Languages and privilege

Learning a language is an immense privilege. Teaching, researching, and working with modern foreign languages is extremely rewarding on multiple levels. Yet the privileges that high-level language competence bring can be fraught with problems, particularly in terms of access to language learning and language mobility.

The word ‘privilege’ is becoming increasingly loaded. Newspapers describe how modern society is tainted by growing disparities between different economic and social privileges associated with rank or status. Yet this meaning of the word ‘privilege’ is only one of a number of meanings of the word (and is classed as the 6th meaning in a list of 10 in the OED).[1] While other meanings have now become obsolete (such as the historical ecclesiastical usages of the term), there is another meaning to the word which is increasingly overlooked:

privilege, n. an exceptionally rare and fortunate opportunity; the honour or good fortune of something or to do something

In much of the recent debate about languages, language teaching, and language learning in this country, there has rightfully been a concern that the removal of compulsory language requirement at GCSE level in 2004 has restricted access to language learning so that only the privileged few (often those at private schools who retain the value of language learning, and can allay the time, costs and hard work it involves through pupil engagement at a high level of achievement). While new provisions are coming into force which should open up access to languages once again, such as increased provision at primary level since 2014, and the introduction of the EBacc language requirement by 2020, the damage that had been done to potential language learners of a certain generation remains palpable. On top of this, community languages go unrecognised in a political landscape which hotly debates the pros and cons of immigration.

As a university academic who has worked in the sector for a decade, I have seen first-hand the changing profile of students coming to study languages. I happen to lecture in one of the major second languages taught in his country, and the language of one of our closest European neighbours with whom we conduct significant amounts of trade. But I am confident speaking 3 European languages besides English, having learnt them at school or university, and as an adult learner I spent 2 years studying Welsh. Putting myself back in the position of a beginner language learner as a ‘grown up’ (albeit one with a natural facility for languages and a heightened technical awareness of grammatical construction, usage, and language-learning techniques) reminded me of the energy and commitment that goes in to mastering another tongue. Unless you are supported and have regular access to ways of hearing, speaking, and writing in another language, it can be extremely difficult to make tangible progress.

And this is why I feel privileged. Not because I have the advantage of being able to negotiate at a high level using foreign languages in complex and nuanced ways. Not because I have the financial wherewithal to travel to the countries that speak the languages I speak. But because languages have bestowed on me a special honour of being able to think and act multilingually. I am comfortable switching between French, Italian, German, and English because I have been enabled to do it for years through sustained access to those languages. I also know that I find switching into German more mentally draining than Italian, for example, perhaps because I have lived and worked in Italy, but never in Germany, or perhaps because I just ‘click’ more with Italian. I have had the opportunity to work in the legal and financial sectors using all 3 of my main languages, and I continue to collaborate with the cultural industries in France in my job as a university academic. The privilege I, and others like me, enjoy is being able to think and behave in completely different ways. I understand how the French structure their arguments and thoughts, and that makes a major difference to how we can work together. The advantages this multilingual – and multicultural – knowledge brings with it cannot be underestimated.

Learn a language, any language, as long as it’s a language. I don’t care which language it is that we each learn besides English (usually choosing one that culturally suits your temperament is a good bet). But I do care that language learning, and all the benefits it brings, is increasingly becoming restricted to a privileged few. The privilege of being a good linguist is an honour that more of us, and a more diverse group of us, need to enjoy, so that it is no longer an exceptionally rare opportunity, and no longer confined to those of a certain social status. Schools, colleges, and universities all have an important part to play in this, but more importantly, we need to start changing the way we think and talk about foreign languages in this country.

[1] “privilege, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.

Setting up The Baudelaire Song Project

IMG_7939LowResWhen I was awarded £594,000 from the AHRC for The Baudelaire Song Project to research all the song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry, I was naturally over the moon. But I was also very aware of how much there is to do to get the project fully off the ground and running exactly as I want it to. With the project kicking off this month, the focus for now is mostly the logistical planning side. I’ll be heading up a small team of 4-6 researchers, working with Co-Investigator Dr Mylène Dubiau from Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and HRI Digital, plus a yet-to-be-recruited post-doctoral Research Associate, and it’s important all the right elements of the project are in place.

