Modern Languages, Digital Humanities and the impact of Interdisciplinarity

Friday, 8 April 2016 saw the eighth annual Day of Digital Humanities  in which members of the academic community took to social media to share their own versions of a Day of the Life of Digital Humanities and to build up a picture of what Digital Humanities look like across the globe. The event showcases the diverse applications and outcomes of research which falls into the category of Digital Humanities research and provided a welcome opportunity for us all to reflect on our own involvement in this field.

What do the Digital Humanities mean for scholarship?

While the concept of using technology in humanities research arguably dates back to 1949, when Jesuit priest and scholar Father Roberto Busa came up with the idea for a  machine to facilitate him in his project of  creating an index of all the words in the works of Thomas Aquinas [1], the establishment of the Digital Humanities as a discipline, a mode of working, or as a way of identifying and uniting technological approaches to scholarly research is much more recent. Nevertheless, as most modern academics use some form of technology in the long process from initial idea to proposal to presentation of findings, we could say that, to some extent, we are all Digital Humanists. A thorough engagement with the Digital Humanities, which places a real emphasis on digital methodologies and on using technology to develop innovative strategies, can often lead to exciting new avenues of research.

Digital methodologies are particularly relevant to history, literary studies and musicology, as they allow us to look at “old” material with fresh eyes. While, arguably, there is always something new to find in studying Shakespeare and Goethe, analysing arias by Mozart, looking at Medieval manuscripts, or gathering information from sources from the past, vast amounts of time and research has already been put into building up comprehensive analyses of many well-known literary texts or musical compositions. Using technological approaches to study the production, reception or context of these works, on the other hand, can give new insight, offer up undiscovered information, and make possible the creation of large-scale databases and meticulous quantitative analyses that would simply have been unthinkable to undertake manually.  Digital Humanities also goes hand-in-hand with the necessary move towards engaging with scientific methods, which has been an important topic of discussion for many years, as highlighted, for example, by the Rockefeller Commission Report of 1978, entitled “The Humanities in American Life” [2] and discussed in Stephen Pinker’s polemic “Science is not your Enemy“. [3]

 

Digital Humanities and the Modern Languages: an interdisciplinary approach

The strong affinity between Digital Humanities and Modern Languages comes, I suggest, from the broad focus of both. Willard McCarty and Harold Short have drawn-up a diagram mapping the relationship between computational methodologies and the wide-ranging disciplines encompassed by “The Humanities”, which can be found in McCarty’s 2005 article “Computational Humanities” (diagram found on p. 1125 of the linked document). This diagram highlights the pertinence of  using digital technology in designing, building, conducting and reporting research in diverse fields from musicology to history, from literary studies to philosophy, from linguistics to anthropology and many more in between. What is particularly striking, however, is that this diagram could, with very little re-working, stand for researchers working in the many departments which come under the banner of Modern Languages.

Language studies  are interdisciplinary by their very nature. In many respects, the work we do as “linguists” is similar to that of our colleagues in other fields of the humanities – be they historians, musicologists, literary scholars in English or specialists in cultural studies; the key difference is that we are working through the filter of a language which is not English, which – for many of us – is not our mother tongue, however well we might speak and understand it. The idea of Modern Language studies as a mode, rather than a discipline might be somewhat controversial but, in straitened times, when language departments across the UK are struggling to recruit students, it is worth celebrating the value of the Modern Languages as a gateway to so many other disciplines and as a vital part of so many different cultural heritages and traditions.

Considering both Digital Humanities and Modern Languages as a mode allows us, as researchers to wander into uncharted territory, to try new things and to understand language, literature, art and culture. While Digital Humanities are to be embraced wholeheartedly, we should not consider this changes in academic methodology to be a case of “out with the old, in with the new”, or a scholarly trend to be shoe-horned into every project, but as a way of re-assessing and re-defining our approach to scholarship.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2011/aug/12/father-roberto-busa-academic-impact

[2] A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/

[3] Stephen Pinker, “Science is not your Enemy”, https://newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities;

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.

Why are children falling out of love with learning?

