d consider a role with them. My instinct was to say no – I was in the middle of tests at the hospital, I’d finally got my referral letter through, and didn’t want to disrupt that process, given how long it had taken to get an appointment in the first place. But I ended up being called for an interview, and I decided to go – as practice. My husband had also just started a new post 3 hours from where we lived, but closer to the new place I ended up being offered a job at. And it was a significant promotion, to Chair.

I accepted the new job. In the very same week, we found out the outcome of the hospital tests. The picture was not great for me… We were offered a one-time-chance-it-and-see round of IVF. And there was no option but to go ahead with it – if we waited any longer, we’d lose our “place” in the system because once we’d moved house and jobs, we’d go to the back of the referral queue at a new hospital. So at the same time as house-hunting, carrying on with my normal day job, and my husband being in just the first few months of his new job, we also started all the IVF process. Anyone who has been through it will know that it means a lot of trips to hospital. A lot of injections and probes and tests. We’d been told from the outset not to expect great success given my prognosis. But we did pretty well, we got as far as we could, and were in the midst of the infamous “two-week wait” to find out if it had worked. The day I got the negative result was the day we moved house. My in-laws came to collect me and the cat, and I left my husband to deal with the removal men, the solicitors, and all the stressful logistics of the move. We were both in pieces, but unable to do much about it, given our lives were packed up in boxes as we moved to start our new life – not quite the one we’d envisaged – in a new city.

I ended up being pretty ill after the IVF with a nasty infection that took some major drugs to zap (I missed the graduation ceremony of one of my former PhD students as a result). I was drained physically and emotionally, once again. We didn’t have any of our friends around us, because we’d just moved to a brand new place. But we cracked on with unpacking, decorating, gardening, and making the most of what was in many ways an exciting new chapter in our lives. I was still technically employed for a month by my old university, and I had to go back and do the whole admissions cycle for them (a bizarre experience talking to stressed teenagers who’d just missed out on their hoped-for A-level results and telling the “yes, come and study here… though I myself am leaving…”). A few days later, I started my new job as a Professor. Three weeks later, I submitted my full book typescript to my publisher. It was three months behind schedule, but it was done.

When I look back over the past 3 and a half years or so, and see that I managed to secure a £600,000 research grant, write and publish a 90,000-word monograph with OUP, be promoted to a Chair at a high-ranking University, and that I did all that whilst negotiating a miscarriage, a failed round of IVF, and a house move, I realise that maybe I am superwoman after all. My successes are tangible; my failures seem less so. I know I had to let a lot of people down along the way. I know there were things I just never quite got round to doing, emails that never got replies, tasks and roles I ended up doing a less-than-perfect job of. But maybe, just maybe, that’s ok, given everything else I’ve done and been through. The thing is, I suspect my experience isn’t that different from that of many other women, whether in academia or not. Trying and failing to have children is not much talked about – why would you? It has a major effect on partners and husbands too. We’ve ended up in a place we didn’t expect to be, it’s not how we’d hoped our lives would turn out, but even though it’s still not ok, we’re starting to be a bit more used to it. And to feel lucky and privileged for all the things we have managed to achieve along the way (anyhow).

And so, to Richard, for everything.


A Manifesto for Song Research

Earlier this month I was delighted to present my Professorial Inaugural Lecture-Recital at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts. I was joined by the fabulous song duo Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton, so I was able to offer live performances of the works I research as part of my current major research project, the Baudelaire Song Project.

As I was preparing my lecture, I bumped into a colleague who offered a really helpful tip: ‘think of your inaugural as presenting a manifesto for your future research’. It really got me thinking. I’m already looking ahead to my next research project, and while I haven’t framed it fully yet, I know it will include questions about how we use our voices in different languages, which for me also includes musical language. More broadly, I want to examine the whole idea of song as a fundamental human activity that we don’t yet fully understand. So I decided to close my lecture with my first cut of a ‘manifesto for the future of song research’. I thought I’d share it here on this blog, in part to mark the occasion of my inaugural, and in part to invite conversation around how we talk about song in both abstract and practical terms. À vous de jouer…

A manifesto for song research
We need to…

  • Be less reverent about classical song
    accept that it is part of a continuum which includes a whole range of musics
  • Be less precious about how text is set to music
    there are always going to be hesitations, repetitions, or deviations
  • Promote and probe the inherently universal human experience of song
    the language of the words/lyrics matters but to varying degrees depending on the context; working with singers is a must
  • Apply the most cutting edge techniques to song analysis that we can devise or find
    that will mean going more and more digital (but digital does not mean without human input)
  • Improve access to song networks
    there is no simple model of how words and music interact; songs are a complex and busy network of interactions which push and pull in different directions, because songs are live and lived things


