HCAS 20 years – The June 2022 Anniversary Celebration in pictures

(Photos by Veikko Somerpuro)

HCAS interns standing at the main doors of the University of Helsinki Festive Hall

The Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki is ready for the HCAS Anniversary Celebration (June 15, 2022, 2 pm)


Audience members walk down the steps to take their seats in the hall.

Audience arriving to the Festive Hall


From the left: HCAS Deputy Director Hanne Appelqvist, Prof. Sari Kivistö (Former Director of HCAS), Prof. Sami Pihlström (Former Director of HCAS), Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum, HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg


Prof. Morten Kyndrup (HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS, former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies)


A string quartet play in the festive hall.

Meta4 performing Jaakko Kuusisto’s “Play III for String Quartet, Op. 21” (Antti Tikkanen, violin; Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Minna Pensola, violin)


A host addresses the room and another stands next to them.

The hosts of the celebration, HCAS Fellows Sean Griffin and Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius


Director of HCAS, Tuomas Forsberg, giving a speech at the celebration.

Director Tuomas Forsberg welcoming the audience


Prof. Morten Kyndrup addresses the audience.

Prof. Morten Kyndrup’s anniversary greeting

(Prof. Kyndrup’s speech has been published on this blog at https://blogs.helsinki.fi/hcasblog/2022/09/12/hcas-20-years-anniversary-greeting/)

Vice Dean Minna Palander-Collin addresses the audience from the podium.

Vice Rector Hanna Snellman’s address was delivered by Vice Dean Minna Palander-Collin (Former Director of HCAS)


Professor Sami Pihlström introducing the keynote speaker Martha C. Nussbaum

Prof. Sami Pihlström (Former Director of HCAS) introducing the keynote speaker Martha C. Nussbaum


Professor Martha Nussbaum giving a speech from the podium.

Professor Martha Nussbaum giving the keynote address “Music and the Costs of War: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Bodies, and Reconciliation”


A front view of Professor Martha Nussbaum.

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum at the podium


A twelve person choir sing during an interval.

The Academic Choral Society performing after the keynote address


Former Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professors Jane Cowan and Molly Andrews


Members of the audience begin to leave the hall.

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum, Deputy Director Hanne Appelqvist and Director Tuomas Forsberg on their way to the reception


The choir sign to the guests during a reception.

The Academic Choral Society singing the new drinking song of the Collegium celebrating freedom to think


At the reception


Three people discuss at a table with coffee.

Professor Emeritus, Academician, Chancellor Emeritus Ilkka Niiniluoto, Docent Elina Kahla and Chancellor Emeritus Kari Raivio at the reception


A photo of Professor Martha C. Nussbaum and Professor Sami Pihlström

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum and Prof. Sami Pihlström


Guests at the reception reading posters presenting current research of HCAS Fellows


HCAS 20 Years – Anniversary Greeting

By Morten Kyndrup, professor, Aarhus University, HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS (University-based Institutes of Advanced Study), former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

Prof. Morten Kyndrup giving a talk at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration on June 15, 2022

Professor Kyndrup’s speech was delivered at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Helsinki Collegium in the Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to convey my greetings today on the occasion of this 20 years birthday of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. So first of all: Congratulations on the anniversary!

One might ask: Why celebrate such an occasion? There is nothing really honorable about age in itself. Everybody acquires age over time! What counts, of course, is what you have achieved, what you do, and how you do it. This indeed applies to Institutes for advanced study.

I am not going to repeat today the beautiful story about the rise and development of the phenomenon of institutes for advanced study since the first one was created in Princeton in the 1930’s – in fact based on an amalgamation of two different European University traditions, the British Oxbridge system based on colleges, and the continental Humboldt-tradition of free, individual research. As such, a nice example of import-export, since this American invention inspired by Europe was subsequently re-exported back to Europe and to the whole world. Moreover, the idea of institutions like institutes for advanced study has spread increasingly fast over the last 50 years.

Why, one might ask? This is another long story. But at this occasion two points should be emphasized (to avoid widespread misunderstandings): First of all, institutes for advanced study were never thought of as alternatives to the ordinary university systems, but exactly as tiny supplements, exceptions, lacunas, with space to work and to meet with, temporarily, top notch colleagues from other disciplines under alternative circumstances. And secondly: Meeting not in order to turn disciplines into interdisciplinarity, but to let disciplines fertilize each other in their proper disciplinarities respectively. The two are by no means the same thing.

Anyway, the idea of institutes for advanced study is not an easy one to realize. It certainly produces “structural difficulties” to be a permanent, marginal exception to an overall system – especially if that overall system owns you. Unfortunately, such difficulties have led many universities worldwide to opportunistic shortcuts. Over the last decades, many institutes have been launched under the name of “advanced study” without actually fulfilling the criteria for or following the tradition of such institutes. There are quite some examples of initiatives, which have aimed at profiting from the IAS-connected prestige without actually engaging in the necessary endeavors to create such an institution, being, literally spoken, just a sign on the wall, a name without any real substance. I have seen – and visited – institutes with just a couple of fellows, institutes with local fellows exclusively, and institutes which were in fact nothing but a university’s visiting program or a traditional disciplinary institute just under another label.

Now this is why two international network organizations, the UBIAS (University-based institutes of advanced study worldwide) and the NetIAS (A European network of institutes) were created, both with stringent membership criteria (grosso modo identical) concerning institutional status, admission criteria, kinds of fellowship programs, scientific independence etc.

This brings me back to the good reasons for celebrating the Helsinki Collegium on its 20 years anniversary today: Here in Helsinki no shortcuts have been taken. The Helsinki Collegium is a real “classical” institute for advanced study, and as such, it is a core and distinguished member of both international networks. Like any other institute for advanced study, the Helsinki Collegium has led a life full of dangers and obstacles, because that is how it is to be a small institutional, permanent exception in the margins of a much bigger system. But the Helsinki Collegium has stuck to the principles, has built up and preserved its status as a genuine institute for advanced study. As such, the Helsinki Collegium has been an ideal to many of its sister-institutes worldwide. When I myself was about to create the foundation for AIAS, a new institute in Aarhus, some 12 years ago, I traveled around to learn from existing institutes. The first three I visited was the WiKo in Berlin, the SCAS in Uppsala, both much older, well-established institutes, and the Helsinki Collegium, by then less than 10 yrs old.

Over the years, I’d like to add, a close and fruitful cooperation has been flourishing between the AIAS and Helsinki Collegium – at staff level, between fellows and of course between directors, bilaterally and in the international networks. At this occasion, I will take the opportunity to thank the Helsinki Collegium warmly for this cooperation on behalf of AIAS and Aarhus University.

All in all, there are indeed good reasons for celebrating this anniversary of the Helsinki Collegium. Not because of age, but because of the institute’s achievements as a genuine, classical institute for advanced studies. The Helsinki Collegium has developed itself and thrived in spite of occasional hard times and difficult conditions. On top of that, the Helsinki Collegium has also contributed substantially to making the very concept of these institutes thrive and evolve internationally.

Achievements like that are of course not signed by the walls of the building. They are the result of ongoing endeavors of the staff, of the board members, and not least of the fellows of the Helsinki collegium. Nothing comes out of nothing, and real world achievements certainly do not.

So, congratulations to the Helsinki Collegium, to all of you behind these achievements, no one named, no one forgotten. But I can think of at least a handful of living persons, having over the years done the most honorable, determined efforts to make this come true.

However, I would also like to congratulate University of Helsinki on this occasion. You can be proud of the Institute for advanced study you have created. It contributes immensely, not least symbolically to your reputation as one of the world’s leading classical universities.

The Helsinki Collegium is a distinguished member of the leading international networks of institutes for advanced study. I am confident that I can extend my greetings today to be on behalf of also NetIAS and UBIAS.

Finally, as we do on anniversaries, I wish you a long and healthy life in the times to come. I can promise you that it is not going be easy. However, I am confident that you will survive, develop yourself and thus remain among the best, classical institutes for advanced studies worldwide.

Morten Kyndrup and other guests at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration

(Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)


Peer review in scholarly publication: A cornerstone or a stone in the shoe?

By Maria Kuteeva (Erik Allardt Fellow at HCAS, Fall 2021)

Photo of a door knocker made of metal and shaped like a lion

Photo: Pixhere

Peer review is a cornerstone of academic activity, a marker of quality research and publication. As HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg (2021) points out in the HCAS Newsletter 2020–2021, peer review is paramount to various activities at the Collegium, starting with the evaluations involved in the fellows’ selection process. In a broad sense, peer review can take many forms, ranging from formal written evaluations to informal spoken interaction. One of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences during my stay at the Collegium was the Fellows’ Seminar, where we discussed our research from different disciplinary perspectives and gave and received constructive feedback in a supportive and collegial environment.

At the same time, we are all engaged in other peer-reviewing activities in our own fields of research, and the demand for peer-reviewing keeps growing. For me, the year 2022 started with several requests to review two journal articles, a book, a research grant application, and a tenure application. Requests for peer reviews of journal submissions have been increasing, as a peer-reviewed journal article is now the most prestigious and desirable type of publication in many fields of research.

In this blog post, I focus on the ‘occluded’ genre (Swales 1996) of the anonymous peer review for academic journals. In today’s world of academic publishing, the journal and the complex of norms associated with its activities represent the main centres of authority. As concrete representatives of this authority, journal editors act as gatekeepers in the process of knowledge production, and peer review is meant to inform and support their decisions. The way in which peer review is currently set up often results in a hierarchical and structured activity, geared largely towards journals as centres of authority rather than our research peers. Has peer review become an oxymoron? What role do reviewers play in maintaining or challenging the authority of academic journals? How is this power dynamic manifested in the discourse of peer review? My discussion below engages with these questions.

The discourse of peer review: The reviewer, the author, and the manuscript

As we all know, not all peer review is conducted in the same spirit as our HCAS Fellows’ Seminar. The discourse of anonymous peer reviews is not always transparent, as criticism can be hedged and requests for essential changes can be phrased as polite suggestions (e.g. the author(s) might want to edit …). On the other hand, not all reviewers are as polite and tactful: harsh criticism can take rather personal undertones (see https://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com). Hyland (2021) points out several other potential pitfalls associated with the peer review process: long decision delays, bias and subjectivity, and even dishonesty. For example, during the reviewing process for what would become a well-cited article co-authored with my then doctoral student for a top journal in our field, one reviewer provided comments littered with capitals, exclamation marks, expressions such as ‘gee what a finding’ and ‘what does this mean, honestly?’, and even threats ‘I really want to see this out of this paper and if it is not, I cannot recommend it for publication’. Although this was not the case with our submission, when taken to the extreme, peer review can be a mechanism for censorship.

As the sheer number of scholarly publications keeps growing, they seem to become increasingly standardised. Academic genres, such as the journal article, have evolved to reflect the rhetorical norms of research communities. Behind the façade of these normative genres is a process involving dialogue and negotiation, the main primary purpose of which is to advance knowledge in a research field. Journal reviewers and editors play a key role in this dialogic process, and their comments reflect the disciplinary, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and socio-political contexts in which they operate.

Research on the discourse of peer review is scarce because data are notoriously difficult to obtain. Previous studies conducted in applied linguistics have drawn on a limited dataset of reviews from one journal (e.g. Paltridge 2017). At the same time, interest in this topic is growing, and researchers are being asked to examine their own practices in order to demystify the peer-reviewing process. I have recently contributed one such study to a forthcoming volume titled The Inner World of Gatekeeping in Scholarly Publication (Kuteeva, in Habibie & Hultgren, forthcoming). The idea was to critically reflect on my own trajectory and practices as a peer reviewer, based on an analysis of 50 reviews that I have written over the last decade in response to manuscripts submitted to 15 academic journals.[i]

A black-and-white photo of a group of blindfolded people sitting at a table

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Although the peer review is an academic genre, its discourse features are not the same as those of published genres like journal articles or books. The dialogic and evaluative features are more pronounced, as evidenced by the abundance of stance expressions and directives (Paltridge 2017; Samraj 2021). In line with previous studies, my initial corpus-assisted analysis points towards the centrality of evaluative and attitudinal stance in the discourse of my peer reviews, manifested in the frequent use of the pronoun I accompanied by various stance verbs (e.g. I agree, I believe, I (cannot) recommend, I find, I suggest, I wonder). All stance-taking acts involve two subjects (e.g. the speaker and the audience) and an object, thereby forming the stance triangle (Du Bois 2007). In peer review, this triangle involves, above all, the reviewer, the author of the journal submission (the audience), and the manuscript as the object of the stance-taking act.

Unlike in spoken interaction, the dialogue in peer review is written and asynchronous. In this context, the centrality of the journal adds a communicative dimension in line with Bakhtin’s (1986) concept of ‘superaddressee’, a metaphor used to describe a complex of norms or a larger body of authority. In academic publishing, this dimension involves journal readers as individuals, the research community as a collective and abstract entities, such as research ethics and language standards. Thus, the reviewer’s utterances are not only directed at the author of the manuscript: they are also shaped with reference to a higher evaluating authority of a perceived centre, in other words, the editors or the journal readership more broadly.

Although the object of the stance-taking act – the journal submission – remains the same, the reviewer role can change from that of evaluator to advisor, peer or (proof)reader. Accordingly, the audience of the reviewer’s utterances may expand to include the editor, the journal readership or the research community more broadly. Evaluations are accompanied by different stances towards the journal submission. Shifting between different reviewer roles can also involve different alignments with the audience to either include or exclude the author or the editor. For example, the reviewer may address the author directly (I suggest swapping the order of the subsections) or else choose to align with the journal editor by mentioning the author in a dependent clause (I recommend that the authors review some more recent literature).

The shifts between different reviewer roles and audiences are manifested through register variation, in which ‘clustered and patterned language forms (…) index specific social personae and roles’ (Blommaert 2007: 117). Resorting to a particular register is a way to index belonging to a particular group with its own repertoire of voices, e.g. the reviewer as an evaluator and expert in the field (e.g. I cannot recommend this article for publication) or a friendly and supportive peer (e.g. have you considered doing it this way?). For example, the reviewer as evaluator can resort to conventional ‘reviewer speak’, aligning with the journal editor (e.g. I cannot recommend this article for publication) or indicating to the author how the manuscript can be improved (I found this section surprisingly short). The expert role concerns the reviewer’s knowledge of the field and what research is needed to advance knowledge in the field (the article has the potential to offer new insights into…). As an advisor, the reviewer is likely to either directly or indirectly address the author (I suggest swapping the order of these subsections). The peer role is similar to that of advisor but involves more proximity with the author, for example through the use of the pronoun you. As (proof)reader, the reviewer may comment on the quality of the text and point out specific infelicities.

The reviewers’ role: Maintaining the status quo or challenging the journal’s authority?

Authority in accepting an article for publication resides with the journal editors, and the peer review process is meant to inform and support the editor’s decision. To make a convincing recommendation for the journal, the reviewer is likely to resort to register features that index their proximity to the journal as the centre of authority. In this context, the very concept of peer review appears to be an oxymoron, as it is, in fact, a hierarchical and structured activity oriented primarily towards journals as perceived centres of authority and expertise rather than our colleagues and research peers.

Although academic journals hold strong authority and have established gate-keeping mechanisms, they may also have their caveats. Since these journals represent both real and perceived centres, their practices risk becoming too centripetal and inward-looking. Based on the existing literature and my own experience, I would argue that there are two main limitations, which can be broadly described as anglo-centricity and ‘disciplinary navel-gazing’. The question of anglo-centricity has been debated in connection with the reported challenges experienced by non-anglophone researchers in getting their work published (e.g. Canagarajah 2002; Hyland 2016). For example, a great deal of debate in the applied linguistics research community has revolved around questions concerning linguistic (in)justice caused by the dominance of English and the need to move away from norms based on established varieties of Standard English (see, e.g. Hynninen & Kuteeva 2017; Kuteeva & Mauranen 2014; McKinley & Rose 2018).

There are also more subtle and serious biases that extend beyond language issues. In 2020, the journal Applied Linguistics (OUP) hosted a debate about knowledge production in the field, challenging the dominance of certain modes of enquiry and raising awareness of the need to decolonise scholarship, for example by engaging with epistemologies of the Global South. Hultgren (2019) shows how the controversies around the dominance of English disregard the importance of socioeconomic factors in shaping publication practices. Finally, we cannot underestimate the importance of languages other than English in increasing societal impact and sustaining language diversity in research activities, not only publishing but also assessment, funding and so forth. The Helsinki Initiative on Multilingualism is at the forefront of this movement by promoting equal access to research findings in a variety of languages, offering support to national publishing infrastructures and providing equal rewards for publications in different languages.

‘Disciplinary navel-gazing’ appears to be a side effect of the need to provide journal publication outlets in specific fields, which can ultimately lead to (re)producing the same kind of knowledge. Academic journals have a key role to play in maintaining or challenging this status quo. Much too often, publications end up harping on the same note, as the authors are encouraged to cite previous research that appeared in the same journal, whose authors then act as reviewers of new submissions. The need to increase the journal impact factor also makes it easier for highly-cited authors to have (any) work accepted in quality journals because it is likely to attract more citations. The two perceived limitations – anglo-centricity and disciplinary navel-gazing – may be intertwined, particularly in fields where English is the dominant language of research communication and where evaluation is based on quantitative indicators.

Three marble statues depicting people who gaze at their navel

Satyres en atlante, Unknown Artist, II century after J.C., Rome. Photo by Gregg Tavares. https://www.flickr.com/photos/greggman/4305490456/in/photolist-7ysLj5-a5Vsnw-hGT6T-hGT8v. Photo uploaded on 16.1.2010. Accessed on 1.2.2022.

Where does the peer reviewer stand in this landscape? Is it possible for peer reviewers to contribute to addressing the aforementioned caveats regarding academic journal publishing? I would argue that it is possible. The reviewer is in a position to challenge centripetal journal practices without misaligning with the journal and its editors. This involves a balancing act between aligning with the journal as an established centre of authority (e.g. through the use of an appropriate register) while at the same time questioning aspects of research that are associated with the two limitations.

In my experience, one straight-forward strategy is to alert the authors and editors of journal submissions to cutting-edge research carried out in non-anglophone contexts (sometimes in languages other than English) and to encourage them to engage with it more thoroughly. It is not unusual for authors working in an anglophone context to assume that their readers would share background knowledge about their research context. However, the same cannot be said for authors who write in English but are based in non-anglophone contexts. This kind of indirect benchmarking can be limiting. In my peer reviews, I have encouraged authors working in both kinds of contexts to take a reflective approach and discuss their own positionings.

Last but not least, it is important – particularly for scholars in the humanities – to keep an open mind about writing conventions and not to be overly confined by the straitjacket of templates and increasingly standardised academic genres. I am sure there are other good strategies for overcoming limitations of the perceived centres of authority in knowledge production and would be delighted to hear your views.

To sum up, although academic journals function as the main centres of authority in writing for research publication, they come with their limitations, as centripetal trends in the practices surrounding knowledge production and publication can be counterproductive to moving the research field forward. By mediating the dialogue between the authors and the journal, peer reviewers have a key role to play in both maintaining and challenging the journals’ authority as centres of knowledge production.


Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (C. Emerson and M. Holquist, eds) (V. McGee, trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2007) Sociolinguistics and discourse analysis: Orders of indexicality and polycentricity. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 2 (2), 115–130.

Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). A geopolitics of academic writing. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Du Bois, J. (2007). The stance triangle. In Englebretson, R. (ed.), Stancetaking in discourse: Subjectivity, evaluation, interaction. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Forsberg, T. (2021). “The Quality of Academia Depends on the Quality of Reviewing”, Tuomas Forsberg (HCAS Newsletter 2020–2021, https://www2.helsinki.fi/sites/default/files/atoms/files/hcas_newsletter_2021.pdf)

Hultgren, K. (2019). English as the language for academic publication: On equity, disadvantage and “non-nativeness” as a red herring. Publications, 7 (2), 31.

Hyland, K. (2016). Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice. Journal of Second Language Writing, 31, 58–69.

Hynninen, N. & Kuteeva, M. (2017). Good” and “acceptable” English in L2 research writing: Ideals and realities in history and computer science. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 30, 53-65.

Kuteeva, M. (forthcoming). Polycentric peer reviewing: Navigating authority and expertise. In Habibie, P. and A.K. Hultgren (eds.). The inner world of gatekeeping in scholarly publication. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuteeva, M. and Mauranen, A. (2014). Writing for international publication in multilingual contexts: An introduction to the special issue. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 13, 1-4.

McKinley, J. & Rose, H. (2018). Conceptualizations of language errors, standards, norms and nativeness in English for research publication purposes: An analysis of journal submission guidelines. Journal of Second Language Writing, 42, 1-11.

Paltridge, B. (2017). The discourse of peer review: Reviewing submissions to academic journals. London, UK: Palgrave.

Samraj, B. (2021). Variation in interpersonal relations in manuscript reviews with different recommendations. English for Specific Purposes, 62, 70-83.

Swales, J. (1996). Occluded genre in the academy: The case of the submission letter. In E. Ventola and A. Mauranen (eds.), Academic writing: Intercultural and textual issues. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

[i] The reviews were written for the following journals: Applied Linguistics, Discourse, Context and Media, English for Specific Purposes, Higher Education, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Journal of English for Research Publication Purposes, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Second Language Writing, Linguistics and Education, Multilingua, Nordic Journal of English Studies, Studies in Higher Education, System.

The Content of Our Character: Coming to terms with Racist roots.

By Keith Brown

The recent debate at the University of Helsinki around the beloved Finnish boardgame Star of Africa—and in particular how to respond when cherished family traditions turn out to be vehicles for the unwitting transmission of racist stereotypes—hit home for me.  I have my own warm memories from growing up in England, playing games like the 1938 Buccaneer or the 1965 Mine-a-Million where the goal was to bring riches home from exotic locations.

We didn’t ever talk about race and racism. It wasn’t, after all, a life and death issue for my parents or for me—the way it is, so immediately, for black families in the United States. I knew nothing about sundown towns or “the talk” that most black parents have with their children, in the hope it will save their lives when—not if—they are stopped by police officers.

Instead, I enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness. As we played those games, or when the stick-figure battle scenes I drew included British soldiers fighting off Zulu attackers, neither my teachers nor my parents took it as an opportunity or an imperative to discuss the ways in which the modern world, and our own privileged position in it, was the product of resource-transfers and ideologies of white entitlement that were shaped by conquest and colonialism. Like most of the enthusiastic British audience of the still-popular feature film Zulu, which tells the story of the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift, I never asked, or was asked, what exactly the British army was doing in the middle of Africa.

“The defence of Rorke’s Drift” (1879), Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

50 years on, even after studying for a doctorate in anthropology and teaching international relations and global studies for almost two decades, I still have a lot to learn. That’s been especially clear to me over the past decade, as a naturalized U.S. citizen witnessing the heightened political polarization that followed the election of the country’s first black President. And even more so, watching the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 2021 and the disinformation that preceded and followed it.

Crowd at the Capitol, January 2021. Wikimedia commons.

I say witnessing and watching, because even though my wife and daughter are American-born, I have maintained the illusion that my English roots make me an observer, rather than participant, in America’s long struggle with its racist roots.  Graduate school room-mates in Chicago had to instruct me on the significance of Harold Washington’s legacy as the city’s first black mayor. And it was later still that I came to appreciate the distinctive legacy of Martin Luther King; both his commitment to non-violence, and his dream that future Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I still struggle to understand how anyone of good conscience can support action or speech that opposes those values. I know that some people, wittingly or not, do; but I’ve imagined that they and I have little or nothing in common.

And then, last month a letter I found in my parents’ flat shattered my illusions of innocence. Sorting through my late father’s papers, I found an envelope, postmarked Albany, Georgia, USA, and addressed to my great-grandfather, H.J. Decker, in Liverpool, England. Inside was a ten-page handwritten letter from his father-in-law, W.H. Gilbert, bearing the date July 20 1912. And on the very first skim through, on the penultimate page, two sentences stood out, which included the names of H.J. Decker’s wife and W.H.Gilbert’s daughter (Maud), and H.J.’s daughter and my beloved grandmother, after whom we named my own daughter (Chloe). Those sentences first bound me intimately to the sender and recipient, by naming the person we knew in common; and then repelled me. “Give lots of love and kisses to Maud and the kids,” writes W.H. Gilbert. And then, breezily, with no inkling of how his choice of words might resound decades later, “What did Chloe think of the postcard I sent her? ‘N***** in a cotton patch.’”

I had known that my grandmother Chloe was born in Georgia and spent significant time there in her youth. I recall also that, early in my teaching career in anthropology, she and I had at least one conversation about race, in which I tried to articulate to her the value of cline theory in helping students understand that racial boundaries are not inscribed in biological difference, but are rather culturally and socially constructed. We didn’t agree.  And perhaps for that reason, our conversations tended to focus on the more exotic and glamorous side of her family heritage; her Russian émigré grandparents, H.J. Decker’s parents, who left Moscow soon after their 1861 wedding to settle in Liverpool.

Gilbert-Decker-Brown Family tree. Graphic: Anita Mezza.

As Canadian-Scottish journalist Alex Renton discussed in the context of his recent book Blood Legacy, doing family history is not about passing judgement on our ancestors’ characters. It represents the opportunity and the debt we owe our elders to pay attention to the clues they leave behind, as we struggle to try to leave the world better than we found it for our children. I treat this letter, then, as a gift handed down through 3 generations, and seek to honor the legacy by trying to understand what they are telling me. I take as the core challenge—still relevant in these polarized times—to explain how good people embrace and pass on bad ideas.

The Experience of Combat

The start of Gilbert’s letter emphasizes an aspect of life that evokes our enduring curiosity and interest. Gilbert expresses as his goal to provide “a little history of my war experiences” on which, he hopes, his son-in-law H.J. can “elaborate… and make it interesting to your soldier boys over there.”

The opening of the letter.

In 1912, H.J. was a commissioned officer in Britain’s Territorial Force, established in 1908 as an Army reserve. His day job was as a cotton broker—the profession he had entered direct from Sedbergh School in 1890, and which had brought him across the Atlantic to the American South almost every summer. In the course of multiple visits to Albany, he and Gilbert had surely had prior conversations about combat, and H.J. had now solicited a written narrative that he could share with the young soldiers in the artillery unit that he would go on to command during the First World War (1914-18).

British artillerymen in combat, World War I. Image: UBC Library Digitization Centre, no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gilbert’s narrative ties me back to the US Civil War (1861-65)—and specifically, to the Confederacy of eleven Southern states which broke from the North after the election of President Abraham Lincoln. W.H. Gilbert enlisted as a volunteer in Georgia in April 1861, at the rank of private. The letter provides a chronology of his active service, listing sixteen “big battles” in which he participated, including 2nd Manassas (Bull Run, August 1862), Sharpsburg (Antietam, September 1862) and Gettysburg (July 1863). Reflecting on his extended service, Gilbert marvels at the charmed life he enjoyed for so long, and reports the moment his luck ran out.  “I guess I was engaged in about 40 battles and skirmishes during the four years, and I assume you don’t see how I came out as well as I did, for I rarely ever went into one that something about me was struck with a ball. Clothes, cartridge box, cap, haversack or something, and I had about concluded I would escape sound and all right, but the 12th of May 1864 I lost my foot as you know, and has been a drawback to me all through life.”

Luck and loss.

The letter includes other details of the experience of war.  He recalls the hardship of life on short rations, especially in the campaign leading up to Antietam, which other veterans also described as the ‘Green Corn Campaign.’”  He recalls the carnage of the battlefield at the 2nd Manassas, where “…we met a Brigade of Red Pants, …, Zouaves, and when the battle was over, one could walk full length of the Brigade on red britches, I never saw such a destruction of life in my life, red britches were discarded after then for they made too good a target.”  He speaks proudly of his own and his fellow-soldiers’ resilience and undertaking long forced marches where he saw “many a soldier marching without a shoe on and almost without clothing.”

Image: A.C. Redwood, Courtesy, New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

He mentions crossing the Potomac after Gettysburg, when ”water came up to my armpits and we tall men had to float the little fellows over.” And the experience of sleeping in the open, utterly exhausted, and waking up to find the camp was blanketed with snow.  These vivid, telling details are the common stuff of military memoirs, recalling comradeship, horror and a sense for the suffering and loss on both sides.

Trauma, Heroism and Impossible Odds

Understandably, Gilbert’s writing dwells in particular on his own personal trauma. He was at the “Horseshoe”—a defensive position designed to exact heavy losses on Northern attackers during the Battle of the Spotsylvania Courthouse—when he lost his foot. After first mentioning his injury, Gilbert then refers to the wound and its long-term negative effects four times in the course of ten sentences. He also reports his brother’s death at the fall of Petersburg (March 1865).

Apart from these intimate losses, and the description of piled bodies at the 2nd Manassas, the only other death he describes in the letter is Stonewall Jackson’s, in May 1863. Gilbert had already praised Jackson’s leadership, drive and inventiveness, and devotes extended time to the moment that he, like others, saw as a tragic turning point for the war effort.

Stonewall Jackson – as remembered and mourned. Image: John Esten Cooke, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The day he was killed, or wounded and died from his wounds, at Chancellorsville, he marched us 23 miles by 2 o’clock on a flank movement and we drove the enemy 3 miles by nightfall, with a terrible loss to them in killed and wounded, and we captured around 4000 prisoners and 16 pieces of artillery and that night he lost his life, which in my opinion broke the back of the Confederacy, because we never could fill his place.

Gilbert’s focus and tone, up to this point in the letter, highlight how the Confederate army’s prowess, combined with its leaders’ skill and cunning, brought early battlefield success. From this moment on though, the letter’s tone shifts, emphasizing that Confederate bravery and skill is not enough to overcome their foes’ superiority in numbers. On the first day of Gettysburg, he writes, “Our brigade drove the enemy through the wheatfield and city and our casualties were very small, but we gave them a terrible loss, but of course we could not hold it, for the odds were too great.”

“Harvest of death” – Gettysburg after the battle. Image: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And when reflecting on the larger course of the war, later in the letter, he inserts an observation about the ultimate reason for the war’s outcome. “I shall always believe that had Jackson lived, we could have gone into Washington from Gettysburg” he writes. But then he adds, “I don’t think we could have held it, for the reason we fought the entire world, capturing a good many who could not speak a word of English.”

This comment is consistent with data on the significant role of first-generation immigrants in the Union Army.  Most historians of the Civil War also agree that Jackson’s battlefield leadership was charismatic and dynamic; that Robert E. Lee was a highly effective general; that Gettysburg marked the decisive turning point of the war. Once the Confederate attempt to enlist foreign assistance against the Union failed, the industrial and numerical superiority of the North was bound to prevail in the war of attrition.

“Lost cause” and preserved convictions

Gilbert then builds on these data points—derived from his own intimate and immediate experiences of combat—with a reflection that is more open to question.  He first makes what looks like a straightforward statement in favor of peaceful negotiation over deadly war, writing “I had enough fighting then to last me up to date and a poor settlement is better than one fight.”  He then shares with H.J. his larger perspective on the causes of the war in which he lost so much, writing:

“There never was a war as useless…”

There never was a war in my opinion that was as useless as ours, for by listening to reason and common sense, of such men as B.H. Hill and Alex Stephens matters could have been amiably (sic) settled. And to the best interest of all. For slavery was a doomed institution and could have been abolished gradually, without a drop of blood being shed, but hot-headed politicians inflamed the people with their fire-eating speeches and the people went wild, and into war we plunged head fore-most.

The two men referred to here as champions of “reason” and “common sense” were both professional Georgian politicians. In the run-up to war in the 1850s, both had opposed secession on grounds of Southern self-interest. Both held office during the Confederacy—Benjamin Hill as senator, and Alex Stephens as vice-president. Both were jailed after the war before returning to public life and elected office.  They were both fierce critics of the ideas and practices of Reconstruction—the period of 1865-1877 in which serious and sustained efforts were made to undo systems of racial inequality across the South.

In Dreams of a More Perfect Union, Rogan Kersh offers a close reading of Benjamin Harvey Hall’s strongly worded critique of the impacts of Reconstruction in Georgia, delivered in speech at Atlanta’s Davis Hall in 1867 and reiterated in the widely circulated “Notes on the Situation.” He disputed the war’s victors’ claim to represent the Union, insisting instead that “This is not the Union of our fathers. This is, emphatically, a Reconstructed Union.” Hill told his Southern audience that both during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath, they had been targets of “a diabolical sectionalism in the very teeth of every principle of the American Union” (cited in Kersh 2001: 198).  In Kersh’s analysis, Hill advanced a vision of the Union with “space for southerners to manage local affairs, and particularly to determine the status of blacks in the region” (2001: 222).

In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens laid out what was at stake for the South in his “Cornerstone” speech. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd, he made the tendentious claim that the Founding Fathers’ criticisms of slavery as a violation of natural law were mistaken. Their error, in Stephens’ argument, was the cause of the political crisis of the Republic, and the government’s fall.  In the same logical vein, he labels abolitionists as fanatics who demonstrate a “species of insanity” because, “they were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.” Invoking divine authority, Stephens asserts that the new Confederate constitution would correct this fatal flaw.

Writing after Stephens’ death in 1883, A Macon Telegraph writer recalled that Stephens “always prided himself on what he called his “corner-stone” speech, wherein he declared slavery the great corner-stone of the new republic.” Kersh describes Stephens’s post-war views as demonstrating “warmed-over confederate doctrines” (Kersh 2001: 221). An example of Stephens’ revised language but unchanged mindset appears in his 1868 A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, in which he claimed that the labor system in place in the antebellum South was “so-called” slavery, which in his words “was not Slavery in the full and proper sense of that word” but was rather “a legal subordination of the African to the Caucasian race” (1868: 539).

In his choice of figures to praise, and in the statement that slavery was an insufficient reason for the war, Gilbert tacitly endorses what numerous historians—including Gaines Foster, Gary W. Gallagher,  Alan T. Nolan, David Blight and Nicole Maurantonio—identify as Lost Cause mythology. By denying that slavery was the sectional issue, Lost Cause ideology painted the South as the true heirs of the Constitution and the North as the aggressors. Lost Cause ideology continues to distort U.S. understandings of the past, and underpins contemporary racism. When Gilbert refers to “hot-headed politicians” with their “fire-eating speeches”, it is possible that he is thinking primarily of abolitionists like John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, whose actions and speeches in the 1850s were widely seen by Southerners as both treasonous and anti-Southern, thus affirming the perspective that the Confederacy preserved what was “best” in the Constitution.  It may also be a more general attack at Republic politicians—starting from Lincoln himself, and including those advocates of post-war Reconstruction—whom Gilbert viewed as posing a threat to his America.

“The Lost Cause”, Henry Mosler (1868). Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lost inheritance, and Recovered Status

W.H. Gilbert’s combat experience, clearly, was formative in shaping his worldview. So too, it appears, was his family background. In post-war census records, he is identified as a druggist, so a medical professional. His father, John B. Gilbert, is identified in the 1850 and 1860 censuses as a physician. In the year before his son W.H. Gilbert enlisted, John Gilbert’s real estate was valued at $19,500, and his personal estate at $42,950 (or around $650,000 and $1.4 million respectively, for a total worth of just over $2 million, in 2021 equivalents).

The high value of his personal estate was a function not of John Gilbert’s medical practice, but a second profession also listed in the census: farmer. Like many white families in the territory referred to as the “Black Belt,” the Gilberts derived income from cotton farming. In this regard, John B. Gilbert’s prosperity was a product of rapid transformation between the 1780s and 1830s, as state leadership encouraged settlers to invest in lands expropriated from the Cherokee and Muskogee nations. John Gilbert was born in Crawfordville, Georgia in 1814, just three years after Alex Stephens, who returned to the town to live out his old age at Liberty Hall. John Gilbert achieved financial security by moving north into territory made available by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. His personal estate valuation includes enslaved men and women: the slave registers for Lee County in both 1850 and 1860 identify John B. Gilbert as the titular owner of 26 (unnamed) people—almost certainly the labor force on a medium-sized cotton plantation.

Excerpt from the 1850 slave register of the US Federal Census, Lee County, Georgia, with entries #14-26 of unnamed enslaved people, in John B. Gilbert’s legal ownership.

John B. Gilbert died in January 1864, while his sons W.H. Gilbert and Rudolph were still on active service. He therefore did not live to see the break-up of the plantation which had depended on the labor of enslaved people. Most likely, the Gilberts’ land in Lee County  followed the evolution of the estates around Albany that W.E.B.Dubois describes so vividly from a visit in at the turn of the century in the Souls of Black Folk, when he found scenes of “…phantom gates and falling homes… all dilapidated and half ruined” (Du Bois 1903/2007, 86). Mindful of historical change and conscious of the wars waged against the indigenous owners, the violence of the plantation system, and also of the asset-stripping that followed the Civil War, Dubois invokes an image of biblical retribution. “This was indeed the Egypt of the Confederacy,” he writes, as if mindful of Gilbert’s own recollections of campaigning, “the rich granary whence potatoes and corn and cotton poured out to the famished and ragged Confederate troops as they battled for a cause lost long before 1861” (ibid., 86).

W.H. Gilbert, though, parlayed this lost inheritance into a new venture, entering politics with some success.  He took a prominent role in veterans’ organizations, serving as president of survivors of the 4th Georgia Regiment. The Macon Telegraph reported from an 1893 reunion that Gilbert, now holding the rank of Captain, “carries more than one scar to attest his courage upon the field.”  He drew on his war record, and his father’s former standing, to win election as a city alderman as early as 1870, aged 26, before serving five year-long terms as Mayor of Albany, in 1885 and then from 1891-1895.

Example of Confederate Memorial day celebrations from Brunswick, Georgia, 1903. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This family letter, then, is not just the reflection of an old war veteran, sharing experience down the generations with the young soldiers whom his son-in-law will lead to war in France within two years. It also offers a glimpse of a world, which venerated Confederate bravery and gallantry in defense of true American values against all enemies. It reveals that early this century white Southern voters continued to elect officials who believed in the justice of the cause for which they had sacrificed and who read and endorsed authors who maintained and propagated white supremacist ideologies.

Historical voices, contemporary echoes

And finally, Gilbert’s letter shows how ideas about racial stereotypes get passed on without anyone really paying attention. We don’t know for sure exactly what Chloe’s postcard from her doting grandfather looked like. Most likely, it followed the genre used in advertising and other representations of the time, showing black people alongside cotton, usually smiling or at ease. The message such images intended to convey was of a world where people knew where they belonged and were happy in their work. That image of the south stuck with Chloe throughout her life.

A hundred years later, we have the freedom and the responsibility to interpret images like these, and this letter that draws our attention to them, differently. Thanks to a wealth of scholarly and creative works which document the stubbornness of racism in American institutions–including for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ana DuVerney’s 13th, we can see more clearly the reality behind them and put them into context. Gilbert’s letter, penned by a Georgia veteran, contains virtually every element of Lost Cause ideology identified by historians writing since the 1960s. We can, for example, examine the words of the leaders of the Southern States on the eve of the Civil War, and acknowledge that they were not simply defending state rights but advocating for the further extension of slavery. In works like the 1999 book Without Sanctuary, we can readily access postcards of lynchings that circulated widely alongside the one W.H. Gilbert sent his grand-daughter Chloe. Lynchings increased in numbers in the 1890s, a horrific and direct means of enforcing what data-driven analysis of that period identifies as “an intricate and complex system of racial subordination”.

W.H. Gilbert’s postcard to Chloe was also part of that system. So too were public monuments that sprang up across the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation and spread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the continued display of the Confederate battle-flag, whether on display at my great grandfather’s grave in Albany, or on the shoulders of self-styled patriots inside the U.S. Capitol on January 6 2021.

W.H. Gilbert’s gravestone, Albany, Georgia. Image: Brenda Arnett Darbyshire.

When I shared with a colleague at the University of Helsinki my discovery of an enslaver in my own family tree, they responded by saying “so, I guess you’re going to cancel yourself.”  I hope that they are wrong. What I hope instead is to prompt reflection on the legacies of the past. I believe that we best honor our ancestors’ voices by allowing them, and ourselves, the space to be wrong, and to aspire to a more just, equitable future. We stand a better chance of doing so by paying close attention to what they inherited, and what they–and we–choose to pass on.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2013) Americanah. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Allen, James (1999) Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Press.

Anderson, Carol (2016) White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury Books.

Du Bois, W. B. E. (1903/2007) The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DuVerney, Ava (2016) 13th. Kandoo FIlms.

Gallagher, Gary W. and Alan T. Nolan (2000) The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Hill, Benjamin Harvey (1867/1893) Notes on the Situation. In Hill, Benjamin H (Jr.) Senator Benjamin H. Hill: His Life, Speeches and Writings. Atlanta: T.H.P. Bloodworth.

Kersh, Roger (2001) Dreams of a More Perfect Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stephens, Alexander (1868)  A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company.

“Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” – Summary of the Webinar held at the Helsinki Collegium on May 25, 2021

By Sofie Henriksen

In anticipation of the work of Finland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People (TRC), the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) hosted the online event “Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” on May 25th, 2021, for which 120 people from academia, government and civil society in 12 different countries registered.

Outi Pieski: Beavvit – Rising Together, installation, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim.

In line with the Collegium’s interdisciplinary mission, the event brought together Professor of Political Science Rauna Kuokkanen (University of Lapland), Professor of Law Mayo Moran (Trinity College, University of Toronto), and Professor of History David Collins (HCAS/Georgetown University) to discuss historical injustice and reconciliation in a comparative perspective. The event was moderated by Karen Knop, international lawyer and Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor at the Helsinki Collegium in 2020–2021, and Tuomas Forsberg, the director of HCAS and an expert in international relations. 

