All posts by simonrkemp

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: THE WINNERS

We’re delighted to present the winners and runner-up entries for this year’s Flash Fiction contest. We’ll be publishing some of the highly commended entries over the coming weeks.

Thank you to everyone who entered. There was excellent creative use of language and incredible feats of imagination on display, all wrapped up in small packages of 100 words or fewer. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.

YEARS 7-11

WINNER :

Trouver X

C’est un autre jour dans le cours préparatoire et les enfants apprennent la phonétique. Le pauvre X est coincé sur un mur, très frustré. Les élèves récitent (encore) “A – c’est pour arbre, B – c’est pour banane…” X jete un coup d’oeil à W et Y et dit “ennuyeux à mourir! Les petits connaissent seulement jusqu’a ‘M’. Je m’en vais!”

Dans une autre salle de classe X trouve un cours de l’algèbre, où tout le monde semble chercher X.”Mon Dieu! Ils savent que je suis absent!” il pense. “Ces équations me trouvent toujours. Je m’en vais, encore!”

Cormac Mitchell, Y7

RUNNER-UP

L’ours d’Or

L’ours était triste ! L’air était froid et le sol était glace, le lac était comme gelée. Elle a marché la plaine froide. Soudainement elle a vu une caverne mais elle était très fatiguée donc elle est entrée et dormi là… Cependant quand elle s’est réveillée, elle a vu un rayon de soleil briller à l’entrée de la caverne ! Sa fourrure brillait dans la lumière dorée.  Elle est sortie de la caverne et elle a vu que les plaines n’étaient plus froides – il y a avait des fleurs, des abeilles et des arbres partout ! Elle a souri !

Nandhitha Agilan, Y9

YEARS 12-13

WINNER :

Le marriage Zoom

Les portes de chapelle s’ouvrent avec un grincement tonitruant. Sans délai, Le Canon de Pachelbel commence à jouer. Sous ma robe blanche, les pieds marchant vers l’autel ne se sentent pas comme les miens. La musique s’estompe dans un silence assourdissant lorsque j’arrive. Deux mètres de nous, protégé par l’écran transparent, le ministre s’éclaircit la gorge.

Je regarde, impuissante, la mer de visages flous en sourdine sur l’ordinateur. Je regarde les bancs vides qui ne m’offriront aucune aide. Je regarde l’homme souriant devant moi, et avant que le ministre puisse commencer, je jette mon bouquet de roses et je cours.

Chung Sze Kwok, Y12

RUNNER-UP:

Une petite fille sur une petite plage d’Angleterre se penche pour ramasser un déchet.

Un vieillard au Madagascar examine son vieux bateau; l’arc-en-ciel du pétrole se diffusant sur l’océan Indien.

À Genève, plusieurs gouvernements débattent de plusieurs conséquences de leur surconsommation. Après avoir posé pour une photo, chacun retourne en ignorant l’état de la planète, rien ne change. 

Ce n’est pas certain que se passe-t-il ensuite. Peut-être l’enfant retournera chez elle, le vieillard de la mer, les gouvernements de la conférence. Peut-être des années plus tard la fille, maintenant adulte, annoncera au monde la solution qu’on n’a pas encore inventée…

Holly Singleton, Year 12

Modern Languages Teachers’ Conference 2021: All Welcome!

SRTS Teachers' Conference, offline version
The SRTS Teachers’ Conference, pre-pandemic version

We’re delighted to announce that our Oxford University Modern Languages Teachers’ Network, the Sir Robert Taylor Society, is holding its annual conference this year on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 September. If you’re UK modern languages teacher, or have an interest in modern languages teaching at school and university in the UK, you’re warmly invited to attend. Due to Covid, the conference will once again be online this year, with two evenings of roundtable talks and guest speakers.