I find myself in the very fortunate position of being able to pursue and share the things that I care about, that interest and excite me, every single day. This is now part and parcel of my job, but the thinking that goes on my desk leads me down other avenues and leaves me reflecting on all sorts of questions long after I’ve left the office. Taking my work home with me is no longer a chore – I’ve swapped bags of exercise books, nights of planning and a short, stressful commute for pondering poetics on the bus and translating song lyrics on the sofa.  I love learning and discovering new things, and I am thoroughly enjoying the chance to put language, technology and the arts ‘through their paces’, to see not only what they can do for us, but what we can do with them.

Several interesting points arose from chatting to a French friend recently, regarding the emphasis placed on culture in schools. As a Primary school teacher in England, she feels that literature, arts and music are deemed a hugely important part of young children’s education in Britain, but that this stops at age 11. Following a short-lived career as a secondary school English teacher, I would concur that many (though thankfully not all!) secondary schools in the UK are almost devoid of cultural interest and awareness – there is no time for arts and culture in a world where results matter, at the expense of nurturing intellectual development. I have worked in a school where, due to staff shortages (i.e. an apparent refusal to invest in personnel) the music department was in danger of shutting down, while the Modern Languages department had been ‘gobbled up’ by the humanities department. I can’t help feeling that French and Spanish lessons are merely tick-box exercises, the last scraps of an education system which used to value other languages, and a sign of the fact that for contemporary academies, running a school is a question of keeping costs down and league table positions up.

It was not always thus. Growing up in the nineties and early 2000s, my experiences of both primary and secondary school were culturally rich and varied: highlights of my primary school years include studying pointillism in Year 3 and listening to a piece of music (usually classical) every day of the week as we entered and left assembly. The fact that, twenty years later these experiences remain ingrained in my memory is a testimony to the fact that exposing young children to culture actually works: beyond curricula and purple pens of progress, beyond co-operative strategies and learning pyramids, teachers should be allowed to share the things they are passionate about. My Year 3 teacher loved art, my Year 5 teacher adored music – it is thanks to these two inspirational teachers that I found out about the Impressionists, that I heard the New World Symphony before the age of ten and, what’s more, I knew who composed it. These teachers set me on cultural paths which would flourish in the decades that followed when, as a member of a county youth orchestra, I finally got to play flute in an orchestral performance of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony at Symphony Hall in Birmingham or when, at university, I read French writers such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé writing about great artists like Edouard Manet. I might have discovered these artists and musicians for myself later on, but having been so immersed in art, literature, music and culture as a child, encountering new artists, authors, poets, composers was as normal to me as watching a TV series or discovering a new pop group.

Fortunately for me, my secondary school had a secure reputation and I was there at a time where teachers were still able, both physically and psychologically to invest in their pupils and in their subject. In years 7 and 8, my English teachers wrote reading lists as I devoured one book after another while, during my A-levels, my teachers lent me CDs and recommended bands I should listen to, until my collection of compilations overtook their knowledge of French pop music, and I was able to return the favour. Going ‘above and beyond’ like this is something which today’s teachers can only dream of: as a school teacher, I had many good intentions of helping my pupils explore new authors, learn about film studies, read other poems and look at translation; in practice I was always preparing for observations, teaching what I was being told to teach, in the way I thought I ought to do it, with a nagging sense of guilt that I was letting my pupils down and ignoring what really mattered. One of the many part-time jobs I had whilst pursuing postgraduate study involved taking enthusiastic sixth formers further in exploring modern languages, helping them to discover new authors and explore other cultures; this was at a prestigious independent school, which was untouched by the pressures of league tables and in which SEN pupils were rare but overwhelmingly supported. If state schools could afford to create jobs like this, it would undoubtedly serve them well; it might not give them the data they need to prove that they are ‘outstanding’, but it would provide pupils – those without whom no school can exist, let alone thrive – with a chance of an outstanding education which will stay with them far beyond exam season.