Truth and Reconciliation Process in Finland concerning the Sámi People

According to its mandate negotiated between the Finnish government and the Sámi Parliament, the purpose of the Sámi TRC in Finland is threefold:

“to identify and assess historical and current discrimination, including the assimilation policy of the state and violations of rights, to find out how they affect the Sámi and their communities in the current situation, and to propose ways to promote links between the Sámi and the state of Finland and among the Sámi people.”

“By forming a common understanding of historical and current discrimination,” the TRC is intended to “lay the foundation for reconciliation between the Sámi and the state and for structural change and trust-based interaction that supports the ability of the Sámi to maintain and develop their own language and culture, including traditional livelihoods – at the core of which is the connection to land and water.”

Rauna Kuokkanen, Research Professor of Arctic Indigenous Studies at the University of Lapland, discussed the prospects for a truth and reconciliation process in Finland. Drawing on political theorist Catherine Lu’s work on justice and reconciliation, Kuokkanen focused on the TRC’s mandate to address contemporary as well as historical injustice and its commitment to structural change. Kuokkanen argued that it would be inadequate to focus only on the examination and rectification of historical wrongdoings and relations between victims and perpetrators because this “interactional” form of justice, as Lu defines it, depoliticises reconciliation by concentrating solely on individual psychological healing. Instead, the foundational problems of structural injustice embedded in institutions, norms and practices must be addressed because they continue to reproduce injustice. Kuokkanen argued that structural reconciliation would require the Sámi to have “genuine and meaningful capacity to govern the central aspects of their society and culture, which inseparably include land rights and land use practices”. In other words, the self-determination of the Sámi people is at the core of structural justice and manifests as what Lu defines as ‘structural dignity’ within a reconciliation context. Kuokkanen categorizes the current form of Sámi self-determination of the Sámi as self-administration rather than self-government, based on the theoretical distinction by Stephen Cornell. Whereas self-government has decision-making authority and has a structure designed by Indigenous peoples themselves, self-administration is often imposed by outsiders, e.g. the settler state, and limited to administering the dissemination of state funding for cultural programs, service delivery and distribution of resources such as jobs.

Furthermore, Kuokkanen touched upon another important aspect of reconciliation related to structural injustice: how to hold the majority population accountable for past injustices. For this discussion, Kuokkanen drew on Iris Marion Young’s distinction between a ‘liability model’ and a ‘social connection model of responsibility’. Whereas the liability model assigns responsibility to the persons who have caused the injustice, the social connection model of responsibility aims at forms of structural injustice, in which linking the injustice directly to individuals is impossible. This is especially relevant in regard to colonial processes which took place in the past but continue as structural injustice in the present. With the social connection model of responsibility, the accountability is related to working against the unjust structures, in the Finnish context settler colonialism, which the majority is benefiting from and often perpetuating. In this sense, the liability model is backward-looking, whereas the social connection model is forward-looking. To illustrate this point, Kuokkanen gave an example of today’s teachers. Although they are not held responsible for the discrimination and racism that took place in the Finnish residential schools to which the Sámi were sent, they do have a shared obligation to counteract unjust structural processes by educating their pupils about the history and culture of the Sámi people in an up-to-date and non-stereotyped way.

Truth and Reconciliation Processes concerning Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada

To contextualize the Canadian TRC, Mayo Moran, Professor of Law, Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, introduced the background of the Canadian Indigenous-Settler relations and the Canadian colonial policies. Since 2007, Professor Moran has chaired the Independent Assessment Process Oversight Committee that assists in the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, the agreement that led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  Canadian colonial policies were designed to eradicate the Indigenous presence through dispossession of Indigenous land, cultural genocide and forced assimilation. As a part of the assimilation policy, Indian Residential Schools were established in partnerships with various churches. For 150 years, approximately 150.000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to brutal residential schools. Children were abused sexually, physically and spiritually.  Countless thousands of children never returned nor received any burial if they died. The schools have inflicted a profound intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families and communities.

Moran referred to the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) as a forerunner to the Canadian TRC. A Canadian government appointed body, it included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous commissioners and had the broad goal of investigating the relationship between Indigenous peoples, the government of Canada and Canadian society. In 1996,  RCAP submitted its five volume 4000 page report.  It contained 440 recommendations including legislative changes as well as the establishment of an Indigenous Parliament to redress gaps in education, health care and housing – which, Moran pointed out, is interesting in the light of Kuokkanen’s discussion of forms of Indigenous self-determination. Moran also noted that RCAP was rather similar to the Finnish TRC in origin and scope. To some degree, Canada’s RCAP could appear to serve as a cautionary tale to those hoping that the Finnish TRC will result in significant changes. But while the majority of the recommendations of RCAP remain unimplemented, it was actually very important in paving the way for the later Canadian TRC.  Among other things, it began to draw the attention of non-Indigenous Canadians to the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. Many commentators also believe it was responsible for inspiring efforts to address the legacy of residential schools which had been little spoken about until then.

Partly as a result of the discussions that began in Indigenous communities after RCAP, in the late 1990s, survivors of Indian Residential Schools began to seek civil remedies for historic sexual abuse and to bring cases against the federal government and churches. By 2005, there were tens of thousands of claims also for loss of language and culture, as well as intergenerational harm. The only alternative was settlement and in 2006, the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations, and various churches signed the Indian Residential Schools Agreement. At an overall cost of between five and six billion dollars, the Agreement created several programs including most importantly the Canadian TRC. In contrast to RCAP, the context of litigation settlement meant that Indigenous people had a powerful voice—no agreement could be reached without their consent and the TRC was one of the most critical priorities of the Assembly of First Nations. Referring to Kuokkanen’s use of Lu’s distinction, Moran noted how the 2006 Agreement had elements of both interactional and structural reconciliation. The interactional element was addressed in several ways. For instance, there were two reparations processes, one for all who attended residential schools and an additional one for those who also suffered serious physical or sexual abuse.   In 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister delivered an apology in the House of Commons to the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. The structural elements were addressed by the TRC which was tasked with the considering larger relationship and locating the history of residential schools within the broader context of colonial policy and ongoing discrimination.

Moran pointed out that although many worried that the focus on litigation and residential schools would distract from the larger narrative, the way that the TRC approached the residential school experience enabled it to serve as a focal point through which the whole Indigenous-Settler relationship could begin to come into focus for ordinary Canadians. Unlike RCAP, which involved broad discussions about politics, colonialism and sovereignty, the TRC approached settler colonialism from a profoundly human point of view: the terrible story of children forcibly taken from their families. Through this history, as Canadians we began started to understand something critical about our own history and place in colonialism. Moran noted that it is too soon to assess the significance of the TRC, since its 94 Calls to Action are only partly implemented. However, the discussions around the TRC have changed the conversation in Canada and forced contemporary Canadians to acknowledge themselves as settlers for the first time, which is in itself a critical step towards reconciliation.

Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation 

David Collins, Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, spoke of Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which he chaired in 2015-2016, and the projects that have followed it. The Working Group (WG) was established to address slaveholding in the University’s history. Founded in 1789, the University ran in part on revenues generated by enslaved labor on plantations owned by the order of Catholic priests, the Jesuits, who ran the university. That history includes a notorious sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838, revenues from which were used to relieve the university from financial stress. The dialogue begun by the WG has continued and broadened to include the descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuit order in the US. Together these parties have, as recently reported in the New York Times, announced the erection of a foundation – the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation – devoted to alleviating racial discord and inequity in American society.

Before turning to several general insights, Prof. Collins highlighted important differences between his case and the Canadian and Finnish examples, e.g., that WG’s efforts were sponsored by a private and religious parties, and the State had/has no role; and that no direct participants in the historical events, as far in the past as they were, could participate in the WG’s efforts. Prof. Collins then offered five insights from his experience in these efforts. First, he noted the crucial importance of the descendants as participants in the discussions. The emergence of the descendants as a participant group followed the WG’s public handling of the university’s slave-holding history. Their work inspired others, who were descendants, to claim, rightly, the history as not simply the university’s but also theirs. Engagement with the descendants was not part of the WG’s initial mandate, and their emergence – ultimately as multifaceted and heterogeneous – took time; nonetheless, engagement with them became a central recommendation in the WG’s year-end report to the university.  A second insight derives from this unexpected, difficult, yet fruitful engagement with the descendants: that a “common” history will still necessarily be look different from different perspectives, and to let one perspective dominate the story-telling inevitably leads to a distorted history. That was certainly the experience for the university as it was confronted by the history of the sale of 1838 as told by the descendants of those sold. The results have been enriching for the university and the Jesuit order.

Third, the WG’s work and the subsequent Descendant-Jesuit-University discussions took (and are taking) place in the larger context of race relations and tensions in the US, which constantly influence(d) those discussions. Several times over the last fifty years, the university and order had turned to address publically their history of slaveholding and slave-trading, but never before had the history attracted such widespread attention both within the larger university community and across the nation. Racial unrest since 2015 has provided a different backdrop to the historical investigations, and the history’s modern-day implications have been raised into high relief as never before. In short, context matters. Fourth, WG’s efforts as well as the subsequent dialogue have had a distinctive religious underpinning. On the one hand, this highlights a difference between the Georgetown case and many others, where religious language and divergent religious commitment can be an impediment to reparative projects on account of religious institutions’ participation in the injustices.  On the other hand, in the Georgetown case it gave some common language and values for the emergent dialogue. In this instance, Catholicism – with its concepts of sin, confession, penance, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation – has provided the common values that could be used both in indictment and in aspiration. Without such a shared touchstone, it is unclear how the Descendant-Jesuit-University dialogue would have proceeded. Fifth and last, there is so much unpredictability in this work. Participants need to be open to that, even as they draft ways forward and work toward particular goals. In the Georgetown case, no one anticipated in September 2015 that descendants would in 2021 be at the heart of any program of atonement and melioration. And yet today their participation is the single-most gratifying component to the work begun in 2015. Openness to the unplanned, Prof. Collins concluded, is clearly among the most important qualities for any group undertaking a process such as this.


One of the themes discussed after the speakers’ presentations was that of the understandings and implications of the word ‘reconciliation’. Referring to Kuokkanen and Moran’s presentations, Tuomas Forsberg brought up how reconciliation, referring to the reconciling of two conflicting parties, is a substantively “thick” concept and can seem demanding and infeasible to many. In the Georgetown context, reconciliation was initially a part of the DTRF’s mandate, but Collins described how, for reasons such as Forsberg raised, the word “atonement” was slowly replacing the use of reconciliation. Atonement was a word that emerged in the discussions in which descendants were involved. Collins told of a descendant who, in line with the Catholic sacrament of confession, reminded the DTRF that reconciliation comes with penance. In a comment that illustrated the complexities of the implications of reconciliation, Moran noted that in the Canadian discussions on reconciliation, a departure from religious concepts was necessary precisely because Canadian churches had been involved in the Indian Residential Schools.

