Why I’m proud to be European

THOSE of you who know me can guess how I’ll vote in the in-out referendum on June 23 even if I don’t usually talk about politics. Not this time, there’s far too much at stake for another comfortable, evasive silence.

But first some context – this is not a set of arguments about the economic benefits of staying in the EU. I won’t tackle the financial implications or immigration (all well rehearsed, and I value both sides of the debate). I will focus on why I want Britain to continue to play a central role in an important alliance of countries with which we have much more in common than trade.

I am European. My mother is Irish, my father British, and both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only returned to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France, my eldest brother lives and works in Germany. He has a German wife and two gorgeous, bilingual girls, Ella and Emily. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian. My mother also speaks Irish and has pretty good Spanish. I have worked in Italy on bilingual contracts and communications for Italian law firms. I saw the euro established and introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh.

My working life is focused on France; I run a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the Six Nations Championship begins I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for England). I’m not some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person, I have a finger in every national pie. But I am someone who understands deeply how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities. For me, shutting ourselves off from our neighbours and friends, and their cultures, would be damaging.

Of course, my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, I have a vested interest. This also applies to all my students, their families and their futures – and for the future for all Brits. We shouldn’t be short-sighted and retreat, pulling up the drawbridge just because our relationship with the EU is difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be diminished. Reversing what has been secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of co-operation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish.

The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing. I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the cowards’ choice. Let’s accept the challenge, remain a member and lead the essential reform.

[This is an UPDATED POST as at 4.25pm, 30 April 2016, after my awesome uncle Jack did a brilliant copy-edit of it for me (he’s associate editor for the Irish Examiner). Original wording of post is retained below for info.]

[ORIGINAL POST 29 April 2016:

With the upcoming EU referendum on 23 June, most can guess which way I’ll be voting. I’m normally someone who keeps my politics private, but this referendum is too important for me not to share my views. But first I should be up front. This is not going to be a set of arguments about the economic benefits (or otherwise) of staying in the EU. It won’t tackle the financial implications, or explicitly touch on immigration (all of these arguments are well rehearsed elsewhere, and I value both sides of the debate). It will instead set out all the personal reasons why I want us to stay part of an important group of countries with whom we have much more in common than trade.

I am of European extraction. My mother is Irish, and my father British, but both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only came back to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France. My eldest brother now lives and works in Germany, has a German wife, and two gorgeous bilingual girls. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian to a very high level of fluency. My mother also is a native Irish speaker, and has pretty good Spanish too. I have lived and worked in Italy, working for law firms on all their bilingual contracts and communications. I saw the Euro being introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh. My working life now is focused on France; I am running a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the 6 Nations rugby is on, I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I still work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for the England side)! What I mean by this is not that I’m some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person. But I am someone who understands deeply and personally how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities.

And for me, shutting ourselves off from other countries and cultures is damaging. Of course my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, so I have a vested interest in staying. But it’s also for all my students, and for their families and futures, and for the futures of all Brits, that we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to retreat and close ourselves off just because things are difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be damaged. Reversing what was secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of cooperation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace, seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish. The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing; and I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the coward’s route.]


Why studying French poetry is great for your pronunciation skills

Getting good at French is one thing, but getting good at sounding French is quite another. I’ve posted before about how listening to French songs regularly can help you absorb accent, stress, and flow in French (in response to this JonRoss Swaby piece in The Guardian).


But I’m only now realising – thanks to a growing number of observations and comments from my students – how much studying French poetry helps too.

Poetry helps us to slow down our reading. With language condensed into a shorter form, every word, every syllable, every phoneme counts. As language practitioners we so often train our students to discover the nuances of language usage via longer journalistic or literary texts, or by very short grammar sentences for which we get them to fill in the gaps, select and conjugate the correct verb tense and so on. But poetry sits in the middle ground, and is becoming – for me – an increasingly invaluable tool for enhancing language and pronunciation proficiency.

With its rich vocabulary, we can peel back layers of meaning. I get my students to use a historical dictionary so that they can unearth the unusual, unexpected meanings of French, as well as get a grasp of the historical linguistics and cultural concepts underpinning the development of French as a language.

A student studying Baudelaire’s prose poem L’Étranger researched the use of the keyword ‘nuage’ which concludes the final statement of the dialogue which makes up the poem. ‘Nuage’ of course refers to the natural phenomenon in the sky, but its multiple metaphorical uses developed over time. The portail lexical of the CNRTL offers, for example, analogical uses of the term in agriculture, atrophysics, physics/chemistry, maths/statistics. But it also shows how, around the 1820s – 1850s in France, writers began to use the term to mean ‘Ce qui assombrit, masque la visibilité des choses’ or ‘Menace pesant sur quelqu’un, annonce d’un danger’. These more sinister meanings could add a more ‘gothic’ tinge to a reading of Baudelaire’s prose poem, or – read in conjunction with the politically-infused questioning earlier on in the poem – it could point towards a predilection for political change, revolutions, upheavals (which characterised much of the nineteenth century in the years leading up to Baudelaire writing his poetry).

But beyond the meanings is the sound world. Poetic French creates crackling, sparkling sounds by bringing choice consonants (t, p) into close contact with tight u and i vowels (‘tu m’es en riant apparue’. Mallarmé ‘Apparition’) and judicious use of polysyllabic words (‘délicatement’. Verlaine). So too does it favour more mellow and rich sounds of the deep ‘ou’ vowels (‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges / Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’. Verlaine ‘Spleen’; ‘Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux’. Baudelaire ‘La Mort des amants’).

Encouraging students to work closely with these various poetic soundscapes means enabling them to develop a really fine and subtle ability in French pronunciation. It is not just about developing a very French pout (which does, admittedly, help – it’s a technique I use with singers who need to ‘sound French’ with minimal time left to prepare for a concert; it’s not something I recommend as a general rule!). It is all about learning how to move the mouth in a very different way – from the tight forward lips required for the ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds (‘nous’, ‘tu’, depending on the lowered or raised tongue position) to the wide and open ‘é’ or ‘a’ sounds (e.g. of ‘éclater’), and everything in between – the really neutral loose mouth shape for an unaccented ‘e’, the dropped lower jaw for many of the ‘o’ sounds, and so on.

So I’m finding myself doing increasing amounts of language coaching with my French degree students, along the lines of the work I do with professional singers. It’s particularly rewarding working with students studying poetry because they are able to focus in on the details, they have a good grasp of versification, accent, and metre, as well as the range of semantic play. But what so often eludes them is the intensity of the soundworld, and that’s where hard work starts to pay off.

And the proof that this approach works?

Well, it is still anecdotal, of course, but what I’ve observed is that it doesn’t just pay off for their French poetry assignments. I watch my students flourish as their confidence and ability in spoken language clicks into place. They suddenly begin to sound so French even after working on just a few lines of poetry, and this work transfers almost instantly into the rest of their spoken French – whether for oral exams, for informal conversations with native speakers in and around the University, or in the wider world beyond the University (many go on to work in France or a French-speaking country after finishing their degree).

So. French poetry may seem like a niche area of study, but it’s shaping up to be a key training ground for linguists aiming to develop that ever-so-elusive fluency skill so that they sound completely French too. And the pay-off? Better (British) linguists means better global citizens.


Translating poetry for song performances

This month sees the start of the 2015 Oxford Lieder festival. I’ve worked with the Oxford Lieder team since 2008, and have enjoyed giving many pre-concert talks on song programmes focused around French song. But this year’s festival is a little different. Called ‘Singing Words: Poets and their Songs’, it approaches the art song form from the perspective of the poet first. The programme includes concerts dedicated to song settings of poems by Eluard, Heine, Rilke, or Verlaine, and many more poets besides. Working with poetry in literary language, however, especially those which use old-fashioned vocabulary and phrasing, and doing all this in a foreign language, must surely be quite alienating for audiences not fully conversant in those languages, or that type of literary language?

One of the ways round this, to help audiences engage better with what is being sung on stage, is to include translations in programme booklets. In fact, just this week, I’ve translated another 7 French poems for Oxford Lieder, all texts selected by Berlioz for songs which will be performed at a lunchtime recital on 24 October 2015. The commissioning turnaround time was quick, so I submitted them to the Oxford Lieder team with the caveat that ‘they’re hardly the most aesthetically beautiful literary translations, but they do capture what’s going on in each of the songs’. It’s perhaps a lazy get-out clause which forestalls any critique of my translation work. But if I’d had more time (or skill), what would I have done instead?

Translating poetry for song performances is not straightforward, and I wanted to share some of these issues here:

Who am I translating for?
In commissioning any translation work, it’s important to factor in who the readers of the translated work will be. Am I translating for teenagers who have never been to a song recital before? Am I translating for a group of well-established concert-goers who know a lot of Berlioz songs already, and have a pretty reasonable French anyhow? The reality with public performances is that you will have a mixture of people with differing levels of competence and experience in listening to foreign-language song (and the work Oxford Lieder and numerous other arts organisations are doing is helping to diversify their audiences). So, who am I translating for?

What is the main aim of the translation?
It is so easy to claim that the main aim of a translation is to ‘capture the essence’ of the original foreign-language text. But what does this mean? As recently-developed theories and methodologies of translation show us, there are decisions to be made which include:

Domestication / Foreignization
How much should you convert the original-language source text into the specific cultural and linguistic reference-points of the translated language (‘domestication’), and how much you keep the points of difference, whether in word order, phrasing, and syntax, or culture-specific terms (‘foreignization’). Clive Scott calls for ‘foreignization’ in his books on translating Baudelaire and Rimbaud, maintaining that poetry in some way necessitates that feel of ‘otherness’ as a different way of using language. This means that you ‘feel’ that the text is translated, and the translator can often deploy his/her creativity more extensively (maintaining what Lawrence Venuti calls the translator’s ‘visibility’). Other poetry translators seek to fully ‘domesticate’ a foreign poem by adapting it into an English-language form, using English verse metre and developing a rhyme scheme based on English sounds.

Formal or Dynamic Equivalence
Adapting a poem into the verse forms of a translated language is also a type of ‘formal equivalence’ as set out by Eugene Nida, in that it sees both the meaning of the poem and the format of the text as jointly important. ‘Dynamic equivalence’ would transmit just the effect of the message (perhaps this notion of somehow ‘capturing the essence’ of a text) without maintaining its form. This perhaps best describes what I have done with my quick Berlioz translations for Oxford Lieder: I have not created a new poetic work using English verse techniques, but I have sought to maintain the effect (‘capture the essence’). But I have also sought to maintain a more-or-less word-for-word translation so that the audience can follow in roughly ‘real time’ what is being sung which retains in some way the ‘formal equivalence’. What I have done is perhaps the most common approach to translating poem texts for song recitals, but it is not necessarily the most suitable, particularly for contemporary audiences.

Singable translations
An approach which has largely fallen out of fashion is the ‘singable translation’, which keeps the rhythm of the vocal part intact but which struggles to maintain word-for-word equivalence. There are positives and negatives to a singable translation, both for the performer and for the audience, depending on what is being conveyed through the song. Do we miss the sounds of the original language? Are sung words always fully audible? Does the sung translation ‘sanitize’ the original? Perhaps perplexingly, singable translations are common in opera (such as all the works performed at the English National Opera), but less so on the song recital circuit.

Where can I find out more?
A small team of song translation researchers and practicitioners will explore this question of how to translate poems for song performances at a Song in Translation Study Event on 25 October 2015. Laura Tunbridge, Philip Bullock, Richard Stokes and I will probe issues to do with about the integrity of the poem or its song setting, political agendas and censorhip, and how national and cultural identities come into play too. To find out more, book your place at the Okinaga Room, Wadham College, starting at 2pm!

