Embracing the academic identity crisis

Since I started in my role as Research Associate on The Baudelaire Song project, I’ve gradually begun to explore a little corner of the huge world of Digital Humanities. Although I pride myself on being fairly tech-savvy, I wasn’t especially familiar with DH and I still have so much to learn about how we, as linguists, literary scholars, historians, philosophers and scholars working in cultural studies can use digital technologies to develop our research, and take it in innovative directions. I’m excited about how we can make digital tools work for us, but I’m also wary of the potential for the wealth of technology at our disposal to dumb-down the many strands of the humanities by shoe-horning computers, multimedia and data into research or by trying to automate and thereby devaluing solid “old-fashioned” research methods like close reading.

Trying to work out where Digital Humanities fits into my academic identity and where I fit into the discipline – if indeed, it can be called a discipline – of DH, I find myself having very similar internal conversations to the ones I had when trying to fathom out “who I was” professionally-speaking in the early stages of my time as a postgraduate, working on nineteenth-century French literature. Once again, Modern Languages are in the media for getting insufficient time on school timetables; for supposedly being poorly taught in academies up and down the country (which, if true is not the fault of teachers but of policy); for being unpopular with HE applicants (surely a symptom of the being devalued in secondary education) and for being a waste of time for young British adults living in a world where almost everyone speaks English (and where there’s an app to translate any text at the touch of a button). However, I’ve always felt that Modern Languages are far more than a single entity, and with the renewed controversy surrounding the future of language teaching and research in the UK, it seems timely to think (and write) about what being a Modern Linguist might or might not mean, beyond the ability to book a hotel room or order a pizza.

At school and in the early stages of my time at university, I considered myself a “linguist”, but when I started to engage more deeply wih French literature and culture as a Master’s student, I started to question this label. At this point, I realised that French had become, curiously, both more and less familiar to me than my native English. I liked English literature on and off since I was eleven – with the “on” phases attributable to some fantastic teachers (including my mother!), but even after training as an English teacher myself, specialising in advanced literature teaching, I still know more about Baudelaire than Byron and am far more familiar with Molière than I am with Marlowe. My cultural knowledge and interest is more based in French than in English – I can sing along mindlessly to French songs as well, if not better, than in English (I always succumb to mondegreens when listening to anglophone pop music!) and – depending on how much I practice – I can switch readily into the mindset I need to speak French (and less readily out of it). Despite all this, I definitely still make mistakes when French and, much as I’d love to be word perfect – I’m almost certain my French will always be marked by lapses in grammar and “ou”s and “r”s which drift into anglicised tones as I become more tired.

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I really started to enjoy French. My cohort were lucky in being very close friends and in getting on well with our language tutors, and provided we were discussing subjects we cared about, preparing for the oral exam felt like a nice chat (fortunately for me there was a 25% chance we’d get Music and Letters as a topic, so at least a quarter of our study sessions were spent discussing my two favourite things!), while the focus of revision tutorials on my favourite poets re-invigorated me, and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into my Masters. But around that time something changed (arguably for the better) and I lost my focus on the language: I  felt that I could no longer be a linguist – this isn’t to say that I felt I had risen to some lofty echelons of academic or linguist prowess – on the contrary, I felt a bit lost… I started to consider myself (and to those outside academia to speak of myself) as someone who basically studied English, but in French. This was fuelled, at least in part, by an increasing inability to explain to “lay-people” quite what I did all day. Within the discipline that was “French”, I felt I was expected by those outside my field to like everything that was stereotypically associated with the language, to embrace the prescriptivism of degree courses and to conform to the English perception of “THE French” – family and friends assumed that I loved Chanel (that, in itself isn’t so bad aside from the brand’s incompatibility with the average postgraduate income and with my love of bling and bangles, which defies Coco’s supposed dictum that you should always remove one accessory before leaving the house!), wearing Breton stripes (guilty!), and listened to Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel (if anyone ever finds me listening to Edith Piaf, assume something something dreadful has happened – possibly a personality transplant!). Worse still, like most undergraduate modern linguists I was constantly being asked whether I was going to be a translator or a teacher (admittedly, I’ve dabbled in both).

Being a student or an academic working in Modern Languages / Languages, Literatures and Cultures / other latest strapline given to the department you work in is a curious thing; although all of the many strands of the humanities are wide-ranging and polymorphous beasts “[qui n’ont] ni queue ni tête puisque tout, au contraire, y est à la fois tête et queue, alternativement et réciproquement”, crossing over one-another and leading in the most unexpected directions, nothing seems to be more unwieldy than being a “linguist” (or indeed, a Germanist / Hispanist / adopting the title of Frenchist to fit in with the others!). It’s easy to feel pigeon-holed by stereoypes of linguists and their languages and yet, in reality, studying a Modern Language gives you a strange privilege, allowing you dabble in some really weird and wonderful fields – from fashion history to politics, from music to gastronomy.

Ultimately, I see “Modern Languages” as a filter, a sort of linguistic and cultural lens which gives us carte blanche to be literary scholars, historians, philosophers, philologists or anthropologists as we wish, and allows us to stray into other disciplines, following the meandering path along which our research leads us. For some, like me, the language itself will blend into the background, allowing the literature, history and culture which is part of its make up to come to the fore and, for others, language itself will be a subject matter to be examined, explored and tested: in either case, language needs to be celebrated as a mode of experiencing and understanding the diverse people, places, cultures, emotions, experiences, practices, mindsets, traditions and values we encounter in all areas of our lives. We might then even go so far to say that languages are the mode by which the humanities are understood, experienced and studied, highlighting the need to value languages – both our mother tongues and others’ tongues, past and present – as part of our education system and, perhaps more importantly, as part of our cultural heritage.