An audience member asked whether and how the Finnish TRC could contribute greater collaboration and solidarity within the Sámi community – a community in which certain conflicts are directly linked to colonization. Kuokkanen emphasized that the Finnish TRC is mandated to focus on the relationship between the state and the Sámi, and cannot resolve all conflicts. That does, however, not preclude reconciliation outside the context of the State-Sámi relations. To this, Moran added that the Canadian TRC held seven national events that brought together different groups to discuss reconciliation in what were called ‘learning tents’. Subsequent to these events, community initiatives separate from the national TRC process emerged focusing on commemoration and reconciliation in various ways. Moran described how one initiative was to restore a previous Indian Residential School and make it into an educational center for students to learn more about colonialism. In a starkly opposite and more symbolic initiative,  an Indian Residential School building was burned to the ground.

The last topic raised by the audience was the role of human rights in TRCs, which varied between the Canadian and U.S. contexts. Moran described how human rights were at the core of the Canadian TRC, both in a backward-looking manner, in terms of describing the wrong doings as violations of human rights, and in a forward-looking manner, in terms of Indigenous rights. In contrast, Collins described how appealing to human rights in U.S. courts or through U.S. legislation is not very well developed in relation to slavery and colonization. In relation to the Finnish TRC, Kuokkanen observed that one of its strategies is to strengthen the implementation of Sámi rights, articulated as collective rights in the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People. Therefore, the human rights discourse is embedded in the mandate of the TRC, but it is obviously still too early to say whether it will in fact be central to the discussion and whether the final report will be framed in terms of human rights violations.

This event was held just before the tragic news currently unfolding in Canada involving the discovery of children’s remains in unmarked graves on the sites of a number of former Indian Residential Schools.  On June 30, the Lower Kootenay Band said 182 human remains had been found at St Eugene’s Mission residential school, near the city of Cranbrook, British Columbia. The week before, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the discovery of 751 possible unmarked graves. These discoveries followed the May 27 announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc band that they had found 215 unmarked graves, most of which are believed to be children.

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed the issue in Volume 4 of its report entitled “Missing Children”.  In 2015, it identified over 4100 children who were known to have died while at residential school but noted that there were likely thousands more, many in unmarked and untended graves. 

Parents in Academia: How to Achieve Work–Family Balance?

By Kateryna Savelieva

At the beginning of June 2021, an online seminar Parents in Academia was organized at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Over 70 participants from the University of Helsinki and other institutions took part in the event (a detailed account is available for University of Helsinki employees on the Flamma intranet of the University of Helsinki).

Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

When the initial idea of the seminar occurred to me, I went to our deputy director Hanne Appelqvist to discuss it, not knowing where it may lead me or even in which format it could be held. But thanks to the support from the Collegium office (director Tuomas Forsberg, deputy director Hanne Appelqvist, and research coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen), and to the willingness and enthusiasm of the invited speakers, the seminar was organized at short notice and gave rise to a fruitful and multifaceted discussion. It also evoked some thoughts in me on work–family balance in academia, which I would like to share here.

The invited speakers were

Hanna Snellman (Professor and Vice Rector, University of Helsinki),

Anna Rotkirch (Research Professor and Director of the Population Research Institute, Väestöliitto),

Tuomas Forsberg (Professor and Director of HCAS),

Veronica Walker Vadillo (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki),

Christian Hakulinen (University Lecturer, University of Helsinki).

The organizer and moderator was Kateryna Savelieva (Postdoctoral Researcher and Core Fellow, HCAS).


The core question every academic must ask themselves is: why do you want to work in academia? Do you have a clear sense of how scientific career looks like and which potential challenges you are likely to face? Academia is hard, and it is hard for both men and women, with or without children. However, women with children are still likely to face more difficulties in academia compared to men, women without children, or even men with children (for example, see Morgan et al., 2020). So, before even raising a question of how to combine parenthood and academia, you need to be sure about your motivation for staying in academia. As the panelists pointed out, it is really important to follow your passion and enjoy your work. Otherwise, you can drown in the constant writing of grant applications, deadlines to fulfil and revisions to complete, numerous rejections, and periods of prolonged silence from journals, funding committees or other evaluators.

What is more, academia is extremely time-consuming, as is parenthood, especially when children are still young. There is a common perception that if you want to be a serious scientist, you need to dedicate all your time to it. Hence, parenthood is often not a viable option, and this is especially true for women. Many female academics believe that not having children is a necessary condition for academic success (Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2012). As a result, female PhD students or young postdocs with children decide to leave academia more often than their childless colleagues (Mason, 2013).

However, given that many highly successful academics have many children in Finland, it must be possible to combine parenthood with an academic career. Indeed, the invited speakers are good role models for just that. Especially, when we distinguish people who leave academia for truly work–family reasons from those who use parenthood as an excuse to leave the profession they do not like anyway, it may seem that being an academic and a parent is less challenging than the typical perception suggests.


The other question to ask is whether you want to have children. And if yes, how many and when. In academia, there is never a “good time” to have children, in a sense that taking care of children, especially when they are still very young, is time-consuming.

Some would argue that the best time for having a first child is when one is working on a dissertation or approaching its defence. In fact, the prime time for childbearing for women usually coincides with the time they are working on their dissertation, given that the median age of entering a PhD programme is 29 years among the OECD countries (31 years for Finland) (OECD, 2019). Others will argue that having children when working on your dissertation is either so stressful that it is better to postpone childbearing to better times or to first acquire all the necessary research and only then have children.

Moreover, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts or personal grants and thus are in an especially vulnerable situation when deciding to take a family leave. However, if one waits until having a more secure position in academia, it may be too late to have children. So, the decision when to have children depends on one’s current situation and there are no ready recipes for that.


After you have honestly answered these two questions and decided that both academic career and parenthood are important to you, how can you combine both? Of course, one will have to construct one’s own list of practices that work best for one, but we can also learn from the experiences of others, such as the invited speakers of our seminar, all of whom have children and successful careers in academia.

First, rethink your usage of time. All speakers addressed this topic from different perspectives. To succeed in both academia and parenthood, efficient time management is crucial. As Tuomas Forsberg suggested, you need to figure out what the most productive time of day is for you and use that time optimally. According to Anna Rotkirch, it is also important to appreciate the value of your time: this could mean cutting back on some activities (such as social media or watching TV) or outsourcing others (for example, cleaning or cooking). What is more, she also highlighted that you should remember to secure some time for yourself and not to reduce any activities that are a source of energy and well-being for you (e.g., exercising). Furthermore, although several days of uninterrupted work in a row are sometimes needed to complete some work, doing your work during working hours and saving some time solely for your family is a good idea.

Second, redefine your definition of success. Veronica Walker Vadillo raised an interesting topic of redefining your personal definition of success to achieve work-family balance. When you become a parent, the definition of success for you may suddenly expand: you now have not only an academic field in which you can achieve certain things, but also a whole new world of a family, in which you can be very successful. Parenting means that it is not only academic achievements that defines your success, but your relationship with your children defines this success as well. Parenthood brings inevitable changes to one’s life and identity, which should be embraced and cultivated.

Third, do not set the bar of good parenting too high. Currently, there are high expectations of good parenting (the so-called intensive parenting) and heavy investment in children (e.g., Craig et al., 2014). It is expected that if you are a parent, then you must focus on parenting 100%, 24/7. This is hardly comparable with one’s career and creates many demands for parents, which is often one of the reasons why people decide to postpone childbearing. It is good to remember that children do not need you 24 hours a day, but they do need you consistently, especially young children. It is better to spend 2 hours a day with a child, but spend them fully, than to spend 12 hours around a child while being constantly distracted by other activities.

Finally, make use of the available policies at your university. As already mentioned, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts, which put them in especially vulnerable position when they take a family leave. University of Helsinki offers paid family leaves and, as a rule, recommends extensions of fixed-term contracts for its employees (including doctoral students). As Hanna Snellman pointed out, this should be always negotiated and documented with one’s supervisor or head of the unit and HR personnel. Also, Christian Hakulinen reminded us that having good collaborators is an advantage when one is taking a family leave, because they are a source of support: it will help you to stay productive in research, and it will be easier to return to research work after a long family leave.

All in all, although it is challenging to be both a successful academic and a parent, it is surely possible and incredibly fulfilling. There are excellent role models for that, and hopefully, there will be even more in the future.


Craig, L., Powell, A., and Smyth, C. (2014). Towards intensive parenting? Changes in the composition and determinants of mothers’ and fathers’ time with children 1992-2006. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(3): 555–579. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12035

Mason, M. A. (2013). In the Ivory Tower, Men Only. For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer. Retrieved from the Slate website: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/06/female-academics-pay-a-heavy-baby-penalty.html

Morgan, A. C., Way, S. F., Hoefer, M. J., Larremore, D. B., Galesic, M., & Clauset, A. (2021). The unequal impact of parenthood in academia. Science Advances7(9), eabd1996.

OECD/UIS/Eurostat (2019). Education at a Glance 2019. Section B7. What are the characteristics and outcomes of doctoral graduates? https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en

Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2012). Academic motherhood: How faculty manage work and family. Rutgers University Press.

Down by the Water, across the Time Zones – HCAS alumni host an innovative global webinar series on maritime archaeology

By Kaisa Kaakinen

When the global pandemic stopped all conference travel last spring, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies alumna Veronica Walker Vadillo, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, realized that the unexpected situation required new forms of academic exchange. She sought help from Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, HCAS alumna and researcher of Roman law and archaeology at the University of Helsinki, and Kristin Ilves, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the UH, to launch a webinar series Down by the Water – Global Conversations in Maritime Archaeology. This conversation that now connects scholars across continents began in the Common Room of the Helsinki Collegium a few years back.

Black-and-white photograph of a boat on a shore

This photo, adorning the website of the Down by the Water webinar series, appears in A History of the Philippines (1905) by David P. Barrows. www.gutenberg.org/files/38269/38269- h/38269-h.htm#pb201

Inaugurated in September 2020, the webinar series has biweekly sessions on Mondays (#MaritimeMondays, as the hashtag of the maritime research community puts it). While the focus of the series is on maritime archaeology, it reaches out to other disciplines, too. 

“Similar webinars are often focused on underwater or nautical topics or specific regions. Our series is about the whole concept of ‘maritimity’, what it means in different areas, and we also invite speakers who are not archaeologists to explain how they understand maritime communities,” Veronica Walker Vadillo explains. “Yes, and this approach really helps us broaden the scholarly discussions, as people doing maritime archaeology can tap into different disciplines,” Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz adds. 

Furthermore, the series brings together scholarly communities from different geographic contexts. For instance, the organizers have been able to connect Helsinki to Asian  scholarly networks and to the large Spanish-speaking community of archaeologists in Spain and the Americas. 

“We decided to take advantage of this pandemic and transform Helsinki into a kind of hub of maritime archaeology. People usually want to present at places like Oxford or Cambridge, not only because they are prestigious but because they are so well located close to London,” says Walker Vadillo. 

Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz have been happy to observe that the series run from Helsinki has acted as a bridge in the world of maritime archaeology, as, for instance, the event has put scholars from the Philippines and Mexico in touch, in what they hope is a first step in a fruitful collaboration.  

“Also for my own field this exchange is key, as scholars doing classics and researching the Roman Empire are often quite isolated in their own fields of research, “ says Mataix Ferrándiz. “Methods that we use can sometimes be used to understand other empires. Right now I am studying the Indian Ocean and find many parallels to what happened in the Roman Empire.” 

The events tend to draw about 50 online participants, a mix of people from various locations and career stages. Some recordings of the events have already reached over 1,000 views, and the video archive also presents a great resource for teaching. The project also has local impact, as there is always a good number of people attending from Finland. The events allow Helsinki-based researchers and students to get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere and to find contacts for their future research endeavors.  

How it all began at the Helsinki Collegium 

The interdisciplinary concept of the series was born two years earlier, when Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz were fellows at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Both say that the series would most likely not have its current form had it not grown from the interdisciplinary exchanges at the Collegium.  

An important spark for the project came from a presentation by linguist Olesya Khanina, who presented at the Collegium’s weekly seminar about her research on Siberian rivers as language contact areas. Walker Vadillo, who was researching the riverine cultural landscape of Angkor at the Mekong river, and Mataix Ferrándiz, who specializes in Roman law connected to maritime commerce, understood that they could learn a lot from the way linguists approach riverine cultures. The seminar and lunch conversations grew into a symposium project, in which fellows working on archaeology, law, linguistics and anthropology set out to understand better the human–environment interactions in maritime and fluvial spaces. In addition to Walker Vadillo, Khanina and Mataix Ferrándiz, the symposium team included archaeologist Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a specialist in material culture and archaeological science. 

The resulting symposium Down by the Water: Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Role of Water Transit Points in Past Societies took place in November 2019 at the Collegium.  

“During the symposium, we were constantly talking about how all this was so rare, so out of our comfort zone. It became something wonderfully strange. That is what we want to continue, although the new series is more focused on archaeology and anthropology. We also aim to bring in people who are not from these areas,” Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz explain. 

From seminar to podcast 

The organizers of the 2019 symposium are currently editing a book that will be published in the series Cultural Studies in Maritime and Underwater Archaeology by BAR Publishing. 

As for the webinar series, the organizers want to explore the podcast format, which allows one to listen to the conversations without being tied to the screen. As there are not many maritime archaeology podcasts out there, this is a promising direction. In addition to presentations, the series has already featured some roundtable discussions, such as a discussion on March 8, 2021, on women doing maritime archaeology. 

“As we change the format into a more conversational tone, I really want to emphasize the advances we are making in theoretical frameworks,” Walker Vadillo says. 

As an example of a session highlighting theoretical advances in the field, she mentions the event on April 19, 2021, with Roberto Junco, who works with the concept of temporal landscapes and talked about the archaeology of the Manila Galleons and current excavations in Acapulco. Junco studies how the temporal landscapes in the ports are dependent on a specific rhythm of different activities. In order to explain how the activities come together as the life of a port city, Junco draws on music and musicology. 

“I am very excited about the chance to have such speakers and conversations and to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, it really enhances what we can contribute to the field in terms of theory,” Walker Vadillo says. 

In addition to welcoming new audiences, the organizers are open to proposals for presentations. If interested in giving a talk in the series, you can contact the organizers by email. 

Veronica Walker Vadillo: 

email: veronica.walker[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @VWalkerV 

Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz: 

email: emilia.mataixferrandiz[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @Mataix_emilia 

Website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/downbythewater/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/4DownByTheWater/ 


Mediterranean Flows: Tracing ancient and contemporary mobility on Zoom

By Maijastina Kahlos, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Anna Usacheva and Elisa Uusimäki

The HCAS Symposium “Mediterranean Flows” was held on Zoom on December 10-11, 2020. As we stated in the rationale for this symposium, our aim was to create a space for interdisciplinary inquiry into the movement of individuals, objects, and ideas, focusing on the Mediterranean region. All of us organizers work on the ancient world, with texts and/or material culture, but thanks to our diverse group of colleagues at HCAS, it soon became clear that contemporary cases of Mediterranean-related movement would provide excellent conversation partners to ancient modes and moments of travel and mobility. This is how “Mediterranean Flows” came to be.

We are happy that we followed the Collegium’s cross-disciplinary vision, as the symposium turned out to be a delight. So many scholars, so many perspectivesso much to think about! We heard excellent contributions by researchers trained in history, archaeology, sociology, anthropology, classics, theology, study of religion, philosophy, and geography.

Poster for "Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion". Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.

Poster for “Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion”. Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.


We started the symposium with a session titled “Mobility–Ancient and Modern”. The two papers delivered by Greg Woolf and Lena Näre worked admirably as the opening presentations of the conference because they invited us to think of movement and connectivity across time and place, both as documented in historical sources and as experienced and narrated by people today. These presentations introduced several useful concepts, prompting us to reflect on different aspects and agents of movement, whether movers and stayers, ranges of distance, direction of movement, or selectivity of flows. We were also encouraged to think about the role of imagination and emotions as driving forces of human mobilityand how these are reflected in imaginaries of daily life, as children’s drawings, for example, demonstrate.

In the second session, Sarah Green expanded our notion of movement by reminding us that movement does not concern only people, objects, or ideas. Indeed, other living beings like animals and insects also move or are forced to move with people. Such travel companions can also influence human travel in unexpected ways. Antti Lampinen, in turn, explored mobility-related anxieties in antiquity, urging us to think of otherness and the process of “becoming Greek”. In his talk, Lampinen captured ancient testimonies concerning the intriguing interaction between movement and the process of building self-identity, whether the question is about the travelers or their hosts.

In the third session, which also focused on antiquity, Peter Singer explored Galen’s testimonies to educational travel and demonstrated how laborious the movement of such an ethereal thing as knowledge could be. Miira Tuominen, in contrast, focused on reception as a type of intellectual travel of ideas and on the change that accompanied it. Both of these topics resonate with our own professional lives that typically involve exchanges, library visits, field trips, and conference travels, all driven by the desire to know more, though Corona has now prompted us to create new ways of acquiring knowledge that we can’t obtain at home. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria may be right in saying that “Many persons … have come to a wiser mind by leaving their country” (Praem. 18-19). Similarly, another ancient Jewish author observes that “a person who has roamed has learned much”. Yet, we are also lucky to live at a time when technology enables us to come together virtually. Thanks to  Zoom, we were able to invite the experts abroad into our own homes and offices.

On the second day of the symposium, we had two wonderful sessions, or in fact three, given that we had to combine sessions 5 and 6 because of some last-minute cancellations. In the fourth session, we studied material culture across time. David Inglis talked about global wine dynamics and related waves of globalization, after which Andras Handl analyzed long distance relocations of relics in antiquity. On Friday afternoon, we heard three papers that ended the conference with intellectual fireworks. Bärry Hartog introduced the concept of glocalisation and read the Book of Acts in light of it, while Elisa Pascucci and Daria Krinovos analyzed labor and transnational mobilities. In the final paper, James Gerrard explored fascinating cases of travel and movement in the Roman periphery.


The symposium went through some major changes because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially, we had planned a workshop with invited speakers, who would have flown to Helsinki for two days, and a mainly Finnish audience at the university. During the first wave of the pandemic, we postponed the event from September to December, but it soon became clear that we had to change it into an online conference. We wanted to address as wide and international an audience as possible. Therefore, the conference was advertised in the e-mailing lists of classicists, archaeologists and biblical scholars.

We realized that an online conference is an opportunity to reach a wider and more international audience than would have been possible in the case of a traditional conference. Preparations for an online meeting were also different, but we obtained assistance from the HCAS office and interns. Initially, we were concerned that the online conference would be lacking in the informal social gathering typically enjoyed at traditional conferences. However, to our pleasant surprise, the audience, the speakers and the chairs were very active both in the discussions and in the chatas well as in the final discussion. In the future, when online seminars and conferences will be everyday life, the social aspect should be developed and informal conversations could be encouraged in many ways, for example, by making use of the breakout room function on Zoom.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word "people" as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word “people” as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

There is obviously much to digest after this conference! Overall, we sought to offer a series of perspectives on the Mediterranean and thus create an event that would encourage us to step outside of our disciplinary comfort zones and enable us to learn from scholars in other fields, whether they study the past or present. We feel like we succeeded in achieving this goal.

We wish to express our sincerest thanks to HCAS, our speakers, chairs, and participants! We especially thank all the speakers for taking their time to prepare and deliver their presentations. The year 2020 was troublesome, and we all had so much to take care of, which makes us extra grateful that you made this event happen. Thank you, or kiitos, as we say in Finland!

Framing the push for Open Access

By Aleksi Pelkonen

When Natalya Bekhta was completing her MA, she realized she had a problem.

“If a department, like mine in the humanities, did not have money to pay for articles we could not get access to them,” Bekhta, now a literature researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, explains.

And so, as she did not have access to the latest research in her field, Bekhta had to use her personal contacts in order to get what she needed to complete her project.

“What ended up happening was that my friends and family, whenever they would travel abroad, would bring back books for me,” she says.

With their help, she was able to complete her work.

While these methods may seem unconventional, they are in fact something of the norm in many academic endeavors; Bekhta’s experience is not the exception but often the rule.

Academic institutions being priced out of access to relevant literature strikes one as inherently unfair.

“The results of publicly funded research should be a public good,” says Hanne Appelqvist, deputy director of the Collegium. “If they are made into a commodity for which you have to pay, then neither the further use nor critical assessment of the results is maximized.”

How then to maximize it? The commercial publishing model leaves many academics frustrated.

“Researchers do not get paid for their contributions to journals, and also the editors and referees typically work pro bono,” says Appelqvist, who also is series editor for the Collegium’s OA academic publication series AHEAD and Editor-in-Chief of OA aesthetics journal Estetika. “When the article gets published, it is the [commercial] publisher that collects the financial profit by selling it back to the community that originally produced the academic content and guaranteed its scientific quality.”

cOAlition S, an initiative of “a group of national research funding organisations, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council,” has one proposed solution. They call it Plan S, and its objective is “making full and immediate Open Access a reality.”

Under Plan S, any academic material that received grant funding from signatories of Plan S would be required to make the academic output freely and openly accessible; hence the name: Open Access.

This all begs the question: What is ‘full and immediate Open Access,’ and how does one make it ‘a reality’?

Easy as APC

A good starting point to understanding OA is by looking at cOAlition S’ plan itself. Plan S contains ten principles for ensuring an Open Access model which they claim will improve access to research papers. Plan S claims that Open Access can be made ‘a reality’ as long as these principles are upheld.

This is easier than it would seem from the layperson’s (i.e., my) point of view: academic publications have extensive peer-review processes which are demanding and critical. As a consequence of this, the costs associated with academic publishing are high; this system persists to ensure that high-quality articles are produced.

A work-around for this problem, for OA journals, is to have authors pay a publishing charge (called an ‘APC’) in order to fund the editing and publishing of works. If authors pay, then any prospective readers can read high-quality articles for free (provided they have access to the internet), while publishers still are able to adequately fund their services.

However, this can be prohibitive for many researchers, especially from low-income countries or less-well-funded research institutions. Instead of ‘democratizing’ academic output, this ‘pay-to-publish’ model is sometimes criticized for widening existing gaps.

Plans S plans to address this issue with principle 4 which states that, “[w]here applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or research institutions, not by individual researchers.” This would help researchers clear the APC-wall that could potentially lead to their research projects going unpublished.

The Invisible (Sleight of) Hand

Whatever publishing model is chosen, the money must come from somewhere, and a lot of it, if current numbers are anything to go by.

To prove this, one can peruse the financial reports of academic publishers. Take, for example, a company called RelX that owns Elsevier, a widely used academic publishing resource. RelX’s ‘Scientific, Technical & Medical’ market segment, which owns many of the world’s leading academic publications and distribution platforms, posted an adjusted operating profit in 2019 of just under £1 billion (page 7, link is to PDF). Taylor & Francis, owned by Informa PLC, posted an operating profit of £163,5 million in 2019 (page 178, link is to PDF).

“When this commercial model is applied to research it creates problematic consequences,” Appelqvist says. “Given that the free exchange of ideas is a condition for scientific progress, we should be concerned about the commodification of research results.”

One would not get the impression that academic publishing houses are similarly concerned when reading their financial reports. T&F stated that 2019 was a year of “good growth in our Open Access (OA) business” (above T&F hyperlink, page 73, emphasis added).

RelX was even more bullish: “Our open access publishing programme […] saw its growth rate in articles submitted and published accelerate further as we continue to gain market share” (above RelX hyperlink, page 15, emphasis added).

Both large publishers seem to support the OA movement. T&F’s website states, “We want to make the option to publish in open access journals available to as many researchers as possible.” Elsevier is no less exultant on its own OA page.

The reader will perhaps notice a potential contradiction here. OA is supposed to ‘open’ research results to the community. That this would be at all possible while big publishers continue to gobble up ‘market share’ is questionable. Publishing an OA journal after sending an expensive APC invoice to a public institution leaves one wondering how this is any kind of solution to the problem of equality.

Plan S, while very specific on the OA requirement, is comparatively vague on the issue of fees, only appealing for ‘transparent pricing,’ according to its Principle 5. Furthermore, on cOAlition S’ website they state that:

To reassure publishers, who may have concerns regarding legal implications of sharing price and service information, we will ensure that any system we support to collect and share the price and transparency framework data is developed in a way that fulfils competition law requirements. […] [O]ne likely solution would be through the establishment of a registration and authentication system, which would allow customers (researchers, funders and institutions) to access these data but would not allow publishers to access their competitors’ data (Source: cOAlition S, all emphasis added)

Market Madness

There are purposes here which seem to be unaligned with one another. Academics ‘produce’ and ‘consume’ academic research for its intrinsic value, while many major publishers have the tendency to prioritize profitability.

cOAlition S emphasizes in its principles and recommendations that it is not attempting to minimize the commodification of academic research. Customers, after all, are sold commodities; it would be unusual to frame something as such when referring to public goods. The terminology seems to be selected so as to be inoffensive to major publishing companies and their interests.

This in and of itself is not an issue per se but seems to be relegated to a secondary concern in much of the discussion regarding OA. OA is a development that can be fit for many different ends. It can be a step in academia’s privatization journey, depending on how it is designed.

The transition to OA has the potential to further complicate an already convoluted publishing model.

“To take just one example, there are many academic journals run by professional academic society associations,” explains Tuomas Forsberg, director of the Collegium. “Their subscription fees enable them to exist, pay salaries and support their research community in various ways. So, if we change one part of the publishing model, we need to think about how others will be able to create income.”

By characterizing the academic system as a market, with publishers, operating for profit in a competitive environment, selling output to ‘customers,’ the Plan S framework further imbues a certain kind of logic into academic research. In the current ‘market,’ some producers (academics) are excluded, while some consumers are unable to pay for the commodities they want.

Plan S seeks to replace this dysfunctional market with a different kind; one where costs are shifted onto funders, rather than producer-academics or ‘customers.’ By setting its objective in this way, cOAlition S sidesteps a more fundamental question:

Should market logic dictate academic research at all?

Aleksi Pelkonen is an intern at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

For further reading see Jutta Haider and Philip Mirowski.

How does coronavirus affect academic research? How should it?

 By Tuomas Forsberg

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally impacted societies as well as the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the world. How will – and particularly how should – the crisis affect scholarly research? Relatedly, what lessons can be drawn from the crisis when it comes to the organization and funding of research?

Blue glowing human figure and several green coronavirus visualizationson a dark background

Photo: 123rf

Although the academic world was not exactly caught unawares, it is clear that much more research than before is needed to tackle the pandemic head-on, to find out where the virus originated from, and how it behaves. The pandemic also necessitates increased scholarly efforts to develop a vaccination and medicine, facemasks and ventilators: these preventive, protective and curative innovations require substantial research from the most basic level to practical and applied dimensions, while in times of crisis the cycle from idea to product needs to be accelerated.

The coronavirus crisis has also underlined the vital need for the social sciences and humanities. We are ostensibly dealing with (almost) the same kind of virus, but the societies it is infecting are different. If we want to prevent the virus from spreading, we need to know how societies work. Social norms and practices as well as beliefs vary. Social structures and spaces are diverse. The crisis exposed an interesting gap between research outputs based on simulations and those based on the real world (even though the simulations assumed certain elements of the real world). Hence, we need research and researchers that are knowledgeable about the various societal and cultural conditions and international networks, and that take account of the differences between them.

In Finland, a key area of expertise that has been in demand during the crisis concerns the law and the restrictions of basic rights. But the debate quickly extended to issues concerning language and communication as well as moral philosophy. Due to the crisis, we are rethinking some very fundamental questions about ethics and politics.

The value of the social sciences and humanities in bridging the natural sciences and societies is not always understood. Just before the coronavirus crisis, the populist party newspaper in Finland ridiculed research that the Academy of Finland had funded in the social sciences and humanities, claiming for example that a particular study on the history of mobile healers in sub-Saharan Africa was not based on science. But the whole point was missed: in order to foster vaccinations in Africa, we need to know what people believe and why they might have more faith in magic than science, because that will affect their willingness to be  vaccinated.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised questions concerning multidisciplinary research. It has become fashionable to gather multidisciplinary research groups around certain topical phenomena and even to build study programmes focusing on them. Yet since COVID-19 did not exist before, there was no research group in place that would have been designed just for this pandemic. Accordingly, many multidisciplinary research groups were quickly formed to study questions related to the crisis. These groups, however, were not typically based on an array of scholars practising multidisciplinary research, but on scholars with disciplinary expertise. That said, good disciplinary research often requires interdisciplinary knowledge and input from other disciplines. Moreover, organizing a multidisciplinary research group to deliver new expertise in times of crisis is undoubtedly facilitated by background knowledge and experience of other disciplines and the way in which multidisciplinary research groups work. Either way, COVID-19 clearly did not obviate disciplinary knowledge – quite the contrary – since what is relevant in encountering new unforeseen phenomena is abstract, theoretical knowledge as well as methodological skills, not empirical knowledge of a different phenomenon.

In this sense, the crisis has once again demonstrated the importance of basic research. This suggests that the funding model for science needs to be based on the belief that basic curiosity-driven research will yield the best results at the end of the day. No applied or policy-relevant research that aims to make a difference can serve societies well without robust basic research. The more research funding is tied to narrow thematic projects, the less flexible it is in dealing with new crises as they emerge. The more research is tied to topics that have been defined top-down, the likelier it is that nobody has conducted research that is directly relevant to a crisis that was unforeseen by the authorities or funding agencies. In this context, I have in mind two researchers: one who had completed his PhD on the Great Lakes in Africa just before the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and another who had worked on Afghan languages just before the terrorist attacks in 2001. Both of them had been perceived as working on esoteric and non-policy-relevant issues and yet their expertise turned out to be of critical importance. Such anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Of course, it does not follow that core issues should be discarded. Yet, the bottom line is that when a topic has become important enough for the authorities to regard it as worthy of research funding, the research that emerges is already a few steps behind in terms of novelty.

Why should we trust in the fact that basic curiosity-driven research can respond flexibly to new problems? In addition to the belief that various topics might already be covered by researchers driven by curiosity  before they become acute problems, I believe that the key reason is the ethos that researchers, even when focusing on basic research, want to contribute to resolving common problems. There are many signs that researchers, if they have time, will immediately focus on crises such as the coronavirus. This spring, a number of seminars have been held and special journal issues edited on COVID-19 quite spontaneously. The coronavirus crisis will inspire a great number of studies in the years to come since it has provided data and raised new questions in a multitude of research fields.

How will the coronavirus crisis affect future research? I do not know the answer to that question. But if asked how it should affect research, I would use it as an opportunity to organize and fund studies in the following way. Sufficient funding is needed for basic research that is not directly tied to narrow projects. International cooperation and the exchange of ideas are vital, not least in the social sciences and humanities, but we need to rethink the role of conferencing and strengthen mobility by other means. Disciplinary expertise coupled with interdisciplinary input, knowledge of other disciplines and experiences of multidisciplinary collaboration are valuable not insomuch as we would be able to organize research around certain wicked problems on a permanent basis, but rather because they pave the way for the flexible organization of multidisciplinary research groups in times of crisis.