Ultimately, the results-driven nature of secondary schools leaves no time for cultural development; but what is the point of a clutch of A* grades if you lack the cultural knowledge that goes with it? These days, the stakes are high for getting into university – securing a place at a highly-regarded institution, on a well-organised and well-delivered course requires high grades and an original, intelligent, eloquent personal statement. But, I would argue that an ability to pass exams does not necessarily co-exist with the intellectual curiosity and self-motivation required to succeed in an university environment and to get the best out of this structure. Some higher education institutions seem to be addressing the changing face of secondary education by becoming more like schools, a move which may well suit undergraduates who are a product of an excessively regimented, over-protective system; others, however, are simply asking for more from their students and – invariably – getting it. These are the establishments which will produce creative, intellectually curious graduates with the flexibility and capacity to succeed in varied industries. The ability to ‘think outside the box’ and to be ‘solutions-focussed’ (to use the business-speak terminology of the current job market) is required in our rapidly changing world of technological growth, political uncertainty and financial instability, yet many young people seem to be concerned not with process but with product, prizing scores and certificates over skills.

Despite the restrictions foisted upon educators, parents and, crucially, by the government and by financial constraints, study is not simply a means to an end but immensely valuable in its own right. I can’t help feeling that, as a nation, we’ve lost sight of this, and are placing a tax upon education, while our European counterparts charge minimal fees for higher education. Of course, the UK still boasts some of the best higher education establishments in the world, but placing a levy on learning and shamelessly attracting international students, to take advantage of the extortionate fees they are willing to pay is a sign that we prize money above intellectual and cultural value. Education is worth so much more when it is not translated into financial terms. By the same logic, a ‘good’ degree does not necessarily mean an easy route into a good job: this might be a problem for some, but is that why we do it? I certainly chose my own degree course because I was passionate about languages and literature, not because I had a burning desire to be a translator or a French teacher (disclaimer: many other excellent jobs are available to a modern languages graduate, it’s just that everyone thinks this is what you want to do if you study languages at university!). With the current jobs market promising varied opportunities for some, but delivering doubt and disappointment for many, it’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a course for the potential fame and fortune it might bring, than following a course where you have the passion, self-motivation and interest to succeed. But what is the point in investing considerable amounts of time, money and effort in a course which doesn’t excite you?

Many young people are proving that, in the right context, they can think, learn and create for themselves; they don’t need to be taught using Kagan learning strategies to achieve this and they don’t need to have a teacher who is scrutinised to see if they can create the ideal seating plan, when all they want to do is talk about the subject they are passionate about. What young people do need, what we all need, is a chance to fall in love with a subject for themselves, and – sometimes – to know when to sit down, shut up and listen to the expert.  If we give children the chance to explore arts, languages, culture and science for themselves and stop worrying about data, then – who knows – they might actually learn something.

Surprising Cultural Coincidences (Part 2)

One of my final ventures as an English teacher, and my task for today, is to plan an English Language unit of work, entitled ‘The English Language from Chaucer to Emoji’. As soon as I spotted this intriguing module, I put my name down to plan it. In one sense, this was a fit of enthusiasm I am now living to regret, as the final deadline looms and I attempt simultaneously to work my way through the seemingly endless barrage of ‘life admin’ which comes with imminent relocation and starting a new job; in another sense, however, this unit has immense potential to improve our children’s knowledge and appreciation of their linguistic and cultural heritage, and allows us to celebrate the brilliance and diversity of the English language.

Chaucer was very much a popular cultural icon of his day; the Canterbury Tales depict some of the various strata of medieval society in vivid and often obscene detail. This is exactly what modern TV dramas, soap operas and serials do every day on our screens, so why shouldn’t today’s school children approach Chaucer with the same enthusiasm as a soap opera? To my mind there are two key reasons why the classics of English literature (and, indeed, literature of other languages and from other cultures) are just not popular: the first of these is to do with the image of history, the other is a question of accessibility.

