Durham University Erasmus Society- An interview with a member of the Exec for the Academic Year of 2017/2018
Perhaps the most important question: what are the aims of the Erasmus society?
You could say that the main objective of the Erasmus society is to promote intercultural understanding amongst the students at Durham, and also to establish a bridge between the international students, Erasmus students and the Durham students. We also want to be able to enhance their [the international students] overall experience here at Durham university.
How important do you think it is to engage with different cultures?
Personally, I think it is a must for those who have the opportunity to do so because people who are exposed to more than one culture will be able to understand others better. I also think that it is also a good way to avoid cultural misunderstandings which can sometimes end up being quite awkward.
Definitely agree on that one! You must have plenty of experience as an international student dealing with cultural differences. What was the biggest shock for you?
That is quite a difficult question to answer, if I’m being honest. Based on my own personal experience, I am often shocked at how people simply assume other people’s identities based on others looks. I find it shocking and culturally inappropriate.
Do you think that Durham does enough to include and incorporate Erasmus students into Durham student life?
Well, again, this is based mostly on my own experience, but I think that they do. Unlike the universities abroad that I have studied in, you actually go to the same lectures as the national students. There are also a lot of societies that you can join if you want to become more involved, like, for example, the Erasmus society.
Finally, what can you tell about this year’s events that will be organised by the society?
Following the success of our Reggaeton night last week, we are planning to do another one soon, which will be very exciting (who doesn’t love cheesy Spanish pop music?). We are also planning a trip to York Christmas Market at the end of the month, which is a good way of getting international students to see a bit more of this country, especially if it is there first time here, as well as being just a nice excuse for a day trip!
What do you study?
Laura: I study French and Italian whilst Hannah, the President, studies French and Spanish.
What is the mix of students studying French and those studying other subjects in the society?
The ratio is around 55% French students, many of whom do degrees other than Modern Languages and just study French as an elective module in first year.
What is the percentage of native French members of the society?
The remaining 45% of the society are generally French natives or Erasmus students from France, (along with several Erasmus students from Italy).
So why French language and culture? What is so special about it?
French is incredibly important, being the second most widely learned foreign language after English, and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. A knowledge of French also opens the doors of French companies in France and other French-speaking parts of the world in countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, and parts of Africa. As for the culture, France has one of the richest in the world- it is the international language of cooking, fashion, theatre, the visual arts, dance and architecture. As well as being the language of many great writers, namely Victor Hugo, Molière and Jean-Paul Sartre, which have had a huge influence on the world.
What kind of events do you carry out in the society to encourage language learning?
We are currently in the process of arranging a French film night for anyone to come along and watch (with English subtitles provided), which we think will definitely help listening skills in an entertaining way. We’re also organising a book club for both French students, natives, and lovers of French literature to partake in, encouraging an appreciation and exploration into French literature.
What kind of events do you do in the society to encourage more cultural awareness?
Depending on the kind of films we show on the film night, this could also provide a cultural experience as well (especially if it refers to a French historical event/period). As well as this, our other events are based around experiencing French everyday life through its cuisine, including Cheese and Wine Evenings, ‘Crepe and Cidre’ soirées, as well as a potential ‘Croissants et conversation’ mornings to encourage people to come and try as much of the French cuisine as possible.
What do you think is the importance of language learning in the world today, particularly French?
Despite the fact languages are decreasingly taught in schools nowadays, language learning hasn’t lost its importance. Many parts of the world still don’t speak English, and even those that do often don’t to a really high standard, and would understandably always prefer to have a conversation in their native language, hence why we shouldn’t take our knowledge of the English language for granted. French in particular as due to its proximity historically and geographically to England, making it almost intertwined into many aspects of British culture without us even realising, therefore definitely a country we should respect and admire through continuing to learn their language.
Have you done any collaboration with any other language societies?
So far there hasn’t really been any, other than the Romance Languages Ball which was introduced for the first time last year. Other than that, it’s only been collaborations with other societies such as Wine Society for our Cheese and Wine Evenings, as well as the Politics Society when we carried out a debate on the French Presidential Elections last year.
What is the one thing you would say about France that would convince someone else to go?
Laura: For me it’s definitely worth it for their cuisine, in particular their cheeses, given that so many are made on French farms and are much more authentic than the ones in England, which can be said for the majority of French food in my opinion.
Hannah: It’s worth it for the landscapes and scenery and all the medieval towns which we don’t really get here at all. Particularly those off the coast of Normandy which are full of historic architecture unique to certain parts of France.
Do you think there is any risk of French regions trying to follow Catalonia and start edging towards independence?
It’s very unlikely this will happen, at least not in the near future, mainly because there isn’t as much disparity across France compared to Spain in terms of language and dialect variations. Also, a lot of the French regions aren’t in as good an economic position as Catalonia (due to Barcelona), so will probably find it difficult to do so. France has also always a key supporter and promoter of national unity, especially after the attacks, and so are unlikely to want to start separating now.
France has just ended their ‘state of emergency’ after the Paris attacks two years ago, how do you think the attacks in France in the past years have impacted the country, and why do you think the country has been targeted more highly than some other European countries?
