The power of a profile

May 5, 2000

English studies must improve its image. It needs prizes, TV slots and publicity, just like science, says Catherine Belsey

What is the public standing of English studies? Not all that high, I suspect, in the world outside higher education, and perhaps inside it too, where our public relations may also have left something to be desired.

Everyone recognises the glamour of scientists, all white coats and electron microscopes, flaunting computer-simulated universes and virtual trips through the human body. Just as impressively, archaeology and art history send specialists to interpret beautiful objects in exotic places, while historians appear as expert witnesses in major court cases.

All this is well known because our TV screens show it. But where is English in the media? What does anyone know about us, except what they remember from school (spelling tests) or what they read in the Sunday papers (book reviews)? We are also occasionally glimpsed on the committees that award prizes for "literary" novels.

A generation ago Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart published with popular presses and helped to stimulate a debate about the meaning of culture that still has repercussions now. His colleagues E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill were historians, but their work, which overlapped with ours, was also widely read, and prompted public discussion of social and intellectual history.

But since then the research assessment exercise has taught us to look first to university presses and academic journals for outlets. No one seems to know whether trade books "count", let alone television programmes. As a result, we are mostly talking to each other and our students and ignoring the world at large.

Does it matter? I think it does. Scientists have known for half a century that their work costs money and that to attract funds they need an image. The public understanding of science is the explicit aim of a committee sponsored by the Royal Society, and in consequence, as soon as there is a major intellectual development in the field, the media gets to hear about it.

English too costs money, if not quite so much. In all the talk about students as customers, it is easy to forget that the real consumers of our products are the taxpayers who fund higher education. They are entitled to see the results of the work they are paying for.

If English studies includes linguistics, philology, editing, bibliography, narratology, literary and dramatic criticism, we are analysing between us major aspects of the past and present of our culture. We are investigating language in performance, at work in the form of stories, plays, speeches, journalism and all the other modes of persuasion that coax society towards particular values, values for better or worse.

And we are also examining instabilities of meaning, the places where those attitudes are challenged and transformed. No values are inevitable: if we do not like them, we can (collectively) change them. But this means public discussion - of the kind we are in a position to initiate and facilitate.

What is to be done? We could begin by learning from the scientists. We need a committee to promote the public understanding of English studies and bring what we do to the attention of the media. We need prizes for the best popular expositions of aspects of our work.

We should approach BBC2 and Channel 4 with good ideas. We should write for trade publishers. And above all, we should put pressure on successive RAE panels to endorse these plans and to recognise the worth of popularisation in all its forms.

Catherine Belsey is professor, the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University. Today the English Association launches a fellowship scheme to encourage public awareness of the role of English in national life. Its 74 founding fellows include Richard Hogg, Hermione Lee and Andrew Motion. Full list, page 8.

* Do we need a committee to promote public understanding of English studies? Email us on

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