On Thursday 23 September, from 19:30-21:00 on Microsoft Teams, the theme will be Modern Languages and Careers.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Career paths of modern languages graduates
  • Employability and demand for modern language skills in the workplace
  • Transferable skills from modern language study
  • STEM pressure and the value of humanities subjects

On Friday 24 September, again from 19:30-21:00, the theme will be Modern Languages and Diversity.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Revisiting the canon: diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum in language, literature and film
  • Race, gender and sexuality as topics of study in language, literature and film courses
  • Racism, homophobia and other prejudice in literary texts and film
  • Diversity in the student body: widening participation in modern language courses

If you’d like to attend either or both events, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk, and we’ll send you the link to join.

During the events, participation from delegates through the chat and live discussion will be warmly welcome. If you’d like a seat at the Round Table to talk more substantially about either of these topics in secondary or higher education, please let us know, and we’ll be very pleased to accommodate you.

PRISMATIC JANE EYRE SCHOOLS PROJECT

Prismatic Jane Eyre Project

The Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project is an AHRC-funded joint project with the University of Oxford and the Stephen Spender Trust (SST), the leading UK charity for creative multilingual activities in schools.  

Over 2021, the Project is running workshops in translation and creative writing for young people who are learning modern languages or are speakers of community languages. Using the classic novel Jane Eyre and research about how the text has been translated across the world since its 1847 publication, professional translators will deliver workshops to secondary schools in the UK.  

A nation-wide creative translation competition will be launched on 30 September 2021 – International Translation Day! The competition deadline is March 2021. Entrants are asked to produce a poem in another language inspired by a selected passage from Jane Eyre. The competition accepts submissions in any language, and all entries need to be accompanied by a literal translation into English.   

Up to 100 entries to the competition will be published in a printed anthology, which will also be available online.  

Support materials will be available on our resources page:  https://prismaticjaneeyre.org/resources/. Additional activity packs will be provided in the workshop languages (Arabic, French, Polish, and Spanish) by October 2021. These materials give learners and teachers the chance to take part in creative translation activities related to Jane Eyre at home or in the classroom.  

The competition guidelines and selected passages will be made available online on 30 September 2021 on this webpage: https://prismaticjaneeyre.org/competition-details/.   

If you are a teacher who would like regular updates about the competition or the project more generally, please register your interest using this form. https://forms.office.com/r/JV2k133s3Z.  

Queries can be directed to Dr Eleni Philippou at PJEschools@ell.ox.ac.uk

Writing Humanity: on the Readings of a War Reportage

BY ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

War correspondent Marie Colvin used to say that what she fears the most is not a war, but indifference; a moment when stories of terror and injustice might cease to matter. Driven by a need to bear a witness, for over four decades she covered virtually all contemporary military conflicts: Iran–Iraq War; Kosovo; the intervention in Libya; Sierra Leone; Afghanistan; Gaza. The list goes on, as impressive as it is terrifying. By driving into the epicentre of danger, Colvin hoped to give voice to the voiceless; civilians whose stories might otherwise remain untold. ‘Marie has an eye for that’ – Colvin’s friends reflected, darkly, referencing her loss of an eye in a grenade explosion at Sri Lanka. 

Marie Colvin covering the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/Sunday Times/EPA 

Against the backdrop of a turbulent century, reporting means witnessing – integrating oneself into the situation and writing about the experience with honesty and compassion, hoping to provoke a sense of activism in the reader. Despite the usual associations we share for the noun ‘report’ as an objective, evaluating account, a summary, the genre of reportage departs from the verb ‘to report’ that specifically designates an action of relating, recounting, describing, and telling a story. It offers the reader the account on humanity in extremis. For those of you who would like to delve deeper into the topic, the Washing Post’s list of the 100 best pieces of journalism (at the same time reflecting on the likely absurdity of creating such rankings) can be a helpful source, though not a definitive one [1]. Following the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction would also provide recommendations to start on.

Studying comparative literature brings with it the excitement of reading material, yet it its purpose is to reveal unobvious links between authors, their biographies, and styles that we now call ‘intertextuality’, in the vocabulary of literary theory. It is not a simple source-hunting (or flex during literature classes) but an attempt to get ‘behind the scenes’ of the creative process and better understand an author’s motives, hopes, and anxieties. If Colvin’s war correspondence is now among the genre’s finest – lately popularised by the biography suggestively entitled In Extremis (2018) by Lindsey Hilsum, and film The Private War – she is certain not alone at the top.