That also means getting the project website up and running, with logo and images that capture why we’re researching Baudelaire songs right now, and how important the project’s findings promise to be. So this blog post is mostly about acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work of a group of brilliant designers, photographers, web designers and site builders, branding experts, and advisors on programming, performance, video and audio capture, and more besides who have been integral to getting this project off on the right foot. Special mention here is needed for Stewart Campbell who advised on branding and contacts, Gareth Widdowson who’s worked on our logo for usBaudelaire Logo GREY-ORANGE-small, and photography by Craig Fleming. These contributions are the ‘unseen’ parts of a big research project, but investing in them from the get-go means that we’ll be able to connect properly with people around the globe who have things to tell us about Baudelaire and song.

If you’re a composer, a songwriter, a translator, a curator/festival director, or simply a Baudelaire fan, we want to hear from you. Tweet us on @BaudelaireProj, and as soon as the website is live, we’ll share as much as we can with you all.

Study Leave Roundup

Back in the office

When I started this Study Leave Blog back in February 2015, I had an idea what the end-point would look like, but wasn’t sure how I’d get there. From day one, I focused on strategies for dealing effectively with a period of leave from teaching and admin responsibilities, and to help me with that, I devised a Study Leave Planner which I referred to regularly. By the end of Study Leave, I managed to complete everything I’d hoped for, plus a little bit more. This suggests that I was both realistic and optimistic about what I could get done. It wasn’t without its ups and downs, however, so I thought I’d share a few of the key points – both positive and negative – in a Study Leave Roundup.

Why do you call it ‘Study Leave’?

This was one of the first questions I got asked, by a colleague at another university. It’s a fair point. Study leave, or #studyleave if you use Twitter, has other resonances, namely school and college students going off to revise for GCSE and A-level exams. It makes academic study leave sound perhaps a bit simplistic. Other universities, including the one I used to work at, call it sabbatical. This term, too, has other connotations (if you’re on ‘sabbatical’ people think that means you’re taking time out doing nothing). Research leave is perhaps the most self-explanatory, but many outside of academia don’t understand what that means. So I decided to stick with study leave because it’s what my university officially calls it (and all the related paperwork surrounding the period of paid leave calls it that), and I really enjoyed using the #studyleave hashtag to find out what others were doing, whether of school age or academics like me.

How long do you get?

Officially, my study leave covered one semester – so the exact dates of the teaching term + the exam session attached to that semester. In reality, there are some issues with this. Other universities automatically include the long vacation that either precedes of follows, but mine doesn’t (recognising that summer is often ‘research time’ for most academics anyway, although there remains a moot point about exactly when you stop or pick up admin duties). In all, got about 4.5 months, or about 18-19 weeks, but there is some flexibility in the system. My first official week of leave was taken up still with marking and related exam admin from the previous semester, so I didn’t really get going properly until what should officially have been the second week of leave. This bleed-through of admin duties is an unavoidable feature of an academic’s career, but it needs to be handled sensitively and carefully, being respectful to other colleagues who take up the load when you’re on leave.

What did you get done?

My main achievements were:

  1. A detailed book proposal fleshed out and sent to publisher (who responded positively requesting to see 2 chapters)
  2. 3 book chapters written = 32,000 words / 90,000 planned total. 2 chapters sent on to the publisher as requested
  3. 2 articles written and submitted to peer-reviewed journals (both c.8,000 words)
  4. Proofs for 1 article and 1 book chapter arrived in my inbox during leave, both corrected (with article now in print, and book chapter due to come out this summer)
  5. Awarded £590,000 research grant from the AHRC to conduct The Baudelaire Song Project. Project starts 1 July 2015 and runs to 1 September 2019 examining ‘all the song settings ever’ of this major nineteenth-century French poet. Proposal had been submitted in October, but reviewers’ reports came through in week 2 of leave, so a full week was dedicated to turning around the PI response (which obviously paid off!)
  6. Delivered a paper at major subject-association conference SDN in Glasgow
  7. Abstract submitted for 2 conferences later in the year, both accepted (for Baudelaire post-1900 panel at ICMSN conference Glasgow, and NCFS Princeton on Contamination)

In essence, I completed everything on my Study Leave Planner:

  1. Core Research: this was the section that expanded as I went along (to include new conference papers and remaining book chapters).
  2. Research-Related: all ticked off by end of June
  3. Teaching/Admin-Related: all ticked off by end of March.

I had set myself a mental writing target of 34,000 words by end of July. I completed 32,000 words by end of June, leaving me space to focus on revisions of the 2 articles I had submitted right at the start of study leave in February during June/July.

What did you fail to do?