I’ve heard they’ve had a major impact on tourism, and the figures were something like 1.5 billion euros will be lost this year due to the terrorist attacks, having significant economic impacts from this as well. As for the French people themselves, we think, despite how they seemingly carry on with their lives and it doesn’t stop many of them living how they always have done, there is still and increased awareness of things and people around them, knowing an attack could be imminent at any moment, especially in cities like Paris. As well as this we’ve both heard of the ever-increasing hostility towards the Islamic religion, leading to the formation of many prejudices in French society.
This may be primarily due to the French patriotism and desire for a national identity, which means they often don’t hold back on criticising and mocking other nationalities. A good example of this is the Charlie Hebdo incident, which targeted such others on a much more personal and offensive level. As well as this is how their negative feelings are expressed in French culture, such as the criticism of the Hijab and Burka in public, which are likely to have sparked this revolt from Islamists.
Thank you, that’s a very insightful answer. We will finish on a lighter one, so what is your favourite French word?
For both of us, our favourite words are ‘pamplemousse’ (French for grapefruit), just because it’s fun to say and doesn’t sound anything like what it actually is, whilst most French fruits are actually really similar to the English. Our other favourite word is ‘enchanté’, purely because it’s the most French sounding word and one everyone understands, emphasising the sophistication of the French language and culture.
Can you tell us what initially drew you to Francophone and Algerian studies?
Well, I guess it was through my research for the dissertation that I really started showing an interest in Francophone and Algerian literature in particular. I started on quite a classic trajectory with Camus’ work, but it was through the study of his non-fiction and political relationship with Algeria during the Algerian War that I was drawn to more contemporary literature. I did my MA on Camus and Contemporary Algerian Literature, so this was Camus during la décennie noire: the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s, which I then went on to study in my PhD in conjunction with the literature of this period. So the pathway was fairly standard in the sense that I came through a contemporary Franco-Algerian author from the 20th century.
One of the modules you’ll be teaching to the second-years over the next few terms is Introduction to Francophone Literature and Culture. If you could pinpoint one thing you’d like us to take away from it, what would it be?
One thing...I want you to take away lots of things. Perhaps think about how literature can give us a more complicated view of the past, a more interesting view — how literature can test the way the past has been written in history books, but also in official state discourses, and how literature or art more generally can challenge them. I’m not just looking at literature in that module: we’re going to do film, colonial photography, colonial postcards… So the idea is to give you a broad view of Francophone and postcolonial studies, particularly in North Africa.
So, do you enjoy teaching film as much as literature?
Yeah, I taught a little bit of film as well as photography at Leeds as a part-time tutor during my PhD. Film is great: I feel it’s a lot easier to engage people in a lecture with film, since it’s a bit more interactive. It’s easier to demonstrate what’s going on in certain scenes and how they’re put together. I really enjoy film analysis, and I get the sense that students really enjoy it too. It’s a very practical, hands-on thing that you can do in the classroom, whereas literature often takes a bit more time and reflection.
You mentioned Leeds — how are you finding Durham in comparison?
I like it! It’s a lot smaller, but it’s lovely. I was in Paris last year, so it’s a bit of a contrast to say the least. But I was very busy finishing my thesis while I was there — I wasn’t exactly living the Parisian dream, so to speak. I’ve only been in Durham for a few weeks, so I’m still getting used to things. I’ve been getting to know the town and exploring further afield too. A friend of mine came up last weekend and we went down to Shincliffe Village, which was very nice. I’ve gone that far, but I’ve never ventured to Newcastle. That’ll probably be my next adventure.
Have you ever taught outside of Algerian literature? If not, would you like to?
Well, at Leeds I didn’t teach Algerian literature. I taught all sorts, starting with Racine. The module was an introduction to French studies, so we covered a broad range of material, from 17th-century theatre right up to the Paris Commune. I taught Zola’s Thérèse Raquin as well…
We studied Thérèse Raquin in first year; it was actually the first text we studied at university!
Yeah, it’s certainly a classic! It’s one of the first ones I did as well on a module that I ended up teaching as a postgrad at Leeds. I taught Zola, Racine, and Césaire’s Martinique-postcolonial literature, so that was the closest I’d got to teaching my own specialism.
Is there a particular novel that you would be really keen to teach on one day?
I mean, I’m looking forward to teaching some of the stuff that I worked on in my thesis in the module here at Durham. Right at the end of the module, there’s a set of short stories by an Algerian writer called Maïssa Bey, who came into writing late in her career in the 1990s, speaking of it as a necessary pursuit. She explored the trauma of the time, looking back on the War of Independence with a sort of layered memory of its history. Both these periods posed critical questions: was this a repetition, or was it a continuation of history? Again, it’s important to consider the critical voice of literature when it comes to reflecting on moments of crisis. So I think she’s an interesting writer who I’m looking forward to introducing at the end of the Francophone module. Her short stories are great — they’re very well written. I think we’ll have a good time with that!
So that’s one writer you’re particularly excited about. Do you have an overall favourite aspect of your research?
I’ve worked on a lot of authors; I worked on six authors in my thesis. There’s no particular author that stands out, although I’ve done a bit more work on Kamel Daoud and Mustapha Benfodil…Would you like me to write that down for you?
Actually, that sounds familiar… In fact, aren’t you about to publish something on Kamel Daoud?