The Book Cover of In Extremis 

Her exceptional journalism is only part of a larger tradition of reportage; deploying changes of style and technique to keep the reader’ attention, and the examining the ethics of witnessing war.

In taking on this genre, the most salient question is: ‘what are my motivations for reading non-fiction?’ Why, of all of the books and work available to me, do I choose those that ground me in reality, instead of taking me away from it; floating me away into the welcoming arms of fiction? Asking these basic questions of ourselves helps us define the expectations we share about non-fiction and verify whether they accord with our actual experience of reading this work.

In recalling my own encounters with the genre I think of Martha Gellhorn; an American journalist and correspondent for Collier magazine, one of the first non-fiction writers to strike me as deeply observant and very well-written. In the early 1940s, her writing re-shaped modern war correspondence. In much of her journalism Gellhorn describes scenes from conflict zones with remarkable ease and vividness. Her attention, however, quickly shifts from a comprehensive presentation of facts to a subjective description of standing at the epicentres of conflict and, most importantly, listening to people’s stories.

Portrait of Martha Gellhorn w Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Consider, for instance, this author’s reports from the RAF control station in 1943 as ‘The Bomber Boys’ prepare for taking off:

The motors were warming up, humming and heavy. Now the big black planes wheeled out and one by one rolled around the perimeter and got into position on the runway. […] Then the first plane was gone into the blackness, not seeming to move very fast, and we saw the tail-light lifting, and presently the thirteen planes that were taking off from this field floated against the sky as if the sky were water. Then they changed into distant, slow-moving stars. That was that. The chaps were off. They would be gone all this night. […] They were going to fly over France […] to bomb marshalling yards, to destroy if possible and however briefly one of the two rail connections between France and Italy. If they succeeded, the infantry in southern Italy would have an easier job for a little while.

The author paints this scene with broad strokes; detailed and novelistic descriptions intertwine with very short sentences, making the prose pulse and pause. The purpose of this cinematic technique is to replicate the intensity of what the author has witnessed and bring the reader into the scene. What would later come to be called ‘New Journalism’ [2] in the 1960s deployed techniques such as: realistic though often ‘eavesdropped’ dialogue, scene-by-scene reconstruction, recounting of the prior life and experience of ‘characters’ in the story, alternating between first- and third-person narrative. Even if the author condemns any form of violence, vivid prose poses questions about the potential fetishization of war and conflict, especially if augmented by a representation of brutal, yet still somehow glorious, war. The excerpt reads like an action novel, or the opening sequence of a blockbuster movie. [3]


Martha Gellhorn with Royal Air Force pilots, England 1943 

Even though this short excerpt does not do justice to all the variation in Gellhorn’s style, one quickly notices that her prose does not claim objectivity. Reflection on the place of the author’s subjectivity in the genre of reportage pervades Gellhorn’s entire body of work. Known for her sharp tongue, Gellhorn despised the conventions of writing from the distance, referring to it bluntly as ‘that objectivity shit’. Among her most well-known books, we may list The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) – a set of short stories taking the reader through America during the Great Depression; A Stricken Field (1940) – a novel set against the backdrop of a war-tormented Czechoslovakia; and The Face of War (1959) – a wide collection of war journalism. The only openly autobiographical book she published was Travels with Myself and Another (1978), in which the titular ‘another’ refers to Gellhorn’s late husband husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Judging from the title, we might indeed suspect that the marriage was not a great success. The biopic film Hemingway and Gellhorn from 2012 captures some of their personal tensions, against the background of subsequent wars. After their divorce Gellhorn would tactfully avoid commenting on the writer; any interviewer bold enough to bring up the topic of their failed marriage was reportedly treated to a stern look. Given how one of Gellhorn’s first books, The Trouble I’ve Seen, was warmly received and prized for an ‘amazingly unfeminine’ quality, perhaps her stand against what she called seeing oneself ‘as a footnote to someone else’s life’ is self-explanatory.

