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On SHAPE: a Q&A with Lucy Noakes, Eyal Poleg, Laura Wright & Mary Kelly

OUP have recently announced our support for the newly created SHAPE initiative—Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy. To further understand the crucial role these subjects play in our everyday lives, we have put three questions to four British Academy SHAPE authors and editors—social and cultural historian Lucy Noakes, historian of objects and faith Eyal Poleg, historical sociolinguist Laura Wright, and Lecturer in Contemporary Art History Mary Kelly—on what SHAPE means to them, and to their research.

SHAPE subjects are well-namedthey help us shape the world we live in and the future we’re building. What distinctive potential and skills do you think Arts and Humanities and Social Science disciplines bring to the lives of those learning them, as well as to society?

Lucy Noakes: I think that these disciplines, though they vary widely in approaches and methods used, all have one essential element in common: they help our students to learn how to be effective, engaged, and critical citizens. For example, the pernicious nature of “fake news” today, from the wilder extremes of QANON fantasists to the advice circulating on social media suggesting that people can protect themselves from COVID-19 by inhaling steam or drinking hot water with lemon juice, can be harmful to both individuals and to wider societies. SHAPE students learn to be active and participatory readers and listeners. A student researching an essay topic will ask: who is arguing this? Why? What is their evidence? Where was it published? They also learn how to develop arguments based on evidence, not opinion—crucial skills in today’s world.

Eyal Poleg: Critical thinking and the ability to reflect on events, past and present, are vital for our existence as a dynamic and pluralistic society. Our students learn how to analyse sources, be they written accounts, artwork, mundane objects, or buildings. These skills are invaluable in becoming active and engaged citizens within modern society, especially in the face of empty rhetoric and fake news. Their ability to clearly communicate complex ideas is likewise instrumental in shaping the world we live in. History does not simply repeat itself, but, by learning about past societies, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our own, and of possible future directions.

Laura Wright: I’m a word-historian so I’ll give a specific answer with regard to my discipline: looking at how people used language in the past holds a mirror up to who we are now. For example, names Alice, Emma, Joan, John, Katherine, Margery, Peter, Richard, Robert, Thomas, William entered English via the Anglo-Norman language and knocked out the Old English namestock of Beowulf, Cyneheard, Ealdraed, Frithuswith, Ohthere. So, if you are called Alice or John you signal to the world at large that your parents were members of the Anglo-Norman family. But they might not have known it or thought of it that way: Alice or John might have just sounded suitable for a baby—traditional, not too outlandish. Society and its traditions shape us and the choices we make and studying SHAPE subjects causes us to question those assumptions—and in the case of historians, track them back to their source.

Mary Kelly: Students and scholars of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences open important questions about, for example, human difference and why people maintain certain belief systems over others. Students are encouraged to analyse, to be critical, to be diplomatic, to challenge when required, and to think creatively when locating solutions. The Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences exist in the service of human development, always enhancing our quality of life.

“The Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences exist in the service of human development, always enhancing our quality of life.”

For example, in 2016, University College Cork became the first Irish-based university to formally integrate modern and contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa into its History of Art curricula. The teaching philosophy, which underpins the building of my courses, is to create an awareness among students about the current decentred world as well as our responsibility to equip students (potential future leaders) with robust cross-cultural competencies through innovative practices in teaching and learning. Our students are gaining valuable skills and insights which will galvanise them to engage with challenging conversations relating to human difference. Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences disciplines are actively enhancing human diplomacy.

As a SHAPE researcher, how are your concerns and needs different from your colleagues in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)?

Lucy Noakes: There is perhaps more in common between STEM and SHAPE subjects than we might first think. The key, and most important, similarity would be that we all work with evidence; it is just as important that a historian build their analysis based on the evidence available as an engineer or a biochemist, even though the outcomes might be very different. I would also argue that the overwhelming majority of academic research, across all subjects, is shaped by the historical context, concerns, needs, and values of the time and place in which we work. But perhaps the biggest difference is that in SHAPE we have more space for the development of arguments and perspectives—while 2 + 2 will always equal 4 in mathematics, historians’ analyses of a subject like the Second World War are endlessly varied and ever-changing. For me, this is a huge part of SHAPE’s appeal.

Eyal Poleg: STEM colleagues often pursue innovation, looking for ever more advance technologies, for ways of improving our quality of life and of understanding the natural world. SHAPE disciplines, on the other hand, tend to be more reflective, taking into account past accomplishments, and thinking more clearly about why and how should progress be made. This being said, I do not think of our work in opposition. Much of my recent research has been in collaboration with scientists, employing cutting-edge technologies in the analysis of historical objects. The two perspectives complement one another, with SHAPE defining the historical questions and STEM providing new means of answering them. At best, such collaboration contributes to both disciplines, unearthing hitherto unknown information about historical objects and learning about the past, on the one hand, while finding new uses for innovative technologies, on the other.