I am not superwoman: 8 lessons from my first 8 months as prof

1. I am not superwoman
In my old job, I had a mantra which was “smile and say no”. My new role involves so much more that I can’t say no to… but I’ve got to learn when I can! The past 3-4 months has been dominated by reviewing submissions, proposals, applications – for people whose lives and careers depend on it. It’s too important to say no to, and it’s part and parcel of my role. It’s also a huge responsibility and privilege. But the quantity of applications I’ve read has been…impressive. Perhaps it’s a feature of the PhD/ECR/publication market at the moment, perhaps it’s just an unfortunate bunching of workload over a tight timeframe, but I somehow feel there has to be a better way. More seasoned profs will no doubt tell me that you get better at reading everything so quickly. But I am not superwoman, and there are only so many hours in the day! Hopefully this will get easier…

2. I love my job
Heavy workloads notwithstanding, I absolutely love what I do. My passion for research, developing new teaching ideas, working with mentees, exploring graduate school (funding) strategies and more besides means that I thrive on meeting and working with so many great people.

3. Students are wonderful
I knew this anyway, but it’s become particularly clear this past term, as I’ve had the chance to lecture and lead seminar discussions on a wide range of topics – teaching about Zola’s women on International Women’s Day, working on the Enlightenment politics of Les Liaisons dangereuses as Trump is inaugurated, debating Britain’s place in the world as Article 50 is invoked – what’s not to love? (apart from the crazy world politics at the moment!)

4. Where you work matters
The campus at the University of Birmingham is a super space. I love walking through it every day. But it’s also part of an amazing, vibrant city with so much going on. I’ve been to concerts at Symphony Hall, explored other venues in the city, and can’t wait to get to know it even better.

5. Don’t neglect life stuff too
Moving jobs also meant moving house. We’ve been decorating! And gardening! And more besides. This stuff matters, and I am so lucky to have such an awesome husband who keeps our house project moving in the right direction. It might be a lot on top of new jobs for us both too, but having a beautiful place for us to relax, have friends round for coffee, lunch, drinks, or dinner, is what matters. 

6. You travel more as prof
It may not always be to especially glamorous locations, but each week this term I’ve been away from Birmingham for at least one day a week – Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Limerick, Canterbury. And last term I also had a US visiting fellowship at Vanderbilt. I’m learning how to work better on trains and planes… iPad is the way forward (I just need to find a way for university IT to make things easier…!)

7. Colleagues matter
I am so lucky to have such a great team around me of support staff in the Graduate School and in the School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music. I couldn’t do my job without them. And my fellow academics – in the offices next door, in buildings across campus, and at other institutions – mean I can get my job done properly. It’s not without its politics, but a properly collegial environment is key. 

8. Nobody bats an eyelid when they realise I’m a professor
Impostor syndrome is a real issue. I’m in my thirties, I’m a woman, and I’m a full professor. Sometimes I feel like I’ve come to the wrong place. But I have been treated with absolute respect in all the meetings I’ve been in, irrespective of the level of seniority of the people around me, from the Vice Chancellor, to Pro Vice Chancellors, to admin teams, publishers, other academics in my field, and PVCs from other Universities. It suggests that young(ish!) female profs are becoming the norm. We know the statistics show there is still a long way to go, but in my experience, the profession is starting to make real strides in the right direction. I am not an oddity. In fact, no-one bats an eyelid. It means I can just get on and do my job as anyone in my position should. 

What’s new?

In September I moved institutions and took up a more senior role. Four months into my new post as professor of modern languages at the University of Birmingham, it seems a good time to reflect on what’s new for me.

New postgraduate role
At my last institution, I served as (acting) Faculty Lead for Postgraduate Affairs. At Birmingham, I am now Deputy Director of the College Graduate School and Co-Site Director of the Midlands3Cities doctoral training partnership, across a consortium of 6 universities (University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, University of Leicester, De Montfort University, University of Nottingham, and Nottingham Trent University). It means my outlook is much broader, cross-institutional, and I have responsibility for a larger cohort of students. But I also have a larger team (there are 2 other academic members of staff in related College PG roles), and we have an excellent team of administrative support staff.

New collaborations
Since arriving in Birmingham, I have met with lots of new people, both within and outside of academia. One exciting potential new collaboration is with a specialist voice consultant at the Queen Elizabeth hospital – we both happen to also be professionally trained singers, so our jobs, research, and practice intersect in fairly unique ways. I’m looking forward to going in to observe a voice clinic in the next few weeks, and am exploring different voice analysis apps to extend my own research approach. Other opportunities are in the pipeline, including linking up with the Conservatoire for their French song performance classes, and exploring new ideas around computational musicology with a colleague I met at MIT when I was over in Boston in the autumn.

