How can we study and contribute to the development of digital games today?

This article was originally posted to LinkedIn on 6 September 2022.

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:

Networking

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.

Partnerships

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.

Research

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.

For a taster of our current research, you can hear from Xiaochun, Richard, and Dr Yin Harn Lee in the Bristol Digital Game Lab Seminar that we delivered for Bristol Data Week in June 2022.

Innovation

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.

Coordinators

Headshot of Xiaochun Zhang - she is looking directly at the camera and is wearing a black and red top and glasses.Dr Xiaochun Zhang (xiaochun.zhang@bristol.ac.uk) 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.

Black and white photo of Richard Cole. He is leaning against a wall with his arms crossed and is looking towards the camera.Dr Richard Cole (richard.cole@bristol.ac.uk) 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.

Bristol Digital Game Lab logo featuring a video game controller and cable, and the text 'Bristol Digital Game Lab'

A farewell interview with the Dean

Headshot of Professor Karla Pollmann

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
  • Adventurous, quirky.

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:

A photo of a small white table on which lie tea cups, a hot water urn, and a selection of tea bags. Above the table, a sign on the wall reads 'No catering allowed here'.
Bristol has the ability 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’.

A photo of Professor Karla Pollmann in blue and white academic robes, looking into a mirror before one of Bristol's July 2022 graduation ceremonies. The photo has been taken from behind, and Karla's reflection can be seen in the mirror.
The Dean at Graduation 2022

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!

Sea shanties

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

Mariners: Religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914

The weekend of 15-17 July 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Harbour Festival. This event is a calendar highlight for many in the region, showcasing Bristol’s talent and heritage, and celebrating the diverse communities that form the heart and soul of the city. Set, as its name suggests, around the unique setting of Bristol’s harbourside, the festival hosts several events and activities with a maritime theme. This got us thinking about Bristol’s seafaring history, and what port cities in Britain might have been like a century or two ago.  

Ahead of the festivities, we caught up with Professor Hilary Carey, Professor of Imperial and Religious History, and Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Associate Professor of Modern History, who have recently been awarded a grant, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on ‘Mariners: Religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914′. 

Can you tell us about your latest project? 

We’re really excited to be working together on ‘Mariners’, which brings together our interests in the history of religion, race and empire. Spanning from 1801 to the beginning of the First World War, we are aiming to create a new religious history of missions to seamen. Marine missions were once ubiquitous features of British ports, coasts, canals and lighthouses where their objective was to save the drunken and lascivious sailor from themselves. They evolved into vitally important humanitarian societies which continue to support merchant crews around the world.

We are working in partnership with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers (founded in 1856) and the Hull History Centre to investigate the ways institutional missions grappled with local and global issues, including over-rapid expansion in the age of steam. We have a special interest in the mission work to lascars, the common term for Asian seafarers, who by the later decades of the nineteenth century made up to a third of the British marine workforce. We are also focusing on three port cities – Bristol, Hull and Liverpool – to show how local missions were integrated into port environments and the significance of their legacy today.  

Why is this research important? 

This research highlights the mentalities and realities of working seamen in the age of imperialism and the Christian charities which sought to convert and support them. Many of the problems faced by the merchant marine – from low wages, insecure employment and hazardous conditions to risk of shipwreck, piracy, disease and abandonment – remain just as urgent today. Some Victorians had a sentimental view of the work of missions to seamen, as in La Thangue’s 1891 painting of dockside evangelising. The reality – which is what we want to uncover – was rather different. 

A painting by Henry Herbert La Thangue depicting dockside evanglising, with sailors and missionaries.
Henry Herbert La Thangue, ‘A Mission to Seamen’ (1891). Credit: Nottingham City Museums & Galleries. CC-Non Commercial License.

How will you go about the research? 

One of the key research collections we’ll be using is the Mission to Seafarers archives, deposited in Hull History Centre between 2005 and 2014. There are 98 linear metres of archives, so there’s a lot to get stuck into! Alongside this, a key focus of the project is on Asian seamen, and we’ll be bringing together a huge range of official reports as well as material on dedicated homes for Indian seamen across a number of British ports. We’ve already found some wonderful photos which we’re excited to share in the future. 