Yes, that will hopefully be coming out in Algeria in January 2017, and I’ve already published an article on Benfodil. I’ve focused on these two writers for a while now, so I would actually quite like to get away from some of ones I’ve been working on. There’s such a rich tapestry of writers producing work in Algeria today in French. There’s a guy called Chawki Amari, and he’s worked on some rewriting as well: he wrote a companion text called L’Âne mort (The Dead Ass), which is kind of a take on L’Âne d’or by the 2nd-century Roman writer Apuleius — don’t ask me to spell that. Some people say that this was the very first Algerian text because it was written in Numidia, located in the same geographical space where modern-day Algeria lies today. It was also known as The Metamorphoses, inspiring Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then there’s the German writer Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
This whole postcolonial rewritings thing is definitely something that I’m keen to explore. Questions were opened up in the thesis that I really didn’t have time to consider in any great detail. Another secondary element that I’ve already started on is readership and the reception of Francophone-Algerian texts in Algeria — so not French literature, but literature written by Algerians and published there. The question here is who’s reading it? There’s this whole divide — I mean, I think, from a postcolonial studies perspective, that there’s us in the UK or the US reading and studying these texts, but who’s studying them in Algeria? Are we even engaging with the critical literature, with the reception of these texts, in their own country? I think the answer is largely no, which is a big problem. I didn’t really have enough time to address this in my thesis; it’s a whole new question.
Coincidentally, you’re publishing your chapter about Kamel Daoud in Algeria.
Yes, I’ve never published anything in Algeria before, and I guess it’ll expose my work to people who wouldn’t otherwise see it if it were written in journals based in the US or UK. There’s that disconnect between how we talk about Algeria beyond its borders and how it’s understood differently in a local context. Hopefully, we’ll get to explore that a bit in the module with Assia Djebar because she is a writer who has been read a lot outside Algeria more so than inside. Not all of her works are even available in Algeria, meaning she has a bit of a controversial status there. That’s something we could cover in the module, hopefully.
That leads me nicely onto the next question: in a totally non-standoffish way, what’s the relevance of your research today?
No, I mean, it’s good to ask those questions. It’s really important that we’re forced to justify what we’re doing as well as its relevance. I think there are a couple of strands; I’ve just mentioned the discipline of reading literature in different contexts. In the context of Algeria, the content is particularly politicised because of the way it’s being read, perhaps with a lack of nuance, implicating it in political cultures and debate. We, on the other hand, have articulated a version of their literature that is not directly political. It’s obviously removed from a directly political context, working as a form of art and doing something a little more complicated, but that’s not taking into account the local reception and uses of the literary text. There are clearly divided readings: ‘the West’ understands ‘The Other’, the Algerian, in politics and culture today in certain ways.
That’s definitely something that we’ve come across in the module so far; the material is quite different to any of the other stuff we’ve been taught before. Not only is it sometimes challenging to find resources for, but also to engage with the material without reading it from a Western perspective. We have to insist on not reading Une si longue lettre, for example, from that standpoint, and it’s often quite hard to find that separation.
It’s trying to articulate its own African version of feminism. I mean, it’s kind of situated in a certain political context and culture. With Une si longue lettre you’ve got this sense of oral culture as well. So you’re right, it’s very different to how we think of literature here, and that’s one of the reasons it’s important to look at. Western literature is not necessarily the best, although it’s pretty good, but if we don’t look at non-Western literature, we lose out and we don’t appreciate or have a full view.
So that’s what we’re looking at in the second-year module. Which other year groups have you taught so far?
At Leeds, I taught first-year Language and Literature modules and then in France, where I was a lecteur, I was teaching across the undergraduate programme (from first to final year). Here at Durham, I’m teaching Language 4 to finalists alongside the Francophone module. On top of that, I’ll be supervising six dissertations, all broadly on Francophone questions. I like hearing what dissertation students have to say.
Is there a year that you prefer teaching? You don’t have to say second year...
The way that they’ve set up the language module for finalists here at Durham is really well structured, so it means that we don’t have to do as much preparation. I’ve just been doing some of the marking now, actually, and that’s quite challenging. When you’re grading something, even though it’s formative, the trick is to not have the student become dispirited, to pick out what’s good about the piece and give them positive feedback. It’s tough because you don’t want to put people off straightaway, but it’s worthwhile in the end. The students are final-years, so really at this stage of their language careers, they’re trying to perfect their French. They’ve come back from the Year Abroad; their language might be a bit colloquial as they’ve been using it in everyday scenarios, so we’re trying to draw it back to a more academic level.
But the good thing is that you have the TLRP on your Year Abroad as well — I’m actually supervising 25 of those. I’ve just had a load of the proposals come in, so I’m quite busy at the moment in terms of marking. But it’s ok — it’s good...Don’t write that I’m complaining — I’m not complaining. But there is a fair bit of work to do. Fingers crossed I’ll manage to find some spare time for research too. I’ve applied for some conferences next year, so hopefully I’ll have some of those lined up.
Final question: this is a get-to-know you question. Have you got a favourite football team, TV show, actor…
Oh, this is tough… This is possibly the hardest question because it could give so much, or so little...
How about the Great British Bake Off — are you a fan?
Not really. I mean, I did watch a couple of episodes. I’ve been following the whole political fallout over the BBC-Channel 4 switchover. For me, it’s a bit too nationalistic and patriotic. Maybe that’s a simplistic criticism to make, but I feel a little bit uncomfortable watching it. I did see a couple of episodes, I concede — but I’m not going to say I liked it.