Laura Wright: What I need is historical text, and I suppose STEM researchers don’t—but in terms of research questions, we’re probably not very different. As a historical linguist I study creative literary texts as well as other kinds, but so do clinicians and scientists concerned with the brain, because people spend a lot of time talking about imaginary states—what might happen, what could happen, as well as what does happen. Whatever humans do ends up expressed in language, one way or another, and much of my source material consists of historic STEM text—people inventing things, in particular.  For example, the term pickled salmon was correlated with the London poor in the 18th and early 19th centuries as it was what they ate, sold from street barrows. Then the tin can was invented in 1813, pickled salmon was replaced, and the poor turned to tins, with the term tinned salmon having connotations of “working-class” for a century or so.

Mary Kelly: SHAPE and STEM address major societal challenges, however in very different ways. In addition, SHAPE researchers’ empirical and analytical needs, as well as divergent and convergent thinking processes, differ greatly to those applied in STEM.

In order for us to truly maximise the impact of STEM ideas and technologies, public and private sectors must engage with the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in order to understand how human groups and individuals are formed and how they behave, produce, evolve, and co-exist.

Right now, however, the most urgent need for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the need for fair and adequate financial resources for SHAPE research and development. SHAPE research is undervalued by many in the public and private sectors: this is clearly evident from the limited funding and support which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences receive from numerous funding bodies and in the education system.

SHAPE subjects are hugely diverse, but they do share a focus on understanding more about people and societies, and what it is to be human. How does your research go about investigating these concepts? How do you see your work contributing to and informing these broader discussions?

Total War: An Emotional HistoryLucy Noakes: My most recent work has been on death and grief in Second World War Britain, and on the insights that approaches to the past that are attuned to the emotional lives of those we study can bring to our understanding of what it might be like to live through and navigate crises and changes that feel out of our control. I have been struck again and again this year by how much our experiences of fear, loss, and changes to our day to day lives have shaped my students and my own understandings of the lives of those who experienced total war. I also have a new awareness of the changes that the crisis of war helped to bring about in Britain, particularly the creation of the Welfare State at the war’s end. If only we listen, history has a lot to teach us about not only how societies manage crises, but about how we can use these moments of rupture to rethink our priorities, and how we want to live.

Find out more about Lucy’s recently published title, Total War, edited alongside Claire Langhamer and Claudia Siebrecht.

A Material History of The BibleEyal Poleg: My earlier work has explored how people engaged with the Bible in the Middle Ages, demonstrating a reliance on mediated access, surprisingly similar to knowledge of people and events of the Bible among secular societies nowadays. More recently I have studied hundreds of manuscripts and early printed Bibles to trace continuity and change across three and a half centuries, reevaluating the impact of print and Reformation on English religion. This perspective enabled me to unearth the long and complex process of innovation and change. Some features familiar to us, such as chapter division, took centuries to implement, very gradually moving from the nascent universities, through nunneries and chapels, to be embraced by lay women and men. The parish Bible, an early modern innovation, was first met with confusion and uncertainty. Understanding the limits of innovation, and putting things we take for granted in new perspective, helps us better understand our own society, past, present and future.

Find out more about Eyal’s recently published title, A Material History of the Bible, England 1200-1553.

Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House NamesLaura Wright: Well I research things we tend to take for granted, and one of these is house-names.  Humans need shelter. Humans give things names. Numbering houses is modern—18th century—but house-names are old. The ubiquitous house-name “Sunnyside” started as a medieval Scottish legal term in dividing up farm land, and then became an 18th-century English house-name particularly used by Quakers—ceasing to be a legal term and becoming a cultural marker, insider-code for “a Quaker lives here.” Certain Quakers and Nonconformists became extremely rich and their Sunnysides were mansions, and American author Washington Irving, visiting Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in the Borders borrowed the name of a nearby farm called Sunnyside and named his highly-influential New York mansion Sunnyside too. There’s more to the story, but who influences who linguistically shows how culture spreads, and all humans are shaped by their culture. It’s good to be aware of one’s prejudices.

Find out more about Laura’s recently published title, Sunnyside.

Under the SkinMary Kelly: My current research project looks beyond the purely European canon of historical Orientalist art objects to explore contemporary artistic responses from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I argue that this approach will further contextualise art objects as being an important part of an ongoing, reciprocal socio-cultural dialogue between the global north and south. Specifically, I work in the space between 19th- and 20th-century European Orientalism and 21st-century responses to Orientalism from women artists located in various Middle Eastern and North African countries. Many historical and contemporary women artists from across the globe address the conflicting experiences of female identities and—through their art—they are “speaking back” to local, national and international marginalising views which present stereotypical ideas of oppressed or powerless women. I engage with Transnational Feminism in my work because it is rooted in the local and translocal experiences of women—after which women’s narratives cross “borders” in order to create meaningful conversations and collaborations internationally. My work evokes themes such as Orientalism, gender, female agency, female oppression, religion, heritage, diaspora, and difference all for the purpose of:

  1. bringing art made by women to the fore.
  2. the decolonisation of the History of Art.
  3. using art to galvanise meaningful cross-cultural and transnational discourse about women in various societies.

Art builds progressive and positive bridges between different people.

Find out more about Mary’s recently published title, Under the Skin, edited alongside Ceren Özpınar.

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