This month marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of violence in Derry, Northern Ireland, in what has become known as the Battle of the Bogside. The August 1969 riots, involving local communities and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), are often referenced as the events which marked the beginning of the 30-year conflict commonly known as the Northern Ireland Troubles.
But the stones and petrol bombs thrown on those summer days were not the first sign of intercommunal tension, nor the first violent expressions of discontent. British Army troops has been deployed in the province on internal security duties since April of that year, and recent scholarship suggests there is reason to question previous claims that the RUC’s request for the deployment of troops in August 1969 came as a ‘surprise’ to the General Officer Commanding, Lieutenant General Sir Ian Freeland. Rather, the roots of the conflict were long, the violence was varied and persistent, and its impact was severe and deep.
Between 1969 and 1998, more than 35,000 shooting attacks and 10,000 explosions claimed the lives of over 3,600 individuals, with a further 40,000 suffering horrific or life-altering injuries. It’s not uncommon to see the most high-profile violent events of the conflict referred to in the media or commemorated on an annual basis.
But the conflict was more than the sum of those particularly spectacular or egregious events. The diverse and complex character of the conflict, which spanned decades, cannot be grasped if we reduce the history to its morbid ‘highlights’. The participating paramilitary groups’ motivations, members and activities were as diverse and changing as the various political and security forces’ responses to them, and whole communities were affected as a result. The totality of the resulting harm exceeded that which proved fatal or left visible scars on the bodies of survivors.
This June, the Violence Studies research network (part of TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) hosted a series of events to examine the Northern Ireland Troubles in light of the 50th anniversary. Among those events were seminars featuring presentations from academics whose research into the early years of the conflict involves consulting previously closed archival materials. Papers from Dr Edward Burke, Dr Simon Prince, Professor Gavin Schaffer and Dr Margaret Scull shed light on a variety of key issues including the role of community support, the media and the Catholic Church.
Those papers reveal the microdynamics of both the perpetration and experience of violence in the early years of the conflict. But it’s the everyday experience of living through conflict that can be hardest to capture. The sources most readily available to scholars of violence – newspapers, security statistics, memoirs and oral histories – naturally tend to skew towards the extremes. And that’s why the multimedia performance of poet and musician Steafán Hanvey, hosted this June alongside the academic paper presentations, was so significant and powerful.
The performance doubled up as the official UK book launch of Hanvey’s father-son photo-poetry book, Reconstructions: the Troubles in Photographs and Words (2019, Merrion Press). The book provides unique insight into a family’s experience of the complex and vivid history of the Troubles, featuring images captured by Hanvey’s father, the renowned Northern Irish photographer Bobbie Hanvey, paired with Hanvey’s own strikingly original and powerfully raw poetry. The work was given life at the launch as Hanvey performed his music and poetry, accompanied by a slideshow of his father’s photographs. The audience gained an insight into how it feels to spend one’s formative years anchored in a conflict zone – Hanvey’s memories of only narrowly escaping harm himself were truly humbling to hear.
Hanvey’s performance of the poem 17 (Cause to Grieve) was particularly powerful. The piece was composed in response to Bobbie Hanvey’s photograph of a father’s salute at the graveside of his daughter, the IRA volunteer Vivienne Fitzsimons, who was ‘killed in action’ in February 1973 alongside a comrade as they transported a bomb. Vivienne lived just around the corner from Steafán Hanvey, who was ‘but seven months old when she left home for the last time’. Hanvey’s words convey both the closeness and distance of their separate paths, and how things could have been very different had he made other choices. But, unlike Vivienne, the only thing Hanvey was sure of at 17 was that he ‘wasn’t sure of anything; the only thing [he] would have died for was a record deal’.
For more on the Northern Ireland Troubles commemorative series by the Violence Studies network, listen to interviews and lecture recordings on the podcast channel Understanding Violence.
Analía Isabel Gerbaudo, Professor of Literary Theory and Didactics of Language and Literature at the National University of Litoral, Argentina, has been appointed as Global South Visiting Fellow at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).
