By Dr Josie Gill, Associate Professor in Black British Writing, School of Humanities
With thanks to The Leverhulme Trust for their consent to republish piece in February 2023 newsletter on ArtsMatter platforms.
Fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are black. The implications of this startling statistic have been much debated, and sociologists and educational researchers are increasingly studying the experiences of black academics. As a literary scholar and a black woman, I am interested in exploring narratives about black people in higher education in literature, memoir and life writing. While many such accounts exist in the US, there are far fewer literary and autobiographical representations of black British academic life, no doubt a reflection of the fact that there are, and have historically been, so few of us. Black British writing about UK education has tended to focus on the school level; for example, E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love (1959), Dillibe Onyeama’s Black Boy at Eton (1972) and Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher (1976).
I am using my Leverhulme Prize funds to write a book called Black Lecturer, which will bring my own experiences of working in higher education into conversation with fictional and non-fictional writing about black British experiences of education. I aim to illuminate the ways in which black academics move through university life, as a means to examine the institutional and research cultures that characterise twenty-first-century UK academia. This project includes a close look at the politics of race in my own discipline, literary studies, and how black British writing has been historically addressed within it. Using the history of the English department at the University of Bristol as a case study, my book will connect personal reflection with literary, disciplinary and institutional analysis to explore the significance of race in higher education.
My approach to writing this book differs significantly from my previous work. I aim to draw parallels between the strategies, structures, affects and language that characterise my everyday experience as a black lecturer; literary methodologies; and the characteristics of institutional culture. The book will be organised around a series of themes which traverse these areas and will model, in its approach and structure, a methodology for literary research in which the archive is expanded to include my emails, where textual analysis includes institutional statements and departmental strategy, and close reading moves beyond text to include bodies and interpersonal interactions. I hope my research will contribute to ongoing discussions about how we study English Literature and demonstrate how accounts of the black British experience can inform this debate.
By Dr Paul Clarke and Dr Ed King, Co-Directors of the Centre for Creative Technologies
We are excited to be launching the new Centre for Creative Technologies this autumn and to have been supported by the Faculty of Arts. The Centre will provide a focus for colleagues from a wide range of disciplines working with and on creative technologies, using creative technologies as a method in their practice-as-research and working historically, critically, or theoretically on media. Our understanding of creative technologies is inclusive of both analogue and digital technologies, and of media from print and film to gaming and Virtual Reality. Bristol Common Press is part of the Centre, and we are closely associated with the new Bristol Digital Game Lab which is advertising upcoming events on its new site.
Over our first foundational year we’ll be defining the Centre’s identity and scope through a series of events and doing so in dialogue with Centre members and our partners, both within and beyond the University, locally and internationally. We hope that bringing Faculty researchers together through the Centre will lead to inspiring conversations and collaborative exchanges, building our critical mass in this priority area for both the University of Bristol and the city region.
As evidenced by the success of the MyWorld Strength in Places bid, the University of Bristol and the South West region have a reputation as international trailblazers in screen-based media and creative technology research and development. Our Centre’s Management Committee includes Ki Cater, Professor in Computer Science and co-investigator on MyWorld, alongside Susan Halford, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the new Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Sociodigital Futures, and Dylan Law from the Research and Enterprise Division (RED), who’s responsible for managing and developing creative and cultural opportunities. The intention is for the Centre to be a vehicle for more cross-Faculty STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) research projects and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration on creative technologies innovation.
The Centre will be based at the Pervasive Media Studio, which is a partnership between Watershed, UWE Bristol (UWE) and the University of Bristol, where UWE’s Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC) is also based. Jo Lansdowne (Executive Producer, Pervasive Media Studio) said: “We look forward to hosting the Centre in the Studio, to members contributing to the community of residents, and increasing the presence of the University of Bristol here. We’re planning a range of activities together, including a welcome event on Thursday 1 December, speculative co-design workshops around ‘Alternative Technologies’, and a series of public Friday lunchtime talks that will take critical perspectives on creative technologies. These will be co-curated with the Studio and the DCRC and it will be great to get Bristol and UWE researchers together with the creative technology professionals resident in the studio for discussions, to share skills and ideas, and to imagine exciting new collaborative projects.”
