Spotlight on Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

23 July 2014

Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

This week the spotlight is on Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, Senior Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature, UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS).

What is your role and what does it involve?

As a teacher, I am responsible for modules in Scandinavian literature and culture in UCL Scandinavian Studies. I couldn’t think of anything more rewarding than sharing my passion for literature with our students and introducing them to exciting (and sometimes scary) stories originally written in the diverse languages and cultures of Scandinavia: from Greenlandic myths and 19th-century Danish Gothic tales to postmodern Norwegian novels and Swedish crime fiction.

I also teach one of the intercultural modules that we have in the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) on literature and cultural memory in a global world.

Among the ‘texts’ that we study in this course is the use of literary and cultural references in the London Olympics opening ceremony and the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

I also regularly contribute to the MA programme in Comparative Literature where I get to ask our extremely well-read students silly questions, such as what is a book and what is an author? We are always amused that in literary studies we can’t even seem to agree on such basic premises.

Interdisciplinarity has, of course, become one of the paradigms in both teaching and research.

While it can at times seem a rather meaningless buzzword, I have had the great fortune to try out interdisciplinarity in action through working with researchers across UCL on, for instance, a literature, welfare and well-being conference and journal issue and the UCL-Lancet Commission on Culture and Health.

Related to this project, I recently organised a Science, Medicine and Society Network (SMS) conference with Professor David Napier on how to generate social trust in the 21st century.

Through such projects, I have discovered (what I, of course, always knew) that humanities and literary studies can contribute central insights into major social issues (e.g. global health, climate change, social trust and wellbeing) for which no single discipline will have the answer or even the right questions.

Interdisciplinarity is also a corner stone of the exciting and still fairly new BA programme in Arts and Sciences (BASc), which I have been involved in since its early days.

More recently, I have, with Dr Florian Mussgnug, been the convenor of its challenging core course on Qualitative Thinking. Here we try to get students to think about what roles value judgements play in such diverse areas as art and language, food and neuroscience.

As part of the course, students create amazing digital objects such as blogs, websites, illustrations and various forms of webcasts to explore how value judgements figure in various aspects of our societies and cultures.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I first came to UCL as a Teaching Fellow in Danish in 2007. Before then, I was a PhD student in Denmark after a three years stint as a visiting lecturer at University of Washington in wonderful Seattle – arriving there just one week before 9/11.

I have always had a great passion for American society and culture and, as with many Scandinavians, I have a large family there, who I have fortunately had the chance to keep in touch with through my studies and work.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I was very proud to receive a UCL Provost’s Teaching award in 2009 for work I had done exploring digital media and online learning in my teaching.

Back in 2008, I taught a seminar at UCL with the classroom connected via cameras, an interactive whiteboard and microphones to teachers and students in Aarhus and Lisbon.

It was a great learning experience for me as a teacher and it impressed on me the remarkable opportunities that we have for cross-cultural learning with new networked media.

Later, I became part of the team that has guided the implementation of the UCLeXtend platform, which opens up exciting new opportunities for sharing the world-class teaching and research resources that we have at UCL with the rest of the world.

For about four years, colleagues in UCL Scandinavian Studies and I have been running a public engagement project: the Nordic Noir Book Club.

We have used the success of Scandinavian crime fiction in the UK to engage with readers, authors, publishers, translators and the media to learn more about not only crime fiction, but also the different Nordic countries, their languages, cultures and societies.

Highlights have included talks on volcanic and criminal activities in Iceland, A crash course in Danish for fans of The Killing (in collaboration with the Guardian) and the mysteries of Swedish-Danish cultural encounters around the Øresund Bridge.

We have been active on a blog, on Facebook and Twitter and have published recordings of several of our events on UCL iTunes and Soundcloud. The project has impressed on me how important it is for the university to engage with and learn from the wider community.

I have met so many amazing readers, who have helped me in my research and informed my participation in, for instance, a BBC documentary on Nordic Noir.

