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Teaching literature in the age of Trump and Brexit: some reflections

by Sinéad Murphy and Diya Gupta, PhD researchers, Departments of Comparative Literature and English

“Teachers and students produce, reinforce, recreate, resist, and transform ideas about race, gender, and difference in the classroom.” - Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s’, 1989

“Provoking students to think, really think, is one of the reasons we have universities in the first place.”  - Stefan Collini, Guardian opinion piece ‘Brexit witch-hunt against universities reveals the right’s paranoid thinking’, 31 October 2017

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘post-truth’ as its international word of the year. This November, Collins Dictionary chose the term ‘fake news’ as word of the year for 2017 from a shortlist featuring ‘echo chamber’, ‘antifa’, and ‘Corbynmania’. The head of language content at Collins explained that “much of this year’s list is definitely politically charged, but with a new president in the US and a snap election in the UK, it is perhaps no surprise that politics continues to electrify the language.”

At a protest against Trump's presidency. Photo © Wikimedia Commons.
At a protest against Trump’s presidency. Photo © Wikimedia Commons.

It is clear that the swing to the far-right in the US and the UK has come to dominate the basic language through which we understand our political reality. The urgency that these developments lend to current research in literature and language – and across the humanities broadly – was the subject of a meeting of the King’s research cluster ‘Colonial, Postcolonial and Transnational Cultures’ earlier this year.

Comprising academic staff and postgraduate researchers from the English and Comparative Literature Departments, this cluster is organised around three overarching themes: the ‘coloniality’ of language; spatiality and geographies; and the ways in which violence, brutality, atrocity or torture might condition our research projects.

What does it mean, to be ‘more political’…?

Continue reading Teaching literature in the age of Trump and Brexit: some reflections

Famous writing desks, southern hospitality and monuments to lost lives: King’s visits UNC

by Amy Murat and Charlotte Taylor-Suppe

In a time of Trump, Brexit and increasing separatist ideology, we three intrepid King’s travellers – Dr Emrys Jones, Charlotte and I -crossed the pond. And not without incident in the shape of an unexpected night stranded in NYC. Somewhat weary and dishevelled, we finally met with our partners from the University of North Carolina in a communal spirit of defiance. Our mission was twofold: firstly to foster collaboration between our two institutions strengthening a long tradition of friendship; secondly, to take part in a wide range of research activities, including a renowned conference run by the British Women Writers Association (BWWA), which UNC were hosting this year.

The conference theme of ‘Generations’ struck me as particularly apt for our trip. Not only did it reflect the historic and continued links between our two universities and nations, but also the sense of boundless generative creativity amongst different peoples across both time and place…

The conference saw a host of different cohorts of researchers coming together from various fields, and this same diversity was reflected in the historic lives of the many women writers under discussion. We heard some wonderful keynotes, including a talk from Andrew Stauffer on flowers and Victorian female reader reception as well as a fascinating joint speech from leading Elizabeth Barrett Browning scholars Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor on the “collaborative energies” of women writers.

Continue reading Famous writing desks, southern hospitality and monuments to lost lives: King’s visits UNC

Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

#bslswinter2017

by James Rakoczi, PhD Candidate, Department of English 

There is a gravity to this situation. He has broken my heart. We are waging a war on cancer. Our closest neighbour is Andromeda. Synapses permit neurons to communicate with each other.

Warning: this post is ripe to bursting with metaphors.

Thomas Kuhn argued that you don’t see something until ‘you have the right metaphor to perceive it’ (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). How then might we perceive the literary and scientific dimensions of the metaphor in itself?

Metaphor negotiates across the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities at the university. Does the metaphor stay the same in its transmission/translation or does it transform, transgress, transcend? Are metaphors necessarily rooted within a particular historical context or can productive analogies between literary and scientific texts across disparate historical periods be discovered? Can we (should we?) read a neurological metaphor into a text which pre-dates neurology? Should we (can we?) read a scientific metaphor aimed at pedagogical elucidation like we might a poetical metaphor: an immanent stitch of image which nevertheless troubles and growths beyond itself (by our invention or its design)?

