Jes Wienberg Shot Down My Habilitation

Habilitation, docentur, is a symbolic upgrade to your PhD found in Scandinavia and other countries with a strong element of German academic traditions. You can think of it as a boy-scout badge. It confers no salary, but it opens certain doors including that of supervising doctoral candidates. Though formally handed out by the faculty, it’s impossible to get without support from your department, as I learned from my abortive attempt at the University of Stockholm in 2010. If on the other hand you do have the support of your department, it’s impossible to avoid getting your habilitation – a mere formality. Almost impossible to avoid.

After heading freshman archaeology for two years in Umeå, in February of 2015 I applied for habilitation there with the kind support of the department’s ämnesansvarige, professor Thomas B. Larsson. He asked me, as is customary, to suggest a few names for the external reviewer. Trying to be shrewd about it, I picked two people who had written enthusiastically about my work in evaluations for jobs, and then I tried to think of a third person. Somebody senior, somebody impartial, yet vaguely friendly. And I thought of Jes Wienberg.

Wienberg is a professor of Historical Archaeology in Lund. We’ve only met once and have never collaborated. He owed me nothing and I owed him nothing, but we had corresponded amicably for about 15 years. My first memory of contact with him is from 2001/02 when I got his permission to re-print a really good article of his in the skeptical pop-sci journal Folkvett that I co-edited at the time. In 2004/05 he helpfully commented on the manuscript of a pugnacious debate piece of mine that appeared in the journal META, published at his department. He went on to publish in the scholarly journal I co-edit and was always helpful with recommendations when I needed a good reviewer for some new book on Medieval matters. Wienberg was never a big presence in my professional life, but he was a friendly one. Until he accepted the task of reviewing my habilitation application. And delivered his verdict.

The process took more than a year. I wasn’t directed to send my publications to the external reviewer until May 2016. I mailed the hefty stack to Wienberg on 24 May, and then I got the whole thing back on 8 June. Right at the end of the spring semester, when there are so many exams to correct, grades to set and bits of admin to finish, Wienberg spent less than two weeks getting familiar with 846 pages of research into prehistoric archaeology, a field he is not active in. And his verdict was roughly this:

Rundkvist fulfils all formal criteria for habilitation. But I don’t like his methods of research. So I refuse to give him my recommendation.

Those who read Scandy can check here whether the above is a fair summary of Wienberg’s evaluation.

Wienberg’s behaviour caused much consternation at the faculty in Umeå. Nobody ever does this. Habilitation is a ceremonial act. If you’re asked to review work that you absolutely loathe, then you just don’t accept the job. “Sorry, I’m too busy right now.” And Wienberg’s value judgement of my stuff was completely beside the point, because those publications had already passed peer review and been published in high-profile venues. He wasn’t just questioning my work, he was questioning the insight of among others Thomas B. Larsson and two fellow professors at his own department in Lund who had accepted reams of my writing for publication.

But anyway, I never did get habilitated. A friendly old Umeå professor from a neighbouring discipline did his best at the faculty to effect a re-submission opportunity for me, but it came to nothing. Due to flagging student numbers I no longer worked in Umeå, and my support from the departmental staff was lackadaisical. One guy wrote me explicitly that the question of my habilitation was linked to what the playing field would look like the next time a professorship became vacant in Umeå. We climb over each other to reach the top.

And so I learned yet again that a career in academia is never about the formal rules for how stuff should work, never really about qualifications. It’s a tribal system of social patronage. I also learned, belatedly, not to trust Jes Wienberg.


  1. #1 John Massey
    October 3, 2017

    Not familiar with the process, but that seems to me to be an uncalled for piece of treachery, for no evident reason.

    I’m no archaeologist, but I do understand research methods, and I have edited two of your books – OK, just for form of presentation, not content, on which I am not competent, but to do that I needed to understand what you had done and why. I could see nothing wrong whatever with your research methods. On the contrary, you seem to me to be commendably thorough and careful, documenting everything based on empirical evidence.

    People who smile to your face but then stab you in the back like that, totally unexpectedly, are snakes. There is usually another reason, one he is not admitting to, but digging deep enough to try to figure out what it is can be a futile exercise. The guy just had it in for you, for whatever strange reason, and when he got the chance to screw you, he did it. Heaven knows why, but I’m willing to bet that it was not for the reason he stated.

  2. #2 Martin R
    October 3, 2017

    Thank you John!

  3. #3 BirgerJohansson
    October 3, 2017

    Cheer up: Once you write a best-selling popular science book about archaeology, you will have a splendid opportunity to mention the anecdote..