Lascars found it particularly challenging to find accommodation in British ports, and there were few places which catered to their needs. We want to find out more about places such as the Mere Hall Hostel for Indian seamen in Liverpool and the London Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders, which opened in 1857.  

Black and white photo of Mere Hall Hostel for Indian Seamen in Liverpool, showing sailors reading and chatting by the fire
Mere Hall Hostel for Indian Seamen, Liverpool. Credit: National Museums Liverpool, Archives Centre, reference B/BROC/7/5/12

Can you tell us about some of the Bristol connections? 

Bristol is and was a significant port, and has always supported charities for poor sailors, including those shipwrecked, disabled and too old to work. The Bristol Channel Mission, founded by John Ashley in 1835, was one of the first organised missions for seamen, later incorporated into today’s worldwide Mission to Seafarers. There was also a Floating Seamen’s Chapel, and even a Home for Seamen’s Orphan Boys, established in 1859 in Brixham, Devon, by William Gibbs, the wealthy owner of Tyntesfield, near Bristol.  

As in other ports, many of Bristol’s sailors’ homes and missions have been destroyed, including the Seamen’s Mission Chapel at 53 Prince Street which was badly damaged in the Bristol Blitz on 2 December 1940. Other sites have been demolished outright, as sailors no longer require the services they used to access in missions, sailors’ homes, or even the wild, old sailor towns. We hope to keep the memory alive of why these places were built and what they tell us about Bristol’s maritime past. 

What impact do you expect the research to have? 

Part of the project will involve some oral history interviews with existing and retired marine chaplains. We’re also going to commission some artistic impressions of marine missions. We’re hoping to include these on our website and in a forthcoming exhibition, and alongside this engage in several public talks and with schoolteachers. We hope our project will deepen understanding of the multi-racial and multi-faith nature of Britain and British maritime history, and we’re excited to see what develops from this. 

What are the next steps? 

We’re looking forward to appointing two postdoctoral researchers, hopefully to start in January 2023, to work closely with us on this project, alongside a dedicated project administrator. We’ll be hosting a conference in 2024 and a visiting exhibition in 2025, but first a dedicated project website should be up next year. Watch this space for more news and links to our activities! 

Find out more about research in the Faculty of Arts. 

Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research

In May 2022, the University of Bristol announced the launch of the Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research, the first academic research centre to specialise in addressing the impact of gambling harms across Great Britain. Through taking new and multidisciplinary approaches, the Hub aims to build a greater understanding of gambling harms, leading to evidence-based action to prevent and reduce the negative impacts of gambling.  

We caught up with Professor John Foot, Professor of Modern Italian History, to hear about his role in the Hub, and to learn more about the importance of the Arts and Humanities in interdisciplinary research. 

Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research


Professor John Foot
 

It is rare to be involved in a project that covers six faculties in the University, but the new Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research, funded by the Gamble Aware charity, was just such a bid. The Hub will seek to increase understanding and awareness of the dangers of gambling, and covers public health (from a number of perspectives); social and geographical research into gambling; the interactions between gambling and poverty; the role of advertising; the history, economics and politics of the gambling industry; and the psychology of gambling, among many other areas.  

A roulette wheel mid-spin

This £4-million+, four-year project will allow for an unprecedented series of interactions between expert researchers across a range of different departments and schools in a way which has hardly ever been seen in any institution. The Hub aims to make concrete recommendations for the treatment of gambling addicts and the reform of the gambling industry. It will provide a forum for debate and the dissemination of research, policy discussions, and publications, as well as funding for PhD students and a lectureship in gambling studies. 

The role of the Arts and Humanities 

In terms of the Faculty of Arts, the Hub will bring together academics from Modern Languages and other disciplines – including Anthropology, History and Philosophy – to cover a range of focus areas, such as the ethical implications of gambling, debates around advertising, and the history of how gambling has changed and evolved.   

My particular areas of interest involve research into the long history of illegal gambling, the deep connections between gambling and corruption in professional sport, and the development of gambling from a rigidly controlled activity carried out in person using cash in betting shops to one using digital and phone technology. Other key areas being investigated include the connections between the illegal and legal sectors, and the ways in which gambling has led to numerous sporting scandals.