Gellhorn was, reportedly, the only woman to see the front lines of D-Day. As the Oxford Companion to American Literature notes, ‘in a characteristic act of daring, when no publisher would send her to the front lines on D-Day during World War II, Gellhorn sneaked aboard a hospital ship and became the only woman in the field and the only journalist to set foot on shore.’ Despite that, Gellhorn held the personal conviction that ‘Courage Knows No Gender’ [4] – as Colvin called the speech she gave whilst receiving one of her many journalistic prizes. Consider its opening passage:

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me bristle. It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues. My feelings were hardly new. ‘Feminists nark me,’ wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. ‘I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as women’s writers. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.’

Colvin’s vision of writing not labelled by gender might sound eminently sensible and intuitive. However, it is also decidedly idealistic and the debate on this topic has a rich history (or perhaps more aptly, HERstory) in both second- and third-wave feminism, and in cultural studies. A helpful point of reference in thinking about literature and gender would be to follow readings suggested by Poetry Foundation [5].

Writing about these two female war correspondents is not just a topic in its own right but also an opportunity to think of how we talk about the influence in literary studies. The most well-known single book about dialogues of literature is still Harold Bloom’s Anxieties of Influence. In this indeed influential (and in a way, anxious) book Bloom sees literature as a battlefield, a setting for rivalry between new authors and their predecessors. But does it always need to be this way? What if the authors let themselves be marked, changed, and challenged by the text without a constant urge to battle authority and tradition? In other words: what if inspirations go beyond the notion of rivalry and take the form of imaginative collaboration instead?


Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War Photo: Aviron Pictures

Every time she went to the frontline, Colvin would take only one book. This was The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn, whose reportage Colvin loved dearly; she often spoke about the lasting influence that this previous generation’s correspondent had had on her writing. It is uncertain whether they ever met, but the similarities of their turbulent biographies, styles, and  journalistic achievements alongside their life-long addictions to danger are striking; striking to the extent where the reader might speculate on how they would have related to each other as contemporaries. Of course, for the young Colvin the beloved elder correspondent was not her only inspiration. It was during her studies at Yale that Marie decided to become a journalist, and learnt from another legend of non-fiction.

Addicted to the ‘New York Times’ since her teenage years, in her second year of university Colvin signed up to lessons led by John Hersey, known for his pioneering book Hiroshima (1946). Hersey introduced elements typical of literary fiction to the genre of non-fiction, giving it a fresh and novelistic touch. His work still features amongst the highest-rated books ever written.

In the classroom, Hersey would speak of the importance of searching for truth and cultivating narrative flow over guarded objectivism and gathering information. The values of this approach would not simply resonate with Colvin but would later on become her own:  

To me, bravery is not something gigantic and definitive. I don’t get into a war thinking I have to prove myself brave: that would be about me and that would be bravado. […] The point is to try to report as truthfully as you know how. […] You can’t get that information in a war without going to a place where people are being shot and they are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care. 

The last line from this excerpt, in particular, invites reflection and encourages a return to the question: ‘what is it that makes me care?’ Complex in its socio-historical focus and multivariate storytelling methods, modern war reportage offers a unique reading experience. Most importantly, it calls for readers to be ready to be – as Colvin once was, reading Gellhorn for the first time – marked, struck, and challenged by the text.

ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/01/business/media-journalism-s-greatest-hits-two-lists-of-a-century-s-top-stories.html

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/New-Journalism

[3] Read more excerpts at: https://www.military-history.org/feature/world-war-2/war-reporters-martha-gellhorn.htm

[4] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/courage-knows-no-gender-r5tqg9zzxjp

[5] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/feminist-theory

Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation

The Stephen Spender Prize 2021

The Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, in association with The Guardian, is now open for entries. Anybody in the UK and Ireland can enter, regardless of age or linguistic skill. SST’s Multilingual Creativity hub is full of virtual resources to make the prize accessible from home, as well as teaching packs to bring poetry translation into the classroom.

This year the prize is more inclusive and vibrant than ever, from British Sign Language translation to new prizes for first-time entrants. SST’s virtual poetry booklets collect together poems in more than 15 languages.

SST Director Charlotte Ryland:

“Poetry translation is a perfect activity for these challenging times: it is a gentle and structured approach to creativity, without the intimidating blank page that can put off many would-be poets; it is an opportunity for parents and children to work together, in particular in families where more than one language is spoken; and it is a task that can be shared with peers and teachers.”

This year’s judges are acclaimed poets, translators and educators Khairani Barokka, Daljit Nagra and Samantha Schnee.

Closing date: 16 July 2021

  • Categories: Open (adult), 18-and-under, 16-and-under, 14-and-under
  • Top prize of £1,000
  • All winning entries published in a booklet
  • Special ‘Spotlight’ prize for translation from Urdu, judged by Sascha Aurora Akhtar

Full details on the SST website: https://www.stephen-spender.org/stephen-spender-prize/

What I did with my Modern Languages Degree

In an occasional series, our graduates talk about where a degree in modern languages has taken them since leaving Oxford. Here is Ian Hudson’s story. Please do share yours with us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

As graduation loomed large in 1980, and I started to pursue opportunities in commercial management with large multi-nationals, I told myself: “If I use my languages, it will be a bonus.” With this frame of mind, I graduated from Oxford with my degree in French and German to embark on what became a 35-year career in the chemical industry.

The first bonus seemed to come quickly, during my first overseas trip to attend a distributor conference in Germany. The organisers had mistakenly assumed that the participants’ command of German would be sufficient to follow the programme content. In fact, the lingua franca was English. I spent three days providing simultaneous translation, and my year abroad in Germany proved very useful.

I encountered the second bonus two years later when my company sent me to France as a sales representative, much to the astonishment of the local French management. They had not yet encountered an English colleague who would be able to negotiate with their customers in French. During my interview lunch (this was Paris of the 1980s), I set their minds at rest by ordering a pastis aperitif and a rare steak, thus passing simultaneously the language and, more importantly, the cultural test.

My career progressed in more global roles where French and German fluency was less in demand, notably in Asia and the USA. Nevertheless, the openness to study other cultures, catalysed by my degree, served me in good stead as I travelled beyond the more familiar European shores.  As I climbed the management ladder, the more important aspect of a languages degree began to assume greater prominence. Interacting with people and managing teams effectively requires an ability to understand their individual motivations and to anticipate their reactions in specific situations. I began to realize that my languages were not the bonus, but rather the foundation of my expertise and skills in my role.

For the last 10 years of my career, I was the Regional President for Dupont de Nemours, covering Europe, Middle East and Africa, based in Geneva. This vast region stretched from Madrid to Novosibirsk and from Oslo to Cape Town, with over 10,000 employees. As I travelled around the region, I was often asked how a languages graduate could fulfil this role in a very technology driven organisation. I replied that 80% of the issues in my role were people related and my languages degree training in literature had more than adequately prepared me to respond to the challenges. Human nature does not change, so the character studies contained in the plays of Molière, Racine, Schiller and Goethe or in the works of Sartre, Camus, Zweig or Mann were just as relevant as I navigated the corporate world. For the remaining 20% of issues, I had hundreds of specialists to whom I could turn for advice, and sometimes even converse with them in their own language.

A languages degree on its own did not fully equip me for my career, but it provided a solid base for other competences that I acquired over time. In today’s world, there are perhaps fewer companies prepared to invest in the complementary training for a management career, but I believe that a languages degree remains just as foundational for a well-rounded and successful career in many fields. Finally, for me, it turns out that the true bonus of a languages degree was not career related at all, but rather my French wife of 35 years, 2 bilingual children, and many cross-cultural friendships.

Ian Hudson, Lincoln College, Oxford 1976-80

The first Choix Goncourt Britannique: When we talk about writing

Julia Moore is a third-year student at Christ Church reading French and English. Here are her personal reflections on being part of the first Choix Goncourt Britannique.

