Jes Wienberg Shot Down My Habilitation

Habilitation, docentur, is a symbolic upgrade to your PhD found in Scandinavia and other countries with a strong element of German academic traditions. You can think of it as a boy-scout badge. It confers no salary, but it opens certain doors including that of supervising doctoral candidates. Though formally handed out by the faculty, it’s impossible to get without support from your department, as I learned from my abortive attempt at the University of Stockholm in 2010. If on the other hand you do have the support of your department, it’s impossible to avoid getting your habilitation – a mere formality. Almost impossible to avoid.

After heading freshman archaeology for two years in Umeå, in February of 2015 I applied for habilitation there with the kind support of the department’s ämnesansvarige, professor Thomas B. Larsson. He asked me, as is customary, to suggest a few names for the external reviewer. Trying to be shrewd about it, I picked two people who had written enthusiastically about my work in evaluations for jobs, and then I tried to think of a third person. Somebody senior, somebody impartial, yet vaguely friendly. And I thought of Jes Wienberg.

Wienberg is a professor of Historical Archaeology in Lund. We’ve only met once and have never collaborated. He owed me nothing and I owed him nothing, but we had corresponded amicably for about 15 years. My first memory of contact with him is from 2001/02 when I got his permission to re-print a really good article of his in the skeptical pop-sci journal Folkvett that I co-edited at the time. In 2004/05 he helpfully commented on the manuscript of a pugnacious debate piece of mine that appeared in the journal META, published at his department. He went on to publish in the scholarly journal I co-edit and was always helpful with recommendations when I needed a good reviewer for some new book on Medieval matters. Wienberg was never a big presence in my professional life, but he was a friendly one. Until he accepted the task of reviewing my habilitation application. And delivered his verdict.

The process took more than a year. I wasn’t directed to send my publications to the external reviewer until May 2016. I mailed the hefty stack to Wienberg on 24 May, and then I got the whole thing back on 8 June. Right at the end of the spring semester, when there are so many exams to correct, grades to set and bits of admin to finish, Wienberg spent less than two weeks getting familiar with 846 pages of research into prehistoric archaeology, a field he is not active in. And his verdict was roughly this:

Rundkvist fulfils all formal criteria for habilitation. But I don’t like his methods of research. So I refuse to give him my recommendation.

Those who read Scandy can check here whether the above is a fair summary of Wienberg’s evaluation.

Wienberg’s behaviour caused much consternation at the faculty in Umeå. Nobody ever does this. Habilitation is a ceremonial act. If you’re asked to review work that you absolutely loathe, then you just don’t accept the job. “Sorry, I’m too busy right now.” And Wienberg’s value judgement of my stuff was completely beside the point, because those publications had already passed peer review and been published in high-profile venues. He wasn’t just questioning my work, he was questioning the insight of among others Thomas B. Larsson and two fellow professors at his own department in Lund who had accepted reams of my writing for publication.

But anyway, I never did get habilitated. A friendly old Umeå professor from a neighbouring discipline did his best at the faculty to effect a re-submission opportunity for me, but it came to nothing. Due to flagging student numbers I no longer worked in Umeå, and my support from the departmental staff was lackadaisical. One guy wrote me explicitly that the question of my habilitation was linked to what the playing field would look like the next time a professorship became vacant in Umeå. We climb over each other to reach the top.

And so I learned yet again that a career in academia is never about the formal rules for how stuff should work, never really about qualifications. It’s a tribal system of social patronage. I also learned, belatedly, not to trust Jes Wienberg.

Advertisements

Three Fortunate Young Oslovians

Oslo colleagues have asked me to give a fuller account of the spring 2017 hiring that I called the most egregious case I’ve seen. This is not because they’re trying to make the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History look good, but because they feel that I unfairly singled out a single hire, when in fact there were three. I’m happy to oblige. For one thing, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the three has no PhD.

Some background. Norway has a strong tradition of research performed at museums. Bergen’s museum, for instance, was doing major science long before there was a university in town. The førsteamanuensis positions at the Oslo museum that I’m discussing here have 40% research time built into them. Hear that, academics everywhere? A full-time, lifetime job with 40% research time. 20 people applied for those three jobs.

I’ve kept stats on who has gotten lectureships and førsteamanuensis positions in Scandy archaeology for the past 14 years. The median age of the hires is 43. Half of the hires are between 40 and 46. The youngest person to get one of these jobs since I started counting in 2003 was 32, at Uni Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, this past spring.

But yes, there were three hires. They’re 32, 35 and 39, that is, all three are exceptionally young. One worked at the museum when the jobs were advertised, another had worked there previously, and one of these two hasn’t got a PhD! A third one had a post-doc position at Uni Oslo’s main campus just across town, where this person had done their PhD (post-doc at your home department, huh!?). This one is also a long-term collaborator on two projects of the hiring committee’s chairman, who is a professor at the museum in accordance with the fine Norwegian rules for these things.

I believe that by the time they reach 45, two of these people will have strongly competitive CVs. (They’re getting paid to do research at 40% of full time, after all, and all three certainly seem bright enough.) My point in bringing them up is that in 2017 none of the three have this. There is nobody under the age of 40 in Scandinavian academic archaeology who can compete in front of a fair and impartial hiring committee with people who have published research voluminously for a quarter century. Because nobody starts publishing research at age 15. So it’s pretty damn egregious the whole thing.