The Global South visitor scheme, which sits in TORCH, is part of a wider aim to diversify the curriculum in Oxford’s humanities departments. The scheme is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is part of TORCH’s ‘Humanities & Identities’ series.
Dr Gerbaudo’s work tackles the difficult, charged and extremely topical question of the relationship between literary studies and political activism. The belief that practising criticism constitutes an important form of activism shapes the mission of the online literary journal that Gerbaudo founded in 2014, El Taco en la Brea, of which she remains the chief editor. It is also reflected in her most recent work as director of the independent publishing house Vera cartonera, linked to the ‘cartonero’ publishing movement which promotes literacy, diversity and social integration in Latin America by providing books at affordable prices. Dr Gerbaudo’s academic and professional work is produced outside the metropolitan context of Buenos Aires and is committed to geographical and social inclusion. She is currently researching the circulation of literary theory and Argentine literature during the last dictatorship and in the post-dictatorship period, especially with regard to questions of censorship, clandestine circulation and translation of texts, and underground reading practices. Gerbaudo is also an active translator and a committed mediator of Argentine literature and cultural politics in the global sphere.
Dr Gerbaudo said: ‘I would like to express my gratitude to those who have helped me develop and draw attention to a topic that I have been researching since 2006, the year I was admitted to the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). I study how Argentine literature and literary theory were taught in public universities in the years following the end of the military dictatorship. More specifically, I am concerned with the “fantasies of nano-intervention” that inspired the practices which my research has contributed to highlighting. Thanks again to all the people involved in the TORCH project for this opportunity.’
Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista (English), Professor Laura Marcus (English) and Professor Benjamin Bollig (Medieval and Modern Languages) are sponsoring Dr Gerbaudo’s term at the University. While Dr Gerbaudo’s research has recently been published in the Journal of World Literature, her stimulating work remains very little known in Britain. This Global South Visiting Fellowship will provide her with a platform to share her work with English-speaking audiences both within Oxford and more widely, and to engage in ongoing debates in Oxford's Humanities faculties concerning disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations, literary translation, dissemination and the widening of the canon. Dr Gerbaudo’s expertise challenges the Eurocentric model of comparative literature by concentrating on Argentina as a key player in the global transmission of ideas and texts.
Dr Gerbaudo will be based at Oxford’s Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Trinity College during Michaelmas Term 2019.
Throughout history, the experiences of women have largely been ignored, or understood only through representations in art, literature, music and other cultural mediums. This is true of the Belle Époque era (1870 – 1914), which is known for its idealised representations of women and femininity via traditional archetypes, such as the tranquillity of the homemaker, or the exoticism of the harem. A new conference run by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) aims to gain a deeper understanding of women during this era.
‘I wanted to put on an event as a way of fostering interdisciplinary discussion on women's lives,’ says conference organiser Dr Rhiannon Easterbrook, a Women in the Humanities Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Oxford. ‘The two-day conference, co-organised with two DPhil students Sasha Rasmussen and Mara Gold, creates the space for dialogue on the representation and experiences of women at a transitional point in history from a global perspective: we have papers on women in India, Ireland, and the Caucasus, as well as France and Britain. Having been trained as a Classicist myself, it's been a fascinating journey learning how to engage with scholars from other disciplines. Additionally, how women create and preserve spaces for ourselves is still a contested subject today. Here we can look in-depth at how women's spaces relates to thorny topics, from sexuality to shopping, from work to idleness.’
The interest in understanding how women create and interact with space, from their homes to their offices, is particularly relevant to the Belle Époque era. During this time period, women were beginning to enter educational settings, workplaces, and new societal creations like department stores en masse. Their ability to navigate these new environments and roles for women, as well as how they experienced pleasure and desire in this different context, are of keen interest to academics. ‘The conference is about the experiences and representation of women during the Belle Époque, but with specific reference to how they inhabited or created spaces for themselves and how this allowed them to explore or suppress pleasure and desire,’ explains Dr Easterbrook.