The history curriculum in schools is rich and varied, looking at the history of other cultures and focussing on major global events which have shaped the world we live in today – this is exactly what a history curriculum should do – so far so good. However, the problem with this selective approach to history is that we lose any sense of chronology and that young adults thus have no sense of what was happening in Britain at a particular point in time. This is a problem I have struggled with myself on many occasions – at school, I never really felt I had a clue about history; I would easily get involved in the topics I studied and felt I had a firm understanding of various ‘pockets’ of world history but I failed to see the bigger picture. Even today, I’m pretty good on Chairman Mao and what was happening in Tienanmen Square in the 1970s; what I’m not so good at is telling you who was on the throne in Britain at a particular time – I just don’t really know my Plantagenets from my Saxe-Coburgs. At a recent pub quiz, a friend and colleague of mine with a good English degree from a respected university suggested quite seriously that Queen Victoria might have been on the throne at the time Shakespeare was writing (!). When I had tactfully restored our chances of success in the quiz (I don’t lose graciously), I took time to reflect and realised that the sketchy historical knowledge of my generation is, at least in part, down to our education system.

So, in planning the ‘Chaucer to Emoji’ scheme of work, I now have a chance to explore literary and historical chronology for myself, to trace cultural trends and to share these with school children. I really hope that by allowing children to explore how our literary and linguistic heritage has evolved, they might appreciate it more deeply. If you understand the links between literary and historical movements, and between texts themselves, you can gain so much more from reading them. While, in many ways, I am a great traditionalist, I am also a lover of technology and modern cultural tends – I really love ‘cultural comfort food’ such as having a cup of tea in front of a soap opera after a long day, singing along to a catchy chart hit in the car or just flicking through a glossy magazine on a train. As a teacher, I think it is hugely important to have a foot in two cultural camps – clearly it’s essential to have sound and profound subject knowledge when working in a teaching context; however, it’s also important to be (dare I say it) ‘down with the kids.’

Perhaps the greatest cultural leveller, as far as I’m concerned is ‘Hollyoaks’, Channel 4’s long-running teen soap, set in Chester. In Hollyoaks Village, there seem to be a limited range of career paths, with most young people graduating to work either in the pub, shop or restaurant, or going into teaching. Hollyoaks Community College, or HCC, as it is known to residents and aficionados, seems to be staffed entirely by English teachers who, as long-serving members of cast, came good, following a rocky period discovering their sexuality, kicking the drug habit or recovering from anorexia / OCD.

Yes – it’s a hard life being a soap opera character and if there’s one thing Hollyoaks does well, it’s ‘issues’; yet despite an underlying didacticism, the show also seems to be a clever and well-thought out aesthetic project. The soundtrack is always carefully chosen to suit the occasion and the character, fusing classical music, with gritty grungy indie tracks an R&B hits. This musical diversity has long been recognised – I remember from my teenage years seeing the Hollyoaks soundtrack available for sale in HMV; nowadays, Channel 4 has a dedicated Hollyoaks playlist, featuring tracks from the programme, which is updated daily. As someone who regularly wants to ‘name that tune’, when watching television and films, I think this facility should be available for all TV programmes. I often think that life should come with a soundtrack and, for me, the beauty of the music on Hollyoaks is that it exposes viewers to the kind of musical experience you usually get on long car journeys (if, like me, you enjoy the eclecticism of flicking between Heart FM, Classic FM, Radio 2 and Radio 3!).

All those English teachers make for a pleasing mix of literary references, which, regrettably, are probably lost on the majority of Hollyoaks’ teenage audience. My suggestion is that these literary ‘Easter eggs’ – to borrow the gaming term – allow Hollyoaks scriptwriters to prove their mettle to those well-versed enough to appreciate this intertextuality. This raises an important question – how will viewers appreciate this dialogue between cultural media if they have no awareness of their literary and cultural heritage? Fundamentally, I think that an enjoyment of different literary genres is something that people must discover for themselves; our task as teachers, academics, broadcasters and cultural enthusiasts is to make this cross-referencing and intertextuality accessible to the next generation. And with that, it is time to plan that scheme of work…!