Writing a book is hard—you know, you get a publisher, or fail to, and you spend years grovelling at the feet of your work and perhaps a man behind a well-known desk. At least, that’s how the authors write it. In Anna Gavalda’s Je Voudrais Que Quelqu’un m’Attende Quelque part, she includes a postscript in the form of another short story. By using her form to embrace the technical realities of the (physical!) copy the reader holds, she shines a humorous light on the whole affair—the inspiration, rejection, ridiculous meticulous search for the right colour of paper binding. A light, certainly, but a spotlight as well: this is how it happens, she says, this is it.  Publication becomes a story: this sort of fictional concern with the more tedious aspects of writing can reinforce what we think about inspiration, construction, or even the political undertones of writing, especially to sell.

In Little Women, Jo’s plight of publication is just as mundane—and yet, it arrives as a crucial moment in the history of what it means to be a female commercial writer. By becoming a story, it demonstrates itself. Writing about writing makes us more aware of all the things that are happening in and around the book.  Jane Eyre was originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, after all. What is it that we feel about the first-person women, and their direct or indirect free speech? All four of the books we were to discuss were in the first person. We tended to take this for granted;  Dame Marina Warner, one of the senior judges and member of the Royal Society, made our group of student judges feel rather silly when she pointed out that none of us had  even mentioned, let alone questioned, the first person in the narratives we were presented with.

Judging fiction is a strange mix—sometimes, it can seem just as mundane and unromantic as publishing it. Unpicking and debating- all that de-storifying can seem slightly unfair at times—to the book, to the author—the French Goncourt jury has often been accused of publishing bribes and stakes in great shares. Judging a book isn’t just about that though, not really, especially if the people doing it sit behind food and wine, or on a bed or in a bus. People like you and me—and there were a few of us in Oxford, and a few in 6 other universities[1] who did just that.

The French Goncourt Prize is more or less equivalent to the Man Booker prize in the UK. It is a big cultural institution in France, and is judged rather unconventionally by 10 novelists (sometimes referred to as “Les Dix”) who are members of the “Académie Goncourt”, in the Restaurant Drouant, Paris. The prize is a symbolic cheque for ten euros, and the well-recognised accolade: Prix Goncourt. Proust won it in 1919, exactly 100 years from the Choix Goncourt Britannique last year. A Choix Goncourt is a choice made from the same shortlist by a different group of people: there is a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for a secondary school jury in France, for example. December 2019 was the first Choix Goncourt Britannique, but other countries like Belgium or Lebanon have student juries like ours pick their winner.

We had four books[2] to read, and we had to come up with a winner. Not alone—about 10 of us in Oxford, and similar numbers in Queen’s Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Warwick, and St Andrew’s. Two of each group met in London to discuss and award the first (perhaps not-yet-coveted) Choix Goncourt Britannique. The word choice is what sets student juries apart from the French group of restaurant-going novelists that award the Prix Goncourt. The focus of choice is not just who gets chosen picked, but also who is choosing. We were very aware of ourselves and our very obviously personal choices. What do we know about picking and choosing the novel we think is best? Well, what should we know? And does anyone? We pinpointed things: style, narrative, underlying images, characterisation,… the list goes on. And it can—the thing was that we were never completely finished.

In Oxford, and, later, in London, we decided on Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois. It was salient to so many of the individuals in our group that it quickly became the centrepiece of comparative discussions. It is about a man, his cell-mate, and the people that make up his past. We talked about way that the narrative works, crossed between the past, the present, and the succession of dog smiles and technical failures that exist in both. We liked reading it—we enjoyed looking everyday words up and wondering about whether or not the book was “About Capitalism”. There’s something very joyful about being able to read and think and think and read, completely essay-less, yet with a real discussion with real people who also have thoughts and readings about fiction. The fact that all the books are contemporary adds to the immediacy of looking forward to the translation of our book-elect, and to Jean-Paul Dubois’ tour of  UK universities; the gleeful possibilities of being alone with a book are sustained, rather than dampened, by the idea of an author to talk to.