On Saturday 4th November 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health and the English Department will host the British Society of Literature and Science’s (BSLS) annual winter symposium. The symposium will be an opportunity for many of us to try our hand at solving these questions, or asking even more.

Wiki commons Varsha_ys
A message from one synapse to another. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

On Teaching (and Learning)

by Ian Henderson, Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies and Senior Lecturer in Australian and Victorian literature. This post was first published on The MCAS Director’s Blog.

Ordinarily September arrives like a high-speed gear change with the clutch still half engaged. The teeth-shearing rasp ratchets across British academe as we shift from August’s intensely imagined worlds of more-or-less cloistered research and writing into the induction circus of Welcome Week.

Most of us brush off last year’s complaints about teaching for threadbare repartee in student-filled hallways, while concealing the thrill of it all. Teaching is the lifeblood of most academics, after all; in reality it’s harder to stop us doing it, shut us up.

This year is a little different for me (re the gear-change, not the shutting up). The nature of my role in directing the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies means I was chipping away at College business throughout summer. That kept me in the habit of coming into King’s rather than going to the library or writing at home.

But more to the point, teaching itself came to occupy the place of a research-project ‘question’ during this summer’s ‘research period’: intensely scrutinised, carried about with me in myriad different places (half way around the world, as it turned out), looked at from many sides, held up as a lens and a foil for whatever print matter fell before my eyes.

Continue reading On Teaching (and Learning)

The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

by Martina Zimmermann, honorary Associate Professor in Pharmacology at Goethe University Frankfurt, with an MA in Literature and Medicine and a second PhD in Health Humanities at King’s College London.

I am a pharmaceutical scientist by training who specialised in neuropharmacology. For over 15 years, my research interests have been the molecular mechanisms that cause the death of brain cells in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While pursuing, and later supervising, laboratory based experimental projects, I more and more often wondered how patients actually experience the condition which I only knew from studies in cell culture and other disease models. The methodologies, models and approaches I used were unsuited to answering this question.

Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write…

I began looking for patient accounts about a decade ago. At the time, I found only just over a dozen of books published in English, and one diary in French. I was astonished that there were so few, especially because I felt that the popular press had long preferred Alzheimer’s disease to any other subject in its health and wellbeing pages. Also, patients usually have five to ten years between diagnosis and death, and, at the time of clinically perceivable onset, can continue to articulate themselves proficiently in writing, as well as retaining figurative language. Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write. Continue reading The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

Experience: Working with Bahati Books

by Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska. Ralitsa is an undergraduate student in the English Department in her third year, with research interests in Modernism and Contemporary culture. Ralitsa worked as an editorial and marketing intern at Bahati Books this summer as part of King’s Internship Summer Scheme. She also has a personal blog where she writes about books, music and art.

Ever since applying for university I knew I wanted to study English literature and use my degree to become involved with publishing. But I never knew which role would suit me best – an editor, an agent, a person in marketing or sales. I applied for my internship with Bahati Books before going into my third year as I figured that the best way to find what part of publishing intrigues me the most was to learn from experience.

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Instagram-friendly promotion for ‘WIne and Water’, by Hannah Onoguwe. Photo by Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska.

Continue reading Experience: Working with Bahati Books

Dissertation stories: Don Quixote to cross-stitch

William Burgess and Felicity H-Mackie of the MA 18th Century Studies course organised a conference in conjunction with the Centre for Enlightenment Studies, as an opportunity for 18th Century MA researchers from King’s and Queen Mary to discuss the first stages of their dissertations with students and staff. They share with us here their dissertation research journeys.


A Rake's Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01794
A Rake’s Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01794

by William Burgess, MA 18th Century Studies

Like all good research journeys, my dissertation started with the discovery of a quotation that upended everything I thought I knew about literature.