    Your namesake, the illustrator and comic book author Martin Kellerman cheerfully takes a revenge on assholes he has met by including them in his much-read stories.
    People who behave badly assume that just because they cannot be formally reprimanded, their relative anonymity will allow them to get off scot free, with no censure.
    This is the reasoning of online trolls, who then get shocked when a TV reporter turns up to hold them to account (Swedish TV reporter Robert Ashberg based a whole TV concept on this).
    — — — —
    SMBC has a reference to unsatisfying jobs

  4. #4 BirgerJohansson
    October 3, 2017
  5. #5 Normann Aa. Nielsen
    October 4, 2017

    In Wienbergs conclusion he argued that Rundkvist’ “uphold a categoric methodic approach that hindered any qualitative exchange and recess”. This conclusion is stated several times in Wienbergs response. There are also comments arguing that the publication was missing critical reflections and new perspectives and that Rundkvist in some cases added more to the research material than it could carry (prejustice). These statements are found in Wienbergs rejection argumentation, as any who can read Swedish can see.

    Given these criticisms I cannot agree in the summary given by Rundkvist : “Rundkvist fulfils all formal criteria for habilitation. But I don’t like his methods of research. So I refuse to give him my recommendation.” – This is simply not sufficient!

    Wienberg gives reasons why the publication cannot be accepted as a habilitation and his reasons are pointed at what a scientist is expected to do. The formality (hours of teaching, former publications etc.) is OK, but that is formality. This is expected to be fullfilled. However, it seems that the publication is violation the deper layers of what a scientific habilitation must cover and so it must be rejected.

    Rundkvist do not address these issues in this blog. That would have been most interesting, IMHO.

  6. #6 John Massey
    October 4, 2017

    @5 – What you have said in English just comes across as gibberish. Sorry, but it does. Either your English sucks, or Wienberg’s original conclusion in Swedish was already pseudo-academic gobbledegook. I can’t tell which, although “violation the deper layers” suggests that it is your English that is not really up to the job.

    And you could try being polite while you are at it, given that you are a guest on someone else’s Blog.

  7. #7 Normann Aa. Nielsen
    October 4, 2017

    @6 Sorry that you was not able to see thru some of my spelling errors. I would have written “violation of the deepers layers”, but the article in question disappeared. I thought that English speaking readers of a certain level was able to let that pass, but of course I was wrong – my error.

    However, you are correct in the assumption that I am not a native English speaker. I am Danish and as such I can read what Wienberg wrote. Without google translate, let me add. As Rundkvist added the link to Wienbergs evaluation I read it and thus my comments. They still stand. Runekvist did not in this blog address the issues raised, instead he summarized Wienbergs evaluation into an inprecise one-liner. It is his right, but I would have liked to see Runekvist’ argumentation against the critisism raised.

    As for politeness on a moderated blog, let that be the problem of the moderator.

  8. #8 John Massey
    October 4, 2017

    No, as Martin’s long time friend, I take your rudeness in referring to him as “Rundkvist” (or in one case as “Runekvist”) personally, and I state a personal objection to it. If Martin thinks I am out of line, he will no doubt redact my comments, as is his right.

    And you might not want to try to tell me what to do or how to conduct myself. It does not, shall we say, bring out my nicer side.

    I am not going to rely on Google Translate to try to understand Wienberg’s evaluation. If you are not able to state it in intelligible English, you might want to stay away from stating it in gibberish on an English language blog.

  9. #9 Olof Öberg
    October 4, 2017

    I find Normanns posts perfectly understandable, and I agree with his conclusion – that Martin’s summary is not completely fair. (Which doesn’t mean that Weinberg’s conclusions or behaviour are fair, either.)

  10. #10 Normann Aa. Nielsen
    October 4, 2017

    @8 OK, I wrote “Runekvist” instead of “Rundkvist”. My apology. However, how can it be rude to use the last name of a person that you do not know? Is it more rude to do that than pick on a persons skill of language?

    For Scandinavian readers the following may be clearer than my English:
    Jeg kender ingen af parterne, hverken hr. Rundkvist eller hr. Wienberg. Mit indlæg er baseret på den foreliggende blog, og på den anmeldelse, som hr. Wienberg skrev i forbindelse med hr. Rundkvist habil. Jeg tillader mig at rejse den kritik, at hr. Rundkvist ikke adresserer substansen i kritikken, nemlig det kvalitative aspekt. Det er min pointe.

    Google translate does a fair job in translating this, if need…

  11. #11 John Massey
    October 4, 2017

    Your comprehension of written English must be better than mine, then. That’s pretty commendable for a Swede who can’t write English correctly himself.

  12. #12 John Massey
    October 4, 2017

    @10 – It’s rude just to refer to him by surname, particularly as you don’t know him. The English do it to address people with whom they are on fairly but not very friendly terms, but I am not English and also consider that rude. You are not English either, obviously.

    Try Dr Rundkvist.

  13. #13 Normann Aa. Nielsen
    October 4, 2017

    @12 No, I am Danish. I wrote that already in @7.