Maybe it was a good idea to start off with what I don’t like. I don’t have a television at the moment, which is really tragic. I mean, I could get one, but I have access to film using Netflix. I’m definitely a fan of film. Music-wise...In Leeds, I became a bit of a fan of electronic music and going out dancing… Yeah, I don’t do that anymore, not really — ok, maybe a bit. Actually, I haven't had a chance to check out the clubs in Durham yet...
Have you heard of Klute?
No, I haven’t.
It’s officially the worst nightclub in Europe.
And that’s in Durham?
It’s just across Elvet Bridge. It took the top spot in the rankings after its predecessor burnt down. It’s famed for it’s sticky floors.
Ok, so I’ll avoid Klute — I might go to Newcastle at some point instead. But yeah, I enjoy dancing; my favourite genre of music is disco — a bit of old-school disco goes down a treat. I might even play some disco in my lectures...I probably won’t, but I’ll try to find a link between that and Algeria to make it relevant. If it happens, I’ll look for you guys in the audience. If I can’t find any, then maybe we’ll try some other music — apparently it helps people concentrate.
We certainly wouldn’t mind some music: no objections here!
So we’ve got film, photography, music, and literature — covering all the bases here. I’ll be asking you all for feedback because it’s the first time I’ve designed my own section of a module. Maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone that, actually...
Don’t worry, we trust that it’ll be good! Well, it was nice meeting you. Thank you for your time, and we’ll see you soon!
Yes, it was lovely to meet you both. I’d better go grab some lunch now...
Thə Definite Article would like to thank Dr Ford for his time, and for giving us a great insight into his work. Catch him around Elvet Riverside talking about North Africa, or maybe disco-ing his way through Newcastle. Time will tell...
Professor Andy Beresford, Associate Director in the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, spoke to The Definite Article about pirates, paintings, and eye-tracking gadgetry…
So to begin with, could you explain exactly what the project is that you’re working on at the moment?
I’m currently conducting experiments in eye-tracking technology, using a series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, which are held at Auckland Castle. I’m interested in the way that people look at the paintings, and am trying to record information about gaze times and gaze sequences scientifically. What I’ve noticed is that there’s quite a divergence between what people think they are looking at and what they actually do, and so this work should provide some fresh theoretical insights, allowing us to build on traditional interpretive approaches towards Spanish art.
So this project is quite different from that typical interpretive approach?
Yes, it’s very different. Traditional academic work can often get trapped within narrowly focused disciplinary boundaries where you end up making the same points to the same limited group of people for most of your career. What we’re trying to do is formulate bigger and bolder questions that will hopefully have an impact on lots of different disciplines. Our work combines traditional art history with developments in digital humanities and experimental psychology. That means we’re spread in departments all over the University, bringing lots of different and innovative skills to bear. We’ve been generating things that are quite new, such as heat maps of where people are actually looking when they look at paintings.
In your experiment you use different types of labelling, and record the effect that has on how people look at art, what exactly are you expecting to find?
The project is geared towards evaluating the distinction between aesthetic appreciation (whether you like it) and cognitive understanding (whether you’ve understood it).
The current labelling (above left) at Auckland Castle dates back to when it still belonged to the diocese of the Bishop of Durham, and so underneath every painting there’s a biblical quotation and an explanation of how the artist interprets it. That’s a perfectly good and reasonable way to contextualize the paintings, but it’s very scripture-driven, and the labels as they stand say nothing about aesthetic issues. So we decided to formulate a test where we would place the existing contextual labels alongside two other sets: one that just gives the name of artist and the date of composition, and another that attempts to simulate an aesthetic reaction (above right), focusing more on questions of imagery and technique.
We haven’t crunched the data from the 46 tests yet, but my suspicion is that we’ll see significant fluctuations in the relationship between aesthetic and cognitive reactions across the three data sets. The good thing is that Auckland Castle is aware of this research, and they’re interested in using the findings when the new gallery complex opens in 2018.
This initial experiment looks at Zurbarán paintings, but do you expect this research to have wider applications?
We certainly hope so. We’re starting with the Zurbaráns because there’s been no research on how audiences look at unified sequences of paintings. Most of what’s being done at the moment focuses on the relationship between representational and non-representational, say between Vermeer and Jackson Pollock. But how do people look at an integrated collection? That’s not a question that’s been raised before, and so there’s potential for this work to be extended to other series.
But what I really want to do is use the research as a platform to explore more controversial issues. I’m interested in the human body, and particularly, in images of suffering and pain. I’m writing a book at the moment on the flaying of St Bartholomew. How exactly do people look at an image of a man with his skin being pulled off? A theoretical approach suggests that we behave like children cowering behind a sofa. We look, even though we don’t want to look, drawn instinctively to something that repulses us. But is that what actually happens, and if so, how can we measure that kind of response scientifically? I’m hoping that the work on the Zurbaráns will show the way.
The same could be said of the Imago Pietatis, where Christ wrenches the wound in his side apart with his hands. Is that what viewers are drawn to or do they spend their time looking at his face? Are we embarrassed even to look at wounds?
The other interesting issue is sex. For example, a lot of female saints in the Middle Ages are depicted naked. What are women looking at and what are men looking at? What are heterosexual people looking at? Can we queer these images? What are homosexual people looking at? Do images of naked women function as catalysts to faith or should they be dismissed as examples of pious pornography? What do believers and/or atheists think? Hopefully, when we’re finished with the Zurbaráns, we’ll move on to this, with a big grant proposal leading to a major published study.
On a different note – the current investment and construction of a new gallery space for Spanish Art at Auckland Castle is a huge project – will that have a positive effect on studies at Durham?
I think it’ll have a very positive effect on the University, and on the North East in general. Hopefully, we will be able to establish Durham as the biggest centre in the world for the study of Spanish and Latin American art. It should also be a massive tourist draw. County Durham has a wonderful set of treasures that nobody seems to know about. It will be a draw for postgraduates and doctoral researchers and will have a very positive effect on research across the University as a whole.
Do you think it will trickle down to the undergraduate level?
Absolutely. I don’t see any point teaching students by relying on PowerPoint all the time. I don’t think that students are going to get excited by presentations of image after image in a hot and dusty classroom. But if we can take students over to Auckland Castle, they’ll be able to see the objects in situ, work with them, and spend time with them; and I think that that will have a very positive effect. There’s nothing like seeing an artefact in the flesh to appreciate its importance. Obviously, I don’t think all students will be converted to art, but I’d hope that many more would take a visual studies strand further in their programme of undergraduate studies.
Do you think the year abroad, in conjunction with the TLRP, allows students to better appreciate art in its original context?
The dissertation is the best place for it, but the TLRP could also potentially help students to develop their powers of visual analysis. There are lots of excellent museums and galleries in the countries that students visit, and it’s easy to form an intense personal relationship with an art object. That relationship can tell you an awful lot about the culture or cultural values of the country in which it was produced, and so yes, it’s an excellent opportunity.
Your research involves a lot of religious art, is the context of these pieces particularly important?
Yes, context is absolutely crucial, and so much art has been ripped out of its context. This has often had a detrimental effect on its meaning. Some works were painted specifically with the knowledge that there was a window on the left and light must fall from left to right, and so when you take them out of context they look very different.
That’s one of the great enigmas of the Zurbarán paintings at Auckland Castle. We know that they’ve been in the Long Room for 250 years, but we don’t know why they were produced, or who for. We don’t know who commissioned them. We suspect that they were destined for a wealthy collector in Latin America but they never got there. The most romantic theory is that English pirates ran into a Spanish galleon on the high seas, saw these wonderful paintings, stole them, and brought them to London where they were sold. That’s not entirely implausible, but it’s more likely the case that they were used as makeweights in a sale, possibly traded for tea or some other really banal commodity. The evidence is ambiguous, but the pirate-theory tends to get people interested, and it certainly fits with other acts of theft, notably that of the Apostle paintings in Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. We know for certain from documentation that they were looted by the British Navy from Cadiz in 1702.
Do you think that religious art requires more contextual information than more modern non-representational work, for people to appreciate it?
In some senses, it does. Spanish Catholic art probably seems quite remote to a modern and largely secular audience, but at the risk of being reductive, what’s it like to be flayed alive? Would you be prepared to die for what you believe in? Is martyrdom a good thing? Is pain a good thing? Surely, these are questions that anyone can answer, and they are equally if not more relevant than a diamond encrusted skull, a shark sawn in half, or the line of bricks that won the Turner Prize. Like most art historians, I love modern art, but there’s stuff that’s far more esoteric and far more difficult to interpret than many of the medieval and renaissance images.
It’s really a problem of opening people’s eyes to objects that are ‘concealed in plain sight’, to coin a cliché. A good example is the Crucifixion. People see images of Christ on the Cross all the time, and tend to pass by without reacting. But why should the central image of Christianity present an image of a common criminal nailed to an instrument of lethal torture? What does that say about Christianity, suffering, pain, death, and so on?
As that image is so central, and normalised, do we have a tendency to not really view crucifixion scenes, or images of Christ, as ‘artwork’? Is there a problem selling religious art as art?
Yes, certainly. Our familiarity with it tends to desensitize us, but there are people who dismiss religious art without really considering its exciting range and complexity. A great example is St Catherine of Siena drinking blood from the wound in Christ’s side, nursing at his breast as if she were still a baby. The painting is a reference to communion, and is predicated on the assumption that milk is transmuted blood, but I think it gives us a lot to think about in terms of gender, and particularly role reversal, with Jesus as Mother. I’ve certainly found over the years that when students are exposed to that type of imagery, they tend to react to react positively. A few have even gone on to write dissertations on religious art, and so the problem, really, is one of familiarity and of looking at things with fresh eyes.
The Definite Article interviews Becky Wyde, former writer and section editor, about her adventures since graduating last summer.
First things first, how has life been after Durham? What have you been doing since graduating in 2015?
Life has definitely been a lot quieter since Durham, but to be honest I’m quite enjoying the chance to catch my breath after the whirlwind of coursework, exams and the year abroad. I’ve mainly been looking for jobs. I’m now working as a Content Writer for a travel start-up, which is exciting, but not before receiving a couple of ‘interesting’ offers including writing content for a company which specialises in escort websites.
Did you know what you wanted to do before graduating? Do you have any advice to undergrads interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Since I got involved in student media from second year onwards (including the Definite Article), I knew I wanted to work in journalism, publishing or translation – anything to do with words, really. I would advise getting as much experience as you possibly can if you’re looking for a career in this area: message websites you’re interested in to see if they’re looking for contributors, write your own blog, get involved in student media in Durham. Rather than my actual degree, I found it was my experience in writing and editing that impressed employers and, ultimately, helped me secure the job I’m working in now.
Anything you miss about being a languages undergrad? Have you found that your languages degree has helped you in your career?
I miss so much about being a languages undergrad! What other degree is there where you can talk to people, watch films, and listen to the radio as a legitimate form of revision? Durham is such a brilliant place to be a student that you can’t NOT miss it – I especially miss my friends and the fact that I was learning every day. Although it is brilliant having a bit of disposable income, there’s a certain amount of freedom about being a student that disappears when you’re working.
I definitely feel like being a languages student has helped in my career – certainly it has helped with my writing skills, and I find that languages students in particular are precise in the way they express themselves that other graduates aren’t. We’re trained to notice the small things – the tense, a pronoun – that don’t seem incredibly important at the time, but can alter the whole meaning of a sentence – and this is what’s important in a field like content writing or marketing.
Do you have any words of wisdom for any finalists still uncertain about what they want to do in the future?
Do. Not. Worry. It’s incredibly scary leaving Durham with no job or grad scheme in place, but that’s ok. If you’re not sure about you want to do, then don’t rush – do some soul-searching, experiment a little bit. Even though it feels like it now, there really is no rush and it’s better to wait and figure things out than hurry to take a job you end up hating. Make sure you make the most of Durham though: it might be stressful now, but you’ll miss it when it’s over, trust me!
Any advice to undergraduates at Durham?
You’ll no doubt have heard this a million times before, but make sure you get involved in stuff. I found what I wanted to do through my extracurriculars, and you’d be surprised what people have gone on to get involved in through a club or society they were part of. Like I said earlier, it’s the extracurriculars that employers tend to notice as they often reveal your passions and interests far better than your degree – although it helps if you love doing that too! One more thing I would say is enjoy Durham. Spend time with friends, go to Klute (if that’s your thing) rant about how horrible Elvet is… the fact is that you might not have this opportunity again and there really is nowhere like it.
The Definite Article interviews Rachel White, former YA editor and agony aunt, about life after Durham and studying for a PGCE in Modern Foreign Languages...
First things first, how has life been after Durham? What have you been doing since graduating in 2014?
Life after Durham has certainly been surprising! I’ve gone in a few directions that I definitely hadn’t expected to. As I graduated with no clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do, I ended up moving back home to Lancashire, moving back in with my parents and looking for a job! I spent the summer straight after graduation working as a youth worker for a council-run holiday scheme, which was a lot of fun. You can’t complain about being paid to finger-paint for six weeks! After that, I got a temporary job working in customer services for a catalogue company, in the lost parcels and heavy items department, and I worked there for 9 months. It wasn’t my dream job by any means, but I definitely learnt a lot from it. I think dealing with angry customers on the phone prepared me well for managing difficult pupils in the classroom! I moved to Nottingham in September, and I started my secondary PGCE, specialising in German and French.
Why did you decide to study for a PGCE? Did your time at Durham prepare you for the challenges of PGCE? Do you have any advice to undergrads interested in pursuing a career in teaching?
I decided to study for my PGCE after volunteering in the languages department at my old secondary school for a couple of weeks. I’d loved working with young people at the holiday scheme, and everything else seemed to click into place when I was sitting in the classroom – I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, and I could do this well!’ So here we are! I think my time at Durham did prepare me for the PGCE in terms of my subject knowledge – in languages at Durham we get a really solid grounding in grammar, as well as in culture and literature, all of which are really important for the new GCSE and A-Level syllabuses. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the other difficult elements of the course – it’s definitely a bit of an eye-opener when you start! In terms of advice to undergrads, I think you really do need to be aware of the challenges the course places on you, and also how important what you are doing really is. A lot of the course is spent in schools, teaching your subject, acting as a form tutor and supporting pupils – you’re working with real children, with real issues, who really need to get through the year and are relying on you to help them do it! I think you really have to understand the gravity of this before you start the course – you can’t go into it thinking it will be a continuation of undergrad, it really isn’t.
Is there anything you miss about being a languages undergrad? Have you discovered a new found appreciation and respect for MFL teachers?
I miss so much about being a languages undergrad! I really wish that I still had the time that I did as an undergrad – I can’t believe I used to have the time to take an afternoon nap! I also wish I still had the time to read for pleasure, because I don’t have much of that at the moment. I absolutely have a new found respect for MFL teachers! Learning a language, as I’m sure all the readers know, is really difficult – it’s even more difficult to make pupils learn them if they don’t want to be there and would rather be doing anything else than listening to you! It’s rewarding, though, when pupils are able to string a sentence together and answer your questions in French – perfectly or not!
What are the best and worst things so far about studying for a PGCE in Modern Languages?
The best thing is by far the people I have met – other trainee teachers, the teachers who lead the course, the teachers in schools and of course the pupils. You learn a lot from all of them! I also got to go on a school trip to Düsseldorf and Cologne Christmas markets, which was also a highlight. The worst thing is how exhausted I am – the course is relentless, but it is rewarding if you manage to fight through it.
As our former agony aunt, do you have any words of wisdom for finalists still uncertain about what they want to do in the future?
My advice would be to just go with it. I had a lot of crises of confidence, a lot of confusion and a lot of negative feelings when I graduated with no job and no idea what to do next. The best piece of advice I received was: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re not competing against your friends or the other people on your course, your parents or Beyoncé – you just have to do whatever you want to, give different things a try and see what happens when it happens!
Any advice for undergraduates at Durham?