Following my BA graduation, I spent the summer reading Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas. Aside from getting a lot of stick from my friends (most of whom were taking it easy with some crime fiction or re-reading Harry Potter) reading the novel revealed some unsettling complications to my idea of what literature means.

“If we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will […] all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.”

Samuel Johnson is telling us that everyone, to some degree, is a bit ‘insane’. Not only that, but – as he goes on to insist – the act of writing fiction is by definition slightly mad.

Continue reading Dissertation stories: Don Quixote to cross-stitch

Book Review: Martino Sclavi’s ‘The Finch in My Brain’

by James Rakoczi, PhD researcher, Department of English

The cover image of Martino Scalvi’s ‘The Finch in My Brain’

Reading Martino Sclavi’s The Finch in My Brain (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017) took longer than expected. I found myself slowing down, re-reading passages, trying to work out how the text relates to itself, to its images, and to the people in Sclavi’s life.

My copy of the text is now defaced by marginalia, doodled over in an inky green.

Page 308, for example, tells me to re-read p. 215. I turn that page, and p. 216 directs me to p. 268, and so on. My copy has gone a bit rhizome: an ecology of self-citation…

In early 2011, living in LA, Italian film producer Martino Sclavi was experiencing bad headaches. He thought it was the coffee, or the stresses of script-writing to deadline. In fact, it was a grade 4 glioblastoma – an extremely severe brain tumour. During a script-reading, Sclavi became increasingly delirious. Driven to a hospital by a friend, Sclavi recalls how his friend’s words ‘stopped having a meaning for me… just sound with no information. A rhythm with no shape’ (p. 43). This loss of ‘meaning’ but retention of ‘shape’ characterised not only Sclavi’s immediate crisis but presaged the direction his life would take.

Continue reading Book Review: Martino Sclavi’s ‘The Finch in My Brain’

Early Modern Verbatim Theatre: A Reflection

by Lucy Munro, Reader in Early Modern English Literature at the Department of English, and Emma Whipday, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL

In 1624, a play entitled The Late Murder in Whitechapel, or Keep the Widow Waking was staged at the Red Bull playhouse in Clerkenwell. Written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, William Rowley and John Webster, it was based on accounts of two recent crimes. The first was the murder of a Whitechapel woman, Joan Tindall, by her son, Nathaniel, which became the subject of at least two ballads, one of which survives. The second was the forced marriage of a 62-year-old widow, Anne Elsdon, to a much younger man, Tobias Audley.

tavern scene
A woodcut from Samuel Rowlands’s ’Tis Merry When Gossips Meete (c. 1613), showing a widow, wife and maid drinking in a tavern

Tobias lured Anne to a tavern, where he plied her with alcohol and tried to persuade her to promise to marry him – a promise that could be legally binding if it was said before witnesses. After several days he eventually seems to have got some kind of agreement from her, and a priest hired for the purpose married them. However, the ‘marriage’ became the subject of a series of cases in the secular and religious courts.

Continue reading Early Modern Verbatim Theatre: A Reflection

The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics

by Faten Hussein and Neil Vickers in conversation

Faten Hussein (FH) is a LAHP-funded doctoral researcher in Comparative Literature and the Medical Humanities at King’s College London. Her research investigates representations of illness in Arabic literature. She is specifically interested in what literature reveals about cultural and social attitudes towards illness, and the political, social, and economic determinants in access to health. She is about to take up a fellowship with the House of Common’s International Development Committee, through the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

Dr Neil Vickers (NV) is Reader in English Literature and the Medical Humanities at the Department of English, and co-director of the Centre for the Humanities and Health. He is associate editor of the journal Medical Humanities, published by the British Medical Journal group. 

NV: Hello Faten. It’s a real privilege to be able to discuss your work with you, and to bring it to wider public notice through this blog interview. Why don’t you begin by telling our readers what you work on?

FH: I work on written accounts of illness from the Arab world. These can be fictional or autobiographical and in any form, so long as illness has a central place in them.

Continue reading The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics