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I recently received a long-awaited verdict on an official complaint I had filed: there was in fact nothing formally wrong with the decision by the Dept of Historical Studies in Gothenburg to hire Zeppo Begonia. Since the verdict didn’t go my way, as planned I am now turning my back on academic archaeology. The reason is that qualifications don’t count in Scandyland.
Being friends with people inside, and preferably being a local product, is what gets you academic jobs here. I need to cut my losses and move on. I would call this post a burning of bridges if there were any to burn, but there are none. Fourteen years on this joke of a job “market” have demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whom I piss off now: there won’t be a steady job for me either way.
I’ve been applying for academic jobs all over Scandinavia since 2003. The longest employment I’ve been able to secure was a 6-month temp lectureship at 55% of full time – during one of three happy years when I headed freshman archaeology in remote Umeå. But time and time again, I’ve seen jobs given to dramatically less qualified colleagues.
Norwegian university recruitment is particularly ugly. There, rules stipulate that the “external” hiring committee has to be chaired by a senior faculty member from the hiring department itself – with predictable results. The most egregious case I’ve seen was not long ago at the University of Oslo’s archaeological museum, where a [uniquely young] recent [University of Oslo] PhD with hardly any publications at all got a steady research lectureship. She had been working closely with a professor at the museum. Who chaired the hiring committee. And who was once, prior to this, super angry with me when I complained about the Norwegian system on Facebook, haha! I’ve seen the same thing at the Oslo uni department and at NTNU in Trondheim recently. Local people with poor qualifications who could never compete anywhere else get permanent positions.
Denmark’s system is completely non-transparent. You don’t get a list of who applied and you don’t get to read their evaluations, like you do in Sweden and Norway. What tends to happen in my experience is that you get a glowingly enthusiastic evaluation, which feels super nice, and then they hire some Dane. The country has only two archaeology departments that produce these strangely employable Danes.
Finland’s university humanities used to be poorly funded. To boot they have recently been radically de-funded from that prior low level. The Finns understandably never advertise any jobs at all.
Sweden is no better than its neighbours. Our hiring committees for steady jobs are fully external, so that’s good. But you get steady jobs on the strength of your temping experience. And temp teachers are hired with no external involvement at all, like in the recent case of Zeppo Begonia in Gothenburg. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. The Faculty of Humanities at this university, let me remind you, was severely censured by the Swedish Higher Education Authority back in May for many years of gross misconduct in their hiring practices. Local favouritism is the deal here.
There are quite a few people in Scandy academic archaeology whom I’d like to see driving a bus for a living. Zeppo Begonia is not one of them. He is a solid empiricist prehistorian of Central European origin whose work I respect and admire. If you ask me who should get research funding, I will reply “Zeppo Begonia”. I would like to see many more Zeppoes in my discipline. I think we should import them to replace some of our own shoddy products. But look at our respective qualifications for this measly one-year temp lectureship at 60%.
- The ad specified that you needed solid knowledge of Scandy archaeology to do the job. I’m 45 and I’ve worked full time in Scandy archaeology for 25 years. Zeppo is 39 and started working and publishing here four years ago.
- I have published five academic books. Zeppo has published one.
- I have published 45 journal papers and book chapters in a wide range of respected outlets. Zeppo has published 23.
- Zeppo and I have both been temp teachers for some percentage of four academic years.
- I have published 29 pieces of pop-sci, including one book, plus eleven years of this blog. Zeppo has published no pop-sci.
- Out of Zeppo’s research output, little deals with Scandy archaeology, but several of these pieces are co-authored with senior figures in archaeology at the University of Gothenburg. Hint, hint.
This, as you can see, is just ridiculous. And there is no legal recourse unless you are discriminated against on grounds of race, gender etc. The appeals board has proved to ignore qualification issues. Believe me, I’ve tried.
To finish off, a few words for my colleagues at Scandinavian archaeology departments. Have you published five academic books and 45 journal papers? Are you extremely popular with the students? Have you worked in Scandinavian archaeology for at least 25 years? Have you got other heavy qualifications, like an 18-year stint as managing editor of a major journal and 11 years of keeping one of the world’s biggest archaeology blogs? If your answer to any of these questions is no, then I would have your job if Scandy academic archaeology were a meritocracy.
The head of department, Helène Whittaker, has declined to comment on the case of Zeppo Begonia. I use this pseudonym for him to emphasise that he has done nothing wrong. He just applied for a job.
Academic recruitment procedures in Sweden are a mess. There are at least four strong contradictory forces that impact them.
- Meritocracy. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to find and employ the most qualified person on the job market, even if it’s just for six months. This is after all the public sector.
- Labour laws. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to give a steady job to anyone who has worked at your uni for a total of four semesters in the past five years, regardless of their qualifications.