I had thought I would need to do a number of tasks to make progress with my research and writing, but the needs for these changed as leave progressed:

  1. I didn’t go to Paris for an extended research trip as expected. The reasons for this were both practical/logistical and personal, but in fact the research needs changed (I can go to the BnF in the summer months instead, which better suits the chapters I’ll be writing then)
  2. I didn’t launch a project website for the Baudelaire Song Project. Instead, I focused on developing the project Twitter feed and launching an infographic. The website will come in July/August 2015 instead
  3. I didn’t complete the revisions for the 2 articles I had submitted in February. I wanted to prioritise completing the book chapters; the revisions can be done during July

Were there any issues that got in the way of researching?

There were quite a few things that cropped up that I didn’t know quite how to factor in:

  1. Working on 2 major building projects – one at my own home, one at my parents’ house 3 hours’ drive away.
  2. My mother fracturing her hip/pelvis in a cycling accident in February just as my father was about to head to Australia on a 2-week business trip.
  3. Student references needing urgent turnaround (for MA or job applications)
  4. Grant proposal right of response (7 day turnaround, inclusive of a weekend!)

The way I dealt with these was to refer to my Study Leave Planner, and tweak the dates for each task, assigning ‘process’-type tasks to weeks when I was on the move and/or on a building site, and saving up the ‘thinking’ tasks to weeks when I had a clear diary.

Other duties are not relinquished during study leave, and these also needed to be balanced with the core research work, including:

  1. Editor role for Dix-Neuf, handling article submissions, peer review, and copy editing, as well as revising submission procedures and guidelines
  2. External examining for BA French programmes at another university (Limerick)
  3. PhD supervision (including supporting one student in the run-up to submission)

What helped you to keep up momentum?

The most productive thing I did was to change my working environment at different points of my research. My main ‘base’ was my home office, but I worked in a number of other spaces. These included:

  1. A number of 3-day research trips to Cambridge and London
  2. Borrowing a friend’s flat to write in (during the weeks when the builders were doing heavy drilling and banging at home)
  3. A couple of local cafes
  4. The university libraries

I never did any work in my office, although I did pop in from time to time to sort bits and pieces of admin and/or collect some paperwork or books I needed.

Top tips

  • Use a Study Leave Planner. Mine looks something like this (heavily redacted!):
    Study Leave Planner_redacted
  • Balance process tasks with thinking tasks
  • Change your working space from time to time
  • Keep focused on what the main outcomes are, to avoid getting bogged down in the smaller stepping-stone tasks
  • Write a blog about your leave – it builds interaction with others

And finally

Being back in the office is wonderful. Catching up with colleagues, and getting back into the swing of ‘normal’ academic life is not a downer like I thought it might be. I loved my time on leave, but I’m relishing the chance to get on with other things now leave has ended.

Study Leave: Week 18

Writing progress update

Academics have lots of strategies for making progress with writing. Some are endless procrastinators, some have daily writing targets. Different approaches work for different people at different stages of a research piece, as the Twitter hashtag #writingpact attests to. The writing pact idea sees researchers of all levels from all around the globe publicly sharing their writing goals in the hope of attaining a greater sense of accountability and solidarity, especially for those enjoying a sustained period of writing (and the ‘isolation’ that comes with that).

I work a little bit differently. I know I can write, and I know how much I can write. What I can’t predict is exactly how much I’ll do each day. Some days my brain is not in the right place for writing, so I do other tasks instead, or take a day off research/writing altogether. I don’t promise myself I will write x hundred words on a given day, because I’ll simply be annoyed with myself at the end of the day if I don’t achieve it. It means I’ve got short-term targets which flex, even if the longer-term targets remain the same. At the start of my study leave back in February, I set the target of writing the first 3 chapters of my new book, totalling 34,000 words, by the end of July. The end-date for those 34,000 words is not in fact the final week of my study leave (which is next week), because I accepted that (a) the end of my official period of institutional study leave tallies with the start of the summer vacation period which is when most academics get a lot of their research done, (b) I would need that amount of time to get that many words done.

The upshot is that I am staring down the barrel of the approaching end of my study leave with 27,000 words already under my belt, with another week of study leave still to go, and at least another 5,000 words achievable within that time. It’s a huge achievement for me. And, more importantly, these are words which count, which have been edited pretty reasonably, and are not just words for the sake of words. In essence, I will have achieved my long-term writing target sooner than I planned. Which means I can crack on with the next chapter during the summer, keeping everything on schedule (or even a little bit ahead). I just hope that this isn’t the pride before the fall…!