Languages and performance nerves

In a Twitter exchange last week, a former colleague flagged up the negative rhetoric surrounding language learning in this country. The exchange was sparked by a BBC News headline Britons ‘nervous to speak foreign language when abroad’ from a report by Katherine Sellgren based on a recent Populus poll commissioned by the British Council which surveyed just over 2000 UK adults about using languages abroad.   Dr Jonathan Ervine (Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Bangor University) followed up our exchange with a blog post Did you miss the good news about foreign languages?. Ervine rightly picks up on the fact that a positive statistic is buried at the bottom of the report, and that the negative spin of the headline doesn’t allow the good news to emerge that in fact nearly half of Brits are keen to try out their language skills when holidaying abroad. But the positive statistic that “48% said they enjoyed trying out their language skills while on holiday” needs to be recognised as a modest and short-lived attempt to speak in another language. The British Council report itself indicates that those trying out language skills in this way are reliant on basic ‘key phrases to get by’ such as ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and ‘Do you speak English?’. As Brits and as linguists, we have so much more to offer than that.   With 40% of Brits saying they are embarrassed by their foreign language skills, we need to start thinking about our languages performance anxiety. Nerves about using languages are inevitable, whether on holiday, working abroad, or in the workplace or socially in this country. Most language learners go through the same process. We’ve all dealt with that feeling of intense embarrassment when you make a slip-up that has unintended consequences (such as the time I managed to say to my German exchange partner as a teenager that I needed to ‘get into the toilet’ instead of ‘go to the toilet’, which sent her into fits of giggles). But overcoming these minor gaffes can lead to untold rewards.   Research published in April 2015 has shown that speaking another language changes your view of the world. The research paper itself  is called “Two Languages, Two Minds” and shows that people behave differently depending on which language they speak. Switching into a whole other mindset is something most linguists do without thinking, but now the research seems to offer scientific proof of this. I sometimes tell my students that I am “Helen” in the UK, “Hélène” in France, and “Elena” in Italy (I’m lucky to have a ‘translatable’ name to illustrate the point, at least for the main languages I speak). I switch gear and behave like a French person or an Italian when writing up reports, planning my social gatherings, or ordering drinks at a cafe. In France, I’ll have a kir at apéro time, in Italy I wouldn’t dream of ordering a cappuccino after midday; back in England it never even crosses my mind to order a kir, or that there’s a problem with drinking milky coffee after lunch. In France, I’ll use deferential polite language to professors I am examining with, in Italy I’ll address them by their title ‘professore’; in England I’ll use first names even for colleagues I’ve only just met. It has become something ingrained and innate that I have another language-based persona, and it’s extremely rewarding.   Imagine if we, as a nation of high level linguists, could comfortably and instinctively behave like a goal-oriented German (see the research mentioned above), structure an argument like the French do, and work within the cultural hierarchies of the Japanese workplace, for example. And that that was the norm, rather than the exception. The benefits of overcoming our language nerves (and our related lack of commitment to language learning) are not just about the personal satisfaction of having engaged on a culturally nuanced and meaningful level with colleagues or friends in Germany, France, or Japan, but they are of course much more wide-ranging. If we can change the national rhetoric and recognise that languages are important and useful in all sorts of contexts, whether foreign travel, business, or social uses, we can start to change our whole way of doing things, and for the better. Accepting our linguistic weaknesses means getting over the feeling that speaking Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic is somehow profoundly disconcerting and disorientating (or even worse, an unnecessary pain to put ourselves through). Language nerves are part and parcel of being a linguist. It means relinquishing some control of our communication habits and allowing ourselves to be transformed into a whole other person as we take on another way of speaking.   Nerves about using languages can be tackled in many inventive ways, including getting comfortable with different listening, viewing, and speaking habits through strategies such as:

  • Listening to songs. Not just nursery rhymes or ‘Frère Jacques’ but current chart songs with real lyrics and good tunes that stick in our heads with the words attached to them.
  • Watching TV. Without subtitles, encouraging us to focus in on the story or action and pay attention to how they do things.
  • Tandem work. Pairing up via Skype or Face-Time with language learners abroad and setting ground-rules which help break down the self-conscious barriers.

Getting good at languages means constantly watching and listening for how others perform in another language. Because being a linguist is like being a performer or an actor. You have to inhabit a whole other persona. And like all the best actors, this doesn’t mean just putting on a temporary façade; you have to enter a whole new world, and a different way of thinking and behaving. Good linguists are brilliant performers, and it’s time we started to recognise that. If the film industry has achievement ceremonies like The Oscars, and the pop music industry has The Brits and the Grammy Awards, what can the languages industry do to honour the performance achievements of our linguists whose brilliant work has gone unnoticed for too long in this country?

Languages and privilege

Learning a language is an immense privilege. Teaching, researching, and working with modern foreign languages is extremely rewarding on multiple levels. Yet the privileges that high-level language competence bring can be fraught with problems, particularly in terms of access to language learning and language mobility.