As part of the conference, a concert will be held at the Holywell Music Room, featuring extracts from a new adaptation of Medea by Julia Pascal, a pioneering theatre director and playwright, and compositions by Cassandra White and Sarah Westwood.
‘In general, female composers and playwrights do not receive the same attention reserved for their male counterparts,’ says Dr Easterbrook. ‘We're delighted to share with members of the public this celebration of women's creativity, their meditations on pleasure and desire, and their drawing on the past to do so. This is a small corrective to a longstanding problem, which we hope will inspire our audience.’
‘Just as the women in our concert have forged connections between past and present and between their own creativity and that of their collaborators, we hope that both the public and our speakers will continue to make connections themselves, leading to fruitful collaboration, thoughtful scholarship, and a greater appreciation for creative pioneers.’
The ‘Women’s Spaces, Pleasure, and Desire in the Belle Époque’ conference will take place in Oxford on 3 – 4 June 2019. The concert is on 3 June 2019, 18:00 in the Holywell Music Room and is open to the public; register via Eventbrite.
The events are co-sponsored by Women in Humanities, St Hilda’s College and the Oxford Queer Studies Network.
Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has written a letter to The Guardian calling on Ofqual to 'urgently adjust grade boundaries and implement proper quality control for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) exams'. The letter has been signed by 150 university teachers, and The Guardian has also published a report on the issues raised. Here, Katrin Kohl gives further details about how the design and grading of exams are affecting MFL subjects and the pupils studying them.
Languages have long been considered ‘difficult’. The reasons are obvious – you can’t make progress without learning lots of vocabulary, you have to get your mind round illogical grammar rules and avoid getting discouraged by mistakes when applying them, and you project yourself publicly as an ignoramus every time you open your mouth to practise speaking. Moreover, words and rules are almost as quickly forgotten as they’re learned. Add to this the fact that English native speakers already know the most useful language in the world including the language of the internet and dominant pop culture, and it’s hardly surprising that foreign language learning in the UK is suffering.
There are many joys and rewards in learning languages, too – cognitive benefits, cultural enrichment, communicative empowerment, sense of adventure, creation of a new identity. Yet these require careful nurturing, patience and time. And time is in particularly short supply in crowded school timetables.
Powerful measures are needed if the difficulties are not to win the day. The most effective one is making the subject compulsory at school. In other European countries that’s normal. In England, that battle was lost in 2004 when the Labour government made languages optional at GCSE. Further nails were hammered into the languages coffin with the intensive promotion of STEM subjects as a career advantage, the abolition of the fourth AS subject from 2016, and the push towards fewer GCSEs with the reformed qualifications. Counter-measures by the government such as the EBacc and compulsory language teaching at primary level have not succeeded in reversing the trend.
There’s now widespread alarm at the rapid loss of language skills as schools reduce provision and universities close language departments. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has demanded a Recovery Programme; the British Academy has issued a Call for Action together with the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Academy of Engineering; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has invested some £16 million in research programmes designed to give languages a shot in the arm.
Meanwhile the spotlight is on the GCSE and A level exams in Modern Foreign Languages – are they fit for purpose? This is all the more critical in a context where other factors are impacting negatively on the subject. Yet schools report that it’s primarily the difficulty of the course and exams that is prompting learners to drop the subject. There are two interconnected issues here. One is ‘severe grading’. The other is the intrinsic difficulty of the exam papers, which in turn generates courses that are too demanding and makes for stressed teachers and learners. The exam regulator Ofqual is ultimately responsible for both issues since it oversees the work of the exam boards and maintains standards across subjects.
After some ten years of complaints from teachers, five years of support from the higher education subject community, and several consultations and research studies, Ofqual acknowledged last November that grading in MFL A levels is indeed, as teachers had claimed, ‘severe’ and that French, German and Spanish A levels are ‘of above average difficulty’. Yet Ofqual decided not to make an adjustment to the grades.
