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Conference in the arctic

Conference in the arctic

Professor Ingrid Urberg showcases her research north of the arctic circle in Svalbard

Ingrid Urberg recently returned from a conference in Svalbard where she was enveloped in the polar night, discussing the supernatural world.

The conference ran from Jan. 20-23 2017 and the discussions and presentations were on ‘Folk Belief’ & ‘The Supernatural in Literature and Film.’

Urberg, an Associate Professor of Scandinavian literature and culture and Norwegian language at Augustana, was immediately interested when she saw the title of the conference because she has worked extensively with Svalbard literature, folk literature and supernatural in literature.

Urberg’s presentation was on “Ancestral Spirits as Guides in the Alaska and Yukon Wilds: Navigating Boundaries between Genders and Species,” based on her latest research on representations of sled dogs and canids in general in northern literature.

“There are a lot of texts that I am working with, I realized, in which ancestral spirits play quite a large role. So I selected this topic based on one of my current research projects,” said Urberg.

The conference was a research consortium of about thirty five people and welcomed an interdisciplinary, and international group. There were people from India, Australia, several European nations and more, and they varied in profession including anthropologists and people involved with film. Urberg brought a unique perspective as no one else at the conference had worked with literature from Svalbard.

Over the course of the conference, Urberg shared her research and received feedback, made new connections, and now has a deeper understanding of the North than ever before.

Showcasing Augustana Research

Urberg has tended to pick research projects that support her personal passions, and she has always been interested in the north. Such is the case with her work that was published called “Svalbards Daughters”, research on the cabin in Norwegian crime fiction and crime fiction from Svalbard.

“It’s all relative, right?” said Urberg. “One of the reasons I took the job at Augustana was because it was north for me living in the States.”

Urberg’s work with Svalbard narratives that was published in 2007 was used as a basis for a play that toured throughout Norway. Unfortunately, Urberg was not informed, although she was credited, so she did not see the production.

“I thought wow, that is really neat because then it reaches a broader audience,” said Urberg.

Urberg has an interest in remote locations and therefore a lot of her work has been on northern literature, Svalbard being the northernmost part of Scandinavia.

“I think at any level when we do research we want to contribute something new, a new perspective” said Urberg. “I think that is very satisfying on a personal level, and it is satisfying to share and to get feedback and that is what is so great about conferences. You get immediate feedback.”

Urberg’s experiences in Svalbard were an opportunity to share research, hear of other people’s research and also help inform her current projects and perspectives.

Throughout her life she has been fascinated by the oral tradition and she is working on an oral history project called, “The Norwegian Immigrant Experience in Alberta.”

One of Urberg’s most enjoyable Norwegian encounters was actually on the way to Svalbard, in the form of oral storytelling. Her plane was caught in a storm which meant they could not land in Svalbard and had to retreat back to the mainland.

Once she realized she would be on the plane for a while she decided to chat with the woman beside her, Gry, a woman who had been living on Svalbard for twenty six years.

Urberg’s work with narratives of women in Svalbard led her to research Ingrid Pedersen, the first female pilot to fly over the North Pole. When she mentioned this to Gry she learnt that Gry had actually flown with Ingrid Pedersen.

Urberg, being the only professor in her field at Augustana, makes important connections at conferences. She usually attends three conferences every year. Some of them are to keep up with established relationships but others such as this Svalbard conference are to build new networks.

“I teach so very broadly within language, literature and culture. So for me it is not difficult no matter what I am doing to find something useful to support what I am teaching or to support one of my research projects,” said Urberg.

The conference presentations covered a wide range of topics. One individual talked about how supernatural beings have impacted decisions to build certain roads in Sweden. How people’s belief in the supernatural has shaped municipal, and infrastructure decisions.

A True Arctic Conference

The conference was held in Longyearbyen which is over 78 degrees north. It is a place that no one is allowed to leave without polar bear protection, since the island of Svalbard is home to approximately three thousand polar bears.

Island Dynamics, who were the conference organizers, wanted the participants to experience the isolation and remoteness in the context of the conversations. As part of the conference the group did a snowshoe excursion with guides over a small mountain.

“It was just for five hours so it wasn’t that far. It was nothing extreme” said Urberg.

In Svalbard there are four months of darkness, four months of light and four months of transition. Urberg’s passion for the north has taken her to Svalbard before but only in summer and in late winter; this was Urberg’s first time experiencing the polar night. It was unique for her to experience the darkness with a group of people who had a conversation going about isolation, remoteness and the supernatural.

“What was unique was that we experienced the remote environment in a tactile way and then we presented our work, having already experienced the polar night together as a group,” said Urberg. “It was unique to mix the experience with our more theoretical work.”

Along with experiencing the polar night she had a chance to try some arctic food at local restaurants, including whale which she noted tastes like beef.

New perspectives

Urberg believes it important when writing about a place to have experienced it. Although a visit is nothing compared to living there or being there before planes could, Urberg finds that visiting places such as Svalbard helps to inform her work.

“I really make an attempt to go to the places I write about,” said Urberg. “The polar night was a unique experience and it helped me understand the texts that I work with because they talk a lot about the polar night.”

After her visit to Svalbard, Urberg has many new connections, new knowledge and feels invigorated to continue her research and teaching. She looks forward to the fall when she will be teaching a first year seminar course on wolves, incorporating new knowledge and resources she gained from the conference.

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