The word ‘privilege’ is becoming increasingly loaded. Newspapers describe how modern society is tainted by growing disparities between different economic and social privileges associated with rank or status. Yet this meaning of the word ‘privilege’ is only one of a number of meanings of the word (and is classed as the 6th meaning in a list of 10 in the OED).[1] While other meanings have now become obsolete (such as the historical ecclesiastical usages of the term), there is another meaning to the word which is increasingly overlooked:

privilege, n. an exceptionally rare and fortunate opportunity; the honour or good fortune of something or to do something

In much of the recent debate about languages, language teaching, and language learning in this country, there has rightfully been a concern that the removal of compulsory language requirement at GCSE level in 2004 has restricted access to language learning so that only the privileged few (often those at private schools who retain the value of language learning, and can allay the time, costs and hard work it involves through pupil engagement at a high level of achievement). While new provisions are coming into force which should open up access to languages once again, such as increased provision at primary level since 2014, and the introduction of the EBacc language requirement by 2020, the damage that had been done to potential language learners of a certain generation remains palpable. On top of this, community languages go unrecognised in a political landscape which hotly debates the pros and cons of immigration.

As a university academic who has worked in the sector for a decade, I have seen first-hand the changing profile of students coming to study languages. I happen to lecture in one of the major second languages taught in his country, and the language of one of our closest European neighbours with whom we conduct significant amounts of trade. But I am confident speaking 3 European languages besides English, having learnt them at school or university, and as an adult learner I spent 2 years studying Welsh. Putting myself back in the position of a beginner language learner as a ‘grown up’ (albeit one with a natural facility for languages and a heightened technical awareness of grammatical construction, usage, and language-learning techniques) reminded me of the energy and commitment that goes in to mastering another tongue. Unless you are supported and have regular access to ways of hearing, speaking, and writing in another language, it can be extremely difficult to make tangible progress.

And this is why I feel privileged. Not because I have the advantage of being able to negotiate at a high level using foreign languages in complex and nuanced ways. Not because I have the financial wherewithal to travel to the countries that speak the languages I speak. But because languages have bestowed on me a special honour of being able to think and act multilingually. I am comfortable switching between French, Italian, German, and English because I have been enabled to do it for years through sustained access to those languages. I also know that I find switching into German more mentally draining than Italian, for example, perhaps because I have lived and worked in Italy, but never in Germany, or perhaps because I just ‘click’ more with Italian. I have had the opportunity to work in the legal and financial sectors using all 3 of my main languages, and I continue to collaborate with the cultural industries in France in my job as a university academic. The privilege I, and others like me, enjoy is being able to think and behave in completely different ways. I understand how the French structure their arguments and thoughts, and that makes a major difference to how we can work together. The advantages this multilingual – and multicultural – knowledge brings with it cannot be underestimated.

Learn a language, any language, as long as it’s a language. I don’t care which language it is that we each learn besides English (usually choosing one that culturally suits your temperament is a good bet). But I do care that language learning, and all the benefits it brings, is increasingly becoming restricted to a privileged few. The privilege of being a good linguist is an honour that more of us, and a more diverse group of us, need to enjoy, so that it is no longer an exceptionally rare opportunity, and no longer confined to those of a certain social status. Schools, colleges, and universities all have an important part to play in this, but more importantly, we need to start changing the way we think and talk about foreign languages in this country.

[1] “privilege, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.

Setting up The Baudelaire Song Project

IMG_7939LowResWhen I was awarded £594,000 from the AHRC for The Baudelaire Song Project to research all the song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry, I was naturally over the moon. But I was also very aware of how much there is to do to get the project fully off the ground and running exactly as I want it to. With the project kicking off this month, the focus for now is mostly the logistical planning side. I’ll be heading up a small team of 4-6 researchers, working with Co-Investigator Dr Mylène Dubiau from Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and HRI Digital, plus a yet-to-be-recruited post-doctoral Research Associate, and it’s important all the right elements of the project are in place.

That also means getting the project website up and running, with logo and images that capture why we’re researching Baudelaire songs right now, and how important the project’s findings promise to be. So this blog post is mostly about acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work of a group of brilliant designers, photographers, web designers and site builders, branding experts, and advisors on programming, performance, video and audio capture, and more besides who have been integral to getting this project off on the right foot. Special mention here is needed for Stewart Campbell who advised on branding and contacts, Gareth Widdowson who’s worked on our logo for usBaudelaire Logo GREY-ORANGE-small, and photography by Craig Fleming. These contributions are the ‘unseen’ parts of a big research project, but investing in them from the get-go means that we’ll be able to connect properly with people around the globe who have things to tell us about Baudelaire and song.