A priority for the Centre will be to support Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and postgraduates (PGRs), to attract new PhDs in this area, and to build the Faculty’s community of practice and research in creative technologies. One of the ways in which we’ll be doing this is through a new ECR and PGR-led reading group run by Dr Francesco Bentivegna and Katy Dadacz. As they say: “This will be open to those beyond the University, including Pervasive Media Studio residents and Control Shift Network. The group will focus on readings that explore creative relations between humans and machines, with invited presentations, discussions of interactive experiences and media, plus sharings of research and practice in progress.” As far as professional development for researchers at all stages of their careers, there are plans to work with the Library and Jean Golding Institute on training, potentially with funding from a bid recently submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Embedding Digital Skills in Humanities and Arts Research scheme, and also for immersive media training in partnership with MyWorld. The MA Immersive Arts, which is part of MyWorld’s skills provision, is also associated with the Centre.
The Centre for Creative Technologies will have a soft launch this semester, building towards a larger-scale and higher profile event at the end of this academic year, developed through exchanges with related centres internationally (and potentially in collaboration with the Virtual Reality Oracle project, Bristol Digital Game Lab and Bristol Common Press). The aim is for this to be both a symposium and showcase, to share Bristol’s thought- and practice-leading research in this growth area for both the University and local creative and immersive industries.
We’re currently growing our membership, so do get in touch, whether your interests relate and you’d like to get involved in contributing to Centre activities, or if you’d like to join our mailing list to hear about upcoming events and opportunities.
This year marks the 117th anniversary of the Autumn Art Lecture Series. Conceived as a platform for Art and Art History in what was then University College Bristol, the series has remained a highlight in Bristol’s cultural calendar. Over the course of its lifetime, the series has explored themes ranging from the monstruous to the celestial, and hosted such luminaries as Kenneth Clarke, EH Gombrich, Toshio Watanabe, Laura Mulvey and David Olusoga. More recently, a commitment to making space for artists to discuss their own practice has added Paul Gough, Richard Long and 2022 Turner Prize shortlisted-artist Ingrid Pollard to the series’ list of prestigious alumni.
Last year we celebrated the return of the series after a pandemic-related hiatus – the second of only two interruptions in the series’ history, following a short break after the outbreak of the Second World War – with an online event. This year, we are delighted to welcome visitors back on campus to consider the possibilities and implications opened up by recasting ‘Modernisms’. What happens when we challenge the concept of Modernism as a monolithic entity? Is there just one Modern or many? What does it mean to think of Modernism on the global stage? Is there such a thing as an ‘alternative’ Modernism or is Modernism itself already inherently hybrid?
Our theme this year coincides with Bristol’s Festival of Ideas 2022, titled Modernism 1922, which looks to the legacies of that remarkable year – from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T S Elliot’s The Waste Land to the famous Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta (now Kolkata). A tribute to Kevin Jackson’s book, Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, the Festival explores 1922 via film screenings, discussions and new commissions.
In keeping with its spirit – but broadening its ambit – the Autumn Art Lectures will topple the notion of a Euro-American Modernism, which leaves the non-Western world out in the cold. The series will challenge the concept of Modernism as a monolithic entity – it will stress and stretch its polyvalent nature, debating its relationship to nation, diaspora, inclusivity, and race. As many institutions – from galleries and museums to universities – attempt to engage meaningfully with global visual culture, this investigation is vital and timely. Our inter-disciplinary speakers include academics, curators, artists and pedagogues who have grappled with the idea of the Modern, paying particular attention to Blackness, Asian-ness and decolonisation; to anti-colonial struggles and lasting institutional prejudices; to dismantling the hierarchies of Englishness in favour of a more inclusive ‘Britishness’; to revealing the Islamic and Afro-Asian traditions nestled at the core of the so-called ‘Western’ canon. With speakers from (or addressing) the African diaspora, the Islamic world, South Asia, Latin America, the UK and the US, the series aims to expose the polyphonies and diversities that sit at the heart of Modernism.
This event series is open to all, and we look forward to welcoming you to the University of Bristol for these engaging talks.
On World Mental Health Day, 10 October, we connected with Dr Lesel Dawson, Associate Professor in Literature and Culture at the University of Bristol, and Arts and Culture Lead for The Good Grief Festival, to hear about her research into grief and creativity.