  14. #14 John Massey
    October 4, 2017

    @13 – Yes, thanks, you have mentioned several times now that you are Danish, as if that absolves you from anything.

    Have you ever wondered why the population of Denmark is so remarkably genetically homogeneous? If you were Japanese, people would call you xenophobic. There are other, less polite, words for that.

  15. #15 Normann Aa. Nielsen
    October 4, 2017

    @14 Interesting how your defence of your friend becomes a personal attack on other peoples nationality, country, language skills and more. With friends like this, Dr Rundkvist does not need any more support, I am sure.

    Good job, mr. Massey! You get what you want: I rest my case.

  16. #16 Fiona Anderson
    Victoria, Australia
    October 8, 2017

    John, mate, you’re out of line. Play the ball not the man.

    Yes, Normann’s English is awkward, it’s not his first language. Deal with it, or ask for clarification if need be. You cope with broken English on Martin’s FB page, at least when you generally agree with the comment. In 3 1/2 paragraphs there is one phrase that had me pulling faces trying to work it out. The rest is understandable.

    Referring to Martin as “Rundkvist” jars a little but it’s not uncommon. Surnames were used often at the boys’ school my brother went to in Melbourne, both by the teachers and amongst the boys themselves. You hear it on sports fields all the time.

    I have no idea whether Normann is a friend of Martin’s, a chance drop-in, or even a friend of Jes Wienberg’s, but he has bothered to give us a translation of the commentary. The only reason to attack Normann is if you have reason to believe he is not giving a fair translation. Could we please discuss the actual content, not the manner of it’s presentation.

  17. #17 John Massey
    October 8, 2017

    Fiona, I was deliberately being unpleasant, and deliberately playing the man, as you put it. I would have thought that was obvious.

    Come on, I live in a community where I am an ethnic minority of one – you think I can’t handle a bit of wonky English? I spend a lot of my work time editing very technical reports written by people for whom English is a second or even third language. I fix the English at the same time that I correct the technical errors. My Chinese boss has made me the gate-keeper of our technical reports because he is so appreciative of my ability to turn gibberish into what he calls my “beautiful English”. I live in a home where my wife and daughter converse in Cantonese, or Mandarin, or English, depending on what they feel like at the time. Often they will switch language mid-discussion, sometimes mid-sentence. Do you seriously think I can’t handle that?

    I disagree with you on the surname thing – I find it rude and offensive, and I always will. The teachers at the boys’ school I attended spoke to me that way and I accepted it as part of the student/teacher relationship (except for my English teacher in my final year, who always addressed me as Mr Massey – he was previously an instructor at Duntroon, and he was far and away the best teacher I ever had) but I will not accept it from anyone else. It costs nothing to treat other people politely.

    No, Nielsen has not given us a translation of the commentary. If you care to look at the commentary, it is long and detailed. I don’t accept Nielsen’s brief summary of it, which I maintain does not make sense. If he had attempted to give an English translation of the whole of Wienberg’s criticism, I might have felt more accommodating, but he didn’t. He made up his own garbled brief summary. If that made sense to you, and you thought it was justified, bloody good luck to you. I don’t care what you think.

    And in any case, I see no reason why Martin should have to give a point by point rebuttal of Wienberg’s criticism at this point. It’s his Blog, he can do and say what he likes. He was making a general point – Wienberg was a snake who didn’t play by the normally accepted rules. I thought that much was blindingly obvious from what Martin wrote. Whether Wienberg had any grounds in his detailed criticism, I don’t know, and don’t much care.

    I read Nielsen as a troll who was trying to get a rise out of Martin, and Öberg as another one, and I will be as unpleasant to such people as I like, whether you happen to approve of my behaviour or not. The arbiter of behaviour here is the Blog master, and that’s not you.

    And don’t tell me what to do, or you will get some of my less nice side too. Either that or I will just ignore you, depending on how I feel at the time and whether I have anything more diverting or valuable to do with my time.

  18. #18 Julia
    October 8, 2017

    Fiona is right. I understand Martin’s point very well. However, I usually tend to heard both sides.
    My English ist far from being perfect, but I can understand the point well enough. Assuming that being an ethnic minority prevents one from being being unfair to second language issue is logically not correct. It’s like assuming that a woman can’t be rassistic or antifeministic because she is part of a discriminated group herself. You see the point I think.^^
    Besides, Nielsen is obviously Danish or at least he writes Danish, not Swedish. Google Translator would have told you if you don’t believe him… If you assume that refering to someone’s last name is rude, what is it to refer to a Dane as a Swede?

    1) Adressing someone by the last name is standard in German academia, especially when talking about a person’s writing. You just have to look at a single review in a German journal. I can’t say if it is standard in Scandinavia.