Enjoy literally every minute of it. Go to every formal, every bop and ball; hang out with your friends in every coffee shop and bar, go to all of your lectures and even go to extra-curricular ones too. Also, a shameless plug for something I loved in my final year, read every issue of and contribute to The Definite Article! Just take in the atmosphere of the beautiful place, because a matter of months after you graduate it will start to feel like a dream and real life will kick in!
Hannah McIntyre interviews Dr Tom Wynn, Reader and Director of Research in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures.
What is your main area of academic research?
18th century French lit specialising in Libertine literature and the period’s theatre.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on what looks like a very boring play by Voltaire called La Prude, it’s about a woman who pretends to be a prude and she’s actually very sexually voracious, and what’s interesting is that there’s a transvestite figure in there. Marjorie Garber says that when there is a transvestite they’re not the problem, they point to a fracture elsewhere, so I’m trying to figure out what the transvestite is doing, there’s a problem somewhere else. So I’m working on a play about false prudes, false genders.
How early on in your academic career did you focus in on your specialist area?
It was the fourth year as an undergraduate. I actually found a book, this is such a metaphor, I found a book on my mother’s bookshelf on the Marquis de Sade and I thought this looks really interesting. And I remember, someone at Cambridge was doing a talk, where I did my undergrad, someone was offering a course on Sade and I was the only one who turned up. We still meet up on occasion actually.
Your work has often focused on rehabilitating Libertine texts that may be considered as ‘low culture’, do you think academia in general places too much emphasis on supposed ‘high culture?’
Not anymore. In fact, I think that there might be a tendency towards forgetting the canon in the name of broadening out. In the aim of giving voice to minority voices. What I find interesting is how those minority voices take up the canon, rework it, and deploy it to other ends that you wouldn’t expect. So actually I think you need the great canonical works and the perceived minor works in dialogue with each other. It makes for better research, it makes for better teaching.
How much has your research been divided between the two?
My PhD was on Sade’s theatre. Sade is now taken seriously as a great writer, but no one takes his plays seriously. So it’s like OK let’s look at some elements of his work that haven’t been looked at, and make that valid. I work a lot on Voltaire, the biggest figure of the 18th century, certainly in France, possibly across Europe. A figurehead of the Enlightenment. But I look at his plays. He was very well known in his own period for his plays but now that aspect of his work is totally forgotten.
What do you enjoy reading outside of your areas of research?
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the best fucking book I’ve read in ages. Fan-bloody-tastic. It’s great. In fact, I was just harassing someone at the bookshop about it this weekend. She was also reading it. It’s really good. It’s about a psychotic family and the entire family’s been wiped out. And as a plug for my colleague’s work, Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze’s new novel La logique de l’amanite, that’s also about a killer in the family, it’s very good.
Do you get much time to read?
I’ve decided to turn my phone off so I have time to read.
So no social media?
No. Not on Facebook, I’ve never been on Facebook. I’m too old. I’ve got nothing to say. I’m not opposed to social media, I think when my translation of Sade comes out I’ll go on Twitter more.
You didn’t mention Sade when we talked about what you’re working on, are you anticipating it to be a big seller? How did the project come about? (Dr Wynn is currently translating the highly controversial 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin World Classics)
Yeah, I hope so. It’s a collaboration with Will McMorran from Queen Mary, he’s great. We sent a proposal to the head of the division at Penguin, and they got back within three hours saying yes. Which, I’m told, is the fastest they’ve ever heard. Then we took a year longer than we thought we would translating the book. It should be coming out next year. And we think it’s going to be big. It would be interesting to know if it’s going to be controversial or not. Given that it deals with such dark material and problematic material, how will that land? A new book I’m reading is called Trigger Warning: Is the fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? It looks at the increasing, well the perception that universities are increasingly becoming a place where students want safety, and confirmation, and consensus. And actually what you want is debate and robust discussion and contestation, so what place does very difficult material have in a university when people say oh we want trigger warnings, oh we don’t want to deal with difficult material. So it will be interesting to see how this book, in a culture of perceived increased sensitivity, what will happen.
A lot of your research, particularly in Libertinage, focuses on erotic or explicit texts. Is it a difficult subject to teach?
It’s hard, no pun intended, but it’s hard studying sex stuff with students. I’m the one giggling at the front. Students don’t want to talk out. I can imagine, it’s extremely difficult talking about sex in front of your peers let alone your module convenor. It’s agonising, well it’s agonising for a bit and then you kind of go oh for god’s sake it’s not a big deal.
So why teach it?
Precisely because it’s agonising. Because if it’s agonising that means it’s disruptive, it’s problematic, and those subjects take you to questions about libertine individuality, selfhood, power, gender, politics. I think I’m done with sex stuff now, I think I want to move on to other questions. It’ll still be related to questions of selfhood and subjectivity, but moving away from the libertine angle to things like identity fraud in the 18th century.
So are you going to stop running your Libertinage module?
Yeah, I think so. I found some police records in Paris, there were some people who were locked up in the Bastille for impersonating other people so there was this woman who claimed to be the duchess of some distant place in Germany, and it turned out she was the daughter of a barman from Alsace-Lorraine. And she passed herself off as a duchess, and she got the diamonds and she got the coach and someone said you know “oi it’s Brenda from Luneville”. So she’s busted. And there were others: there was a supposed Arabian prince, there’s a man who claims to be able to contact the dead, you know that kind of fraud, so all these questions of identity fraud, so I think that’s my next project, I’ll maybe do a module on that – somehow!