If you’re a composer, a songwriter, a translator, a curator/festival director, or simply a Baudelaire fan, we want to hear from you. Tweet us on @BaudelaireProj, and as soon as the website is live, we’ll share as much as we can with you all.

Study Leave Roundup

Back in the office

When I started this Study Leave Blog back in February 2015, I had an idea what the end-point would look like, but wasn’t sure how I’d get there. From day one, I focused on strategies for dealing effectively with a period of leave from teaching and admin responsibilities, and to help me with that, I devised a Study Leave Planner which I referred to regularly. By the end of Study Leave, I managed to complete everything I’d hoped for, plus a little bit more. This suggests that I was both realistic and optimistic about what I could get done. It wasn’t without its ups and downs, however, so I thought I’d share a few of the key points – both positive and negative – in a Study Leave Roundup.

Why do you call it ‘Study Leave’?

This was one of the first questions I got asked, by a colleague at another university. It’s a fair point. Study leave, or #studyleave if you use Twitter, has other resonances, namely school and college students going off to revise for GCSE and A-level exams. It makes academic study leave sound perhaps a bit simplistic. Other universities, including the one I used to work at, call it sabbatical. This term, too, has other connotations (if you’re on ‘sabbatical’ people think that means you’re taking time out doing nothing). Research leave is perhaps the most self-explanatory, but many outside of academia don’t understand what that means. So I decided to stick with study leave because it’s what my university officially calls it (and all the related paperwork surrounding the period of paid leave calls it that), and I really enjoyed using the #studyleave hashtag to find out what others were doing, whether of school age or academics like me.

How long do you get?

Officially, my study leave covered one semester – so the exact dates of the teaching term + the exam session attached to that semester. In reality, there are some issues with this. Other universities automatically include the long vacation that either precedes of follows, but mine doesn’t (recognising that summer is often ‘research time’ for most academics anyway, although there remains a moot point about exactly when you stop or pick up admin duties). In all, got about 4.5 months, or about 18-19 weeks, but there is some flexibility in the system. My first official week of leave was taken up still with marking and related exam admin from the previous semester, so I didn’t really get going properly until what should officially have been the second week of leave. This bleed-through of admin duties is an unavoidable feature of an academic’s career, but it needs to be handled sensitively and carefully, being respectful to other colleagues who take up the load when you’re on leave.

What did you get done?

My main achievements were:

  1. A detailed book proposal fleshed out and sent to publisher (who responded positively requesting to see 2 chapters)
  2. 3 book chapters written = 32,000 words / 90,000 planned total. 2 chapters sent on to the publisher as requested
  3. 2 articles written and submitted to peer-reviewed journals (both c.8,000 words)
  4. Proofs for 1 article and 1 book chapter arrived in my inbox during leave, both corrected (with article now in print, and book chapter due to come out this summer)
  5. Awarded £590,000 research grant from the AHRC to conduct The Baudelaire Song Project. Project starts 1 July 2015 and runs to 1 September 2019 examining ‘all the song settings ever’ of this major nineteenth-century French poet. Proposal had been submitted in October, but reviewers’ reports came through in week 2 of leave, so a full week was dedicated to turning around the PI response (which obviously paid off!)
  6. Delivered a paper at major subject-association conference SDN in Glasgow
  7. Abstract submitted for 2 conferences later in the year, both accepted (for Baudelaire post-1900 panel at ICMSN conference Glasgow, and NCFS Princeton on Contamination)

In essence, I completed everything on my Study Leave Planner:

  1. Core Research: this was the section that expanded as I went along (to include new conference papers and remaining book chapters).
  2. Research-Related: all ticked off by end of June
  3. Teaching/Admin-Related: all ticked off by end of March.

I had set myself a mental writing target of 34,000 words by end of July. I completed 32,000 words by end of June, leaving me space to focus on revisions of the 2 articles I had submitted right at the start of study leave in February during June/July.

What did you fail to do?