Update 30 November: What about the other members of the hiring committee? I got interviewed by one of them for a job in Trondheim recently, and I call him Stony-face. In the recent case, the hiring committee (not including Stony-face himself) had ranked me #1. But the guy refused to even let me give a test lecture. And whaddaya know — in 2015, Stony-face co-wrote a book with the 32-y-o mentioned above.

Yeah, Screw You Too, Academia

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 in Sweden is a Mess

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.

Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy

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.

Read Up, Write, Repeat

I’m doing the final library work for my Bronze Age book. When working on a big research project, I always find it a little difficult to calibrate the most economical way to schedule my reading. Of course, I have to know early on what’s in the literature on the subject I’m working with. But I also like to start writing early. And I’d rather not put too much time into re-reading stuff after I’ve figured out how it’s relevant to my theme. I read some of it before I start writing, most of it while I’m writing, often at the computer, and then I inevitably save some of it until I’m almost done writing and all I’m really prepared to do is make minor additions.

I like to read roughly in reverse chronological order. That way I’ll learn about the current state of knowledge first, and also get a lot of compact summaries of previous research. Then I sort of know what the early contributors said before I read their stuff, though I can’t skip them because they may have been misrepresented by later writers. I once read a book draft where this guy had read everything in chronological order until he ran out of time, so he had covered everything in detail except the last 15 years of work on his subject. Ouch.

The bibliographies in the most recent contributions give me a map of the territory. I keep a growing list of work to check out during a project, and then a lot of it gets culled in the final phase after I’ve flipped through it. I’m a little embarrassed to be ordering so many books and journal volumes from the stacks just to return them half an hour later, but at least I help improve the library’s usage stats.

For my current book project this flip-through checking is largely because there’s a huge international literature about Bronze Age hoards, but the vast majority of works are blind to the landscape context of the find spots, which is what I’m writing about. Conversely, someone who is really into artefact typology and regional metalworking traditions will be disappointed if they open my book. But “landscape location” will be in the title.

Archaeology Programmes At Swedish Universities Evaluated

The Swedish Higher Education Authority (Universitetskanslersämbetet) has evaluated our basic university programmes in a long series of subjects. The results for archaeology were published yesterday, based on the status 2012. There were 21 BA (3 yrs), Mag.Phil. (4 yrs) and MA (5 yrs) programmes at the country’s archaeology departments. The median grade they’ve received is “high quality”, which translates to a pass here. Let’s look at the eleven programmes that flunked or passed with distinction.

  • Gothenburg. Mag.phil. in Mediterranean archaeology. Very high quality.
  • Gothenburg. BA in Mediterranean archaeology. Very high quality.
  • Gothenburg. MA in Scandinavian Prehistory. Insufficient quality.
  • Gothenburg. BA in Scandinavian Prehistory. Insufficient quality.
  • Gothenburg. MA in heritage management. Very high quality.
  • Lund. MA in Mediterranean archaeology. Very high quality.
  • Lund. BA in Mediterranean archaeology. Very high quality.
  • Lund. BA in historical archaeology. Insufficient quality.
  • Stockholm. MA in various archaeological specialities. Insufficient quality.
  • Umeå. Mag.phil. in Scandinavian Prehistory. Insufficient quality.
  • Umeå. Mag.phil. in environmental archaeology. Insufficient quality.

Overall, the places that come out on top here are Gothenburg and Lund, though even they have problems with some of their programmes. Umeå places last, though I hasten to add that they have had at least one incredibly good-looking and keen temp teacher on the Scandy Prehistory programme this academic year, after the one evaluated. One point that makes me sad is that not a single one of the country’s programmes in my subject, Scandy Prehistory, passed with distinction. One funny point is that the Mediterranean archaeologists in Gothenburg must now be really smug at the same time as their Scandy prehistorian colleagues are really angry.

Mind you, the evaluation methodology is controversial. A correspondent of mine at one of the evaluated departments writes “It’s been a lot of work for an evaluation system that isn’t approved by the EU, has no scientific backing and uses evaluation goals that are 30 years out of date”.

The last time I looked at results of a similar evaluation in 2009, archaeology at Gotland University College received severe criticism. That entire campus has now become a branch of the University of Uppsala and so hasn’t been evaluated separately.

Update 27 December: Ulla Rajala pointed out something important. Formally speaking, the University of Stockholm doesn’t offer specialised archaeology programmes like the other universities do. This means that the grade that is differentiated at e.g. Gothenburg is a mashed-up average at Stockholm. When the Stockholm MA programme flunked, there may actually have been an extremely good programme in e.g. osteology hidden behind that grade. It all comes down to the random sample of student papers that the evaluation looked at. It seems to have been proportional to the number of students in each programme.

Thanks to Ing-Marie Back Danielsson for the tip-off.

Transparent Recruitment Charade

2009. University of Lund publishes the PhD thesis Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning in Created Agricultural Wetlands, dealing with biological diversity and ecosystem services in ponds in the agricultural landscape (and commented on here).

2013: Same department advertises a post-doc in the field “Biological Diversity and Ecosystem Services in Ponds in the Agricultural Landscape”.

Because in the Scandinavian countries’ public sectors, you always have to go through these elaborate charades to suggest that you’re really looking open-mindedly for the best candidate for a job, not simply for your buddy Herman.