For the libertinage module, is it a conscious decision to include the more explicit material in your 4th-year module rather than 2nd-year?
Well the only complaint I had was about teaching a political by Sade. It's included in La Philosophie dans le boudoir. We look at it in 2nd year, and there was some debate amongst students as to whether that was appropriate to teach at university. That was fascinating because there was a belief that I would leave that problematic material unchallenged. But of course, we take that material, which gets you to think critically about the French Revolution.
It gets you to think about the assumptions behind the Revolution, its ambiguities, and you know university is not here to be a safe ride, and it just confirms the idea that people who don’t do literature are unblinking and think that books are just there to be a nice cushion to our lives. There’s a lot of material that I work on that I don’t think is “good”. It’s by looking at the literature that you can get a better sense of the society as a whole, you can get an idea of what its needs were, what its neuroses were, you can get a better sense of it that way.
Do you think that the arts are undervalued in the university system?
No, not at Durham.
No, I think you can see that culture has been taken and used to add something to cities that they didn’t have before. If you look at Newcastle and Gateshead, look at the Baltic and the Sage, and Workplace, in Gateshead, for me the best gallery outside London. What they do for the local community, local artists, it’s terrific. So I don’t think that culturally we dismiss the arts. I was at the Royal Academy this weekend, there were queues around the block for Ai Weiwei. So no I don’t think the Arts are dismissed.
I do think the Arts are becoming increasingly instrumentalised, why study the arts? And you can’t just reply – “why not?” The Arts have to justify themselves, you know reading books doesn’t save babies from leukaemia, so you’ve got to say what do they bring to the world. And what they bring, precisely, is: contestation, critical thinking, reassessing received opinions.
To instrumentalise language studies, you know language studies get you good jobs, my partner speaks three other languages and got a very good job precisely on the basis of speaking those languages. I think language studies as a discipline needs to figure out what we do, what we do well, what we do better than other disciplines. A friend of mine, who is at another university now, says that we do everything English does but better, because we’re like the Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire, everything they can do we can do backwards and in high heels.
What do you enjoy about working at Durham?
The students. You’ve got to have the input from the students. The lecturer can have passion, and I think that’s very important, but the students have to do the work.
I have to say, I know you’re in my final year, and I’m not saying this because it’s being recorded, this is the best final year I’ve ever had. Absolutely fantastic. The dissertation students are brilliant. They come in they’ve done the reading, they’ve got the spikiness, they’ve got the punchiness. Fantastic students.
What advice would you give to Durham MLAC students?
Read more. Read better. Be intellectually curious. When you hear of someone saying oh this is an interesting filmmaker, track her stuff down and see it. Because, and this is kind of the value of getting old, you think, gosh I had those four years at university to do whatever I want, well relatively, whatever I want, so you can spend the next few weeks looking at interesting Japanese cinema, or 17th century French, or Russian poems. You think oh god just do it. See what it’s like. Be intellectually curious. Go for it.
What do you think about the introduction of the compulsory dissertation?
Brilliant. Entirely for it. It gets students, these are kind of clichéd Blairite words, but you take ownership of something, you make it your own, it’s your passion. I don’t think it should be for academics to say to students this is your subject, the student has to find it and if he or she can’t, well it’s your responsibility. You find a subject you love, you go for it. And when else are you going to write 8,000 or 12,500 words on, I don’t know, manga, or humour in Sade?
I think what we want to show, is that you do languages to gain access to cultures, that language learning isn’t just about verb tables, that with this dissertation, you can access stuff that you’d never have seen otherwise, and that’s why I think the dissertation is fantastic. It’s also to be able to go to a job interview and say, I’ve read that many books, and produced a report that big, look at what I can do, and I can do it in another language. Any employer would want that.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to pursue postgraduate education or even a career in academia?
I hated my MA. Hated it. I remember sitting in an MA session thinking - that’s it I’m giving up - never doing this again. It was a really boring seminar. But my PhD was amazing. You choose the right PhD supervisor, it’s transformative. If you’re intellectually curious, do it. Pursuing an academic career? It’s hard. It makes me think of acting, so you get loads of really talented actors coming out of their training and they’ve got to go for audition after audition and there’ll always be someone getting the role ahead of you. It’s exceptionally competitive. But, and you know, I get more and more sentimental as I get older - there’s nothing more satisfying. It’s such a satisfying job. To be able to get up and say this is what I’m researching today, this is what I’m studying. And I know it sounds puke-worthy but when you have great students? It makes all the difference. And I haven’t met any total shits at Durham. No, I haven’t honestly, they haven’t come my way, or maybe they keep quiet, or they just don’t turn up for class.
And finally, what’s your favourite essay question you’ve ever set?
Oh, well there’s two. “‘No romance without finance,’ (G. Guthrie) Discuss with reference to Manon Lescaut.” And people said oh as Guthrie has argued and I’m like wait a minute I’m talking about Gwen Guthrie the singer, early 80s electro. Then there was another one like that like “‘Love is a Battlefield’. Discuss with reference to Andromaque.”
I love a good song lyric, put a song lyric in your dissertation and I’ll probably give you a first, well if it’s Morrissey, Kate Bush or The Supremes I definitely would. You probably shouldn’t put that in the interview….
Emily Kilner says: