Castells and the Holberg Prize and alumni networking and a very fancy dinner
Manuel Castells won the Holberg Prize this year, and UiB has celebrated with several days of festivities. At Digital Culture, we assign Castells in several courses (in DIKULT251 this semester I actually assigned a video of a lecture he gave on Wikileaks) and so we thought we’d try to arrange an alumni event in connection with Castell’s lecture at the Holberg Prize Symposium. Castells himself was completely occupied by the official program, but we booked an adjacent seminar room before the lecture, brought coffee and cupcakes, and Daniel Apollon gave a brief crash course on Castells – a very useful summary and critique that certainly made me feel especially well-prepared for the talk itself.
Castells spoke about the recent uprisings and protests around the world and how they are founded on a networked society – this will be the topic of his new book, Networks of Outrage and Hope, which is forthcoming from Polity Press later this year. Fortunately, we didn’t need to remember the differences between networking power, networked power, network power and network-making power to follow the talk, which was speckled with anecdotes and very engaging – although the digital culture people agreed afterwards we would have appreciated a deeper analysis of technology, which seemed mostly just to be taken for granted by Castells despite his constant references to it. The tweets from the talk were interesting too – and if you’re very interested, Livar Bergheim (the current leader of the Student Parliament) streamed a video of it to Bambuser.
After the talk we returned to our seminar room, where a light lunch of baguettes and fruit had conveniently been set up for us.
As an alumni event this really wasn’t a great success – only three alumni actually showed up. Certainly day-time events are difficult for alumni to attend, and this was a three hour event, which is really pushing it in the middle of a work day. And perhaps the topic simply wasn’t sexy enough? I haven’t heard from the alumni who DIDN’T attend, but those who did said they enjoyed the event, but that they hoped the next event would be an evening event like the last one, which was a great success. It’s useful to see which things work and which things don’t work so well, anyway. And as an event for staff and a few alumni and a few students, this way of engaging with a major thinker’s work was excellent.
I couldn’t be present at Castells’ award speech yesterday because I was at Denisse Bellini’s vitenskapsteoretisk innlegg (which was excellent) but I was fortunate to be invited to the banquet last night at Håkonshallen in my capacity as the Alumni Board Leader for the University of Bergen. The government were the official hosts, and the dress code was strict: tuxedos (smoking in Norwegian) and national costumes, and women not wearing a national costume must wear clothes that cover knees and shoulders. I don’t think I’ve ever been to such a formal event before! And of course, Håkonshallen is the royal hall of King Håkon, so this was truly a banquet fit for a king. I felt completely intimidated by the dress code and had no idea what to wear, until I remembered the outfit I wore to my PhD defense dinner, which has been tucked away in a box in the attic for almost ten years. Luckily it was good as new, long tuxedo skirt and all.
I quickly discovered that walking in that skirt for any actual distance was a bit optimistic, so jumped in a taxi, which gave me an opportunity to take a self-portrait 🙂
At dinner I got to chat with striking and non-striking colleagues on strike and not on strike at the social sciences faculty (turns out they got dispensations to submit grant applications, so much for everyone’s worries over here), saw Castells and the Minister for Education (though I was too much of a woss to go say hi) and tried to remember everybody’s name. At dinner I got to sit with Dag Hellesund, the new editor of På Høyden (who actually was a couple of classes below me at primary school), opposite the Dean of Humanities (we already know each other, of course, and we chatted about his time as a student in LA, among many other things) and across from Kjell Haug, who is one of the people in charge of the Mother and Child survey with extensive data from 100,000 mothers and children and 70,000 fathers. My younger kids and I are in the survey, so I was interested for that reason, but also because there are some very interesting ethical considerations there. They have very extensive information about people (questionnaires at many points through pregnancy and as the children grow up, DNA samples, cross-references to for instance the cancer register and the cause of death register and more). In the US, they’ve not succeeded in similar large cohort studies – probably Norway has because Norwegians have an unusual faith and trust in the system. Another issue is when to notify informants about possible health issues. At first they had a policy to never give any information out. But now they’ve determined that if they identify high risk of preventable problems they will contact the people who are at risk (anything else would be unethical, I think!) The ability to predict problems seems likely to increase with time too, meaning this issue will arise more frequently in the future.
I always enjoy the pageantry of such events as well. My iPhone shots don’t do it justice at all, but here you are – as we walked in, wait staff in period costumes held signs announcing the table number.
After our first glass of wine was served, Kristin Halvorsen, Minister of Education, gave a speech. I chuckled a little when she said that she found Castells’ work showed that we must focus on education in our society. I mean, sure, I agree, but as Minister of Education you probably find that just about anything you read shows that. You can just see the back of Castells’ head there behind the lit candles on the table to the left in the photo.
Do you see the empty chairs along the back there? That is where the king is supposed to sit. After dinner, over cognacs and coffee, I was fortunate to ask the person next to me why those chairs weren’t in use and it turned out the person I asked knew exactly why, since he is the director of Bymuséet, the umbrella of museums that includes Håkonshallen. I suppose it should have been obvious that they’re reserved for the king. But actually, our current king never sits there, even when he dines here. His father did, and the first time King Harald was here he and Queen Sonja sat at the high table. But apparently they didn’t like being on display like that, so now they have a lower “high table” set in front of the old one. I’m sure it’s much more fun to actually have dining partners to talk with, and I suppose that suits a royal family that is very much of the people.
This is not the kind of blog post I’ve been writing lately. It’s more open, more personal and I think more explorative, that is to say, I’m exploring for myself while sharing with you (and hoping for feedback, to be honest). It’s more like the posts I wrote as I was finding my way first finishing my PhD, then later figuring out how to be a new academic and a head of department. Finding out what my new role as Alumni Board Leader is a similar process. It’s not a very clearly defined position, and there’s certainly no handbook or set of instructions – maybe all fields are like that, but there seems to be a remarkable lack of open information about how things really work in academia. Applying for full professor felt like total guess work – I’ll have to blog about that at some point. Maybe if I reread Castells his analysis of network power (and networking, network-making and networked power) might help me understand academia.
So what does an Alumni Board Leader do? My experience so far tells me that it is key to be able to speak directly to people who are in positions to actually do something to develop our alumni work – like deans or department leaders or faculty directors. I’m younger than most of these people and don’t yet have the network down, but luckily I really enjoy getting to know people. One of the great privileges of working at a university is the wonderful conversations you can have with all these smart people. But in the day-to-day of being a university professor you don’t really meet that many colleagues from other faculties.
I have a number of leads to follow up for our alumni development. For instance, the head of the Grieg academy told me about hugely successful alumni-run get togethers which the university has never really thought of as alumni activity. I suspect there are many such activities going on if we can only learn about them and find ways to support them further.