Some ex-footballers with gambling issues, such as former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, have become campaigners against advertising in sport. One of the aims of our research will be to connect these campaigns and campaigners and their personal experiences of gambling addiction.  

Cricket ball on a dark background

There are also ongoing and long-running debates around the ethics of betting advertising during sport, and the connections to match and spot-fixing which has affected sports in a serious way, in particular within football, tennis, snooker and cricket. Major sporting scandals have arisen around betting connections to match fixing and other forms of fixing, such as Calciopoli in Italy in 2006.  

The importance of multidisciplinary research  

Academic colleagues joining me to help develop these research ideas include Professor Matthew Brown and Professor Martin Hurcombe, experts on sport in South America and France, respectively. They bring historical and other methodologies to bear on this subject, as well as access to networks in specific regions (such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia) and expert areas (such as sports specialists). The Hub will also tap into networks and expertise provided by the Brigstow Institute, which has a special emphasis on local actors and coproduction of research.  

Another key area of study for the Hub is the transition of gambling from an activity which had boundaries and borders, to the ability to bet internationally on an almost limitless variety of events, and through mobile phones and computers. The study of this transition and its effects on the spread, impact and business of gambling is essential to an understanding of harm reduction and how it can be brought about today.  

Read more about the Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research  

Find out more about research in the Faculty of Arts  

 

Sexual minorities and ongoing sound change

As part of our Pride Month celebrations, we caught up with Dr Damien Mooney, Senior Lecturer in French Linguistics and Language Change, to hear about his research into how sexual minorities participate in ongoing sound change, and the importance of inclusion in research and beyond.

Language variation and change

The study of language variation and change attempts to identify the linguistic and social factors that influence the pronunciations and grammatical features that speakers use. Sometimes, for relatively arbitrary reasons, new pronunciations – and other linguistic features such as new words – enter into being and establish themselves in the language. These slowly replace old pronunciations or ways of speaking. The way this happens is very simple: one speaker who already uses the new feature interacts with others and, if the relationship between them is favourable (i.e. if they like each other and seek each other’s approval), they are likely to adopt features of each other’s speech, including new pronunciations.

On a larger scale, these basic interactions between speakers lead to language change, whereby more speakers adopt the new pronunciation or word into their repertoire and then begin using it in their interactions with others. For example, this is how the common English phenomenon of ‘dropping your ts’ – known in linguistics as glottal stopping – spread from Cockney English to almost all varieties of English in the UK. In essence, linguistic changes spread throughout the speech community because we adjust our linguistic behaviour to conform to other people like us. So, what happens when you’re different? When you’re gay or trans or not white? Does the same motivation to conform exist?

Why is this piece of research important?

When a sound change (where an established pronunciation is replaced by a new one) is underway in a given speech community, young female speakers have been repeatedly shown to act as the vanguards of change. They push the change forward and implement the use of the new pronunciation as much as one full generation ahead of male speakers.

Set of Lego people, each a different colour to represent the Progress Pride Flag

Up until now, sociolinguistic studies have implicitly assumed that the male and female speakers in their samples are heterosexual. While some research has considered the role of minority ethnicities in large-scale sound changes, a more nuanced articulation of gender, which takes a male or female speaker’s sexuality into account, has been absent from these studies. A small number of studies have examined the speech of homosexual male and female speakers, usually with the aim of analysing pronunciations that act as a perceptual cue for homosexuality when heard by others. These studies did not, however, focus on how gay men and women engage in sound changes in progress, but on what makes them sound gay. The present study asks the questions that other research did not; in particular, what is the role of sexual minorities in driving language change forward?

What does the research project involve?

The project began in 2022 with a pilot study in Paris, France. I collected speech samples from 22 native French speakers that self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. All speakers were required to read a short text and a long list of words for which there was a possibility of using a new pronunciation or an older pronunciation. The pilot study focused in particular on the ongoing changes affecting the pronunciation of the Parisian French nasal vowels in words like bain (‘bath’), banc (‘bench’), and bon (‘good’).

I am currently in the process of analysing the data acoustically, using speech analysis software, in order to identify fine-grained differences in pronunciation between speakers and groups, if they exist. The analysis of heterosexual speakers will have the dual aim of documenting the progression of this change, known to be underway in French, and of providing a baseline against which to compare the evidence for these changes in the speech of the gay and lesbian participants.