Surprising cultural coincidences (Part 1)

As a secondary school English teacher, I am depressingly aware of the fact that children often feel that the texts they read at school are irrelevant to them, that they have nothing to do with their everyday lives and, increasingly, that they are a relic of a bygone era. With the reforms to the GCSE English curriculum put in place by Michael Gove, that is even more the case, as modern texts and literature from other cultures have been shafted in favour of supposedly ‘canonical’ works – no doubt my Key Stage Three pupils are as thrilled by the prospect of studying Great Expectations as I am about teaching it. Needless to say, my expectations are anything but great…

As a lover of literature, I find it difficult to understand how my pupils could not be fascinated by the interaction between everyday life and art in all its forms – past and present, foreign and familiar, high brow and low brow.  Indeed, my meandering career, thus far, has been founded almost entirely upon a passion for the written word, an obsession with the craft of the text and an insatiable desire to seek out connections and coincidences within and across art forms.

There is some fantastic work going on in the arts, culture and the media on highlighting cultural references and bringing interdisciplinary connections to public attention. In this post, I want to share one of my favourite recent media moments – a clip from ‘Match of the Day’, broadcast last year during the 2014 FIFA World Cup (I like to think my pupils would be very impressed and rather proud if they knew that I was blogging about the World Cup).

The clip in question is not something I would have expected to see on ‘Match of the Day’ – it is not a penalty kick, an own goal, or even a streaker on the pitch; to my mind it is something far more exciting: Thierry Henri, reading a poem by Charles Baudelaire. Had I known such things might happen on ‘Match of the Day’, I would have watched the programme avidly myself; as it is, I have to confess to having heard of this momentous broadcast second hand, before logging onto YouTube in search of ‘the ocular proof’.

Thierry Henri had already secured his place as one of my favourite footballers, prior to the 2014 World Cup. He had the advantage of being one of the few I had heard of, besides the ubiquitous Beckham and ’90s heroes like Giggsy and ‘ooh ahh Cantona’ (pre-acting career). Henri also scored himself bonus points in the favourite footballer category by starring in the Renault adverts in the early noughties, waxing lyrical about ‘va va voom’ in his endearing francophone tones; his reading of Baudelaire’s “Elévation” in the minutes leading up to the hotly anticipated World Cup play-off between France and Germany in 2014 simply served to secure his place as (probably) my number one sportsman of all time. Even though things didn’t work in France’s favour in the game, the poem came across as a poetic pep-talk, a call for ‘Les Bleus’ to aim high, to rise up beyond the sun, beyond the ether, beyond the starry skies, to fill their bellies with fire and lose themselves in the pleasure of playing football.

I have often questioned the English tendency to refer to football as ‘the Beautiful Game’, blighted, as it often seems to be in this country, with tales of bad behaviour from footballers and fans alike; in linking the sport to the Baudelairean experience of ‘Elévation’, Thierry Henri’s slot on ‘Match of the Day’ allowed me to see football in a new light, to conceive of it as an art. In spite of my delight, the moment also left me feeling puzzled: why a French sportsman reading a French poem? Why should this happen only when two continental teams went head to head? Why have we not heard Wayne Rooney reading W.H. Auden? Why has Steven Gerrard not been spotted spouting Shakespeare’s sonnets? When will David Beckham treat us to a few lines from fellow Londoner William Blake?

French literature and culture offers fertile territory for explorations of interdisciplinary connections and cultural ‘cross-pollination’; this is, I argue, because the arts still matter in France and because they are open to all. When Thierry Henri reads Baudelaire, it means something to a French audience and it’s cool – as testified by the online movement ‘Le Geek, C’est Chic’ (http://legeekcestchic.eu/). In Britain, being a geek is still considered more freak than chic – especially where literature is concerned. If Ashley Cole started quoting Coleridge, we’d all think he’d gone crazy. Living in the UK, I feel a strong sense that the arts still matter, but in many parts of the country and in many social circles, the class divide rages on. The fact that every time I go to the local theatre, I find myself among the youngest and, probably, the least well off in the audience says more about the demographics of theatre-goers than it does about the age and income of the local population.

As I contemplate my return to academia, I think frequently of the legacy I want to leave my pupils. Ultimately, I believe that if knowledge is power, art is pleasure. While I do care about their progress and about helping them all to get the C grades (or 4s!) they need in their GCSEs, what matters more to me, is that they can access both the power and the pleasure which learning can bring, and that they are never embarrassed to be educated.