A Road (Somewhat) Less Traveled By

 

By Dr. Thomas Devaney

It’s an exchange to which I become rather accustomed during the past year. The slightly raised eyebrow. The question, “Oh, why there?” with just enough stress on the final word to signal a hint of incredulity. It was the more-or-less typical reaction when I told someone that I was spending my sabbatical year in Finland to get started on a book about late-medieval and early modern Spanish history. And yet Helsinki turned out to be a useful setting in which to develop my ideas.

Finland first came onto my radar as a potential base for a sabbatical through some friends at the University of Turku. They are all associates of the Turku Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (TUCEMEMS), an interdisciplinary collaborative of researchers from across the university that sometime hosts visiting scholars. I decided to apply for Fulbright funding to go there and, in the process of doing some background research on Finnish universities, encountered the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies’ (HCAS) annual call for applications. HCAS, an independent research institute at the University of Helsinki modeled somewhat along the lines of the Princeton IAS or the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, seemed also to have much to offer. I decided to apply for both the Fulbright and to HCAS. When, through remarkable good luck, I was offered both, my Turku friends encouraged me to go to Helsinki and take advantage of the resources available at HCAS.

collegium building

[image: Collegium building]

While I have the regrets that such a decision inevitably brings, I was somewhat able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Since Turku is only a two-hour train ride from Helsinki, I maintained my collaboration with TUCEMEMS, giving a talk there and contributing a chapter to an upcoming edited volume on Reformation-era book culture. Meanwhile, HCAS turned out to be as intellectually stimulating and encouraging an environment as one could desire. The center is home to an international group of about forty scholars working in all areas of the humanities and social sciences, ranging from history and classics to psychology and law. Although fellows devote the majority of their time to individual projects, our weekly brown-bag seminars often showcased the creative provocation that such a diverse community of scholars can offer while regular lunches and coffee hours ensured that there was a strong sense of community even while most of us focused on our individual projects.

collegium common room

[image: Collegium common room]

That kind of intellection stimulation is particularly beneficial for my current work. I’m exploring early modern affective and cognitive understandings of romerías, with the goal of determining how collective emotional experiences may have contributed to senses of community and of local identity. And I’m particularly interested in the impact of such shared emotions on the place of converts and their descendants in these communities. As a great deal of research has shown, “official” discourses about conversos or moriscos didn’t necessarily or entirely reflect the attitudes of the general public.

It’s no secret that it can be exceedingly useful to step outside the boundaries of our particular specialties in order to consider the kinds of questions being posed by scholars working on different times or places, or even in completely different fields, and that’s especially true when dealing with broad and often fuzzy concepts like “emotion,” “identity,” or “community.” The Collegium prizes such cross-fertilization, and I know that my work has been enhanced by exposure to (among many others) an artist interested in sensory perception and emotion, and a literary scholar focused on cognitive theories. But there are also other historians at the Collegium, whose topics range from early modern English travel narratives to nineteenth-century ideas of voice to early medieval Irish identity, and they too have been a regular source of inspiration, challenge, and support. Of course, HCAS is part of the wider University of Helsinki community. And this led to a number of fruitful connections—to a group of scholars working on collective emotions and the Finnish experience of World War II, for instance, and to others interested in the relationships between performance, power, and belief.

My biggest concern about working on an Iberian topic in Helsinki was access to resources. In some respects, I was well prepared. My project relies heavily on so-called “miracle books,” or histories of individual shrines that typically describe the shrine itself and its holy image, the miracles it has performed, and the annual romería. In addition to notes I had compiled about a number of these books during previous sojourns to collections in Spain and the two months I spent last summer at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany (another underutilized resource for Hispanists!), I planned also to rely on digitized copies of miracle books online, at collections like the Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico and the Biblioteca Virtual de Andalucía. I was reasonably confident, therefore, that I’d have access to the key primary sources I would need.

For me, however, the process of writing is also the process of thinking. No matter how well prepared I think I am, once I start to write, I inevitably find that I need to read more, dig deeper, and explore new lines of inquiry. And so I’ve needed to regularly locate new materials. As the University Library’s holdings on Iberian topics are thin, consisting mostly of recent and widely distributed books, I worked primarily with the Kansalliskirjasto (National Library of Finland) which, conveniently, is across the street from the Collegium. The National Library building, moreover, is an architectural gem that has recently undergone a three-year renovation project . Its reading rooms were a delightful alternative to working in my office.

national library reading room

[image: National Library reading room]

Adjusting to life in Finland was relatively painless, since the University helps international visiting scholars get sorted. I moved here with family and, after the somewhat stressful process of finding school spots for the children, it was fascinating to see Finland’s renowned education system in action. The public school day is shorter than one typically encounters in the United States, for one thing. And there are lots of opportunities for play during that time—15 minutes between lessons in addition to a longer recess at lunchtime. But there’s also a different philosophy of childhood. Our older daughter has embraced new opportunities for independence (it’s common to see seven-year-olds navigating the city on their own, for instance) and we’re wondering how she’ll adjust to the restrictions of life back in the U.S. One thing did take us by surprise—Finnish kids go outside to play regardless of the weather. Pouring rain? To the playground! Bitter cold? Let’s go outside! This cultural indifference to the weather has been great for the kids, encouraging what I think is a healthy attitude about the outdoors. I imagine that there’s also a bit of local pride at work here, but it’s not all about toughness. The day-care made it very clear that the right gear is critical—and so we had to obtain a bewildering array of outdoor clothes for the kids

kids clothing chart

[image: kid’s clothes chart].

For the most part, though, we didn’t really encounter much culture shock. Although Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn, English is widely spoken and it’s quite possible to live here without any knowledge of Finnish. Although I did have the opportunity to take Finnish courses, I’ll confess that all I managed to learn was (some of) the basics. But even that gave me a bit of cultural insight, as well as the ability to make some sense of the signs and newspapers one encounters in daily life. And, despite the Finns’ reputation for being reserved, even withdrawn, in public (common joke: “How do you tell if a Finn is extroverted? He’s looking at your shoes, not his own.”), most of the people we’ve encountered have been warm and friendly. There’s also a vibrant arts and music scene in Helsinki, a host of holiday events, and a food culture that combines the familiar and the new.

Thus far, I’ve painted a glowing picture of life at HCAS and in Helsinki. And I did have a positive experience. But it wasn’t all perfect. Finland’s universities, like many in the U.S. and other countries, are facing severe financial challenges. At the University of Helsinki, budget cutbacks this past year led to the layoff of hundreds of employees, the creation of a centralized administrative system, and a great deal of concern about the future. Even so, and although these cuts have had a huge impact on the Collegium, especially on its administrative staff, HCAS plans to maintain its commitment to free and interdisciplinary research.

For myself, I’m now back in Rochester, having accomplished my goals for the sabbatical year. I’ve made a great deal of progress on my work—I’ve submitted a couple of articles, given a number of presentations, and drafted sections of the book. I’ve been part of a great community of scholars, made new friends, and been able to experience a culture, and place, that was mostly new to me. And yet, from where I sit now, back in my role in the history department, back in familiar places and to familiar routines, it almost feels as if I’ve never left, as if the year in Helsinki was something that didn’t really happen. But perhaps the experience’s impacts simply aren’t yet completely apparent. When I next have an opportunity to take a sabbatical leave, there’s a good chance I’ll spend it in Spain, for all the obvious reasons. But, if I can, I’ll also be considering places that aren’t “traditional” destinations for Hispanists. And Finland will be on that list.

 

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