We received much guidance and support from the UCL Public Engagement Unit – an incredible resource with great people at UCL.

Less ‘glamorously’, I am very pleased about having contributed to the formation of SELCS (the largest department in UCL Arts and Humanities, formed out of six language departments in 2010) as its first Undergraduate Tutor.

It was extremely rewarding to get to know a good number of our c.700 students and work closely with brilliant colleagues in the new school and in the faculty. Everybody has worked hard to bring us through, what I often think of as, a feat akin to the European unification project – albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

At the top of my to-do list is a book project on Scandinavian crime fiction and the welfare state, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press in the near future.

I gave a preview of the project in my Lunch Hour Lecture last year. This is the first research project that I have embarked on, which has grown out of our Nordic Noir Book Club and numerous interviews that I have given to the media about the success of Scandinavian crime fiction and TV-drama in the UK.

I am constantly asked: how can it be that these seemingly peaceful, happy Nordic welfare states produce so many crime writers, who paradoxically paint a rather bleak picture of their own societies with serial killers on the loose, rising social inequalities, rampant violence against women and children and a general dissatisfaction with life, justice and the state?

I have often found myself scrambling for decent answers. Clearly, crime fiction is by no means a documentary genre, even if Nordic Noir is often noted for its social realism.

In my book, I try to answer the question in a historical perspective beginning with the Swedish godmother and godfather of Nordic crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, writing towards the end of the Golden Age of the Swedish welfare state in the late 60s and early 70s (it has been quite a journey recently re-reading their 10 very leftwing novels commonly known as “a novel about a crime”).

I end, of course, with the popular Danish TV crime serials that respond in different ways to the global financial crisis and the highly-individualised Nordic ‘competition societies’.

My final answer to the question is, however, still pending.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My favourite novel (which I could never write about or teach) is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967).

Apart from being both incredibly funny, weird and dark, the book features a great cover photo of the author in front of the Benjamin Franklin statue in San Francisco's Washington Square Park (I obsess about book covers and author photographs, as students in my literary theory seminars will know).

Favourite films come and go for me. The best film I have seen recently is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild – the fate of post-Katrina New Orleans and issues of climate change occupy me quite a bit.

I am addicted to TV series and fear I shall never see anything as good as The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Killing and The Bridge.

When it comes to music, however, my tastes seem to be stuck in a previous generation. My favourite album will be most of the early albums by The Fall or Danish psychedelic rock from the late 60s.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

I love stand-up comedy and my favourite bits must include Eddie Izzard’s re-telling of the Trojan war and what he would do if he had an Achilles’ heel – which involves a block of concrete and an unforgettable hovercraft – and one of the late Mitch Hedberg one-liners such as: “I am so sick of following my dreams. I am just going to ask them where they are going and hook up with them later” (reads like a poem in Brautigan’s The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, I think).

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

It is a toss-up between the cast of Seinfeld at Monk’s diner in New York – we would all have coffee and Biiig salads – and cherry pie and a “damn fine cup of coffee” with Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks at the Double R Diner.

I must admit to having stayed at the Twin Peaks hotel and having had a pie at the Double R or Twede’s café, as it was then called, in North Bend, Washington State. Cooper was, regrettably, nowhere in sight. Did I mention that I am addicted to TV series?

What advice would you give your younger self?

Ask older people for advice, I mean it! Stop wasting your time watching Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place (in the early 90s). And don’t get stuck in the 90s.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I saw almost every episode of the first four seasons of Beverly Hills 90210 (see above), wore a Beverly Hills t-shirt and read the first series-to-novel Beverly Hills book – the one where Brenda and Brandon arrive in LA. Don’t get me started.

And this at the same time as I was in a (not very good but very loud) grungy band! The 90s didn’t make much sense.

What is your favourite place?

I have a great love for my adopted family home in Sicily and for all things Sicilian, including my wife and our two Sicilian-Danish-English kids.