A consultation is now underway for a similar exercise with GCSEs in MFL. The decision expected in the autumn. So what about the impact of severe grading? Ofqual has been amassing statistical proof to show that there is no causal link with falling numbers. But can that possibly be the case? Which learner, parent or school will go for a subject that has statistically been proven even by the exam regulator to be ‘severely graded’ and thereby put the student’s university place at risk?
A key factor underlying excessive difficulty of the language exams for English learners is the presence of native and near-native speakers of the language in the exam cohort. This factor is unique to Modern Foreign Languages and it was partially addressed by Ofqual in 2017 with a small one-off adjustment to A level grading in French, German and Spanish. But what hasn’t yet been acknowledged is their effect on the exam papers.
This is significant, especially for smaller languages where the proportion of native speakers tends to be highest. Research commissioned by Ofqual showed that in the German A level sample, almost half the students gaining an A* were native-speakers, while at grade A, they made up almost a fourth. These are invisible to examiners, exam boards and Ofqual when it comes to scrutinising marks profiles. So even if the exam is far too difficult for non-native speakers, there will be enough marks gained at the top end to suggest the exam is working.
In fact an examiners’ report for the 2018 A level in German indicates that there may be insufficient awareness of difficulty as an issue. In the case of a reading comprehension question concerning a grammatically highly complex sentence with a word very unlikely to be familiar to an English learner, the examiner comments that the question ‘discriminated well. A few candidates answered this correctly and gained a mark’. The sample answer given in the report for this part of the exam is likely to be by a near-native speaker.
Learners, then, face a triple whammy – a rushed, stressful course that can’t possibly prepare them thoroughly for the exam at the end of it; a demoralising exam experience that makes them feel failures; and a grade that is below what they would get in another subject for equivalent performance.
So what’s to be done? There’s a window between now and Ofqual’s autumn decision for a change of direction. Ofqual needs to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of anomalies in Modern Foreign Languages assessment – and act:
- Reopen the question of A level grading, and carry out the necessary adjustment to eliminate ‘severe grading’.
- Simplify the exam papers, and ensure that the exam boards start working with robust criteria for controlling the level of linguistic difficulty appropriately for non-native speakers.
- Gain better understanding of the impact of native and near-native speakers on exam papers, marking and grading, and make the necessary adjustments for all languages so non-native speakers are rewarded appropriately.
The subject community in schools and universities is keen to support this endeavour. If Ofqual does not address these matters now, language learning in the UK will face an inexorable further downward spiral caused by unrealistic expectations, exam difficulty, severe grading, irreversible loss of provision in schools and universities, and an intensifying teacher shortage.
You can read Ofqual’s response to the Guardian article and letter here.
Read Professor Kohl's letter to Ofqual, plus supporting documents on the Creative Multilingualism website.
This article was produced by the University of Würzburg and appears in its original form here. Researcher Dr Maren Schentuleit is incoming Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford.
Imagine archaeologists working 2,000 years from now to decipher the account statements of a large commercial enterprise that ended up in the bin in 2018 and have been forgotten since. The majority of these notes are in a deplorable condition: eaten by mice, glued together, torn and fragmentary, and written in a strange script that cannot be found in any other place. What makes the work even more difficult is that the individual scraps of paper are not neatly collected in one place, but are distributed across many museums and libraries in Europe. Which is why, for example, no one has yet noticed that the upper half of a rather unfortunate note is in Vienna, while the lower half is in Berlin.
We must confess: The comparison with today's account statements isn’t quite correct. Nevertheless, it provides a good picture of the work that Egyptologists from the Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg (JMU) and their colleagues from Bordeaux will be doing in the coming years. DimeData: This is the name of the research project that the French Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) have now approved. The two institutions will provide around €450,000 over the next three years, a good half of which will go to the JMU. The project leader there is Professor Martin Andreas Stadler, holder of the Chair of Egyptology, and Lecturer Dr Maren Schentuleit, research assistant to the Chair, will be responsible for the concrete work.