Throughout history, humans have created art to honour the life of someone who has died—from ancient Greek and Roman gravestones to Victorian hair locks, from Renaissance elegies to modern memorial tattoos. While forms of mourning change over time and from culture to culture, our need to express grief and have our pain recognised and witnessed persists.
However, over the last century, we have lost many of the communal and creative ways that we come together to grieve, and with them perhaps, the confidence to support bereaved people we know. Worried about saying the wrong thing, we can slip into tired clichés or avoid the subject altogether, so that people who are grieving often feel lonely, stigmatised, and isolated.
We set out to help change this with Good Grief: A Virtual Festival of Love and Loss, led by founder Lucy Selman (co-lead of the University of Bristol Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group) and initially funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust. The festival brings together grief therapists, academics, palliative care doctors, comedians, artists, and musicians to have open and honest conversations about grief, death and loss, aspiring to provide a platform for bereaved people to share experiences and facilitate a shift in how we approach and understand death and grief. Integrating the arts into the festival has both helped engage audiences and highlighted the individual and varied nature of grief. Our new project, Good Grief Connects aims to further this work by collaborating with partners (Compassionate Cymru, The Ubele Initiative and Compassion in Dying) to deliver and evaluate three pilot projects that will help support diverse communities talk about death and grief and access the support they need.
My work as the Good Grief Festival’s Arts and Culture Lead has impacted my research, which explores the role of creativity and the imagination in grief. Drawing on the work of Robert Neimeyer, I explore the way bereavement shatters our ‘assumptive world’, the beliefs and assumptions that frame how we conceptualise ourselves and our futures. As part of a process called ‘adaptive grieving’, creativity can help enable us to confront the painful reality of our loved one’s death and begin to integrate the changes that follow our bereavement. When we create art, we both share our experiences with others and act as our own witness in a self-dialogue which can be illuminating and therapeutic. In this context, our imagination is both a source of suffering and a means to process what has happened.
Grief and art
Creative expression can be particularly valuable for children, who sometimes struggle to express their feelings verbally and often learn and communicate through play. Children grieve as deeply as adults and need to be allowed to express their feelings and told the truth in age-appropriate language so they can be part of their family’s narrative of what has happened. Toys, paint, clay and sand can provide non-verbal forms of communication, and allow children a safe, structured space to explore difficult feelings and tell their story.
These ideas are explored in two Brigstow-funded short films which I co-produced: Children, Grief and Creativity, created with psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE (Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK and bestselling author) and animator Gary Andrews (creator of ‘Doodle-a-Day’ and Finding Joy), and Children, Grief and Art Therapy made with Art Therapist Victoria Tolchard and Gary Andrews.
While the Good Grief Festival has supported more open conversations about bereavement, we need more foundational, systemic changes if we are to transform a culture that still treats grief and death as taboo. One long-overdue change is to make grief education a statutory component of the curriculum in all four countries of the UK. As charities and organisations (such as Child Bereavement UK, Childhood Bereavement Network and Winston’s Wish) and psychotherapists, psychologists, child specialists and academics have demonstrated, grief education can help destigmatise grief and death, enabling children and young people to understand bereavement and better support friends and peers who are grieving. Schools are uniquely placed to prepare children for difficult life experiences, and the charity sector has developed a wealth of lesson plans, resources and expertise which make mandatory grief education both timely and actionable.
To support this change (and the work that has already been done), Rachel Hare, Lucy Selman and I are working with Tracey Boseley (National Development Lead for the Education Sector for Child Bereavement UK) and Alison Penny (Director of Childhood Bereavement Network and Co-ordinator for National Bereavement Alliance) on a review that brings together research on the benefits of grief education, explores the most effective ways to integrate the topics into schools, and considers issues with teacher training and other obstacles. Statutory grief education would be an effective and efficient way to help school pupils talk about death, preparing them to manage their own grief and support others, and fostering the development of a more compassionate society.
We are delighted to launch five Faculty Research Centres (FRC) for a new cycle of five years of funding at the University of Bristol. They are:
Health, Humanities and Science
We like to think of the FRCs as the crown jewels in the Faculty’s glittering treasure chest of activist, interdisciplinary research. The five Centres showcase arts and humanities research at the cutting edge of new knowledge, asking key questions about themes and issues critical to the city of Bristol, the people of the West of England, and the world.
Each Centre has developed a diverse programme of activity including public lectures and debates, workshops and seminars, conferences and collaborations that engage colleagues and the public beyond the University.
