For those of you who are not so up-to-date on where I am/what I’m doing, these days I spend my days based in an English department.

If you’re one of those who think that people in English departments just sit and do literary analyses of books you’ll never read, you are sorely mistaken. Our department’s PhD students (myself included) are writing about a vast array of topics, from Victorian women and their publishers, to adaptations of early modern poetry, to representations of particular social groups in post-9/11 fiction (just to name a few). Literary analysis can be a valuable tool, but it’s certainly not the only thing – and often not even the main thing – that we do.

Recently, Loughborough University hosted its #WhyEnglishMatters competition. Current and past Loughborough students were asked to submit videos about why they felt reading and the field of English matter both within and outside the academy.

To psych students/alumni up for this challenge, faculty members from within Loughborough’s English department submitted their own videos about why they feel English matters. One of my favourites of these videos comes from Dr Arianna Maiorani, a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics.

For Dr Maiorani, language ‘is the glue that keeps together culture and society. Language is what we use to construe our identity, to talk about our reality, to talk about our past and present and future, friends, family, everything that is important to us.’ English matters because it is the study of language and communication, of empathy and understanding.

The winning #WhyEnglishMatters video submission came from Loughborough alumnus Tom Wallis.

In his video, Tom explains why English matters in today’s political contexts. ‘Right here, right now, today: we all see how English can sway and even rile up the masses,’ he declares. ‘Based purely on words, rafters of turkeys have voted for not just one, but consecutive Christmases.’ For Tom, English is a means for articulation, criticism, and – most importantly – connectively. Just as Dr Maiorani argues, by putting into practice the thinking and communication skills we learn in English departments, we can better understand one another and ourselves.

Before life got a bit too hectic, I was planning on submitting my own video to the #WhyEnglishMatters competition. Sure, I wanted to win the ‘best video’ prize, but I also genuinely wanted to convey to people why I think English matters. Loughborough is, after all, known for its excellence in its sports and engineering programmes. It is a university very much focused on enterprise and practical applications of academic developments. This is one of the things that sets Loughborough apart from other universities in the UK, and it is something I am proud of.

Yet because English is generally not one of those subjects that is so easily applied to entrepreneurial endeavours, I frequently get asked why I bother studying what I study. It is difficult frustrating to feel as though I have to justify my research because it is not necessarily going to make anyone much money. Many others in humanities subjects – history, political science, etc. – are also subject to this kind of frustration. We are forever sitting around the family Christmas table, with drunken Uncle Bobs repeatedly asking, ‘But what do you want to do with that?’

I did write a rough script for my #WhyEnglishMatters submission, which is included below. Because I’m not using video, I have spiced things up by colouring and bolding the text, and just generally making it less mobile-friendly.

Bear in mind that videos were instructed to be less than 90 seconds long, which is why this is quite short. Just try your best to imagine my Canadian-twangy voice excitedly reading these words.

My name is Leah.  I’m a PhD student at Loughborough University, in the English department. My research focuses on the social and literary implications of natural language generation. Put really simply, I’m looking at why we should care that computers are writing books.

This research requires me to work with people from all over campus. I work with people from Computer Science, Social Sciences, Information Management and Communications, Business and Economics… I’m really all over the place.

And I’ve had a few people ask me, ‘What are you doing in an English department? It doesn’t sound like your project belongs there.’ My project is definitely not that stereotypical English project: I’m not doing literary analysis, I’m looking at reader response and communications frameworks.

But still, for me, English is not so much a distinct discipline in and of itself. It’s an approach – one of many. It’s a lens that you can use to make of sense what’s happening around you. It’s an excuse for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural conversation.

Every text is produced and received within particular cultural contexts, defying constraints of time and space. And this is why English matters to me: English preserves, questions, and makes sense of the cultural artefacts that contribute to the development of our ever-changing modern identities. It’s the study of who we are, who we were, and who we will be.

So, why does English matter to you?

New Directions, Networking… and Cookies

Well, folks, my first conference presentation as a PhD student was a success!

This past Tuesday, I had the pleasure of presenting some of my research at Oxford Brookes University’s annual ‘New Directions in Print Culture Studies’ symposium, hosted by The Oxford International Institute for Publishing Studies. This conference featured the wonderful Drs Shafquat Towheed and Samantha Rayner as keynotes, as well as a bunch of other academics investigating a vast range of topics within the fields of book history, print culture, and publishing.

My research is still very much in its early stages, but those who heard me speak were so supportive of what I was doing. I didn’t scare anyone away from natural language generation!

Want to give my presentation a peruse? Here you go:

One of the best parts of any conference is meeting people within your field who can challenge your views, but who can also offer you the support you need to continue improving as a researcher. As with every conference, I did do some pretty typical networking, and ended up meeting some interesting people from across the UK and Europe.

Here’s a hot tip: If you’re not great at starting conversations with strangers, just stand ever so slightly in the way of wherever the cookies (or other sweet treats) are. When someone realizes that he/she has to speak to you in order to get you to physically move, that is when you make your conversational move. Ask that person what he/she has found to be the most interesting part of the conference so far. Grab another cookie for yourself as you do so. Once both parties have a cookie in hand, y’all are practically guaranteed a jolly chat. You’re welcome.

Seriously, though, while networking went well, it was the panel I was assigned to that made my day. I sat on a panel with two other women – Dr Kate Macdonald from the University of Reading, and Laura Dietz from Anglia Ruskin – whose research topics differed drastically from my own. However, as we got to talking and presenting we realized just how much overlap there was between what we were saying. Following our presentations, Kate offered me some ideas about potential research avenues (which I’ve already begun diving into), and Laura provided insight into some ways to collect qualitative and quantitative reading response data (which will be very helpful for next year).

Also, we now have this photo where I look like I am going to eat Laura:

Sorry about that, Laura.

Hopefully I’ll be attending more conferences soon, although for now it’s back to the grind of chapter writing.

Got questions about the presentation embedded above? Hit me with ’em!