New places
My new role has seen me travel a lot more for work. In the first few months of the academic year, I got to travel to some glamorous places (and some a little less exciting!), all for work: Abindgon, Boston, Leicester, London, Nashville, Nottingham, Providence (RI), Sheffield. Some of these trips were for research, including a fellowship at Vanderbilt University where I got to work with their extraordinary Baudelaire collections. Some were for engagement work, including a 4-day recording session working on a new disc of Baudelaire songs, and co-running a masterclass at an amazing new song festival (SongMakers). Some were for outreach, including presenting to secondary schools on ‘why bother with languages?’.

New curriculum
Moving universities always means getting to grips with a new setup, new modules, and new ways of delivering programmes. But part of my decision to move institutions was because of the exciting opportunities Birmingham has to offer as the modern languages team work on fresh approaches to its degree programmes (watch this space!). For me personally, this has meant setting up links with external partners, expanding my knowledge and expertise around languages tech, and approaching colleagues from across the university to co-deliver a new interdisciplinary words and music module. New modules and curriculum developments take time, but we’re a long way down the road.

But amongst all of these new things, much has stayed the same. The Baudelaire Song Project continues apace, with more exciting findings really cementing our research approach (we are very much looking forward to showcasing some of these in 2017). I continue to edit the journal Dix-Neuf, with a range of interesting pieces in the pipeline for publication in the coming year. Some of my adminsitrative work is the same (tutees, open days, planning/strategy meetings), and I continue to mentor colleagues around research plans. The diversity of the work I do is exciting, but it also means pretty careful time planning to make sure I manage to fit everything in. It helps, of course, that I got a big piece of research off my desk just as I started at Birmingham (my OUP book typescript), and that I have amazing support outside of the workplace (my husband is also in academia, so understands how the workload fluctuates at different times of year). We might be living and working in uncertain times in terms of the wider national and international (higher education) landscape, but for now at least I am able to say: I love my new job.



New academic year

New beginnings are a chance to take stock, to look back over the past year and look forward to the next one.

As I take up a professorship at the University of Birmingham, the past few months have been busy with moving house, finishing my book typescript, and tying up loose ends as I finished my post at the University of Sheffield. But amongst the busy day-to-day matters, two areas have stood out:

1. Modern Languages is still a buoyant area. Despite statistics of declining numbers of students studying GCSE and A-level languages, all of the applicants I have spoken to over the course of the admissions cycle have shown passion, dedication, and commitment to learning and developing their language expertise. Often in conjunction with other subjects such as Business, Politics, Philosophy, English, or History. They sense the opportunities that a languages degree opens up for them, and they are right.

2. Baudelaire is still a big hit. In 12 months researching intensively on the Baudelaire Song Project, we have uncovered thousands of song settings of his poetry in multiple languages right across the globe, from Norwegian death metal to world premiere performances of a new set of French mélodies. The project still runs for another three years as both I and the team move to Birmingham where it is clear new collaborations are already opening up.

There is much to be excited about for the year ahead, meeting and working with new students and colleagues, delivering new modules on French poetry and performance, coaching new cohorts of singers, and starting research for my next book as my latest one enters production with OUP. Busy times, but that’s proof enough that Modern Languages has much to offer as a profession.

Today’s outlook

Today is my birthday. It is also the results day from the UK’s EU referendum in which 52% of the country’s voters opted to Leave, and 48% to Remain. I’ve made no secret of my voting preference – I work year in year out with young people whose lives are focused on the EU, travelling there freely (and with the support of a modest but significant grant from the Erasmus+ scheme funded by Brussels) as an integral part of their studies to become highly accomplished linguists, with all the deep political, cultural, social, and economic know-how that this brings them. I am saddened by today’s result not because it feels like bad news on my birthday but because I feel we haven’t done enough to look after our young people. But I want to remain optimistic and to keep a positive outlook on how we can continue to work with our EU partners for the future benefit of all. Wish us all luck – we’ll need it – but we won’t simply break off all ties with countries, people, and cultures whose ways of doing things have become so inextricably intertwined over the several decades of EU membership. Collaboration, cooperation, and much lateral thinking is needed, and I hope that the voice of our young people will be heard loud and clear as we work towards the best solution for us all.

Study Leave Week 2

The sensation of not having achieved enough in a week of study leave, or feeling like you’re getting behind is a familiar one to many academics. I’ve certainly experienced it before, during my 2010-11 study leave. Looking back, I know I still achieved a huge amount. In fact I achieved more than I’d planned, but they were different achievements. Focusing on the possibility for other outcomes and outputs from study leave is key.

When plans need to flex, this can be for a number of reasons:
1. Life gets in the way (you get a cold, your parents need your assistance, visitors want to descend, building renovation work needs to happen).
2. You read something and it completely changes your thinking.
3. You can’t get access to the materials you thought you could (either because they are not available or because you can’t manage to travel to where they are).
4. A conference/public lecture/media interview comes up that you didn’t expect.
It is in making the right adaptations to your plans that you can still make strong progress with your study leave.

