SAS Blogs | Supporting world-class research in the humanities

Entrenched: pain, suffering and horror for WWI soldiers


In this guest post Dr Lucy Noakes, a social and cultural historian at Brighton University, highlights some of the horrors of the trenches in the Great War. 


British soldiers walking through a trench at dawn (© IWM Art.IWM ART 513)

‘We must look out for our bread. The rats have become much more numerous lately because the trenches are no longer in good condition. Detering says it is a sure sign of a coming bombardment’, (Remarque, E.M., 1929, p. 70). All Quiet on the Western Front , Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic novel depicting life in the First World War for a group of German student volunteer soldiers who served on the Western Front, graphically describes life for soldiers in the trenches. Continue reading →

We the Humanities: The Benefits and drawbacks of the Social Scholar (3 December 2014)


photoThe second Social Scholar seminar of the term takes place on Wednesday 3 December 2014, 1pm-2pm, in room 243 (Senate House). This week our focus will be on Twitter, and in particular on a unique idea for a rotation-curation Twitter account. In this post the founders of @WetheHumanities and our speakers for this session, Jessica Sage and Krissie West, tell us a little more about what to expect.

What can we expect from you at the Social Scholar?

We’ll be giving a little insight into what we do at We the Humanities and why we set it up, how it has grown organically, and what our plans are for the future of the project.  We also want to provoke a discussion that questions the assumption that an engagement with social media is necessarily beneficial for Early Career Researchers.

Why do you think Social Media (and particularly Twitter) is useful in academia?

This is precisely what our talk is going to be questioning: considering how academics use Twitter, why they use Twitter, and what they can gain and lose from doing so.  We want to engage with the tension between Twitter being on the one hand a frivolous waste of time and on the other hand public engagement in action.

Speakers profiles

Jessica Sage and Krissie West are the co-founders of the Twitter rotation-curation initiative, We the Humanities; they originally met on Twitter, discussing children’s fiction.  Krissie is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading, working on constructions of childhood in Transcendentalist literature, which she intends to submit next year.  She has over 17 years’ experience in journalism and editorial work and is currently the Storytelling Consultant for the marketing firm, The Story Consultancy.  Jessica has recently completed her PhD, on photographs of children taken by Lewis Carroll, at the same university.  She is currently a sessional lecturer at Reading and for the Workers’ Education Association.

Full details on this event can be found on the SAS events system. The Social Scholar is a FREE seminar held by the School of Advanced Study every month. Please also follow us on Twitter @SASNews hashtag #socialscholar.

#PotW: Clinical Governance and Leadership – 27 November 2014



Clinical governance and leadership. Invented in the UK, exported to NZ.  Developments that can contribute to NHS England

This lecture by Professor Robin Gauld will report the late-1990s in response to various failures in medical professionalism but also to promote equal emphasis in NHS organizations on accountability for both clinical performance and financial performance, and ensure that health professionals were responsible for driving quality improvement.

On 2012, the national assessment project in which the spectrum of New Zealand health professionals were surveyed about clinical governance development and site visits to District Health Boards undertaken. A range of innovative models have been put in place, many influenced by developments in the NHS.

Speaker: Professor Robin Gauld, New Zealand-UK Link Foundation Visiting Professor, 2014

Chair: Sir Malcolm Grant (Chairman, NHS England Management Committee)

Respondent: Dr Anna Dixon (Director of Strategy, Ministry of Health)


 Venue: The Chancellor’s Hall (Senate House, first floor), Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Date and Time: 27 November 2014, 18:00 – 20:00

Attendance is free, but please register here


Sorry minister, but philistinism is not an educational policy


From time to time members of the School of Advanced Study publish about their research on other websites. This post republishes that work from the original article.

Republished from



By Sarah Churchwell (University of East Anglia)

In the same week in which I published a piece for Times Higher Education about why the humanities matter, Minister for Education Nicky Morgan gave the following advice to young people:

“If you wanted to do something, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, then the arts and humanities were [once] what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course, we know now that couldn’t be further from the truth – that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths].”

I have several objections to the claim that the arts and humanities can’t help you get “all kinds of jobs”. First: Nicky Morgan has a humanities degree. So does George Osborne, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron. I can’t see that it’s hurt their career prospects. Indeed, news reports regularly circulate that banks or consulting firms are seeking high-paid arts graduates to help them solve problems and resist linear thinking.

My second objection, though, is to this false dichotomy between the humanities and STEM, as if education were a zero-sum game and we are only permitted to know one thing. This divide-and-conquer mentality is destroying a precious tradition that promotes curiosity, independence of thought and pure research across the arts and the sciences.

What is outmoded is not the study of arts and humanities instead of the sciences: what is outmoded is the idea that educated people need to understand only one subject in a globalised world. Our society urgently needs people who reflect on and can communicate about the ethical, moral, social and environmental consequences of the technologies they create, the antibiotics they discover, the houses they build.