- Funding. As Head of Department you cannot give anyone a steady job unless you know how to pay them long-term. Else you will have to fire someone soon, which will get you into big trouble both with the Dean and with the labour union.
- Nepotism. As Head of Department you want to employ your buddy Bengt. He can be a recent home-grown PhD whom you want to give a break. Or he can be an old stalwart that you’d be ashamed to meet in the departmental coffee room if you didn’t help him.
This is coming to a head in a big way. Five years ago it became mandatory to advertise even the shortest academic jobs, the ones that were typically quietly given to Bengt before. At least one Swedish university largely ignored this and has now endured official censure and much bad press. Academic leaders currently don’t seem to know what’s best practice. I’ve asked around with just one of the questions involved, and nobody in charge seems to know quite what the answer is.
Remember, as Head of Department, because of funding constraints you generally cannot allow anyone to pass the labour law’s four-semesters-in-five-years threshold and get automatic steady employment. But when you advertise a short contract, chances are high that the most qualified applicant will be so near the limit that the short contract would effectively mean automatic steady employment. How do you deal with this situation, even ignoring any impact of nepotism?
So far I’ve never seen any department say plainly that “We realise that Berit has by far the strongest qualifications, but because of the labour laws we will instead employ Nisse, despite his weak CV”. I have however seen a case where the department suddenly discovered and described many flaws in Berit that made her an unattractive candidate, despite the fact that they had happily employed her on a series of short contracts up until the day when the labour law’s limit came into sight.
After almost 14 mostly dismal years on the academic job market, I find it a consolation to read an opinion piece in Times Higher Education under the headline “Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy“. In my experience this is also true for Denmark, Norway and Finland. In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.
At Scandinavian universities, people who didn’t get their jobs in fair competition are often handing out jobs to their buddies without any fair competition. But I see encouraging signs that the PR disaster that recently befell Gothenburg University’s philosophy department may have put a scare into the whole sad business. At least temporarily. Meanwhile, I’m finishing my sixth archaeological monograph. Never having had a longer contract than 28% of one academic year.
14 months of no teaching gigs and several bad professional disappointments have brought me down a bit. So I checked my calendar for things to look forward to in the coming months.
- April. War games exhibition at the Army Museum. Katana sword exhibition at the Royal Armoury. Fieldwork at a promising site in Östergötland.
- May. LinCon gaming convention in Linköping. Kontur / SweCon scifi convention in Uppsala.
- June. Mountain hiking in Abisko.
- July. Summer.
- August. WorldCon scifi convention in Helsinki. Castle conference in Koblenz.
Dear Reader, what are you looking forward to?
Inspired by Karin Bojs’s and Peter Sjölund’s recent book Svenskarna och deras fäder, I’ve looked into my ancestry by means both genetic and genealogical. Here’s a few highlights.
- Like most Stockholmers, I’m of mixed rural Swedish stock. My great grandpa’s generation contains 16 people born mainly in the 1880s. Only one of them was born in Stockholm. His parents were born in Värmland and Södermanland provinces. The other 15 were born all over rural southern Sweden: Bohuslän (two people), Småland (two people), Södermanland, Skåne and Närke. They went to Stockholm to find work, met and got married.
- My Y chromosome is type R1b-M269, which is the second-most common one in Sweden and the most common one in Western Europe. My closest modern matches form dense clusters in England and New England. There’s clearly an Englishman in my recent pedigree, most likely in the 15th or 16th centuries judging from a combination of genetic statistics and genealogy. In the mid-1600s my paternal line was already in Värmland with Swedish names.
- My mitochondrial DNA is the very common type H with my closest modern matches clustering in Finland. This means that my maternal line points east to a very great grandma in West Asia about 25,000 years ago. Of Europe’s three original major population components, this would represent the Ancient North Eurasians.
- I found the first Rundkvist! In the 1800s a lot of rural Swedes quit using the patronymic and took family names instead. My grandpa’s grandpa Johan Jansson (1853-1925) took the name Rundkvist and moved to Stockholm from Fryksdalen in Värmland. His brother Magnus Jansson instead chose Söderqvist for some reason.
- Update 14 March: Aard regular Lassi pointed out something enlightening. Parts of modern Sweden saw state-sponsored immigration from Finland in the decades around 1600. This is the simplest explanation for why I have a Finnish maternal line. Its earliest member known to me, Helena Helgesdotter, was born near Gothenburg in 1775.
Downtown Kavalla’s mix of well-kept properties and hopeless ruins confuses me. I’ve seen similar in the Baltic States, but there it has to do with uncertainty about the ownership after the Soviet period, I’ve been told. That doesn’t apply here. So I googled real estate agencies and went visiting on my lunch break.
