Freedom to Change Gears – An Interview with HCAS Alumna Josephine Hoegaerts

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In 2017, Josephine Hoegaerts received good news. Being a Core Fellow at HCAS at the time, she would be able to stay in Helsinki with her ERC project “CALLIOPE: Vocal Articulations of Parliamentary Identity and Empire”, which she conceived at HCAS. We had a conversation about the impact of the HCAS Fellowship on her career and about tensions inherent in her current role as a Principal Investigator, who sets the research agenda not only for herself but also for others.

Portrait of Josephine Hoegaerts

Josephine Hoegaerts (Photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

 “It was a deeply uninformed decision”, says Josephine Hoegaerts and laughs, when asked about her reasons for coming to HCAS in 2015 to work on a postdoctoral project on the history of voice, after her first postdoc in Belgium. Hoegaerts now holds a position as Associate Professor at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, but back then she did not know much about the University of Helsinki or about Finland. But, in addition to the prospect of learning a completely new language, Finnish, she was attracted to Helsinki by the opportunity to do research in the interdisciplinary and international environment of HCAS.  

Hoegaerts turned down another postdoc in Germany connected to an archive of popular music, which would have directed her work more specifically towards musicology. The Core Fellowship at HCAS gave her the time and freedom to step back and look for a wider interdisciplinary framework.

“I was trying to get out of strictly doing history, and into interacting with musicology, sound studies, literary studies, and HCAS seemed like an environment in which people would let me get on with that.”

 

Intellectual stimulation and collegial support at HCAS 

It turned out that HCAS was an excellent environment for shifting gears as a researcher. Hoegaerts found that she could engage with people from different fields in a particularly meaningful way 

“My postdoc project was on history of voice but was mainly looking at educational scientific manuals. It had a very specific, history of science approach. I was looking to pull it more in a political and social direction. At HCAS I had the time to attend different reading groups with people from different disciplines, reading up on stuff that I otherwise would not have planned.”  

Many of Hoegaerts’ collaborations at the Collegium began by chance, at lunch discussions with colleagues, whose work resonated in interesting ways with her own. One of these discussions led to the symposium “Embodiment and Emancipation,” co- organized with political philosopher Leszek Koczanowicz and literary scholar Ulrika Maude. Another HCAS Symposium “Writing Voice and Speaking Text” was a collaboration with Mari Wiklund, French philologist specializing on prosody and university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, with whom Hoegaerts is now co-editing a publication. 

Hoegaerts also stresses the impact of the collegial and supportive atmosphere of HCAS. The career phase after the PhD is plagued by insecurities that, in her view, are related less to the content of one’s research than to institutional conditions. She found it rewarding to be constantly challenged in terms of content, as fellows from various disciplines posed questions about the very foundations of her project. The same people, however, were extremely supportive as colleagues.  

When I arrived at HCAS, there was a large group of youngish female postdocs, six or seven of us, very much in the same situation, going for sushi every week, complaining. But we were not competing for the same jobs, which meant that if you got a grant or if you got something published, everything was celebrated. There was this enormously supportive atmosphere.”  

Hoegaerts also praises the director Sari Kivistö and other HCAS administrators of the time, who were well prepared to assist researchers coming to work in a new country. She remarks that support structures for international researchers are too often lacking in other units of the university, especially after the centralization of the administrative services. There is nobody in her current unit responsible for answering questions about the structure of the MA program or the Finnish tax system, for instance. As a new employee coming from abroad, you do not initially even know which questions you should be asking, she adds. 

But what made Josephine Hoegaerts decide to stay in Helsinki, when she could have taken her coveted ERC funding to another European university?  

“A sense of loyalty, she says. “I had been supported really well by the funding services as well as by the Collegium.”  

She was also simply tired of moving, a sentiment shared by many early-career academics. And finally, University of Helsinki offered her career opportunities that were not available everywhere: a tenure-track professorship. 

Curiosity-driven research for the lucky few? 

When Hoegaerts thinks back to her career path, she cannot help but notice a contradiction in her current position as a Principal Investigator of an ERC project, who employs PhD students and postdocs. While she herself has always been able to find funding that does not limit scholars’ freedom to set their own research agendas, she is now, in a sense, forced to limit the freedom of others. 

“I get the impression that particularly at the postdoc stage, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a place that is not within a project. At the same time, there is a demand for people to be autonomous, and this is a very odd tension.” 

In her own career, the freedom to set one’s own agenda meant that she could come to her current research on citizenship, political influence, and empire from an unusual angle: through thinking about voice and sound.  

It takes time to build confidence, particularly as a woman in academia, to want to talk about politics. Five years ago, I definitely would not have felt I could say anything about citizenship. I was doing something quite weird, and I am still doing something weird, but I am now moving in a direction that could be considered a big and important topic. I feel that this was a better way of coming to such topics than being in a project, in which you are forced to think about big issues.” 

Hoegaerts finds it problematic, particularly in the humanities, that research is now so strongly connected to projects, in which resources are concentrated around a few PIs. The researchers employed by the PIs do not get to define their research focus freely, which makes it difficult for them to build a career.  