Here is a sneak preview of some of the many Centre activities and opportunities that we can look forward to this academic year:
The Centre for Black Humanities has a postgraduate research (PGR) group planning a series of seminars, reading groups and away days.
The Centre for Creative Technologies will co-design sandbox events (isolated testing environments) with civic partners – the Pervasive Media Studio and Knowle West Media Centre – to explore social applications of arts and technologies.
As part of the Centre for Creative Technologies, Bristol Common Press will host a global summer school on Technologies of the Book, which will run for three weeks in summer 2023.
The Centre for Environmental Humanities has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the environmental humanities ‘Greenhouse’ at the University of Stavanger, demonstrating the positive potential for partnership working.
The Centre for Environmental Humanities plans to host a ‘Future of the Environmental Humanities’ workshop that will bring together researchers to think about the question of what comes next for the field of environmental humanities.
The Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS) has a regular seminar series including one session on ‘What every medievalist should know…’.
The Medieval Studies Global Professor, Kathleen Kennedy, has developed links with the Bristol Central Library, and is planning an ambitious exhibition of medieval manuscripts in Bristol libraries and archives.
The Centre for Health, Humanities and Science plans a symposium on ‘Hoarding’, convened by Andrew Blades.
The Centre for Health, Humanities and Science is planning its first collaborative book, Key Concepts in Medical Humanities (Bloomsbury Academic), to be published in 2023.
Each Centre will have its own site on the Bristol Blogs platform through which they can showcase their research and activities.
On International Translation Day, Dr Christophe Fricker, Programme Director of our master’s degree in Translation here at Bristol, reflects on the nuances of language and how the art of translation relies on understanding your audience.
It’s International Translation Day, and I’m a translator. When I tell people, they pause and then they look at me triumphantly, saying that, surely, this particular foreign word they know could not possibly be translated into English. In a way, they’re right, but in practical terms, they’re not. Here’s why.
Take Energiewende, the German term for the political process facilitating the transition towards a zero-carbon economy. And now look back at the previous sentence. What you see is a German term and an English translation. There are three things to say about that translation, all of which are characteristic of what we do as translators – and what you do in your everyday life:
First, the translation serves a particular purpose and a particular audience – you! This is true of literally every translation ever produced. No translation is produced in the void. It is commissioned by someone, carried out by someone, and addressed and perceived by someone with specific interests and skills. The translation reflects and addresses them. This is not a weakness. In fact, it’s the unique strength of translation that it can – and will inevitably – be calibrated to meet a particular need. Yes, that means there will be a need for a new translation at some point, but that is true for the original utterance as well. There are no final words, in any language.
Secondly, my translation of Energiewende is different in length compared to the original. It would be quite unrealistic to expect otherwise. Different languages form their words and their sentences in different ways. A text you translate from English into German will end up being 10% longer in terms of characters but 10% shorter in terms of its word count. I am saying this because translators translate texts, not words. I have worked in this profession for a decade and a half and I have never been asked to translate a word. My clients come to me because they want an advertising slogan or a travel essay or a children’s book translated. When they are looking for a word in another language, they will turn to a dictionary rather than a translator.
What all of this tells us, thirdly and inevitably, is that no two statements map neatly onto each other, between any two languages. The beautiful thing is this, though: the same is also true for any two statements in the same language, and even the same statement in the same language uttered by different people or in different situations. When you say the words ‘I love you’ to your partner, they mean something different from when you say them to your son. When, in response, your partner asks: ‘Where have you been?’, the potential for misunderstanding may be so big that you wish a translator were at hand. Translation is not something that only happens between different languages; wherever we understand each other, we deliver a successful translation.
I get a sense, here, that you are intrigued but perhaps not entirely convinced. Let me give you a little homework – I am a teacher, after all. Imagine you live in an apartment block with people who speak lots of different languages, but the fire safety information sheet is only available in French. You are asked to translate it into English. What would be your first priority? That everybody who walks past appreciates the original French via your translation, or that they know where to go when their pants are on fire? I doubt they have time to worry about untranslatable French words at that point.
Debates about untranslatable words are fireside chat (for which there is definitely a place!). In the meantime, translators like so many of my wonderful colleagues make sure people are safe around the world, and today is the day we celebrate them!
The University of Bristol is home to a vibrant and thriving community of more than 3,000 postgraduate researchers from all over the world, with around 400 in the Faculty of Arts. Whether working towards a PhD or studying for a master’s degree – taught or by research – students in the Faculty of Arts can benefit from world-class academic and professional training and cross-disciplinary collaborations.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the many opportunities available to our postgraduate students within the Faculty.
Research and collaboration opportunities
The Faculty of Arts hosts several Faculty Research Centres which act as hubs for innovative, cross-disciplinary research. Our postgraduate research students are encouraged to join a Centre, enabling them to build strong networks and engage in collaborative research with colleagues from across the University and beyond. With each Research Centre working in partnership with international institutions, Bristol’s Faculty of Arts has a truly global reach and presents unique networking opportunities.
One recent example stems from the Centre for Medieval Studies. Academics from the Centre wereawarded a €2.4 million EU Horizon grant to train a new generation of medievalists from across Europe in the history of the early book. Most of the funding will go towards financing postgraduate research studentships, including two at Bristol. Co-Directors of the Centre Professor Ad Putter and Professor Marianne Ailes said: “Importantly, we will train a cohort of young researchers who will, from the beginning of their research careers, see international collaboration as integral to how they work.”
Industrial placements will form the cornerstone of the research studentships mentioned above, enabling the Faculty’s strong research partnerships with a variety of organisations and institutions to enhance the student learning experience. Professor Putter and Professor Ailes said: “The placements give students the transferable skills to succeed outside academia and, for those who remain in university research, will provide skills in public engagement and impact which will stand them in good stead.”
A further example can be seen on one of our popular MA courses. Past and current placement partners on our MA Medieval Studies course include the Churches Conservation Trust, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Bristol Archives, and Bristol University’s own Arts and Social Sciences Library Special Collections. The latest addition to the impressive list of over a dozen placement partners is Magdalen College Library and Archives, Oxford.
These research placements have proven invaluable to both students and partners from the cultural heritage sector, as Director of the MA Medieval Studies programme and its Placement unit, Dr Ben Pohl, explains: “Our students regularly highlight the transformative effect that these placements have had on their future career plans, and just how well prepared they felt for a career in the cultural heritage sector as a result of this bespoke experience. Our partners, in turn, have been full of praise about the students they have hosted and the innovative ways in which their work has helped them connect with audiences both within academia and amongst the general public.”
Indeed, several of our students have found employment in the cultural heritage sector upon graduation, some even at the very institutions at which they undertook their placements during their degree.
Postgraduate Research Summer Internships
Postgraduate Research (PGR) students within the Faculty of Arts are eligible to undertake a PGR Summer Internship, a scheme designed to enable supervisors and postgraduate research students to work together on a project to achieve common goals. The six-week internships provide an opportunity for focused research on collaborative projects, which this year ranged from authoring a historical research article on Anglican slave missions to developing a website for a British Academy Knowledge Frontiers Project that explores energy access and resilience among forest peoples of Brazilian Amazonia. PGR interns receive mentoring and guidance throughout their internship. This year’s cohort attended a welcome session led by the Faculty’s Research Impact and Knowledge Exchange Manager, Dr Hannah Pearce, which encouraged interns to use the experience to develop their skills, consider their strengths and identify opportunities for reflection.
Alice Kinghorn, a third-year PhD History student, undertook a PGR internship in summer 2021, and found it to be a rewarding experience: “My internship involved recording interviews with staff and students about current research in the Faculty for our YouTube playlist. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as not only did it allow me to practice valuable communication skills, I also learnt how to edit videos and use graphic-creation software. I undertook a second internship in summer 2022, where I had the opportunity to apply these skills to create a ‘Day in the Life of a PhD Student’ video. The internship scheme has been a fantastic addition to my studies.”
Keep checking back for more Arts-related content, including our upcoming blog series all about the PGR Summer Internships.
The Bristol Digital Game Lab is a new research group at the University of Bristol launching in September 2022, coordinated by Dr Xiaochun Zhang and Dr Richard Cole. The Lab, which is based in the Faculty of Arts, will bring together researchers and practitioners from a radically diverse range of perspectives. This includes translation and accessibility, history, comparative literature, law, computer science, AI, game design, and beyond.
The aim of the Lab is to chart new possibilities for collaboration, both across disciplines and between Higher Education and the gaming industry, with digital games as a shared object of interest. By exploring crosscutting themes in a collaborative environment, we hope to contribute to ongoing debates about the nature and impact of games, while also co-creating new ways to develop, play, and test ideas using games. To this end, the Lab will offer researchers and practitioners the opportunity to experience a variety of games on the latest hardware, as well as the chance to get involved in generating their own.
Our areas of interest are as follows:
The Lab will establish a cross-disciplinary network of researchers and industry professionals working on games as well as extended reality more broadly, from early career scholars to creative directors. The network, like the industry itself, will be regional, national, and international. The Lab will support colleagues through brokerage events and themed meetings.
The Lab will connect researchers to a thriving regional, national, and international industry with the aim to facilitate knowledge exchange and explore collaborative outcomes. The Lab will host industry showcases, invite guest speakers, and foster sustainable partnerships with the creative industries.
The Lab will support research in gaming and extended reality through a series of research-sharing events and discussions focused on crosscutting themes. Such themes will include, but are not limited to, game localisation and accessibility, history and cultural heritage in games, VR and immersive technologies, audience experiences and analytics, the Metaverse and gaming ethics, (serious) games and education, games and society, intellectual property, modding, and game design. Building on the University’s investment in state-of-the-art gaming facilities, the Lab will also encourage play-as-research and interactive brainstorming to identify future outputs and areas of interest.
The Lab will act as an incubator for innovative projects by opening up the University of Bristol’s gaming facilities and expertise, as well as by connecting interested parties. We will deliver skills development workshops, playtest ideas, and co-create new experiences.
How can you get involved?
Please email us if you would like to join the Game Lab and hear about our research/events. We will be offering both remote and in-person activities.
Let us know what you are working on and what you would like the Game Lab to do. We particularly welcome enquires from those working in the games industry or at the intersection of gaming and other sectors.
Dr Xiaochun Zhang (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies. Her research interests lie primarily in audiovisual translation with a specific interest in video game localisation and accessibility. Currently, she is working on the AD4Games project which applies audio description in video games to enhance accessibility for players with vision loss.
Dr Richard Cole (email@example.com) is an interdisciplinary scholar working on digital/virtual representations of antiquity. He is currently part of the multi-disciplinary team on the Virtual Reality Oracle project at the University of Bristol, where he holds the role of Research Associate in Ancient Greek History and Virtual Reality. Richard has published on the role of video games and historical fiction more broadly in shaping public perceptions of history.
After four very happy and successful years as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Karla Pollmann will be leaving the University at the end of the summer to take up the post of President and Vice Chancellor at Tübingen University in her home town in Germany. We caught up with Karla to reflect upon her time in Bristol and wish her well in the new role.
In your first interview for the Faculty newsletter, you described Bristol as ‘vibrant, dynamic and forward-looking’. What would you now add to that list?
The descriptors I used then still all hold true! In a presentation at the most recent University Management Team (UMT) Residential meeting in September 2021, I further described Bristol and its fantastic University as:
Open, friendly, individualistic
Entrepreneurial, innovative, original
Politically astute, educated workforce
Bristolians among the UMT and the Vice-Chancellor wholeheartedly agreed! ‘Quirky’ can be illustrated by a photograph I took last year which is telling testimony of the ability at Bristol to think in opposites:
What makes the University of Bristol – and the Faculty of Arts specifically – stand out for you?
First, as a comprehensive university Bristol boasts a great breadth of disciplines. This needs to be seen as an opportunity. The same holds true for the Faculty of Arts. This does not mean just continuing doing things the same way as before, but it opens up incredible new opportunities to work together across disciplines both in teaching and in research, something Bristol is already very good at and is excellently placed to do even more of. This is what the future needs, and so this will be a great service to society.
Second, the University is placed in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, with a fantastic cultural programme, a vibrant creative sector and growing tech industry, and beautiful natural surroundings. The strong pulling-power of the city is of great benefit to the University, and vice versa.
Third and most importantly, its great people!
In 2019, you mentioned that your office was your favourite place on campus – has that changed?!
Well, I said this a bit tongue in cheek, as at that time – not long after my arrival – my office simply had been my main place of operation. Covid has changed this dramatically, so nearly half of my time as Dean was spent predominantly working from home, which came with its own benefits and challenges. But yes, I still think I have a great office (although at the moment it is in need of repair!). I also have fond memories of Café Nero where I regularly met up with colleagues for more informal chats, the restaurant at the Lido with its unique setting, and Bristol Zoo where we had an unforgettable Faculty Board Away Day and where our creative juices kept flowing, aided by a stimulating acoustic backdrop of roaring lions!
What are some of the achievements you are most proud of during your time as Dean?
That I instituted a Faculty IT Committee, which is seen by the University as state-of-the-art thanks to its fantastic members under the chair Gloria Visintini. Thank you!
That under my leadership we now have more female professors (nearly 50%) in Arts than ever before in the history of the University.
That we had a highly successful review of our marvellous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which goes from strength to strength with winning awards and whose original and attention-grabbing designs range from Peequal to a cleaning case for reusable menstrual cups.
That we will get the Centre for Study Abroad, for which I have fought since my arrival and which will be a real game changer for the University and the Faculty.
That I managed to bring colleagues – both academic and professional services – together under our shared agenda to ensure that the Faculty of Arts is not seen as an optional extra, but is valued as an integral part of the University and its forward-looking strategy!
If someone asked you “Why do the Arts matter?”, what would your response be?
My general answer would be: because the future is walking towards the Arts. None of the great challenges that affect humankind as a whole can be solved without the Arts and Humanities.
On the one hand they can enrich a multidisciplinary agenda, for example in working with Engineering in relation to immersive technology and the creative sector. It needs to be emphasised over and over again that technological ‘progress’ as such is not an end in itself but needs to be assessed as to its social, cultural and legal consequences. Technology as such does not create content but is a vehicle for it. This is where the Arts and Humanities come to the fore.
On the other hand, therefore, the Arts and Humanities have a value in themselves which must not be overlooked or be obscured by dazzling technological changes. For instance, how we use language tells us a lot of how we think about nature, gender, or race. Ingrained habits of expression need to be critically reflected as an ongoing concern, also in exchange with other cultures and languages, in order to interrogate iteratively how we view the world and how we behave in it. This has massive consequences for society as a whole, and this is the distinctive and irreplaceable domain of the Arts and Humanities.
What are your wishes for the future of the Faculty of Arts?
The University of Bristol will from September onwards have a new VC, Professor Evelyn Welch, who is a distinguished Arts scholar in her own right and thus very familiar with the unique contribution of the Arts and Humanities. This means that on the one hand one cannot pull the wool over her eyes, but on the other she will see the great potential and specific contribution of our Faculty. I wish for the Faculty that it carries on with its agenda of growth through transformation; continues to have buoyant student recruitment – in particular international – in combination with exciting new programmes; continues to establish strong and successful cross-institutional research partnerships; and continues to make its presence and important contribution felt not only across the University but also to the benefit of the city, region, and wider society.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with your Faculty colleagues?
I already know now that I will hold my four years at Bristol in my memory as some of the happiest years of my life. People are exceptionally friendly, thoughtful, intelligent and endearing in a way that was just perfect for me. I know this is not to be taken for granted. I also had the best job in the world, as being Dean opens up incredible creative opportunities. But I would not have got anywhere without the fantastic people, both academic staff and professional services, who supported me.
One of the distinctive features encapsulating all this is the graduation ceremonies which have been taken up again after a two-year break. In Germany, this tradition has been discontinued altogether since the 1960s – Tübingen has now asked whether I could reintroduce them! In these ceremonies the University celebrates an important rite of passage for its most precious asset, namely its students. Without our students, all the research we do and the values we hold would dry up as it will be the students who carry them out into the world. All this endeavour has got something fractured, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Therefore, Matthew Brown and myself spent some delightful time before one graduation ceremony in July 2022 taking each other’s picture ‘through a glass darkly’.
I wish you all the very best for the future, and look forward to saying goodbye to as many of you as possible over the coming weeks!
With the Bristol Harbour Festival 2022 not long behind us, we caught up with Dr Nick Nourse, Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History, to learn more about sea shanties – their relevance, their history, and their intricacies. A trained violin maker, Nick went on to study for a musicology MA and PhD at the University of Bristol. His PhD thesis ‘The Transformation of the Music of the British Poor, 1789-1864’ focused on his research interest in the low ‘Other’ in society, in particular their musical tastes and their roles as listener, consumer and performer of popular entertainment. As part of this research, Nick studied the musical history of sea songs, and he shares some of that knowledge with us now:
In January 2021, the Bristol band The Longest Johns were signed by Decca Records after their version of a nineteenth-century sea song, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’, went viral on TikTok. During the restrictive measures of various Covid lockdowns, The Longest Johns also became one part of an online craze under the heading of shanty-singing. With the return this summer of the Bristol Harbour Festival and a Bristol Sea Shanty festival arranged for September, now would be an ideal point to explore the history of this unique sea song.
In brief, the sea shanty was a work song sung on board merchant sailing ships. Its purpose was to synchronise the crewmen’s effort when engaged in heavy and monotonous physical tasks, such as hauling on a rope or tramping around the capstan to raise the anchor.
Stan Hugill, the acknowledged expert on the subject, divides shanties into two primary groups: hauling, and heaving songs. Broadly speaking, he places regular-paced and continuous heaving work at the capstan or bilge pumps as being to poorly disguised marching songs in 4/4; the hauling songs were for stop-start strenuous work often to a 6/8 metre and less musical. The hauling shanties in particular follow the call-and-response form, in shanty-dialect called ‘order-and-response’.
Take, for example, the shanty ‘Blow the Man Down’. This is a Halyard Shanty, a song sung while raising or lowering the sails (in full sailor parlance, this is halyard hauling: halyard = haul + yard). The work could be extremely heavy, and a halyard shanty therefore was sung with the crewmen taking a rest during the leader’s call and only pulling on stressed words of the chorus. Sung in 3/8 time, the shanty often starts:
Solo: ‘As I was a-walkin’, down Paradise Street’
Crew: ‘To me Way, hay, Blow the man down’
Solo: ‘A sassy young clipper, I chanced for to meet’
Crew: ‘Oh, Give me some time, to Blow the man down’
Given how long it took to raise a large sail, for instance, sea shanties could be 20 or 30 verses in length, and it did not matter what order they were sung in. The main aim was rhythm, but also distraction, to take the mind off the boredom of the physical task. To that end, songs could be re-written on the spur of the moment, so Paradise Street could become a well-known street in the ship’s last port of call. And like folk songs, the words often held more than one meaning: the ‘sassy young clipper’ is not a reference to a ship, but to a woman.
One particular function the shanty could achieve was to voice complaint about the captain or another crewman: singing out their grievance was often the only way for a sailor to voice his anger without being disciplined.
The sailor’s sea song is subject to much superstition. The shanty, for example, was only ever sung on board ship, never on shore, always to work, and never off-duty or for entertainment. Likewise, anchor-hauling songs were split into outward- and homeward-bound songs, and they should never be sung on the wrong leg of the voyage.
The origins of the sea shanty are unclear, but its heyday was in the early- and mid-nineteenth century and followed the end of hostilities between the French and the English. Peace saw the resumption of world sea trade and travel, trade which was encouraged by the gold rushes of North America and Australia. The term itself comes in multiple spellings: shantey, chanty, or chantey — all pronounced as if with a ‘sh’ — plus various grammatically dubious plurals. The Oxford English Dictionary date ‘shanty’ to 1869, but Nordhoff’s The Merchant Vessel, first published in 1855, writes of ‘The foreman is the chantey-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus, which comes in at the end of every line’.
Musically, Hugill suggests the sea shanty as having its origins in the folk songs of England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, and colonised North America – including Canada and Newfoundland – and in the slave plantations of the southern states of America.
To return to The Longest Johns and ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’, this is not a working song, but a fore-bitter. In contrast to the shanty, the fore-bitter was sung off-duty and for entertainment, but still as a distraction. It gets its name from the fore-bits, large wooden rigging posts in the foc’sle (forecastle), and the place where sailors would gather in good weather to relax and kill time. The subject and sentiment of either form of song was tremendously wide, from love — both true and sentimental — to loss, often of home, from complaint to celebration, and from wealth to glory.
The sea shanty today holds its place alongside traditional, or folk, song as a recovered and preserved work song. As steam replaced sail in the second half of the nineteenth century, the need for collective physical duties on board ship declined, and with it, the sea shanty.
Dr Nick Nourse, Honorary Research Associate, Department of History