To read more about the Choix Goncourt Britannique, see a piece by another Oxford member of the panel, James Hughes, in The Oxford Polyglot https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/united-kingdoms-choix-goncourt-more-book-club and read Professor Dame Marina Warner’s speech at the award https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/awarding-frances-most-prestigious-literary-prize


[1] Oxford, Cambridge, and Warwick from England, Cardiff from Wales, Aberdeen and St Andrew’s from Scotland, and Queen’s Belfast from Northern Ireland

[2] Soif, by Amélie Nothomb, Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, by Jean-Paul Dubois, Extérieur Monde by Olivier Rolin, and La Part du Fils, by Jean-Luc Coatelem.

Skills and employability in the arts and humanities

The British Academy has commissioned a major piece of research into the employment prospects for graduates with degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. One of the things they wanted to look into was what seems to be a pervasive idea, sometimes repeated to students seeking advice on A-level choices and university courses, that studying STEM subjects will give you significantly better career prospects than studying a humanities subject like English, history or modern languages.

So is that true? Are you really better off studying engineering rather than German? Maths rather than geography?

Well, short answer: no you aren’t. Humanities subjects were found to be level-pegging with STEM subjects in terms of their general employment prospects, and to have distinct advantages over STEM in certain aspects of your career.

I’d encourage you to have a look at the report itself, which you can find here. (You can also see it discussed by the UK press here.)

Some of the most important findings of the research are these:

  1. Graduates from arts, humanities and social science subjects appear to have more flexibility and choice in their career than STEM graduates. They’re more likely than STEM graduates to voluntarily move to different sectors of employment, or to change role in their job, and to do so without wage penalty.
  2. In the most recent statistics, 88% of UK humanities graduates were in employment, and 89% of STEM graduates. This suggests there isn’t a significant difference in employment prospects between the two fields.
  3. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight of them employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than from other disciplines.
  4. There’s a strong link between the skills developed in university by humanities students and the top skills needed to thrive in 21st century work. The top five skills developed by humanities students are: becoming an independent learner, thinking critically and analytically, being innovative and creative, working effectively with others, and writing clearly and effectively. These match up closely to the seven skills found to be most important for 21st century work, which are: initiative and entrepreneuralism (independent learner), accessing and analysing information, and critical thinking and problem solving (thinking critically and analytically), agility and adaptability, and curiosity and imagination (being innovative and creative), collaboration and leadership (working effectively with others), and effective oral and written communication (writing clearly and effectively).

The British Academy sum up the findings of their report as follows:

Graduates who study arts, humanities and social science disciplines are highly employable across a range of sectors and roles. They have skills employers value – communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability – and are able to build flexible careers which may move across a number of areas of employment while remaining resilient to economic downturns. They are employed in sectors which underpin the UK economy and are among the fastest growing – financial, legal and professional services, information and communication, and the creative industries – as well as in socially valuable roles in public administration and education.

Young people chose to enter higher education for many reasons of which salary is only one, but it is a legitimate question to consider what the economic return is on the substantial investment which is a degree course, both in time and money. Overall, salary levels for arts, humanities and social science graduates are a little lower on average than for graduates in science, engineering, technology and medicine, but this top-level picture conceals complexity underneath. Consistently high salaries in medicine and dentistry drive much of the difference, while the other discipline areas which make up the two broad groups show far more variance in earnings within subjects. As individuals progress through the first ten years of their career, arts, humanities and social science graduates are able make strong progress up the career ladder into roles attracting higher salaries.

Whatever the future holds for the UK, it is our people, their skills, knowledge and attributes, that will ensure prosperity and wellbeing. We need to build an evidence-led, broad and balanced education and skills system to create the society we want to live in. The challenges the world is facing – climate change, global pandemics, the growth of populism – need the insights of the arts, humanities and social sciences as much as those from science, technology and engineering. The importance of a highly qualified and versatile labour force for productivity and economic growth cannot be underestimated. Our evidence shows that arts, humanities and social science graduates are central to this ongoing and long-term requirement. They are well equipped to profit from, and more importantly shape, the new opportunities of the future.

Responding to Literature through the Arts II

Oxford first-year Spanish students have taken the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. We saw one project last week. Here are samples from three more.

 Josh Aruliah (Spanish and Linguistics, Keble College)

“This drawing depicts my interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, which is a hypothetical library that consists of an indefinite number of identical hexagonal galleries and contains every possible book that could be written (up to a certain length). I featured illusions, drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, to convey the impossible and bewildering nature of the library; the staircase and the railings are inconsistent and demonstrate the lack of a fixed direction of gravity. It is not a literal depiction of the library as I aimed instead to portray the perplexing experience of trying to visualise Borges’s fascinating creation. The short story reveals that almost all of the books contain complete gibberish and, therefore, the librarians seem to be condemned to an eternal and vain search for meaning. There is little distinction between the books and galleries in the drawing, with the upper gallery perhaps giving the impression of a reflection, which demonstrates this idea of endless futility.”

Darcie Dorkins (History and Spanish, Exeter College)

“I chose to paint Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most important figures of Spanish colonial literature, whose works were widely acclaimed during her lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. I was inspired to visually explore the conflicting notions of restriction and freedom in Sor Juana’s life which stemmed from her overlapping roles as a nun, woman, and outstanding writer, with a particular focus on one of her most widely read poems, ‘Hombres necios’. Thought to have been written in around 1680, I felt that the poem was a valuable representation of the precarious space she occupied between contemporary religious, intellectual and literary spheres in both her native Mexico and in Spain, where her works were also popular. To this end, I aimed to incorporate various symbolic elements within the piece: Sor Juana herself, as the subject of many striking portraits; the visual prominence of religion, a defining feature of her life with considerable implications for her literary career; and a book, to represent her extensive learning. I also included a mirror, as in ‘Hombres necios’ Sor Juana symbolically confronts men with the realities of their irrational and impossible standards for women, along with birds and an open cage to reflect the issues of restriction and liberation in her life.”

Darcie also translated the closing lines of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño (First Dream), a notoriously complex and linguistically rich poem:

Llegó, en efecto, el sol cerrando el giro                                    

que esculpió de oro sobre azul zafiro.

De mil multiplicados                                                            

mil veces puntos, flujos mil dorados,

líneas, digo, de luz clara, salían

de su circunferencia luminosa,

pautando al cielo la cerúlea plana;

y a la que antes funesta fue tirana                                       

de su imperio, atropadas embestían:

que sin concierto huyendo presurosa,

en sus mismos horrores tropezando

su sombra iba pisando,

y llegar al ocaso pretendía                                                  

con el sin orden ya, desbaratado

ejército de sombras, acosado

de la luz que el alcance le seguía.

Consiguió, al fin, la vista del ocaso

el fugitivo paso,                                                                   

y en su mismo despeño recobrada,

esforzando el aliento en la ruïna,

en la mitad del globo que ha dejado

el sol desamparada,

segunda vez rebelde, determina                                         

mirarse coronada,

mientras nuestro hemisferio la dorada

ilustraba del sol madeja hermosa,

que con luz judiciosa

de orden distributivo, repartiendo                                        

a las cosas visibles sus colores

iba, y restituyendo

entera a los sentidos exteriores

su operación, quedando a luz más cierta

el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.                                 

And sure enough, the Sun arrived, sealing the orbit

it etched in gold upon the sapphire blue sky.

Born of a thousand

times thousand points, a thousand golden streams,

and lines, I say, of pure light, which radiated

from its luminous circumference,

marking the sky-blue page;

and, converging, they charged towards

that former sepulchral tyrant of their empire,

who, stumbling over her own horrors,

treading on her own shadow,

erratically with haste, trying to reach the West

with her now confused, disorderly

army of shadows, pursued

by the light following closely behind.

At last, that fugitive retreat

gained sight of the West,

and, recovering from her downfall,

steeling her crushed spirit,

rebellious for a second time,

she resolves to see herself crowned

in that half of the globe that

the Sun has left unprotected;

meanwhile, the golden tresses of the Sun

beautified our hemisphere,

and with judicious light

and ordered generosity reimbursed

all visible things with their colours,

and restored the external senses their full

operation, leaving the world illuminated

by a more certain light, and I awake.