I had thought I would need to do a number of tasks to make progress with my research and writing, but the needs for these changed as leave progressed:

  1. I didn’t go to Paris for an extended research trip as expected. The reasons for this were both practical/logistical and personal, but in fact the research needs changed (I can go to the BnF in the summer months instead, which better suits the chapters I’ll be writing then)
  2. I didn’t launch a project website for the Baudelaire Song Project. Instead, I focused on developing the project Twitter feed and launching an infographic. The website will come in July/August 2015 instead
  3. I didn’t complete the revisions for the 2 articles I had submitted in February. I wanted to prioritise completing the book chapters; the revisions can be done during July

Were there any issues that got in the way of researching?

There were quite a few things that cropped up that I didn’t know quite how to factor in:

  1. Working on 2 major building projects – one at my own home, one at my parents’ house 3 hours’ drive away.
  2. My mother fracturing her hip/pelvis in a cycling accident in February just as my father was about to head to Australia on a 2-week business trip.
  3. Student references needing urgent turnaround (for MA or job applications)
  4. Grant proposal right of response (7 day turnaround, inclusive of a weekend!)

The way I dealt with these was to refer to my Study Leave Planner, and tweak the dates for each task, assigning ‘process’-type tasks to weeks when I was on the move and/or on a building site, and saving up the ‘thinking’ tasks to weeks when I had a clear diary.

Other duties are not relinquished during study leave, and these also needed to be balanced with the core research work, including:

  1. Editor role for Dix-Neuf, handling article submissions, peer review, and copy editing, as well as revising submission procedures and guidelines
  2. External examining for BA French programmes at another university (Limerick)
  3. PhD supervision (including supporting one student in the run-up to submission)

What helped you to keep up momentum?

The most productive thing I did was to change my working environment at different points of my research. My main ‘base’ was my home office, but I worked in a number of other spaces. These included:

  1. A number of 3-day research trips to Cambridge and London
  2. Borrowing a friend’s flat to write in (during the weeks when the builders were doing heavy drilling and banging at home)
  3. A couple of local cafes
  4. The university libraries

I never did any work in my office, although I did pop in from time to time to sort bits and pieces of admin and/or collect some paperwork or books I needed.

Top tips

  • Use a Study Leave Planner. Mine looks something like this (heavily redacted!):
    Study Leave Planner_redacted
  • Balance process tasks with thinking tasks
  • Change your working space from time to time
  • Keep focused on what the main outcomes are, to avoid getting bogged down in the smaller stepping-stone tasks
  • Write a blog about your leave – it builds interaction with others

And finally

Being back in the office is wonderful. Catching up with colleagues, and getting back into the swing of ‘normal’ academic life is not a downer like I thought it might be. I loved my time on leave, but I’m relishing the chance to get on with other things now leave has ended.

Study Leave: Week 18

Writing progress update

Academics have lots of strategies for making progress with writing. Some are endless procrastinators, some have daily writing targets. Different approaches work for different people at different stages of a research piece, as the Twitter hashtag #writingpact attests to. The writing pact idea sees researchers of all levels from all around the globe publicly sharing their writing goals in the hope of attaining a greater sense of accountability and solidarity, especially for those enjoying a sustained period of writing (and the ‘isolation’ that comes with that).

I work a little bit differently. I know I can write, and I know how much I can write. What I can’t predict is exactly how much I’ll do each day. Some days my brain is not in the right place for writing, so I do other tasks instead, or take a day off research/writing altogether. I don’t promise myself I will write x hundred words on a given day, because I’ll simply be annoyed with myself at the end of the day if I don’t achieve it. It means I’ve got short-term targets which flex, even if the longer-term targets remain the same. At the start of my study leave back in February, I set the target of writing the first 3 chapters of my new book, totalling 34,000 words, by the end of July. The end-date for those 34,000 words is not in fact the final week of my study leave (which is next week), because I accepted that (a) the end of my official period of institutional study leave tallies with the start of the summer vacation period which is when most academics get a lot of their research done, (b) I would need that amount of time to get that many words done.

The upshot is that I am staring down the barrel of the approaching end of my study leave with 27,000 words already under my belt, with another week of study leave still to go, and at least another 5,000 words achievable within that time. It’s a huge achievement for me. And, more importantly, these are words which count, which have been edited pretty reasonably, and are not just words for the sake of words. In essence, I will have achieved my long-term writing target sooner than I planned. Which means I can crack on with the next chapter during the summer, keeping everything on schedule (or even a little bit ahead). I just hope that this isn’t the pride before the fall…!

Study Leave Week 17

The power of digitised research

The traditional activity of the arts and humanities academic digging out and poring over rare manuscripts in archives and libraries still remains the bread-and-butter of our research, but it is changing. With increasing digitisation of so many resources, the need for travel and extended research trips to difficult-to-access archives (often negotiating with protective archivists and librarians) is waning. This doesn’t diminish the extent of the research we need to do, but it does make us rethink our modus operandi.

For me, as I write and research my third book, I have noticed a significant change even in the 4 or 5 years since I was conducting the bulk of the primary research for my second book (in 2010-11, published 2012).  One of the major resources I need to consult frequently is the Département de la Musique holdings at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Contoversially scheduled to move sites in the coming years, the holdings and access to them are more precious than ever. Up until a few years ago, the majority of the catalogue (and holdings) were still only available in paper-card index format, consultable only in person at the rue Louvois site. Now, as I research less well-known French chanson and mélodie settings of Baudelaire, I am reliant once again on the Département de la Musique’s collections. Having assumed a research trip to Paris would be the first port of call for me as I deepened my primary research, I have discovered that in fact a number of the rare songs I need to consult are now available online, through the excellent Gallica digital library. It may not yet have everything, but it has meant that I could put off my travel until next month, enabling me to crack on sooner with the main bulk of the writing and research process of the first few chapters of my book.

Brilliant as they are, however, digital resources aren’t everything. As many a researcher of historical documents will tell you, the digitised text doesn’t always show up everything you need to know. For one of the key composers I work on, for example, hand annotated versions of song offprints were done by the composer in coloured pencil, and sections of these annotations which have been erased and then rewritten are only visible on the original copy. Discovering the layers of rewriting by poets and composers often highlights some of the lost compositional processes, leading to a breakthrough in the research and analysis. And it is this old-fashioned style of traditional scholarship that still excites many of us, because it reveals hidden gems that the digitised world cannot yet show us. I find myself researching, then, in two modes: digitally, and non-digitally. Both modes have a key role to play in my work, as I adapt my way of researching according to what is available in each format.

Study Leave Week 16

Restarting after a short break

One of the luxuries of study leave (research leave / sabbatical) is having sustained time to think, research, and write. But even the most seasoned of academics needs a break from time to time, and the change of pace can make it difficult to restart again afterwards. Some simple techniques can make the process less troublesome, such as:

  1. Restart by writing a pithy to-do list – not one with endless tasks on it but the key ones.
  2. Pick up anywhere – be it skim-reading an article on your reading list, working on a set of article revisions, tidying up a bibliography, or drafting paragraph you’ve been meaning to write – but time-limit your restarting work to an hour and then re-evaluate. Worrying about where to start can be the cause for serious procrastination otherwise!
  3. Manage your expectations – do not assume you’ll get back into full flow quickly, and remember it takes time for mind and body to readjust. Short bursts of defined modest-scale tasks will mean better chance of getting back up to full speed more quickly after the restart.

It’s been about a week since I finished writing my latest book chapter. I know I need to tweak it still, but I also recognise that if I try to go in and do the changes straight away on my return from my short break I’ll make more errors than improvements. My time away from research was wonderful but not wholly relaxing (it involved 800 miles of driving, staying in two different places, and attending my best friend’s wedding where I was also singing a little solo and looking after another friend in a wheelchair). This meant that when I got back to my desk I was pretty exhausted and the productive research mindset I’d been in before I headed south was all but lost.

Being mindful of the need to ease myself back in gently, I rejigged my Study Leave Planner, made quick reassessments of what useful work I could achieve, and set out to work on much smaller tasks than book writing. It has paid off. This morning my brain was beginning to fire in research mode again, and I’ve got another 1,000 words down on paper (this time starting a new chapter). With the weekend looming (together with a visit from the in laws) I’m trying not to feel frustrated that I won’t get a good writing run, but I’m recognising that it doesn’t matter, because I now have the right techniques to ensure that the restart isn’t too painfully slow next time.