Nicky Morgan: securing a better future … but only for science grads. Joe Giddens/PA


How will we protect our justice system if we don’t know political or moral philosophy? How will we avoid repeating the mistakes of our past if we relinquish the study of history? How will we communicate with each other with precision and dismantle the messages and images that define our world without language and semiotics? How will we expand our imaginative horizons if we stop reading literature?

What kind of person advocates philistinism as an educational policy?

So to be clear: when I say we need to encourage young people to study the humanities I am not saying they shouldn’t study the sciences. We acutely need more people who understand both. What we don’t need is this kind of limited, utilitarian thinking, which promises only to help people get jobs, as if the work that can be extracted from us is all that matters. This is precisely the struggle from which the Enlightenment tradition of the arts and sciences fought to liberate us.

By no coincidence, the people who invented the concept of the humanities to educate their citizens were also the people who invented the concept of citizens: the ancient Greeks, conceiving democracy. The great Enlightenment philosopher-scientists developed our modern conception of the sciences – and of the humanities. Voltaire argued that the rule of law, the arts and sciences, religious tolerance, civil liberties and commercial prosperity were all necessary to a free society – not just commercial prosperity on its own.

The humanities are intimately tied with what it means to be independent citizens in a democracy – and it is no coincidence that, as we watch the middle classes shrinking, civil liberties being eroded, and democratic processes paralysing from corruption, the humanities are also being dismissed as irrelevant.

The humanities shore up democracy, civil liberties and the middle classes: they teach analysis, critical thinking, ethics, cultural comparison, and autonomous individual reflection; they teach history, languages, literature and the fine arts, which refine us and are one of the means by which we define human aspiration beyond material ambitions. A narrow instrumentalism that judged art solely on the basis of its mechanical utility would conclude that Gordon Ramsay writes better books than Charles Dickens.

Education is not a smithy in which we forge workers to underpin the powerful. It is how we empower citizens, how we inform and apprehend what it means to be human – and that must include studying the humanities.

Every day we hear the rich and influential discouraging young people from exploring all that makes them human, drilling into them the idea that all they should think about is getting jobs, at the same time that these same so-called leaders won’t protect minimum wages or keep property values affordable.

I am an advocate of people exploring their own interests, whether those be arts, science, or a combination of the two. Everyone should be encouraged to seek ways of being productive and self-supporting that are consistent with those interests and beliefs. Certainly we need engineers, doctors, inventors and researchers.

But we also need experts in the humanities to think about imagination, consciousness, and communication in a digital age; to reflect on identity and ethics; to think creatively and problem-solve; to consider the consequences of past, present, and future actions. We need artists to preserve beauty, to help us imagine redemption, to remind us of all that is possible for human beings to achieve beyond building better tools, which is all that technology means.

The humanities and the sciences are not opposed: the most interesting work today is bringing them together. One of my fellow judges of the Man Booker prize, Daniel Glaser, directs the Science Gallery at King’s College London, an outreach centre teaching young people how “art and science collide”, bringing together artists, scientists, students, and communities “to stimulate fresh thinking”. The gallery will open in 2016 and as far as I’m concerned it can’t come soon enough.

A colleague of mine at UEA, Jenni Barclay, is a volcanologist working with local communities and social scientists to improve communication surrounding disasters; in her spare time she helped develop a volcano version of Top Trumps. Scientists and artists are coming together to understand cognition, the digital world, our changing social and natural environment. We don’t need new policy statements, or to dispense with ‘outmoded’ institutions: we need to empower research and innovation across all fields of creative human endeavour, and stop prioritising one over the other. It should be obvious to everyone that with the world in such a parlous state, we need all the help we can get.


Art and science will collide at the King’s College Science Gallery. King’s College London


I’ve spent the past five years working on The Great Gatsby, one of the best-loved and most prophetic books in our tradition. In 1925, Scott Fitzgerald wrote a cautionary tale about what would happen to a person (Jay Gatsby), and the country he represented (America), if he took all of his romantic hopes and dreams and ideals and possibilities and channelled them into the reductive, materialistic aims of a corrupt society. Fitzgerald concluded that human greatness lay in our “capacity for hope”, our “capacity for wonder”, “our romantic readiness” – and that settling for mere material comfort would destroy us.

All of us who were thrilled at the landing of the Philae spacecraft were responding to human ingenuity, technology, and engineering — and to a triumph of human inquiry, creativity and imagination. That took science, it took art, and it took humanity. The humanities and the sciences are on the same side: the side of inspiration. The humanities and the sciences teach enlightenment: markets are blind.

In 1784, Immanuel Kant published an essay called What is Enlightenment? in which he declared:

“If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on – then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me … It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable.”

The reverse is also true: enlightenment and freedom are aligned.

