Category Archives: Why study languages?

German at Oxford: Learning more than the language

In past weeks we have heard from two of the inaugural Lidl prize winners for German, Anna and Cecilia. Today we hear from a third winner. Rachel studies German and History at Merton College. Here she tells us what it’s like to study German at Oxford and how the linguistic and literary sides of the degree intertwine...

A common misconception about studying languages both at school and university is that its sole function is to learn the language in question. Although this may be the case at GCSE, A level students will soon discover that culture, identity, politics and history come hand in hand with any linguistic studies. These themes become far more prominent at degree level, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that languages at university is an incredibly exciting and varied area which encapsulates all humanities subjects.

Although the importance of multilingualism in business and diplomacy is often (and rightly) emphasised in the promotion of language learning, studying German at Oxford has so far taught me that a language degree offers even more than these highly employable skills. As a joint schools student studying History alongside German I have always seen the main focus of my degree as culture; the combination of linguistic and historical awareness is what gives us the greatest understanding of societal and national identities. Oxford’s emphasis on literature as a way of accessing foreign culture is incredibly powerful, as it not only explores the use and intricacies of the language, but also addresses the country’s history and art. This became particularly evident to me during our term of studying German poetry, which explores history and philosophy through methods whose effects would be completely lost in translation. The depth of literary study at Oxford can be daunting given the limited experience A level offers in this area, but the support given through lectures and tutorials means that even the most impenetrable novels can be discussed and appreciated as gateways to foreign language and culture.

The most important thing my first year has taught me is that languages at Oxford does not demand heavy pre-reading and prior knowledge; I had only read two German books before and had never even considered being able to read any pre-twentieth century literature! Understanding of the language and methods comes with time, but is made easier by enthusiasm and an open mind to the history and ideas which it is trying to share.

An Introduction to the Taylor Institution Library

Today’s post was written by Frank Egerton, who is a writer and the Operations Manager of the Reader Services Team at the Taylor Institution Library. The Taylor Institution (affectionately known as ‘The Taylorian’ by our students and staff) is the University’s centre for the study of Modern European languages and literatures, other than English. As well as its West and East European collections, the library houses collections for Linguistics, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies. Here, Frank tells us more about this incredible resource.

I started work at the Taylor Institution Library on 5th January 2009. As I approach the building ten years later and look up at its classical columns, its statuary and its almost unimaginably massive windows, I continue to think (how could I not?), How lucky I am to work here.

Yet I’m also aware that all that architecture might seem unreal – think Downton Abbey or National Trust – and at worst, forbidding.

It is my job and that of my Reader Services team to make the experience of the building and its amazing collections welcoming, friendly and fulfilling.

More on the present later, but first, history.

It’s a common misconception that the Taylor Institution is part of the Ashmolean Museum. Well it is, on the outside, but inside, the library is totally separate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the University had two bequests, one for an art gallery, the other for a centre dedicated to the study of modern European languages. The solution was to run an architectural competition for the best design of a single building that accommodated both spaces. This was won by CR Cockerell and his building was completed in 1844.

The Taylor Institution Library

The money for the institution and its library had come from another architect, Sir Robert Taylor, who had travelled in Europe and who had amassed a magnificent collection of architectural books written in Italian, French and English, which the library now holds.

Not that getting the money was easy. Taylor died in 1788, having stipulated that the University would only receive his bequest if his son, resplendently named Michael Angelo Taylor, died without a male heir. While this did eventually happen, Michael Angelo also tried to overturn his father’s will – despite being one of the richest men in London.

That the money came to the University and the Taylor Institution was built has benefitted generations of scholars for over 170 years.

In the 1930s an extension – which is now our Teaching Collection – was built in the Art Deco style. It was formally opened by the Prince of Wales – who went on to become King Edward VIII, before abdicating. You can see photographs of the future king and all the senior academics of the day outside our lecture hall.

The original collection of books was partly created by donations, just as the original Bodleian Library had been at the end of the sixteenth century. Last year I was thrilled to come across a book that my great-great-great grandfather had given in 1849.

