July 2019

It’s probably a couple of years since I last undertook an online course with FutureLearn, but a few weeks ago I signed up for a short course from Griffith University called Music Psychology: Why Does “Bohemian Rhapsody” Feel so Good? It was a simple introduction to some of the basic principles of music psychology, and while it didn’t go into anything like as much depth as the text book that I read last summer, it was still interesting. It’s something I’m looking at because it helps me to understand how Tudor ballads might have affected people.

Emotions have a physiological component, and a psychological component which interprets those physiological effects.  This comes together with our musical expectations (based on our experience of other music that we have heard) to help create emotions.  These combine with our cognitive appraisal of the situation. Our emotional reaction to the event (or music) depends on whether or not we expected what happened, and the context of what happened.

The expectations are, in effect, predictions of what will happen. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain which rewards us for predicting things that turn out to be true, and if the chances of the prediction being true were low but we got it right, it gives us more of a reward.  When we listen to music, we are unconsciously comparing it to everything we have already heard, so it our brains are rewarded with dopamine when the expectations that are set up are fulfilled.  Different songs play with our expectations in different ways, so they make us feel different emotions.  Likewise, our own feelings and experiences change, so the emotions created by the same song might be different at different times. 

There was one particularly interesting task, comparing our emotional responses to different parts of the song Bohemian Rhapsody, and explaining why others might have a different reaction. I find the ‘Mama’ section quite melancholy – it has a sparse texture and the relaxed tempo feeds into this feeling too. It’s a style of music that is ballad-like, which I enjoy. ‘So you think you can stone me’ is much more rock-orientated, and not a style I would normally listen to out of choice, but the much harsher tone, full texture and quicker tempo are a significant contrast. I find this section tense and agitated, but it works for me as a part of the whole – which plays on the changes from one section to another. Other people’s stylistic preferences and musical experience might mean that the rock is more familiar and therefore their preferred style, because it fulfils more of their expectations.

As emotions are based on our expectations, our emotional responses to music are based on what we expect to happen.  And skilled composers are able to take advantage of our expectations of what will happen when.  They can choose to fulfil or deny our expectations at different places in the music.  When those expectations are fulfilled, we get a hit of dopamine which is pleasant.

Another task asked: What’s a part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen that you really look forward to when you listen to it? How do you feel when you reach that part of the song? One of the places in Bohemian Rhapsody that I look forward to is Brian May’s guitar solo after ‘never been born at all’.  Why?  Because it’s soulful, and it gives you a break from listening to the words and trying to process them.  Actually, I’ve never realised that it’s the guitar solos that I really like before – because the one before ‘So you think you can stone me’ has the same effect.  I wonder if it’s because they are the signals for the changes of style/pace etc….  And I get the frisson (the chills, or goosebumps) at the end, at the 5 minute mark.

What interested me a lot about this task was that my response was very different to most people. According to the course tutor, many people find the guitar solo after verse 2 an anticlimax because they are expecting a chorus!

Anyway, I don’t think I learned anything new about music psychology, but it was certainly good to refresh my memory and it used some interesting examples.

Although there are certain aspects of my job that I am less than happy about, I have to admit that it has brought me opportunities that even a few years ago I would have found difficult to imagine. Many of these revolve around the chance to travel to places I would otherwise not have seen, such as Utrecht or Turku

My recent invitation to the Scripta in Itinere conference gave me a chance to visit Alcala in Spain and to pop into Madrid. In Alcala, I spent some happy times just wandering the streets.

I was also able to visit Cervantes’ birthplace and the local archeaological museum.

In Madrid, I went to the incredibly opulent Palacio Real.

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically “entitled” students.
— Read on www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/01/10/study-finds-female-professors-experience-more-work-demands-and-special-favor

I was privileged to be invited to the XI Congreso Internacional de Historia de la Cultura Escrita, held this June in Alcalá de Henares, which will for me be forever remembered as the city of storks – these enormous birds nest atop many of the old buildings around the Calle de Colegios, clacking their beaks as you walk the streets below.

I will be honest: I was at a bit of a loss when it came to most of the papers, as my Spanish is only rudimentary despite several attempts to learn over the course of about 30 years; my French is worse and my Italian is non-existent. Nevertheless, it was certainly an experience.

The inaugural lecture was given by Beatrice Frankel, on Montaigne, and the conference coincided with the opening of an exhibition of Alcalá’s environmental print over the years.

Veronica Sierra Blas, Beatrice Frankel and Antonio Castillo Gómez

I enjoyed Veronica Calsoni Lima’s paper, ‘From official to clandestine presses: the publishing businesses of Giles Calvert and Thomas Brewster in the 1650s’.  She began by describing the rapid circulation of news during the run up to the Civil War, and the breakdown of censorship which led to a flood of printed material. After 1653, there were new attempts to clampdown, and Cromwell’s regime began attempts to find a new official printer. Four men were considered, and between May and August at least 25 official texts were shared between them. Received wisdom is that Brewster and Calvert were the less obvious choices within the four potential printer, as they had associations with radical groups. But Veronica pointed out that this period coincided with the Nominated Assembly, or ‘Barebones Parliament’, which makes their presence fairly reasonable given it was made up of religious radicals itself. The folio-sized official publications they produced were intended to be pinned up in public and had large titles to catch the reader’s attention from a distance, decorated capital letters, the commonwealth’s arms, and shared imprints.

But after August, Brewster and Calvert disappear from official publications. Veronica suggested that this might be due to their radical sympathies and links with separatist congregations. They printed anti-royalist propaganda and pro-commonwealth propaganda, but also radical religious tracts by Quakers, Baptists and Fifth Monarchists. They also started to print anti-Cromwell propaganda, which got them into trouble. She took as her examples Edward Burrough’s ‘A trumpet of the Lord’ (which was a millenarian pamphlet that landed the printer in prison) and Henry Vane’s ‘A Healing Question’. Neither pamphlet has the official information, and although they have large titles, they don’t have complete imprints. Later clandestine works have no names for author, printer, or publisher. She suggested that the controversial texts that they published at the same time they were publishing official material, led to them being dropped as official printers.

She closed her remarks by commenting that other printers printed throughout the commonwealth, restoration, and under James II, which showed them to be canny businessmen, but Brewster and Calvert put their political and religious beliefs before business, risking loss of profit and even imprisonment rather than give up their ideals.

I gave my paper at one of the main panels on Wednesday afternoon.  It is the first time I have ever been on a panel with someone talking about Twitter and someone talking about mobile libraries.  I’m not entirely sure what the link was, but it certainly made for a different experience!


After the panel, we walked across Alcala to the opening of a mural, Alcala: Ciudad Escrita, on the wall of the city’s outdoor swimming pool, and to finish the evening, we went to El Sexto Sensido for the conference dinner, where I was asked to sing again for some of the delegates who had missed my paper.


All in all, it was a very interesting few days, and I enjoyed the opportunity.

…no-one really wants to know the true answer.

At least that’s what my fiend said when I told him a few months ago that I’d decided to be honest about my precarity.

Well, maybe people don’t, but maybe we should tell them more often.

One of the difficult situations that I face when attending conferences is answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ In academic circles, this rarely means what it would appear to mean. The answer is not Longridge, because the question is not where do you live, but where do you work? I’ve written before about being ‘academically homeless’ (having no institution to support my research, or give me access to a library and essential research databases), but I now face a slightly different problem: do I tell people I’m from Lancaster, where I currently do most work; Southampton, where I am a visiting fellow; or Liverpool Hope, where I have worked, albeit only for a few hours, for the longest period? None of these contracts is permanent. At the time of writing, my only ongoing position is that of Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster – an unpaid post.

This is no way to live. I have little or no money coming in over the summer. All three of the paid jobs have come to an end with no guarantee that there will be any work for me anywhere in September. It does nothing to improve my mental health, and makes the summer a very stressful period.

What’s more, over the summer I’m working for free. It’s not as if I can stop and take an unpaid break, spending weeks on end with my children (much as I might like to). No. Instead, I’m frantically trying to finish articles that have been gathering dust for too long and work on book number 2, trying to build the publication record that might, just might, help me land a permanent job.

I know I’m not alone, either in feeling this stress or in my increasing anger at the system. Twitter recently went mad when a 3 year cover position at a major university was advertised, blatently stating that the successful applicant’s pay would be suspended over the summer months because there was no teaching – as if the preparation and admin (and the poor mug’s own research) stopped over the summer too. And woe betide that successful applicant if they wanted to pay rent or a mortgage during that time, or if they had the audacity to want to eat…

No-one that I have spoken to outside academia can believe that someone with a PhD can be employed in a university for just over £15 an hour and earn only a few thousand pounds for teaching on 4 different courses at one institution. 2018-19 is the first year I’ve paid tax on my earnings since completing my PhD, and even now

  • I have only just passed the Lower Earnings Threshold and
  • I have only reached this point through topping up my work for 4 different PAYE employers in the year with extra freelance work.

I’ve got three children to support, and they are rapidly approaching their own entry into the university system. So while I teach other people’s children and help them get their degrees, I don’t know if I can afford for my own to go to university. I have no pension to speak of, so my future isn’t looking that bright either.

The system is broken. While it can get away with employing lecturers on zero hours contracts, it will, because it’s cheap. And those of us at the bottom end of the food chain can’t afford to turn down the crumbs that are offered.

The system is broken. There are lovely people at all of the universities that I’ve taught at, and none of this is either their fault or, realistically, something that they as individuals can hope to change. I know that they feel bad about it too. And I know that many of them have done their best to ensure that I get any extra bits of work that might help me out.

But I’m fed up of pretending that everything is okay. That I’m not being taken advantage of by a system which is happy to bleed me dry working for hours to prepare courses that I might only teach once, but doesn’t value me enough to pay me through Christmas, Easter and summer, or if I’m sick (which I never have been – who as an ECR can afford to be ill?!), and will throw me to the wind the moment it’s convenient.

So if you ask me where I’m from, forgive me if I give you a blunt answer.

Nowhere really.