“Enlightenment,” Kant wrote, “is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance … ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”


Immanuel Kant needed no convincing on the value of the humanities. AndreasToerl, CC BY-SA


And it is surely therefore the motto of the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. It is not the motto of politicians who would do our thinking for us, so that we don’t challenge them. We must fight harder to protect our artistic and social heritage, to conserve our cultural as well as our natural environment.

The fight for the humanities is political. It is a fight for enlightenment principles of democracy, civil liberties, scepticism and rationalism, and evidenced-based conclusions in the struggle against propaganda and demagoguery. It is the tradition of Bacon, Hume, Locke and Newton, it is the tradition of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. It is their legacy, and we have a duty to safeguard it.

In 1780, the American statesman John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail of his reluctant decision to join the revolution:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

The magnificent hope of some day studying the arts was the ultimate goal, a revolutionary purpose.

Kant wrote:

Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ The officer says: ‘Do not argue – drill!’ The tax collector: ‘Do not argue – pay!’ The pastor: ‘Do not argue – believe!’ … I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind …

Free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.

The humanities teach us to be more than machines, to learn the history of human achievement, to retrieve the dignity of our present existence and to imagine that a glorious future might still be possible if we protect the hard-won rights we have inherited.

It is in the humanities, the arts and the sciences together that we find meaning and any hope of beatitude in a secular age. This is grace, beauty, music and art. This is curing cancer, it is composing the St Matthew Passion and it is sitting at the Globe to watch the plays of Shakespeare.

How dare the education minister say that we need no longer teach young people this tradition? The humanities safeguard our higher nature, our higher ideals. This is our freedom: this is our enlightenment.

This is an edited version of a plenary address given at the Being Human Festival on November 15.

Sarah Churchwell is a Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at University of East Anglia. This article was originally published on The Conversation

Read the original article here. For other articles published by members of the School of Advanced Study on The Conversation click here.

What should be seen in a Library?




Senate House recently hosted a multi-disciplinary conference exploring the role libraries have played in restricting access to published works and archival materials deemed ‘erotic’. In this post, research librarian Richard Espley reflects on the irreconcilable demands often placed on libraries.

During the recent Forbidden Access conference organised by the Institute of English Studies, libraries were portrayed as repressive organisations, concealing erotic works. In other words, exercising censorship.

Examples highlighted included the British Library’s Private Case, the enfer of France’s national collection where access is granted only after readers have negotiated a series of obstacles. At one time this was also true for Senate House Library’s Craig collection.

It is true that the absence of publicly accessible catalogues, the refusal of reprographic permission and close observation of behaviour while reading and the compulsory interviews to establish readers’ intentions, all carry a tacit and discouraging accusation of the unseemly.

However, while this is clearly a restriction on intellectual freedom, I want to suggest that it often represents a library’s pragmatic response to the irreconcilable demands placed upon it. And that the real confusion over how to define and handle the obscene, lies outside the shelves and the control of the librarian. Indeed, in such circumstances, attempting to collect these works at all, reflects a fundamental desire to preserve both the books and their discussion.

A harrowing tale of sexual abuse rather than an erotic work

As the University planned and completed its move to Bloomsbury, libraries had much to fear in their handling of obscene books. One notable case, from 1931, involved the librarian of a small public library in Manchester receiving a court summons for aiding and abetting an obscene libel, for holding a copy of James Hanley’s novel, Boy. A harrowing tale of sexual abuse rather than an erotic work, Hanley’s book had been on sale openly in the UK for more than four years without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Similarly, in 1997, the police raided the library of the University of Central England, and confiscated a copy of a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, of which 6,000 copies had been sold unimpeded in the UK. This raid was triggered by the library giving permission to a student to photograph an image, which alarmed the developer. In both cases, existing legal restrictions were no valid guide for librarians, and the imposition of elaborate special access conditions on these works would almost certainly have avoided official attention.

However, while such attempts to control transgressive works are clearly unwelcome and restrictive, it is important to note that the librarians who impose them are the same professionals who boldly chose to acquire these books. This simultaneous collection and concealment is a paradox which is arguably best explained as a response to society’s confused attitude to the erotic.

Our wider culture has been, and still is, hesitant about the absolute definition and value of either obscenity or freedom of expression; some material remains legally and culturally beyond tolerance, as it always has. Libraries, including Senate House Library, navigated this dilemma by ostentatiously restricting some material, surrounding it with ritualistic controls. In doing so, they both served and perpetuated a cultural uncertainty, which shows no sign of receding.

Richard Espley is a research librarian in Senate House Library. This blog post reflects his ongoing research interest in censorship, with an article on Senate House Library’s handling of the Craig collection appearing in a forthcoming volume in Brill’s series, The Library of the Written Word ( Richard is also working on the effects and motivations of governmental censorship during World War One.

< Older Posts