For me, that means sifting out tasks that are more process tasks than thinking tasks. I can do a lot of process work when my brain is distracted by other things.

Process work for me includes literature searches (teeing up articles to read for a day when you’ve got clear headspace), editing and formatting work, cross-checking publishers’ house styles and requirements, and doing research-related tasks like sorting conference travel.

Thinking tasks require much more sustained clear time, and I need to turn off email, ignore social media, and work with what’s before me on the page (whether reading / detailed note-taking or writing / drafting a new book chapter, article, or conference paper).

I always feel satisfied after thinking days, and usually very tired. That’s in part because I also often get a lot of housework, baking/cooking, or some piano playing done on those days too, so it’s a double sense of achievement. How does that happen? It happens because of what neuroscientists call implicit and explicit brain activity (see Helen Mort’s blog citing Dietrich on this). The thinking stuff needs time to percolate (become implicit) so doing other non-related activities (explicit ones) helps the work to develop.

So while today hasn’t been a thinking day, and I’ve been feeling frustrated by that, in fact the best I can do today is the process work- and I should align my expectations with that, recognising I’ll still get some good work done, but I won’t get that glow of satisfaction I get on a thinking day. If all days were thinking days, though, I’d also never get anything done…

As one colleague put it via Twitter – if you achieve half of what you plan, you’ll have done enough.

Bertrand, Ravel, Cocteau, Poulenc, Verlaine, Hugo, Britten & Debussy…

After a minor hiatus in posts following the publication of my Parisian Intersections book, I’m now back into my research rhythm. 2013 has started with exciting avenues opening up.

Bertrand & Ravel
Last week, I got asked to record an interview on Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit and how it might have inspired Ravel to write his monumental piano work on the same title. The programme is currently being edited, and should emerge on ABC Radio in Australia soon – watch this space! I recorded the interview from the BBC Radio Sheffield studios, and look forward to hearing how it all comes together (with contributions from professional pianists, and other researchers specialising more in the Ravel side of things too). I was especially intrigued to tease out what the relationship between poetry, painting and music is in the Gaspard works – Bertrand seems to be trying to exploit all three, but in a different balance to the way Ravel engages with the three art forms…

Cocteau & Poulenc
In my first book (2009), I opened with a preface about Cocteau’s La Voix humaine – a work I’d first heard in Poulenc’s opera version in a semi-staged set-up at the Proms (done by Felicity Lott) when I was still doing my PhD in London. The work has stuck with me, and I continue to teach it to MA students today (examining, in particular, the status of vocal exchange – whether it really is a monologue, or whether the masked / silent ‘other’ voice of the male character is made present, especially by Poulenc, in the gaps between the voiced phrases). This evening I’m heading off to see Opera North’s new production of the Poulenc opera, with Lesley Garrett, which I’m hoping will bring me to the work afresh and reinvigorate my teaching of it!

Verlaine, Hugo, Britten & Debussy
On Monday 25 February, I perform my first song recital in Sheffield, alongside pianist Libby Burgess. The programme is Britten’s Quatre Chansons françaises (in piano version) – his very early settings of texts by Verlaine & Hugo, followed by Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (settings of Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles). My final year students on my Poetry & Performance module will be contributing directly to the evening: having heard Magali Arnaut Stanczak do an amazing recital at the international Debussy symposium at Gresham College in April 2012, in which she stood and recited the poem out loud in French before singing each song in English, I’ve persuaded my students to read out each poem before I sing them. It’s a little bit of an experiment for me – guided, in part, by my interest in how audiences react to performances of French mélodie, which I know can sometimes be a bit daunting and alienating. I’m hoping to glean some audience feedback from the event, and to feed this into my research going forward…


New book in print!

I’m delighted to announce that my new book Parisian Intersections: Baudelaire’s Legacy to Composers (Peter Lang, 2012) is now in print! Although it is hugely gratifying to see my work in print, the words on the page only tell part of the story. The book has a companion SoundCloud website with recordings of the songs I analyse in my book, performed by the fabulous soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Sholto Kynoch. I know, also, that the project would never have come to fruition were it not for the assistance and support of so many friends and colleagues – I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts, comments and reactions to the book in due course!

I decided to celebrate the arrival of my own copies of the book with a lovely glass of Côtes du Rhône (kindly supplied by The Chelsea Wine Company), but am also plotting a couple of launch events (hopefully one here in Sheffield at the Blackwells store nearest the University, and one in London at the Institut Français) – watch this space for more details.

For lots more information about the book, and how to purchase a copy, go to the publisher’s website:

French Passions

The Institut Français in London has put its fabulous French Passions series online:

Contemporary (British) writers talk about Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, Maupassant.

Well worth taking the time to listen/watch.

I’m looking forward to Series 2 starting in the autumn – have booked for Felicity Lott’s talk on Hugo…