What impact is this research expected to have?

While there is some research on the role played by African American and Latinx people in predominantly white speech communities, this project will be the first to consider sexual minorities as an integral part of the wider social order.

The data-driven principles advanced by this study will constitute a significant point of reference for future studies of language and sexuality, providing an in-depth empirical analysis of the speech of gay men and lesbians. The project will contribute a more comprehensive examination of sound changes known to be underway in the sociolinguistic literature on French. The research will also provide a framework within which to undertake quantitative linguistic research that is experimental, focusing on language variation and change, but also theoretical, examining the extent to which an individual’s performance of sexual identity influences the extent to which they engage in sound changes set in motion by their heterosexual peers.

The cross-disciplinary methodology will demonstrate the contribution that sociolinguistic theory can make to the central focus of queer studies, namely interrogating heterosexuality by dismissing its claims to naturalness.

What are the next steps?

Once the results of the pilot study are processed, the hope is to establish a set of data-driven principles that can be tested in other contexts and in other languages. The findings of the Paris study will be formalised in a research article which will then form the basis of future studies on a wider variety of sexual identities, gender identities, and sound changes, in both French and English, in Paris and in other large cities such as London, Montreal, and Toronto.

The pilot study is the first step in a research project that will attempt to transform current theories of language change by providing a quantitative account of the way sexual minorities engage in mainstream linguistic change. The project will create an open-access corpus of natural speech – a database of speech audio files and text transcriptions – of both homosexual and heterosexual speakers, making all sound files and transcriptions from this study and from future, larger studies publicly available. The essence of the project, however, is its continued commitment to social justice: it aims to address the continued exclusion of sexual minorities from large-scale social scientific studies, which not only invisibilises queer people, but underlines their behaviour, linguistic or otherwise, as gender-deviant.

Learn more about research in the Faculty of Arts.

Visit the University’s Pride 2022 page to see how the University is celebrating LGBT+ staff and students.

Find out about LGBT+ equality initiatives at the University of Bristol.

Explore the University Library’s Pride Month page, which showcases a range of LGBT+ books, films, archives and other resources.

REF 2021

The results are in for REF 2021: the results for the Faculty are very good indeed, and part of a fantastic university result.

What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the national assessment of research, conducted by expert panels every six years, across some 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs). It provides rankings and ratings for research, impact and environment which are used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to decide on the distribution of around £2 billion of research funding. The last one took place in 2014.

REF is a kind of report card on research and impact for all participating British higher education institutions.

So how did we do?

Overall, we did very well. According to the rankings provided by the Times Higher, three UOAs have been ranked in the top ten in the country, namely Anthropology (6th), Classics (8th), and Modern Languages (4th).

In individual highlights, Anthropology, and Religion and Theology were given the highest possible award for outputs (for example, books, chapters, creative works, and articles). Music, Drama, Film and TV, and History were ranked in the top quartile for impact. Modern Languages had the highest possible award for environment.

An overall 48% of research submitted to REF 2021 by the Faculty was rated as world-leading (4*) in terms of originality, significance and rigour. 88.5% was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent (4* and 3*).

These figures represent an enormous amount of intellectual work and effort, not just by the academics but by the professional services staff who supported them and the process. It demonstrates that the research undertaken in the Faculty of Arts is world leading, has significant impacts on society, and contributes to knowledge across all our disciplines.

What difference will it make?

A strong REF 2021 result means the Faculty is in a good position to invest in more world-leading research in the arts and humanities, research which makes a real and positive difference to people’s lives. You can sample some of our outstanding impact in the refreshed Impact and Engagement page.

Congratulations to all.

Hilary Carey and Helen Fulton

Faculty Research Directors (Arts)

Same planet, different worlds: Environmental history conference comes to Bristol

By Professor Adrian Howkins, Department of History

In early July 2022, Bristol will play host to the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. The conference – which usually takes place every two years – will have the overarching theme of ‘Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew’.