The aim of the project is to investigate the Egyptian temple economy from sources that are "rich in content, difficult, fragile at first glance, but then uniquely rich in detail," as Stadler says. At the same time, they will being publication of an online platform with the edition of around 40 representative texts. Under the keyword "Digital Humanities", ancient historians and Egyptologists will be provided with new sources that will put the knowledge about the economic life of Egyptian temples in the Roman Empire on a new footing. In fact, the researchers involved assume that the results of their investigations will force researchers to revise their understanding of the situation during this period.
"In this project we are concentrating on lists of accounts from the economic management of the temple of Dimê, which originated around the time from 30 BCE to the second century CE," explains Stadler. At that time Rome had taken power in Egypt. While older research blamed the Romans for the decline of the temples in Egypt, today it is believed that Rome even provided economic stimulation in Egypt. This controversy is one of the motivations of the research project that has now been launched.
Southwest of Cairo, in the middle of the desert, near the oasis Fayum, lie the remains of the temple Dimê. The temple was dedicated to Soknopaios, who was often depicted with a crocodile’s body and a falcon’s head. Around the middle of the third century BCE the place was abandoned and never populated again, which proved to be a stroke of luck. In the dry desert, ancient documents on papyrus remained well preserved until they were accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the text fragments were then sold without treatment by archaeologists and mixed with other finds; today they are scattered in museums and collections in Vienna and Berlin, London and Paris, as well as many other places.
These papyri can be up to two and a half metres long. Narrowly described in long columns, the editions of the temple treasury are recorded over many years in such papyri. "There, for example, people are listed who were paid by the temple," explains Maren Schentuleit. These are priests or scribes on the one hand, but also state officials and inspectors on the other. From such sources, a good picture of the contacts between Egyptian temples and Roman administration can be gained.
Wheat, bread, olive oil, olives – salted or marinated in water: The temple's expenses for everyday goods are also meticulously noted on the papyri and provide information about consumer habits in Egypt around 2,000 years ago. Ideally, they enable researchers to draw conclusions about price trends over centuries, and thus also about economic change during this period. Wool, beer, wine– the latter even in different qualities: The menu of antiquity hardly seems to differ from a modern one.
Philology is not simply a matter of “read and translate,” however, especially with the papyri from Dimê, because those fragments are written in demotic writing. "This was a handwriting used especially for everyday use. It originally derived from hieroglyphic writing, and emerges around 650 BCE," says Stadler. The deciphering of this writing is a challenge even for experts, especially because the writers in Dimê had also developed their own writing style. As if that weren't enough difficulties, there is also the fact that many of the ancient documents are full of holes, torn, and fragmentary, with parts of one and the same fragment kept in different collections without anyone knowing.
"Anyone who specialises in demotic texts must enjoy deciphering, and be patient, persistent, and be able to tolerate frustration (at every turn)," says Maren Schentuleit. Translating an entire column in one day already counts as a great success, remarks the Egyptologist. Of course, after years of working with this script, she has a rich set of skills at her disposal to help her decipher it. In demotic writing, for example, there is always a descriptive element at the end of the word that indicates whether it is a plant, a mineral or a type of material – helping to narrow down the search for solutions.
When trying to decipher completely unknown words, Schentuleit looks for a connection with words in the older Egyptian or later Coptic language, hoping that similarities will help her. Or, she remembers having already seen the same combination of signs in another text and can draw conclusions about the meaning in a new context. For this reason, too, the Egyptologist can come to appreciate researching accounting lists - a text genre that otherwise promises little reading pleasure. "They contain many repetitive elements and thus enable comparisons to be made across many text fragments."
The aim is, within three years, to edit 40 texts and produce an online database. "We are doing important preliminary work for younger scholars and laying the foundation for further research projects," explains Stadler. And, of course, the results will help to significantly improve our understanding of temples as economic centres in Egypt, their relationships with other temples, intellectual exchange within the country - and, ideally, the controversy over the influence of the Romans on these Egyptian institutions.
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