Brexit: scholars in English reflect on ‘discontents’ exposed by vote

Academics working in English studies consider what Brexit means for their discipline

August 18, 2016
EU map missing UK, EU referendum, Brexit
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In these “troubled and troubling times”, argues Greg Walker, Regius professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, “the capacity to analyse texts, language and culture critically and with sensitivity has never been more necessary”.

He is just one of 19 scholars and teachers, all fellows of the English Association from Britain and abroad, who have contributed to a new collection of essays, English after Brexit, reflecting on “how they reacted to the present discontents that the Brexit vote had exposed, and how they saw it affecting themselves, their colleagues and their students”.

Professor Walker says that he found it “doubly frustrating…that the links with European funding will be severed at precisely the point when the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the principal funder of research in English in the UK, seemed to be gaining traction with the European funding bodies in building arts and humanities research into their various calls and schemes”.

Jenny Stevens, convenor of the English Association's Transitions Special Interest Group, suggests that the reformed Key Stage 4 curriculum “could be seen as Michael Gove’s attempt at bringing English into line with the Brexit mind-set: inward looking, narrowly traditional and entirely out of step with the diverse make up of many of today’s classrooms”.

This had helped to generate a self-perpetuating cycle, with declining student numbers leading to fewer teachers to inspire the next generation, she argues: “There has for a long time been the assumption that teacher shortages are confined to subjects such as maths and physics, yet as application statistics reveal, English seems increasingly in danger of joining them.”

Two specialists in children’s literature fear for the future of their field, “despite its popularity with students”, if “European scholars [have] less incentive to apply for jobs in the UK” and lack of applicants leads to positions being withdrawn. But the pair, Maria Nikolajeva and Morag Styles, professor and professor emeritus, respectively, in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, take some comfort in “the almost unanimous cry of horror and shame from the literary and educational community in Britain” that had greeted the referendum result.

Others describe the human costs of Brexit. Maria Socorro Suárez Lafuente, professor of English at the University of Oviedo, points to “the immediate loss of prestige of our British friends in Asturias [the region around Oviedo] in the eyes of the population. They have been living here for ages, speak our language and help to enrich our region in many ways, and now there are voices that speak of them as being arrogant and not wanting refugees in their country while they bask in the sun here.”

And Hermione Lee, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, finds it “shameful” that “colleagues and students, many of whom have made their working lives as academics in this country, have referred to Wolfson as a ‘safe space’ in a country which has suddenly come to seem to them less welcoming than before”.

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