    2) a) Nielsen critiseses that Martin does not name the main critic, and is far as I get it, there are some critic points that might be true.
    b) Nielsen makes clear he knows neither Martin Rundkvist not Jes Wienberg, as he stated in #10 (“Jeg kender ingen af parterne, hverken hr. Rundkvist eller hr. Wienberg”).
    c) I am pretty slow in reading Swedish, but as far as I can tell, there are some points that Wienberg says to be missing in Martin Rundkvistis works. I cannot judge that without having read the publication and other publications on that topic for I lack the qualification for Scandinavian archaeology.

    3) In Germany, there is a different appraoch to habilitations. But for other projects/jobs/scholarships you need other professionals evaluations. In Germany it is not uncommon to get a negative evaluation for such things. I, however, believe Martin Rundkvist’s point that it is not common in Sweden to get a negative evaluation.

    And yes, I know that like Archaeology in Germany, who gets jobs is hardly ever fair or based on objective criteria. I believe that Martin Rundkvist has not been treated fairly in his career. But that does not justify personal attacks on other people’s arguments, especially if these arguments have a point.

  19. #19 John Massey
    October 8, 2017

    My point about being an ethnic minority was to make clear that I have no problem understanding people writing/speaking imperfect English. Take my word for it, Cantonese and written Chinese are a lot more distant from English than Danish is.

    I didn’t say Nielsen is a Swede, I guessed that Öberg is.

    I don’t care what is standard in German academia. It is irrelevant.

    I believe that Nielsen and Öberg were trolling; trying to put in a hit. In any case, what I said is no reflection on Martin. If you are expressing disapproval of me, I couldn’t care less what you think. Clear?

    Any other points of logic that you need to have cleared up?

  20. #20 Julia
    October 8, 2017

    I know how different Standardchinese- though not Cantonese- is like compared to the Indoeuropean languages. (Wo shuo Hanyu.)

    They are not trolling, they just argue on base of the evaluation document that you have not read. You say you cannot read it or use Google translator. (Which, btw, works well for Swedish-English, but not so well for Swedish-German.) I would say, try to read the evaluation first before you say something about the argumentation based on a document before you have read it? (I don’t feel confident enough to translate two (foreign languages Swedish to English), but there is maybe a Native Speaker who can read Swedish?)
    I have read it partially and I say there might be a point in it. So did Öberg and Nielsen. I am a prehistoric archaeologist, but no specialist for Scandinavia, so I cannot judge how valid the named points are. But it is a valid point to say that Martin Rundkvist might have said something about the argumentation given in the evaluation. Of course, it is his right to do so in a personal blog. This, however, makes it hard to evaluate it even for me. Yes, I do understand very well why Martin Rundkvist is so angry about all that. But for a fact based argumentation, I would also like to know what he or maybe another Scandinavian archaeologist says to the mentioned points. And this is why those wo guys have a point and are not trolling, but discussing.

    Well, yes, there is one follow-up question on the logic. If you don’t care what other people think or argue, why are you so eager on commenting?

  21. #21 John Massey
    October 9, 2017

    846 pages of research, evaluated in less than two weeks.

    I have an IQ of 140+ and excellent reading comprehension, and I spend a lot of my working life reading and correcting complex technical reports. I have read Martin’s PhD thesis, given a very close reading to two of his books prior to publication, and have read some of his other work. I understand all of it. But I’m damned if I could come anywhere close to evaluating 846 pages of his work in less than two weeks.

    I think you need to read Martin’s post again. You are missing the point.

  22. #22 John Massey
    October 9, 2017

    As for your last question: “If you don’t care what other people think or argue, why are you so eager on commenting?”, now you are using wording intended to provoke, which makes you a troll too.

    Unless you have understood the points that Martin has made in his post, and have studied at least as much of his work, tracked through the references, etc. as I have, you cannot possibly be in a position to know whether Wienberg’s criticisms were valid or not. I doubt whether you, Nielsen, Öberg and Anderson have done that, which means you are all just trying to provoke, without knowing what you are talking about. (Of course, you could quote some of Martin’s work to illustrate the validity of Wienberg’s criticisms, but it is noticeable that not one of you has even attempted to do that.)

    So I am defending my friend, for whom I have a lot of respect, having carefully studied a lot of his work, against people who are just trying to needle; i.e. trolls, or airheads, pseuds and poseurs, who are just as bad. As for what you think of me, I really don’t care.

  23. #23 Fiona Anderson
    October 10, 2017

    Well, John (you will notice I don’t call you Massey, as I said, I don’t like it), it is you who has admitted to going out of your way to be rude and obnoxious. Having seen your comments over many years I used to think you were a reasonably decent bloke, but not any more.

    I also am a friend of Martin’s, but I am not an archaeologist, far less a Scandi one, and have only read his social media work, not his academic. I therefore did not and can not comment on what Jes Wienberg’s reasoning or ulterior motives may be. I am not trolling, I’m merely trying to see what happened through a language barrier.

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