The first clue was simply that I couldn’t find most of the agencies at their stated addresses. One had closed down so recently that the sign was still there and the shop space hadn’t found a new tenant. The real estate market here isn’t exactly booming: demand is low. But eventually I found an open realtor’s office where a woman kindly yet sarcastically told me what I wanted to know.
Here’s why property owners don’t renovate old buildings in Kavalla, according to the realtor I spoke with.
- You can’t get bank loans.
- Low demand: even if you have the money, you’ll never make it back in this weak market.
- Light repairs can be profitable, but there is a point of no return beyond which a property is too run-down for it ever to make you the money back. (I notice that a lot of the worst-kept buildings are low ones with a low potential ratio of tenants to plot acreage.)
Here’s why owners don’t tear the ruins down and redevelop.
- Heritage protection.
- Complicated bureaucracy.
- Low demand.
Here’s why owners don’t just give up and sell their properties.
- “Who would buy?” No demand for plot acreage. Might as well wait for a century or two.
Yet as I said, there are a lot of well-kept buildings here too, some of them recently renovated. One big difference according to my informant is that public property is usually much better kept than private property. I guess this is because private property has to support its own costs on site, while the government purse is nationwide. Case in point: see the picture above, with the beautiful municipal music school next to a once lavishly appointed ruin in private hands, both on busy Venizelou Street across from St. John’ schoolyard.
But my informant told me of one confusing case that seems to contradict much of the above. Kavalla is full of run-down tobacco warehouses from the early 20th century, when Western smokers still liked Turkish tobacco. One, on Filipou Street, is incongruously in great shape, very recently renovated. A sign proudly proclaims it to be the Euro Mania store, which if I understand correctly used to sell cheap stuff. But it’s closed and has started to attract spray-painted tags. I was told that the Euro Mania store did healthy business until a buyer recently offered the owner €9 million for it and perhaps made a small down payment. The condition was that the owner immediately close down his retail business and evacuate the premises. This seems to have been a handshake deal. But by the time the Euro Mania store had been completely cleaned out, the buyer withdrew his offer. And there it sits, one of Kavalla’s best-kept older private properties, making no money at all.
Cousin E pointed out something odd about the International Mathematical Olympiad. It’s an annual competition for high school students. And girls do super poorly in it. We ran some stats on the data for 2015 and 2016, and found that a national team with more than one female member gets less than half the median points per capita of an all-male team. With one female member, it’s 59-78%.
The question I want to address is not whether women are in empirical fact worse at maths than men. Nor do I, if this is the case, want to discuss whether it’s because of nature or nurture. I want to understand how the IMO works. Look at this.
I’ve been away from my various desks for almost two months while excavating and then enjoying some time off. Here’s what’s on my plate right now. Saddle. I mean my saddle, in which I’m back.
- Landscape archaeology conference, three days in Uppsala. I’m giving a paper on my Bronze Age project.
- European Association of Archaeologists, Annual Meeting, five days in Vilnius. I’m chairing a session on castle excavations and giving a paper on our fieldwork methods during the past three seasons.
- Apply for grants. I’ve got 35 kilos of animal bones that need osteological attention. And I only have my subsistence covered through March.
- Apply for advertised uni jobs in two neighbouring countries.
- Finalise proof corrections for The Mats P. Malmer Greatest Hits Collection, published by the Royal Academy of Letters, and send the book off to the printers.
- Co-write coin paper. I’m going to be second author on a paper about the coins from Skällvik Castle, headed by a dear friend from grad school.
- Post-excavation work. The finds need to be catalogued and the reports written.
- After all this is done, I can sit down in earnest to write a book on Östergötland’s Medieval castles at 75% of full time.
I wonder what motivates people to start companies that make or provide boring stuff. What causes a person to devote decades of their life to an organisation that manufactures soap or installs archive shelving? It doesn’t surprise me that people take boring jobs: everybody needs a job and most jobs are boring. But what makes a person suddenly think “What I really want to do with my life is run a squeegee company”?
Maybe what they really think is “I want to make more money and avoid taking orders, and the only business I really know anything about is the squeegee business. I am resigned to the fact that I must spend my life doing boring things. Instead of just working at a factory that makes squeegees, I’m going to start a factory of my own. It’ll be boring and pointless. But I will make more money, and I will have no boss.”
My incomprehension is probably typical of Swedish middle-class culture. I don’t particularly need money, because I despise conspicuous consumption and most of my family’s needs beyond housing and subsistence are covered by the public sector. My kids don’t have trust funds, for instance. Uni tuition is free and state study loans are favourable. My main career priorities are fun, intellectual satisfaction and academic recognition, neither of which a chain of stationery stores would be likely to provide.