Since then, our collections have grown enormously – in fact, they have outgrown our building! In total, we have some 750,000 items (books, journals, a rapidly growing collection of DVDs, and… a lock of Goethe’s hair). But only half of these are kept in the building. The rest being at the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility, some 40 miles from Oxford. (The Taylorian is one of the Bodleian Libraries.) Nevertheless, these books aren’t mothballed but can be ordered using the University’s online catalogue, SOLO (feel free to explore it). If the order is placed before 10.30 am on a weekday, it will arrive at around 2 pm that afternoon and most of our offsite books can be borrowed just as if they had been collected from our bookshelves.

Our bookshelves… As you can imagine, there are quite a lot of those. Sometimes I look along just a bay of them and I am overwhelmed by how many books there are. All that knowledge, all those ideas, all those opportunities for learning… In stacks and rooms reached by stairs that remind you of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

Which is where the librarians come in. The Subject and Reader Services teams work together to make sense of the collections for our readers and to help them find what they need for their studies or research. The Taylor has a deserved reputation for the friendliness of its staff, their knowledge and their willingness to go the extra mile. One of the most important messages we aim to get across at inductions is that library staff are always there to help.

The Library in the Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford

Our subject librarians also curate and expand our outstanding collections, buying new books, of course, but also ebooks and ejournals, and electronic resources. Not to mention putting together exhibitions of works from our special collections, arranging talks and teaching courses on how to access information and digital scholarship.

I’ve mentioned that you can get an impression of the richness of our collections by browsing the University library catalogue, SOLO, but for a deeper understanding of what they contain you can check out our website and, above all, the tremendous online guides that our subject consultants have created for their particular language. Here you will find not just information about what is available in Oxford but open (freely available) resources and websites.

Yet for all the convenience of the digital age, the Taylor Institution Library remains the human heart of Modern Languages research, teaching and learning. It contains quiet spaces, lecture rooms, a common room and corridors which are alive with discussion. Its staff are there to welcome, to help and to unlock the possibilities of its world-class collections.

Further info

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For regular updates follow us on Twitter (@TAYOxford).

Links

Frank Egerton

If there are any teachers reading the blog, you may also be interested in our  ‘Sir Robert Taylor Society Conference’ – an annual conference for MFL teachers held each September in Oxford, and named after the founder of the library. More information is available here.

Snapshots of graduate destinations in Russian – back for more

Two weeks ago, we posted some snapshots of career destinations from alumni who have studied Russian. From journalism to business, from marketing to translating, it’s fascinating to see where our graduates end up. This week, we’ve included a few more snapshots to give you an insight into the vast range of career options open to linguists. These were originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog.

  • “I became a journalist when I left Oxford – and intended to go back to Moscow to become a reporter. However, I ended up in New York instead and took a different path, which led to a career as an author. I have now written 8 books and am about to embark on a 9th. I was awarded an honorary D.Sc. last summer, which is perhaps unusual for an arts graduate and a Russianist. I have done a huge amount of work in making science accessible and entertaining to primary school children, hence the award.”
  • “After graduation I spent 3 and a half years in Moscow. I worked for a French sports retail company called Decathlon. I spent that time speaking virtually no English. It meant that I am now very fluent in both French and Russian (plus I know how to say every type of sports equipment under the sun in both languages). After Decathlon, I decided that I wanted to pursue a more academic career (law) and I went to work for an English law firm in Moscow as a paralegal for the remainder of my time in Russia. I came back to the UK, did my law qualification and, before starting work in London, I decided I wanted one last adventure. I went to China for a year and taught myself Mandarin. I’ve been working in London since 2011 in an international law firm and have also spent spells working in China. I specialise in EU and competition law.”
  • “I joined a classical music publisher on leaving Oxford, at first as an intern and then as a permanent member of staff. I have also worked in the Publications team at the National Portrait Gallery.”
  • “I produce TV commercials.”
  • “I have been working as an editor for an educational publishing company since graduating from Oxford. Presently, my husband and I are setting up a beer brewery.”
  • “I went back to Moscow after graduating and tried out various jobs such as English teaching, working as trilingual PA in a Russian bank, a journalist, translator, copy-editor; then I worked for 3 years at an artist management company in London (working with many Russian artists), then for a year at a marketing company with a Russian client base. I’m now back at university doing an M.Sc. in Speech and Language therapy (which involves linguistics and phonetics).”
  • “I completed a Master’s in Russian and East European Studies at Harvard. I’m now a corporate lawyer by day (and most of the night) where I work heavily with Russian and Eastern European clients (I have used Russian, Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian – picked up at Harvard – at work). For the remainder of the night I am a struggling writer (on things Russian).”
  • “I continued my study of languages, first Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies as part of a Master’s, for which my major was Law in the Middle East and North Africa, then Chinese at BPP University as part of a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), all funded by the law firm I work for in London as a trainee solicitor. I’m also a freelance producer of short films, comedy and theatre.”

Snapshots of graduate destinations in Russian

Continuing the careers theme, today on Adventures on the Bookshelf we’re sharing some glimpses of the many career paths our graduates in Russian have followed. These quotations from our former students were gathered in 2016. They were originally featured on the Creative Mulitlingualism website. Here are a handful – more will follow in the coming weeks…

Where has your degree in Russian taken you?

  • “I now live in Vienna and am working as a translator at the UN, the International Atomic Energy Authority and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, mostly translating from Russian.”
  • “I moved to a business intelligence firm in the city, where I specialised as an analyst on Russia and the former Soviet Union. I undertook due diligence and intelligence analysis on businessmen, corporations and politicians, looking for signs of corruption, criminal activity and unsavoury connections. I was using my Russian (and at times also Polish) on a daily basis, scouring Russian-language news articles, legal records, corporate registries and blog sites, as well as speaking to human intelligence sources on the ground. I’ve recently begun a two-year-Master’s of International Affairs in Berlin, and hope to spend the second year of the degree abroad at Columbia University in New York, specialising in security and human rights in Russia and the former Soviet Union.”
  • “I worked in Moscow for 4 years, first at the BBC Monitoring Service for a year and a half (translating news broadcasts from Russian TV and radio), which I enjoyed very much. I then moved to the Moscow Times. I’ve now gone back to university in London and am doing an M.Sc. in Speech and Language Therapy.”
  • “I did an M.A. at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, and started working at the BBC. I spent a total of 6 years with the BBC – from admin to on-air journalism, and loved it. From news producing in the World Service newsroom, to a 3-week research trip to Pakistan. Then moved to Moscow to work with the RIA Novosti translation department (on Russian government websites). I’ve been in Moscow for 5 years and am now a Consultant in PR and Financial IR, in a consultancy specialising in Russia, the former Soviet Union and emerging markets.”
  • “I’m an installation artist and writer, also a translator specialising in art and architecture (from German into English as I live in Austria) and occasionally fiction. I’ve also worked as a cultural journalist.”
  • “I run a language learning website through which I sell intensive German, Russian and Greek courses and learning materials, while also organising international conferences on language learning and multilingualism, and working with organisations such as the British Council and the European Union to promote multilingualism worldwide, while also writing a book on language learning.”
  • “I initially worked as the PA to a wine critic for a few months while applying for grad schemes. I ended up in my current job (as a strategist in a branding agency) almost by chance, but am very much enjoying it. As the only person in the agency who speaks Russian, I’m often called on for translations and general cultural insight.”

These are just a handful of the possible career options in languages. Truly, the world is your oyster!

Career Profile: publishing and graphic design

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we bring you a career profile with a difference. Samantha Miller, who studied French and Italian from scratch at Somerville College and graduated in 2011, began her career in the publishing world before changing course and becoming a graphic designer. Here she tells us about her career route and how a languages degree from Oxford prepared her for the working world…

I studied French and Italian at Somerville, graduating in 2011. On my year abroad I got a job at a literary agency in Paris, which I had enjoyed, so after graduating I was keen to work in the publishing industry. After doing an internship at another literary agency in London, I landed a job at a large independent children’s book publisher working in the Foreign Rights department. Rights isn’t an area that many people outside of publishing have heard of, but it’s a really excellent choice for languages students. Basically, you are selling the translation rights to books to foreign publishers around the world. It gives you a broad insight into lots of areas of the business, and usually has good opportunities for foreign travel to international book fairs and to visit other publishing houses around the world.

After staying in the role for over five years, I decided I wanted a job with more creativity and flexibility. I did a three-month intensive graphic design course which taught me how to use design software, and more importantly how to generate ideas and solve design problems in a structured way. I got a job as a junior designer shortly after finishing the course. I now work at a small design and brand consultancy working on projects for large international corporate organisations in sectors such as law, insurance and property. The work is varied and challenging, although the hours are not as forgiving as in the publishing world!

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Although I have rarely used any knowledge from my degree directly at work, the skills you gain from presenting your ideas in tutorials, navigating a year abroad, and processing large amounts of information quickly are invaluable. Clear communication and an international outlook are vital components of so many roles, and a languages degree gives you these. Most importantly, Oxford teaches you how to learn. Although it took me a long time to work up to courage to leave my job in publishing and retrain completely, I have found that much of my previous experience is transferable and employers do take this into account when considering candidates who have had career changes.

Why Marx is relevant in the 21st century

This post was written by Kate Osment, a first-year student in German at St Anne’s College. Kate tells us a little more about studying German at Oxford and why Marx is still relevant today.

One of my favourite things about studying German at Oxford is the philosophy module in Hilary and Trinity (Easter and summer) terms. Over the course of eight weeks, we dissect the writings of famous German-speaking philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche, Freud (yes, he came up with more than the Oedipus complex), and of course Marx and Engels, looking at their arguments and the rhetorical devices they make them with. It’s challenging and fascinating generally, but out of these thinkers, the one who’s intrigued me most is Marx. Revered and reviled in similar measure, he’s worth reading because of the massive impact his ideas had on international 20th-century politics as well as the fact (which I think gets overlooked too often) that he’s just such a good writer!

Much of modern distaste for Marxism comes from a misunderstanding of what it actually is, so I’ll take the time here to say that Soviet Russia was Marxist in name only. Although a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is widely seen as a Marxist goal, Marx believed this was only a step on the way to the perfect society, in which there’d be no social class distinctions – hence no class conflict – and no state. He thought there’d be no need for one, as he saw governance and law as an expression of the morality of the ruling bourgeoisie, forcibly imposed on the majority. The proletariat would – could – not rule in this way, because they’re the vast majority, so their interests are those of humanity collectively.

Marx

Marx argued that communism wasn’t just desirable, it was bound to happen. This stems from his theory of historical materialism, which Engels called his friend’s greatest ‘scientific discovery’. The argument is that all developments in human culture are driven by development of the forces of production. ‘The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist.’ Capitalism only replaced feudalism because technological development made feudal society, with its guilds and protectionism, untenable. Communism would likewise replace capitalism because ever-more frequent crises of over-production would eventually drive profit down to nothing. Human history’s a story of class conflict caused by this evolution of productive forces, Marx believed, and because capitalism needs this evolution, the bourgeoisie will bring about their own destruction.

Of course, over-production doesn’t seem to lead to capitalist profits falling, and an accurate description of historical materialism is as a philosophical, not scientific, theory. But an end to bourgeois rule must’ve seemed possible in the 1840s when Marx and Engels wrote Das kommunistische Manifest, the same decade as Vormärz (the German workers’ revolution of 1848). And a world in which ‘the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’ would certainly be preferable to one where six-year-olds work with dangerous machinery for 11 hours a day. Plus, the only thing that’s changed about that state of affairs is that it doesn’t happen in Western Europe any more. Anti-capitalist critiques remain necessary.

(If you’re interested in reading more about Marxism, I’d recommend Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer, Why Read Marx Today? By Jonathan Wolff, and All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman. And Naomi Klein’s No Logo is an invaluable critique of capitalism at the turn of the millennium.)

Career profile: the civil service

This week we bring you another career profile by a recent graduate. Elena, from Somerset, studied French and German at Wadham College and graduated in 2011. She now works at the Department for Transport as Head of Drones Policy & Legislation. Here, Elena tells us more…

In my year abroad I did an internship with a German MP in Berlin and at university I’d always been interested in politics, volunteering and trying to improve things around me. After I graduated that led to 2 years working for Student Hubs and Hub Commercial Ventures, the charity and social enterprise company behind Oxford Hub and the Turl Street Kitchen. That taught me a lot about grassroots working and campaigning, and following that I joined the Civil Service Fast Stream. I was put on a series of placements across Government, and also a secondment to Shelter the housing charity. I worked on a range of interesting projects, from tax policy to military procurements, and eventually ended up working for the Transport Secretary of State’s special advisers. After that I specifically requested an EU-related role and was given a role coordinating the UK’s response to the EU Aviation Strategy. I used my languages quite a bit in this role, making friends with my French and German counterparts in particular, when I attended EU workshops on policies and negotiations. I also got to participate in a 2 week Commission-run training course, where they introduced Member State civil servants to the EU. My favourite session was one with some European Commission interpreters where we all got to have a go at interpreting a live speech.

Photo by Karl Greif on Unsplash

After this, I moved onto another role in the Aviation team – I now lead the team doing policy & legislation for the leisure and commercial use of drones in the UK. It’s a new emerging technology and poses quite a challenge to regulators because of it. As well as developing and implementing new UK legislation for drones, we do a lot of international work on it, including feeding into new EU rules in this area. I’ve occasionally used my languages then, although sadly not as much as I’d like.

A languages degree hasn’t been essential to any of the work I’ve done since I’ve left university. But it gave me skills I’ve used ever since. My time studying French & German gave me excellent writing and communication skills, which is crucial in the civil service, given how much we do is written. It also gave me an appreciation for different and wider perspectives, and the difficulties of communication, which has helped me immeasurably in dealing with challenging situations and interactions. Finally, although language skills haven’t been a requirement of any job I’ve worked in yet, it might well be in the future. There are lots of civil service jobs that do require language skills, and this seems likely to increase as the UK civil service grows its EU and international expertise post-Brexit. Having language skills will increase the number of jobs open to me.

Career Profile: Being an actor

This week on the blog we bring you another career profile from one of our recent graduates. Ellie, who studied French at St Anne’s College, now works as an actor in London. Acting is, perhaps, not a career many of us would automatically associate with Modern Languages. However, did you know that many famous actors are multilingual? As well as speaking English, Jodie Foster, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bradley Cooper, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all speak French. Colin Firth speaks fluent Italian, Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish, and Sandra Bullock speaks German. Meanwhile, some actors speak a whole range of languages: Natalie Portman (Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese); Viggo Mortensen (Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Norwegian, Swedish); Penélope Cruz (Italian, Spanish). And these are to name just a few!

Ellie tells us how languages are giving her a boost when it comes to a career in acting…

Name: Ellie Shaw
Profession: Actor and Singer
Studied: French sole, 2012-2016

After graduating with a degree in French in 2016, I trained as an actor and singer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I earned an MA. I’m now building my career as an actor in London, and I also currently work at the Tate Modern and the Barbican Centre. When I initially undertook my actor training I never thought languages would be immediately useful, but countless directors and my agent have all really emphasised the utility of having foreign languages at hand. As an actress in London it makes me stand out. In fact, I just wrapped a short film where I was speaking French and I’m about to do a self-tape for my agent for an audition for a feature set in France; fluent French is a must for this role. Indirectly, learning a foreign language and going on a year abroad equips you with the kind of confidence to get any job you want – for me, it’s standing on stage or in front of a panel making a fool of yourself fearlessly. You learn to process written information more quickly and understand nuances in communication more effectively. It’s also – most importantly – part of my long-running campaign to marry Timothee Chalamet.

Ellie is currently starring as Daisy Buchanan in the immersive theatre show The Great Gatsby.

Bonus… Here’s a video of Viggo Mortensen speaking seven languages!

German at Oxford – the view from the ground

This week we’re highlighting a number of videos that offer glimpses of German at Oxford. German is one of our bigger languages and is currently offered at twenty-three colleges (although not all colleges will offer German in combination with every other language or subject). For a list of which colleges offer the different language and subject combinations, see here.

First, we hear from Prof. Almut Suerbaum, Fellow in Tutor in German at Somerville College. Prof. Suerbaum teaches a range of topics as part of the undergraduate degree. These include: German language; German literature, specialising in medieval culture; religious writing, medieval drama and prose narrative, gender, and theory of translation.

Next, we can hear from two students: Martha studied German and History, also at Somerville College, and graduated last year; Nyasha studies German at St John’s College.


We’re very grateful to Somerville and St John’s for putting these videos together, and we hope they have given you an insight into German at Oxford and perhaps whet your appetite for more!

 

Career Profile: Being an Academic

This week in our series on career profiles, we’re speaking to Gemma Tidman, who studied French at Worcester College and graduated in 2011. Having attended a big comprehensive school in a small village in Somerset, Gemma now researches and teaches French literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She tells us a bit about her route into an academic job…

During my degree, I figured out that I wanted a number of things from a career: the ability to use my language skills on a regular basis, to travel, to meet interesting people and to continue learning new things. I also knew that I loved my degree, that I enjoyed academic writing, and during my year abroad I learned that I really liked teaching (I was an English-language teaching assistant in a lycée in South-West France). I wasn’t sure what all this meant in terms of a career, but it sounded like these were things I could keep doing during a Master’s, so that’s where I started. I did the Oxford Master’s course in the European Enlightenment (2011-12), and had some brilliant tutors who inspired in me a love of eighteenth-century French literature and cultural history.

After the Master’s, I still wasn’t sure what to do next. I applied for a PhD, but in the end decided that I needed to try something beyond university. So, I took a job at the Wallace Collection, in London – a national museum that specialises in eighteenth-century French visual and decorative arts, among other things. I worked with a great team of people, on projects involving marketing, public engagement, and fundraising. I loved the job! I got to use my French skills now and then, and to pursue my interest in eighteenth-century France. But, after six months or so, I realised that I missed teaching and research. So, in 2013 I decided to go back to university… and I began a PhD in French, back in Oxford.

‘Large Drawing Room: The Wallace Collection, London’ (M.chohan. Wikimedia creative commons)

My PhD looked at the history of how literature was taught in France, during the second half of the eighteenth century (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here). But a PhD is more than just the 80,000 words you produce at the end of four years: it’s also four years of great experiences. During the PhD I spent a year living in Paris, where I taught at a French university. I spent afternoons conducting research on 250-year-old handwritten papers, held in archives in a castle. I had a month as a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, working with wonderful academics and students. And I got the chance to do more teaching, which I loved. I also had the time to pursue other projects I cared about: I became involved in university widening participation and outreach work, and I took up triathlon!

After my PhD, I managed to land a one-year research and teaching post at Worcester College: back where I started as an undergraduate. If you had told me, when I began my BA in 2007, that I would be working there as an academic a decade later, I never would have believed you. After that, I moved to my current post at St John’s College. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) some long, hard days of reading, thinking, writing…and sometimes deleting it all and starting again… I love what I do. I’m lucky to work with great colleagues and students, on a subject that I’m passionate about, and to get to contribute to the way we think about, and teach, French literature and cultural history.

Chateau de Vincennes (Image from Wikipedia)

I’d say to anyone wondering whether they have ‘the right’ profile for academia that there is no ‘right profile’. I’m from a first-generation, comprehensive school background; I didn’t always know I wanted to be an academic; I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to PhD: and I’ve made it this far. Most people know that getting into academia isn’t plain sailing – there are many hurdles to face, from securing postgraduate funding to dealing with tough peer reviews, from long, long hours to finding a permanent post in a competitive field. In all of this, there can be a lot of luck involved, and you’ll need to be prepared to put in some years of groundwork (in terms of further study, fixed contract posts, etc) before you – hopefully – begin to see it pay off. But in terms of the skills you need, if you’re resilient, up for some hard work, and above all if you love reading and writing about your subject, they’re probably the major things you need. To all budding academics: go for it!