“The idea behind this is that they want us to be more collaborative. But I am not sure that is the result, because collaboration should be more horizontal than what we have now. There seems to be a growing gap, at least to a degree, between the haves and the have-nots. A few people are lucky at some point and start to get money and get to define the research agenda to a much larger degree than is perhaps necessary.” 

Hoegaerts wants to make sure she supports the people employed in her project in a way that brings them forward in their own careers. At the same time, she is held accountable to the ERC to stay within the limits she “defined one summer in Helsinki,” as she puts it.  

She is currently planning a new research project that tackles the problem of professionalization and the notion of excellence, taking a critical view on the frequent talk about the latter. She adds, smiling, that this effectively means that she is asking funding agencies to give her money so that her team can tell them why their whole rationale is wrong.  

Those lunches and coffees 

When asked what it means now for her to be a Collegium alumna, Hoegaerts says that there definitely is a “bizarre bond” between people who have been at the Collegium. As for how this has come about, we – as so often when talking to fellows of institutes of advanced study – come back to how shared lunches build a sense of community and spark bottom-up forms of academic collaboration.  

 This is the one thing I really miss from the Collegium”, Hoegaerts confesses. 

Helsinki Collegium fellows sitting at the lunch table in the Common Room of HCAS during Orientation Week in September 2019.

HCAS Fellows at lunch during Orientation Week in early September 2019.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

Some Thoughts on the Helsinki Collegium

By Tuomas Forsberg

More than one month has passed since I began as director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The first month has been extremely busy but also very rewarding: the new fellows arrived just a fortnight after me and the new academic term has started at full speed.

Photo by Veikko Somerpuro

Director Tuomas Forsberg with the Fellows and staff of the Helsinki Collegium in September 2018 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

The HCAS is a wonderful, unique place as an interface of international scholars and interdisciplinary research in the field of humanities and social sciences, including law, theology and education – the five faculties of the City Centre campus in Helsinki. My own background is in political science and international relations, but I realized that I have many close academic friends in all these fields, and I have published at least one article in anthologies edited by a researcher from each of the five faculties of the City Centre campus. In fact, back in the late 1980s when I was a University of Helsinki student, I also completed at least some courses in all these faculties (yes, even in theology). And not only that: I cannot escape thinking that I have grown up alongside all the above broad disciplines: my parents were theologians, my dear aunt and godmother was a philologist, my aunts and uncles teachers, and one uncle – as well as my wife – lawyers.

Time for Research and Collaboration

The mission of the HCAS is in line with the key idea of advanced studies institutes to produce top-class research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates something original. This often means applying the metaphor of building: we do not tear down an old house and quickly build something new and different; instead, we solidify the building’s foundations so that the house can be renovated. For that, fellows need time to focus on their research and the freedom to develop their own agendas.

The HCAS also needs to be a community. A strong identity and esprit de corps has been a strength of the institute in the past, and without a sense of community the whole HCAS idea would be lost. The joy of research comes from discoveries and findings that are often very subjective moments, but no researcher would be able to achieve much alone. Although researchers in the humanities and social sciences often have their own projects, sharing ideas with others is crucial. HCAS fellows come to the institute as individuals, but they hopefully leave with many friends and partnerships that might even be more important in the long term than the research carried out during the fellowship.

The HCAS mission also includes collaboration with the university faculties. Although the point of the HCAS is to enable scholars to focus on their research, “splendid isolation” may distract the younger fellows from taking the necessary next steps towards teaching positions. Many researchers based in the faculties would also be very happy to get even a glimpse of a famous scholar who has landed at the HCAS for a year.

The Three Fs, or the Core Elements of Research

This balance between focusing on research and internal activities vs. teaching and outreach is a longstanding issue often to do with perception and visibility rather than substance. Having a strong esprit de corps is not the same as being inward-looking. Even if the HCAS’s mission concerns the area of basic research rather than policy-oriented knowledge, it can still be vitally important in many different ways. A good example of how the HCAS can be “useful” and reach wider audiences was to promote the lectures on “useless knowledge” that in fact became very popular.

When I was the acting director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 20 years ago, we used to describe three core elements of research with three Finnish words starting with H: hyvää (good), hauskaa (fun) and hyödyllistä (useful). I wonder what would be the best translation of this slogan. Maybe three Fs: research should be fun, functional and freaking good!

One feature of the HCAS known widely in Finland has been to reflect academic practices and contribute to debates on science policy. Here, I see no reason to change course, and I hope that this blog can find readers and contributors and in this domain as well.

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

 

On travelling as an ex-IAS director

By Jo Shaw

The title needs a little explanation. Before taking up my one year EURIAS fellowship at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, I was privileged to spend more than three years as Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. Before that, to give my journey even more context, I was Dean of Research of what is now the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. I was therefore familiar with IASH’s work before I became Director. And I am a connoisseur of Institutes of Advanced Studies!