This is only the second time the ESEH conference has taken place in Britain, and the first time it is happening in England – the first ever ESEH conference took place in St Andrews in Scotland in 2001. The decision to hold the conference in Bristol reflects the strength of environmental history research at the University of Bristol, as well as the city’s strong environmental reputation. More broadly, it reflects the strength of the University of Bristol in the wider field of environmental humanities, which includes environmental history research.

“Environmental humanities are interdisciplinary areas of research, combining the traditional humanities – such as literature, music, history and languages – with areas including science and technology to better understand the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, both social and natural. Environmental humanities can help us learn about the environmental challenges of the past, address those of the present, and plan for the future.”

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities (CEH) in the Faculty of Arts is firmly established as one of the leading centres for environmental humanities research in the UK, and there is a wide range of exciting projects taking place. Do follow our CEH blog to keep up with everything that is going on.

Group of researchers look out across a waterway towards a stone bridge in the distance. The area is grassy with trees in full leaf.
Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip

In preparation for the ESEH coming to Bristol, Adrian Howkins – one of the co-directors of the CEH – spoke to Marianna Dudley and Andy Flack who are organising the conference.

What is the European Society for Environmental History?

[Marianna] The ESEH is the leading scholarly organisation for people interested in environmental issues from a humanities perspective. It is European, but that doesn’t exclude people in other parts of the world working on this topic. It is very inclusive, and has grown to include a wide range of scholars. It offers networking, mentorship, peer-to-peer support, and a discount on the Environment and History journal. It also has by far the best academic conference going, which moves around Europe and is coming to Bristol this summer!

Why is it important that the conference is coming to Bristol?

[Andy] It recognises Bristol’s status as an environmentally aware and activist city as well as recognising that the University is involved in environmental issues through the Centre for Environmental Humanities, the Cabot Institute, and other research centres and clusters. It is the first time the ESEH has been in the UK since the first meeting in 2001 (St Andrews), and the first time in England. The decision to come to Bristol shows that despite political developments like Brexit, the United Kingdom is still at the heart of the European scholarly community studying environmental change. We love living and working in Bristol – it’s a fun, vibrant, welcoming city and we want to show our colleagues from around the world what a great place Bristol is.

What impact do you hope to have as a result of the conference?

[Marianna] It felt more important than ever to have an in-person conference after such a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re looking forward to bringing our scholarly community together and reforging the connections that are so important to our work. In terms of academic legacies, we want to spotlight Bristol as a place to study environmental history and environmental humanities. We hope that other scholars around Britain will seek us out for postgraduate research, postdoctoral fellowships, and academic collaborations, maintaining and building the exciting work that is already taking place.

What opportunities are there for our students to get involved in the Centre and/or the Conference?

[Andy] There will be opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the conference. This will put our students in touch with scholars from all around the world. Please get in touch if you might be interested in joining our conference team. If anyone would like to attend the conference to see what it’s all about, we’ll be offering day rates for University of Bristol staff and students to come to talks and meet with conference attendees. There will be interactive environmental art installations, a talk on wildlife film, science and humanities conversations, and a poet in residence.

If you would like to register for the conference, you can find further details here.

A tale of two cities: The historical links between Bristol and Dublin

By Professor Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History

When we think of British cities with strong Irish links it is likely to be Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London that first come to mind. In terms of historical longevity, however, no city on this island can match Bristol’s connections with Ireland.

The medieval connections

2021-2 marks the 850th anniversary of the conquest of Ireland by King Henry II of England. During his stay in Dublin at Christmas 1171, the king issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

Image of King Henry II's charter of 1171 - the paper is old and brown, with elegant script
King Henry II’s charter of 1171 (Dublin City Library and Archive)

Links between the two towns were already strong by this time. Ham Green pottery, manufactured on the banks of the Avon near Pill, was popular in Viking Dublin, and the vigorous trade in slaves conducted between Dublin and Bristol in the eleventh century inspired bitter criticism from churchmen before William the Conqueror and his successors brought this vile commerce to an end. After 1171, many important trading families from Bristol established branches across the Irish Sea, while stone quarried at Dundry, to the south of the city, was transported in large quantities to Ireland for use in the new churches and monasteries that the English began to build.