Study Leave Week 17

The power of digitised research

The traditional activity of the arts and humanities academic digging out and poring over rare manuscripts in archives and libraries still remains the bread-and-butter of our research, but it is changing. With increasing digitisation of so many resources, the need for travel and extended research trips to difficult-to-access archives (often negotiating with protective archivists and librarians) is waning. This doesn’t diminish the extent of the research we need to do, but it does make us rethink our modus operandi.

For me, as I write and research my third book, I have noticed a significant change even in the 4 or 5 years since I was conducting the bulk of the primary research for my second book (in 2010-11, published 2012).  One of the major resources I need to consult frequently is the Département de la Musique holdings at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Contoversially scheduled to move sites in the coming years, the holdings and access to them are more precious than ever. Up until a few years ago, the majority of the catalogue (and holdings) were still only available in paper-card index format, consultable only in person at the rue Louvois site. Now, as I research less well-known French chanson and mélodie settings of Baudelaire, I am reliant once again on the Département de la Musique’s collections. Having assumed a research trip to Paris would be the first port of call for me as I deepened my primary research, I have discovered that in fact a number of the rare songs I need to consult are now available online, through the excellent Gallica digital library. It may not yet have everything, but it has meant that I could put off my travel until next month, enabling me to crack on sooner with the main bulk of the writing and research process of the first few chapters of my book.

Brilliant as they are, however, digital resources aren’t everything. As many a researcher of historical documents will tell you, the digitised text doesn’t always show up everything you need to know. For one of the key composers I work on, for example, hand annotated versions of song offprints were done by the composer in coloured pencil, and sections of these annotations which have been erased and then rewritten are only visible on the original copy. Discovering the layers of rewriting by poets and composers often highlights some of the lost compositional processes, leading to a breakthrough in the research and analysis. And it is this old-fashioned style of traditional scholarship that still excites many of us, because it reveals hidden gems that the digitised world cannot yet show us. I find myself researching, then, in two modes: digitally, and non-digitally. Both modes have a key role to play in my work, as I adapt my way of researching according to what is available in each format.

Study Leave Week 16

Restarting after a short break

One of the luxuries of study leave (research leave / sabbatical) is having sustained time to think, research, and write. But even the most seasoned of academics needs a break from time to time, and the change of pace can make it difficult to restart again afterwards. Some simple techniques can make the process less troublesome, such as:

  1. Restart by writing a pithy to-do list – not one with endless tasks on it but the key ones.
  2. Pick up anywhere – be it skim-reading an article on your reading list, working on a set of article revisions, tidying up a bibliography, or drafting paragraph you’ve been meaning to write – but time-limit your restarting work to an hour and then re-evaluate. Worrying about where to start can be the cause for serious procrastination otherwise!
  3. Manage your expectations – do not assume you’ll get back into full flow quickly, and remember it takes time for mind and body to readjust. Short bursts of defined modest-scale tasks will mean better chance of getting back up to full speed more quickly after the restart.

It’s been about a week since I finished writing my latest book chapter. I know I need to tweak it still, but I also recognise that if I try to go in and do the changes straight away on my return from my short break I’ll make more errors than improvements. My time away from research was wonderful but not wholly relaxing (it involved 800 miles of driving, staying in two different places, and attending my best friend’s wedding where I was also singing a little solo and looking after another friend in a wheelchair). This meant that when I got back to my desk I was pretty exhausted and the productive research mindset I’d been in before I headed south was all but lost.

Being mindful of the need to ease myself back in gently, I rejigged my Study Leave Planner, made quick reassessments of what useful work I could achieve, and set out to work on much smaller tasks than book writing. It has paid off. This morning my brain was beginning to fire in research mode again, and I’ve got another 1,000 words down on paper (this time starting a new chapter). With the weekend looming (together with a visit from the in laws) I’m trying not to feel frustrated that I won’t get a good writing run, but I’m recognising that it doesn’t matter, because I now have the right techniques to ensure that the restart isn’t too painfully slow next time.

Study Leave Week 15

Making connections 

Interdisciplinary research has become a recent buzzword in academia, already perhaps descending into a tired cliché peddled by researchers who need to tick the boxes of university and funders’ requirements and expectations. Many of us have already been working interdisciplinarily for many years, as a result of our education and training which encourages exploring multiple options to find solutions to intractable problems. But what happens when two extremely disparate disciplines come into contact with one another? It can result in nothing beyond blind incomprehension as each is bamboozled by the other’s technical jargon and unfamiliar concepts. Or it can, on rare occasions, spark unexpectedly productive connections.

This week has been another intensive writing week for me. My writing target is a 12,000-word chapter, and it is the lynchpin of the whole argument underpinning my new book. I’m trying to propose something very radical that will change the way we research and understand song. And although I had already worked out the basic tenets of my argument, imagine my surprise when I found myself turning to complex chemistry to try to explain what I think is going on in the relationship between words and music. The last time I touched any chemistry was aged 16 for my GCSE exams, so clearly I am not an expert. But I am fortunate to know someone who is (ahem, my Dad), and that makes probing the questions and ideas much more possible. I’m writing up the research as we speak, and I think it will work, but you’ll have to wait till the book is published to see whether or not I’ve kept the idea in and developed it properly…

This experience has reminded me that being open to the spark of unexpected connections made with completely unrelated areas of research is both important but incredibly daunting. In not seeking to become an expert in the other discipline, but instead questioning someone who is, there is a chance that the interdisciplinary process can open up whole new ways of thinking. 

Study Leave Week 14

Working in libraries

Books sourced from the UL

One of the rare treats for an Arts & Humanities academic is to get to spend sustained time in a big research library. Not only do they offer unrivalled access to difficult-to-find books, scores, and other resources, but they also create a particular kind of working environment. The hushed tones, the deferential silence, the frenzied beavering, the glazed overwhelmingness; these are all discernible characteristics of those working in research libraries.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to spend a good few days at the Western Bank Library (University of Sheffield), the University Library (UL) and the Pendlebury Music Library (both University of Cambridge). Each hosts a different set of resources useful to my book research, and to the broader Baudelaire Song Project as a whole. But the most beneficial thing for me about working in a proper research library, and especially the UL, is the happenstance moments that arise – where you come across a book on the shelves housed next to one you were looking for (and found) but didn’t know existed or that you would find useful. I came to the UL with a list of 6 books I needed to consult. I ended up ditching 2 of them as they turned out to be irrelevant to my project after all, but I picked up at least another 12, 2 of which were particularly transformational in reshaping a section of my argument in the chapter I am currently drafting.

I know that there is a time for research, and a time for writing, and that sometimes too much research is a bad thing, but if I’ve learnt anything this week, it’s that nothing beats scouring actual books on actual library shelves in a place as heaving with books as the UL. Would that I could spend a whole week there…

Study Leave Week 13

Chapter completion

Academics are not always good at recognising milestones, and celebrating small achievements along the way can be hard. This is mostly because so much of our work is ongoing, other things can get in the way and become more pressing, and research needs to go through multiple iterations of editing and drafting before it can be released to the world.

While this week may have been dominated by the major news of the UK General Election, I have been quietly working away on a book chapter (pretty much to the exclusion of everything else!) . Having set myself a 10,000-word writing target to achieve by the end of the week, I am pleased to report that I have hit my target, and can put the chapter to bed. It is only a small cog in the much bigger wheel that is the whole book, but it is an important staging post, and recognising the achievement (and rewarding myself with some lunch) is a key part of the book-writing process for me.

My call to fellow academics (no matter what stage of career) is: share and celebrate your mini milestones (even if it will get buried in the ether of a busy news day).

Study Leave Week 12

Writing space

Writing an extended piece of research, such as a 90,000-word academic book, takes a particular type of writing. Academics have different systems for achieving their writing goals but are united in recognising how much headspace a big project takes in comparison to a stand-alone 8,000-word article.

This week has been an intensive writing week for me, and I thought I’d share my strategies for achieving the right writing space:

  1. Turn off email
  2. Shut down all other Word documents apart from the one you’re working on
  3. Sit at a desk (this might be in a cafe but it’s achieving the right desk / table height)
  4. Ignore the outside world for 2-hour blocks
  5. Engage with others for short bursts of 15mins or so before getting back to your desk
  6. Keep going back over the paragraphs you’ve written earlier that day and tidy them up as you go along
  7. When you complete a section of argument, before you take a break, write the first sentence of the next paragraph or section (if only in jargon or note form) as it’ll help you with the post-break restart
  8. If writing ideas are drying up, do some references/bibliography work
  9. Surround yourself with all the books or articles that are relevant only to the section you’re working on, and only dip into other books to get a specific quote or check a page reference
  10. When the brain gets tired, stop for the day and do something completely different

It’s a system that works for me, and which I’ve learnt over the years of writing (this is my third book). But I also recognise that I do sometimes need to adapt to new ways of working.