During my IASH directorship, I had the opportunity to involve myself in the work of a number of international networks in which we participate, including CHCI, UBIAS and ECHIC. I even came to a meeting at HCAS a few years ago. One of the huge pleasures of my time as director was organising and hosting in Edinburgh the 2017 ECHIC Conference under the rubric of inside/OUT. For me, this showcased the best of what humanities centres and institutes (and here I include not just humanities in the narrow sense, but all of the human sciences) can do. The plenary lectures were engaging and broadly focused, highlighting the strong links, for example, between fields of cultural studies and the social science disciplines of political science and sociology. Our shorter presentations and lightning talks were just that: short, punchy, informative. We fostered engagement between scholarship and broader society, with two broader panels focused on populist politics and on IASH’s Dangerous Women Project (another achievement of which I am incredibly proud). And we linked colleagues from universities across Europe with senior colleagues in humanities and social sciences management in Scotland and Ireland, in a very supportive encounter at the Scottish Parliament.

At the end of my term of office, I thought it would be good to spend time on the other side of the IAS fence, as a consumer of the values of interdisciplinarity and scholarly community that are the distinctive facets of Institutes of Advanced Studies wherever they are found. I can confirm, HCAS truly is a great place to rediscover your scholarly habits and to (re-)lay the foundations for a research programme. I’m sure it’s an equally apt destination if what you are looking for as a scholar is somewhere to finish a project and to write up some research for publication.

It is interesting to muse for a moment on the similarities and differences between my Edinburgh and Helsinki experiences, quite apart from the huge contrast between being director and being a fellow. Obviously the two universities are quite different in terms of history, heritage and organisation, although they are partnered together within the League of European Research Universities. There is, as a result, quite a bit of traffic between them, at the level of senior management and deans, as well as a number of research collaborations that I am aware of. An event was organised by colleagues in Edinburgh’s School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures to mark #Suomi100, highlighting research on Finland or by Finnish scholars in Scotland. During my time as Director of IASH we have regularly hosted scholars from Finland, especially those benefiting from Academy of Finland funding comprising a mobility element. There seems to be quite a lot less traffic in the opposite direction, as far as I can see, although I would be happy to be corrected by others with better data. This is despite the more general interest in Finland as a relatively young, rather small and fiercely independent state that exists in Scotland. I think there are regular visits here from the Scottish government and Scottish public bodies, interested in the many things that Finland gets right and which Scotland could do better at (education and innovation being two such things). Scotland has recently adopted the baby box initiative. The UK as a whole, which has a terrible homelessness problem, has shown an interest in how Finland is tackling the scourge of homelessness.

But returning closer to home, it’s worthwhile reflecting on how the two institutes/bodies fostering ‘advanced studies’ continue to flourish in university environments where so-called key performance indicators are becoming the dominant features of everyday life. It is very hard to count the value of giving scholars space and community to flourish. The collaborations that flourish in the environment of an institute of advanced study often take years to come to fruition. In a world obsessed by causality, can we really claim that the residency in the IAS ‘caused them’? New research grants or research collaborations which enrich the university may have been fostered by cross disciplinary discussion and debate within the IAS, or between IAS fellows and scholars in the Schools and Faculties of the host university, but again it is hard to pinpoint causality, or to highlight just what benefit or reward should flow back to the IAS as a result of its contribution to the university’s mission. And notwithstanding the ‘pure’ scholarly nature of the space and time to think offered by each of the two IASs, it is also the case that both Helsinki and Edinburgh are committed to public engagement and to taking the insights of the work of scholars to broader communities. Both IASs see the intense benefits that come from the juxtaposition of different types of ‘creative’ impulse, bringing creative arts fellows into dialogue with those on working within more ‘academic’ schemes.

I am convinced that for a university to maintain and develop an IAS it needs an a priori commitment to fostering the benefits of autonomy and scholarly enquiry that are intrinsic to their flourishing. A reductionist and calculating approach to benefits (‘does it wash its face financially?’) is liable to result in the downgrading of one of the most valuable aspects of international academic community, without appropriate staffing and funding. Management structures that integrate the IAS into the host institution, whilst preserving academic independence are vital. That said, IASs, their staff and their fellows also have responsibilities to intensify their collaborations within and beyond the host university and to tell the world all about it. They can no longer be, if they ever were, quiet inward-looking places. Websites, social media, blogs and more traditional scholarly communication mechanisms all have a role to play. In addition, former fellows and other stakeholders need to be kept in touch with and activated for their support, through newsletters and annual reports (pdf), particularly at key times, such as in the run up to anniversaries (hint: IASH goes 50 in 2019!).

In my still limited experience, I’m happy to say that both Helsinki CAS and IASH Edinburgh fit neatly into that model which brings together the inside and the outside; I sincerely hope that both will have many years of fruitful work ahead of them, based on their respective mottos of being the place where ‘ideas grow’ and offering ‘freedom to think’.

Jo Shaw holds the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh and is a EURIAS Fellow at HCAS for the academic year 2017-2018. Her research interests lie in the field of citizenship, and you can find out more about her current work by following her blog.