Becky Fisher, Elizabeth Draper and Jenny Richards of the English Association reflect on the role of learned societies in the UK research ecosystem, and how a map of research infrastructure will benefit their work.
Learned societies in the Arts and Humanities come in many different shapes and sizes. Between them they represent a wide range of disciplinary communities, enabling colleagues to share ideas and good practice, to promote their subjects, and support the next generation of students, teachers, researchers, and citizens. Most of us work within our disciplinary communities, though increasingly we are reaching out to join forces. At this challenging time, more join-up is crucial, and this Mapping the Arts and Humanities Project aims to do that, not just highlighting the work we do individually, but pointing us to the work we can do together, making new connections across this rich landscape.
We are excited to learn from other societies: how Classics has transformed recruitment by working so closely with schools, so that Latin is now the 4th most taught language in primary schools; how we can learn from and champion the interdisciplinarity of modern language’s brilliant global research; how we can work alongside learned societies of music promoting sound studies, and, given our own interest in oracy, the human voice as meaning-making; and how together we can promote the values of equality, inclusion and diversity. We are looking forward to learning about the work all learned societies do, and to finding our way to you to tell a connected story about the Arts and Humanities.
But let us also tell you a little bit about ourselves. The English Association (EA) represents and advocates for the disciplines of English Literature, Language and Creative Writing, although we do not do this work alone. We already work closely with the Institute of English Studies (IES), and University English (UE), sharing resources, expertise and, crucially, our time, speaking with one voice on the issues that matter to us.
The EA has actually been around for a long time. It was founded in 1906 by a small group of English teachers and scholars, including F.S. Boas, A.C. Bradley, and Sir Israel Gollancz, and it was incorporated by Royal Charter in 2006. Since those early days, much has changed, and although our mission remains the same – to foster excellence in English teaching and research; to connect teachers, lecturers, and other professionals in schools, colleges, and universities; and to promote the study and enjoyment of English in all its forms – our work is changing. After the expansion of our subject in 2009, we are now experiencing painful contraction, as the Arts and Humanities find themselves devalued.
Working with our sister subject bodies has never been more important. Much of our work now finds us at the side of gifted, committed colleagues in university departments facing redundancy: we are writing letters of support, meeting with senior management teams to offer an alternative vision, helping with business plans, collecting data, and supporting each other’s campaigns, for example the new PR campaign for English led by UE, or the Case for English series led by IES. EA has its own co-led campaign, Speaking for English, currently celebrating the stories of remarkable the impact (discovered in the 2021 REF exercise) of our researchers, co-created with the communities, businesses, and creative industries with whom they work. Our collaborations extend beyond our sister subject bodies: we are also a partner in the Poetry By Heart consortium, which just last week celebrated the 35,000 pupils who gave voice to a poem as part of its 2023 competition.
The EA is changing too. We are building our association, working ever more closely across our educational committees, creating ‘hubs’ for teachers and academics to inspire and support one another whilst also fostering knowledge exchange and creating opportunities to advocate for the subject. We are bringing the voices of young people right into the heart of the association, co-building tools to aid their reading and writing, like the Creativity Engine, which was developed by Dr Tiago Sousa Garcia, a software engineer at Newcastle University, with the students and teachers of Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, of Cambridge Regional College, of Calderdale College, and of Reaseheath College. The Creativity Engine was born out of a collaborative project – Literature and Action – which, under the leadership of students at these colleges, produced The Quaranteens, a moving, powerful collection of creative writing about their pandemic experiences.
We are collaborating with IES, UE, the University of East Anglia, and the Postcolonial Society to build a network of decolonising practitioners to effect practical change in a subject that is facing up to its colonial legacy. We are working with primary and secondary teachers to foster students’ skills in oracy and speaking/listening, recognising the links between oracy and social justice. We are working with researchers, careers advisors, and alumni to build resources for those making the transition from education to employment that highlight the unique portfolio of skills that students of English develop. And, finally, with IES we are planning to start a national conversation about the future of English, and, ideally with the learned societies we will learn about through this Mapping Project, and the essential contribution Arts and Humanities disciplines can make together in the age of AI, when rivalry between STEM and SHAPE subjects will surely need to be replaced by collaboration.
All of the EA’s work is underpinned by the commitment and energy of the brilliant volunteers who dedicate their expertise and time to our mission. Our members, too, are crucial; without their support, we cannot continue to advocate for our subject. If you too are passionate about English, please consider becoming part of our community and standing alongside us. And to other learned societies: we look forward to finding you!
Professor Jenny Richards is Chair of the English Association’s Higher Education Committee.
Dr Rebecca Fisher is CEO of The English Association.
Elizabeth Draper is Chair of the English Association’s Secondary/ Further Education Committee
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