Thoughts from across the North Sea

It has been almost 3 weeks since I left HUMlab to take up a new research fellowship at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge. A part of me still and will always miss Sweden, but I am also settling well into my new place, both personally and professionally – getting less lost, sorting out new routines, meeting new colleagues and making new friends. As always, I look forward to this fellowship as an opportunity to learn more, a chance to grow and an adventure to enjoy.

King's College, Cambridge, from across the King's Lawn
King's College, Cambridge, from across the King's Lawn

Cambridge’s reputation precedes it, of course, and even with all my expectations I was still struck by how rich the research life here is. On top of the university’s usual departments and associated activities, there is also a huge number of research centres and institutes (CRASSH is one of them, of course), and simply too many to name – see here for a full if mind-boggling list – with each centre or institute having its own full programme of activities (more on that specifically wrt CRASSH later). Then there are also the Cambridge colleges – all 31 of them – each with their own little research programmes as well, such as research day presentations, lunchtime talks and evening lectures. I am affiliated to Wolfson College, and there they have a regular lunchtime seminar and concert series, a thesis writing group, and regular talks by the science and humanities societies respectively. And then there are the cultural institutions, such as the museums, art galleries and theatres, and other institutions such as churches and libraries, all of which also organise their own programmes (for example, I attended a “Shadows and Lights” event at the Fitzwilliam Museum last Friday which had, among others, a special exhibition of Italian Drawings and – what I wanted to see – a digital performance of moving images orchestrated to music, both coordinated by two women at a laptop, akin to Iris Piers’s work.) There is literally no end of talks, seminars, lectures, plays and concerts one may attend. The sheer volume of cultural and scholarly activity is thrilling, though a little intimidating (it’s hard to walk into a room full of strangers who all know each other) and also rather confusing – there is a lot going on! It will take me a while to figure it all out, if I ever get there……

Building at Wolfson College
Building at Wolfson College, Cambridge

I work solely at CRASSH; I am not affiliated to a department as it was not a part of my application, although some, if not most, other fellows are. In that respect, CRASSH is similar to HUMlab in its straddling between its own programme and being embedded in the rest of the university. As a research centre, it has a group of core staff (the director, IT personnel and a dedicated group of 5 administrators taking care of everything from publicity to catering), but it is mostly made up of a constant flow of visiting scholars and fellows coursing through the centre. It is truly a case of roads leading to Rome as I examined the routes by which we took to get to the centre:

(1) The Visiting Fellows. Here, academic staff, usually fairly senior, from other universities work at CRASSH for a term. The theme this Easter term appears to be The Future University, culminating in a big conference at the end of the term (at which one of the speakers will be Alan Liu, who also visited HUMlab not too long ago!), so there is some sort of unifying connection between each term’s visiting fellows. The Work-In-Progress seminars tend to also feature these visiting fellows quite heavily.

(2) Fellows from Cambridge University. These fellows work in CRASSH for various periods of time. They come under a variety of schemes, such as the Mellon Teaching Fellowships, the Crasauz Wordsworth Fellowship, the Cambridge Early Career Fellowships etc. The inter-disciplinary nature of their work appears to be one common facet; the other is that, of course, they are all already Cambridge staff.

(3) Postdoctoral fellows. We are the young ones, and again arrive at CRASSH via many different schemes. I am here via The Newton Trust and Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship Scheme; others are funded by schemes such as the Mellon Sawyer Seminar Fellowship, American Council of Learned Society Fellowship, Balzan Skinner Fellowship etc.

Noticeboard of posters of events at CRASSH
Noticeboard of posters of events at CRASSH

There are also various research strands running through CRASSH. I identify 5 here:

(1) The Graduate Research Groups, which bring graduate students and faculty together, typically unified by a common research interest, so there are numerous research sub-strands. Current groups include East European Memory Studies Research Group, Postcolonial Empires: Transnational Being and Ontological Politics, GreenBRIDGE (Buildings, Research, Innovation, Development, Governance, Energy) etc. I haven’t joined any of them, since they do not appear immediately relevant to me, but these groups appear to meet for reading groups or discussion sessions in informal seminar settings and they have been highly recommended.

(2) The Work-In-Progress seminars, led by CRASSH’s director, Professor Mary Jacobus.  These are lunchtime seminars presented by the visiting and Cambridge fellows, typically of, yes, work which they have in progress, usually draft articles which are circulated a week before the seminar. Lunch – in the form of the ubiquitous English sandwich, of course – is provided, alongside orange juice, seasonal fruit and coffee, so we eat while listening to the presentation and then have a good discussion about it afterwards. As a working lunch, even though most of the topics are probably a little distant from our own sub-fields, it actually works very well in terms of time allocation, learning something and providing collegial support. As Satish puts it in his ICT newsletters (which I still read), you gotta eat!

(3) The Digital Humanities strand, coordinated by Dr Anne Alexander. This seems to be one of CRASSH’s keener initiatives, and it is great to see how the fledging field is gaining traction even in a university as traditional as Cambridge. CRASSH held a related conference on this on 10 May 2011, titled “The Future Might Be Digital”, with Claire Warwick (UCL) giving a brilliant and really inspiring keynote paper, notes of which I also tweeted. I certainly look forward to what CRASSH has in mind in developing the digital humanities, and, of course, to contributing what I have learnt at HUMlab.

(4) Screen Media Research seminars. These are seminars by a guest speaker on a film-related topic once every couple of weeks, after which participants adjourn for wine in an adjourning room and usually go out for dinner afterwards. I have attended two so far and they have both been really fascinating, not to mention, of course, closest to my field. The people I have met in this seminar have also been very friendly and collegial, and I look forward to attending more of these seminars.

(5) The Psychoanalysis Reading Group. As described on the CRASSH website, “the core activity of the Group is a weekly reading group devoted to papers and texts circulated in advance, and this is supplemented by the organization of conferences and by participation in a network of like-minded researchers outside Cambridge.”

Work-In-Progress seminar
A Work-In-Progress seminar at CRASSH

HUMlab and CRASSH are incommensurable – their agendas are different, their directional approaches are different, their purposes are different, their roles are different. I have to say, though, that I miss the technology of HUMlab – there is nothing quite like sitting at my old workstation and looking up at the super duper big 84″ (or however many it is) screen! I have spent many contemplative minutes looking up at that screen, waiting for inspiration. At the same time, HUMlab admittedly – at present, at least – does not have the number of research levels or diversity that CRASSH supports, or the considerable postgraduate and visiting scholars community of Cambridge – and around; one regular at the Screen Media seminar comes weekly from London just for the seminar! – to draw from. In that sense, its focus on the digital is both a strength and limitation. The remoteness of its location does not help either. There are ways, of course, to get around that – the digital, after all, is an extremely fluid theme, and collaborations such as the immensely exciting Media Places project with Stanford are precisely evidences of that kind of strategy. There is no reason to believe that its focus would substantially curtail the lab’s research profile. And as both HUMlab and the university, even the Vastenbotten region, grow and develop, as I have every confidence they will, so will its research life. I feel immensely lucky to be and to have been able to be a part of both environments.

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