King Henry II issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

In February 2022 a symposium focusing on the medieval ties between the two towns was held in Dublin to mark the anniversary of Henry II’s grant. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin welcomed the Lord Mayor of Bristol to the event with a certain wariness, since the original charter of 1171 was never officially revoked!

The age of Edmund Burke and beyond

Statue of Edmund Burke atop a plinth at St Augustine's Parade, Bristol, UK
The statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol
(Credit: Tim Green, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In Bristol, on 20 April 2022, the University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol, beginning with the career of the great political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Burke was born in Dublin and was educated at Trinity College Dublin before developing a successful political career in England. Between 1774 and 1780 he was MP for Bristol, though his views on a range of issues made him unpopular with the city’s ruling elite. Two fine statues of Burke can still be seen today, one outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin, and the other on St Augustine’s Parade in the centre of Bristol, a few metres in front of the now empty plinth where Edward Colston’s statue once stood.

The University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol.

The celebratory event

The University was delighted to welcome Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Mr Adrian O’Neill, at the recent event, who spoke warmly about the opportunities the day had provided to further strengthen links between Bristol and Dublin. In addition, Professor Martyn Powell (Head of the School of Humanities), Dr Erika Hanna, of the Department of Historical Studies, and Professor Steve Poole of the University of the West of England delivered academic papers and a guest lecture was given in the evening by Professor David Dickson of Trinity College Dublin. To coincide with the event, an exhibition was staged at the venue, displaying some of the important Irish-related materials held in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections department. This included early editions of some of Burke’s published works, as well as a sample of Irish political pamphlets dating from between the eighteenth century and the Easter Rising of 1916. The close ties that have existed between the University of Bristol since its foundation and Trinity College Dublin were also explored in some of the exhibited material.

The future

Following the guest lecture a reception was hosted by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, whose Irish background provided a fortuitous link to the day’s events. Professor Brady welcomed to the University Ambassador O’Neill, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Joe Costello, the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Steve Smith, and members of the Bristol Irish Society. Councillor Costello promised that on his return to Dublin he would continue to work with his counterpart in Bristol to bring about a new twinning arrangement between the two cities. Reviving awareness of the historical links between Bristol and Dublin seems likely to lead to their further strengthening in the years ahead.

Attendees at the 850th Anniversary of Henry II's Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
850th Anniversary of Henry II’s Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
From left to right: Professor David Dickson (Trinity College Dublin); Ambassador Adrian O’Neill; Bristol Lord Mayor Steve Smith; Professor Hugh Brady (University of Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor); Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Joe Costello; Dr Erika Hanna (University of Bristol); Professor Brendan Smith (University of Bristol); Professor Steve Poole (University of the West of England) and Professor Martyn Powell (University of Bristol).

 

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History, is a Dubliner who was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He took up a lectureship at the University of Bristol in 1993. He has published extensively on the links between England and Ireland in the Middle Ages, and in 2018 edited volume I of the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland, which was launched in Washington, D.C. in September 2018 by Joe Biden, now the president of the United States of America. Professor Smith is currently engaged in research projects examining the financing of English rule in medieval Ireland, with an emphasis on the deployment of Digital Humanities techniques and methodologies. He has received funding from The Jean Golding Institute to work with Mr Mike Jones, from Research IT, on the production of visualisations of the financial data contained in medieval Irish exchequer material. He will be presenting some of the fruits of this collaboration at the Bristol Data and AI Showcase at the MShed on 7 June 2022.

 

Jenny: Posed as a woman. An insight into trans history.

February marks LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect upon the rich history of LGBTQ+ communities. It offers an opportunity to remember those who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights, consider the progress made, and look ahead to engage in a more inclusive, visible and equal future.

Piecing together history can be a fascinating puzzle. How can we properly represent the nuances of history in situations where the little information available to us comes from biased sources? What more can we learn about trans history? How can we talk about trans lives today by examining a story from over 100 years ago?  The Brigstow Institute brought together a team of researchers from different disciplines – history, law and performance art – to answer these questions.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ explores the life of Jenny Moore, a person from an impoverished background in Gateshead in the early 1900s. Little information was available about Jenny and her life, save for criminal records and a few related newspaper articles. How did living outside the law shape her identity and experience?

We caught up with Dr Sarah Jones, a social and cultural historian of gender and sexuality, to learn more about the project, breaking the mould of traditional historical investigation, and using performance to enhance research.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ is a fascinating interdisciplinary project bringing together the worlds of history, law and performance art. What led you to carry out this research, and why is this research important?

Often, the evidence about LGBTQ+ lives we find in the archives is focused on processes of regulation and control. While it is a rare gift to find personal testimonies or clues about what ‘real life’ might have been like for LGBTQ+ people in the nineteenth century, it is far more likely that we will find accounts of persecution and prosecution at the hands of bodies such as medicine and the law.

To some extent, this is true in the case of Jenny Moore – a person a judge said ‘always lived in the shadow of the prison door.’ When we encounter her story in our sources, we can learn a little about her arrests for theft or loitering, and perhaps gain little snippets of insight into the challenges of being what we might think of as a trans woman in Victorian Britain. Our research, though, attempted to tell new and different stories about Jenny and her life. Bringing together our different fields of expertise, combining creative and academic practice, we wanted to capture more of the rich, complex essence of a character like Jenny Moore. As well as helping us reflect on how our understandings of queer lives are shaped by archives focused on their often brutal encounters with the state, our project also sought to think about how we could tell fuller stories about LGBTQ+ people in both the past and present.

How did the team go about this research?

The project brought together a group of scholars and artists to try and explore Jenny’s life through different lenses. On the academic side, a group of colleagues (Professor Josie McLellan, Dr Jeanie Sinclair, Professor Lois Bibbings, Nic Aaron, and myself) with backgrounds in history or law explored the background and context of Jenny’s life. We considered what her world might have looked like, and also tried to track down more details of what she got up to as the Victorian era gave way to the twentieth century.

While we tried to create as rich a picture as possible of her life and times, we also attempted to ‘fill the gaps’ through creative practice – to use our existing knowledge to imagine the kinds of spaces she might have frequented, and the people she might have met. All of this research was workshopped with Tom Marshman – an artist and performer interested in ‘the outsider’ and their story, particularly regarding the LGBTQ+ experience, and stories from the queer history that have been omitted through silences in the archive. This process of collaborative and creative research has been feeding into a performance created by Tom, alongside composer, singer, and musician Jenny Moore, writer and performer Enxi Chang, and puppeteer Emma Powell.

What impact has this research had?

At the most basic level, we’ve told a version of Jenny’s story. Her little corner of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain could have easily been totally lost to history – dismissed, perhaps, in traditional academic work because the evidence we have about what her life was like is patchy and our picture of her incomplete. Creative projects like this one give us room to tell different stories of the past, and to build insights into LGBTQ+ lives that might slip between the cracks in the archive. In a contemporary moment where the rights of LGBTQ+ (and particularly transgender) people are under attack, it feels more important than ever to engage the public with stories like Jenny’s.

Beyond this, we’re also hoping the project will have broader applications. Nic, one of the research team, is investigating how we might be able to use Jenny’s story to uplift trans people – especially, they note, those at the sharp end of criminalisation like Jenny was. As part of this, for example, Nic has connected our work with the Bent Bars Project, drawing links between Jenny and the experiences of trans people who are currently incarcerated. Our research, then, has helped us to reflect on how we approach LGBTQ+ history, engaged the public with some intriguing and timely trans history, and has started us thinking about how historical work around gender diversity can be relevant to trans communities today. In short, the project honours Jenny but is bigger than her alone.

What are the next steps for the project team?

For now, our collaboration is wrapped up. On the research side, Nic, Jeanie and I are preparing a chapter that reflects on the project and how and why we worked together. In that publication we look to reflect on the messiness of working with an incomplete and often problematic archive, and the benefits and challenges of multi-disciplinary and creative research. We also look forward to seeing the performance take shape. Tom has prepared a work in progress version of the show, and we’re hopeful that there will be a full performance coming to a theatre sometime this year.

Further information:

Learn more about ‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ by watching ‘Brigstow Presents: Hidden Histories and Performing the Archive’ and visiting Brigstow’s project page.

Find out how the University of Bristol is marking LGBTQ+ History Month 2022.

Discover the wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses offered by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts.