Interview with Lyndsey Stonebridge

The humanities professor discusses her passion for human rights, how universities can work with refugees, and learning to stop apologising

October 25, 2018

Lyndsey Stonebridge took up an interdisciplinary chair in humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham in September. She worked for many years at the University of East Anglia, where she served as founding associate dean of the Arts and Humanities Graduate School, and has held visiting positions at Cornell University and the University of Sydney. Her books on 20th-century and contemporary literature and history include, most recently, Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees (2018).

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bromley, Kent. We quickly moved to north London, which I remember as a warm rain of 1970s purple wonderfulness. Unhappily, we returned to the Kent countryside for my secondary school years. Bewildered and a bit cross, I dropped out of school early and went back to London as soon as I could.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Intense. Like many later starters, I was an autodidact with a head full of books and inarticulate questions. I also assumed that everyone was far better-read and smarter than me, so I tended to read anxiously and cautiously. Studying literature and critical theory in the 1980s established a clear connection for me between writing and politics that has been the basis of my work ever since. What I valued most, and still value, is the way that literature brings both complexity and clarity to the most difficult and obscure of human experiences. My feminism, as well as my concern with violence and justice, began with reading modern literature under Thatcher.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I had the immense good fortune to be supervised by the brilliant feminist and psychoanalytic critic Jacqueline Rose, who once said that she’d know her work with me was done once I finally stopped apologising. She had a long wait. It is advice I’d repeat to anybody who feels that they owe their position in the academy to good luck rather than entitlement.

What spurred you to focus much of your work on violence, human rights and refugees?
The West kept its dirty colonial wars quiet in the later 20th century, which allowed us to think of the violence of the 1940s as exceptional. It was, of course, in terms of the advent of industrial-scale genocide in Europe. But as striking in terms of violence, human rights and refugees are the historical continuities that stretch across to our own time. Refugee history has been an ongoing experience for millions throughout colonial and late colonial history. Looking back, on all levels, personal as well as scholarly, it’s the legacies of mass displacement and exile that have preoccupied me most.

Can you describe the work you have done with refugee communities in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon?
In Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as elsewhere in the world, many refugees are hosted by communities with long histories of displacement, statelessness and exile, particularly Palestinian communities. Refugee Hosts is a multidisciplinary project that uses poetry, narrative, photography and film, as well as more traditional social science methodologies, to shed light on the history of refugee-refugee humanitarianism.

You are the first British professor of humanities and human rights. What are the crucial insights that humanities scholars can bring to the table?
The clue might be in the repetitious title – putting the human back in human rights. We have many brilliant and important human rights scholars in law and social and political science in the UK, but unlike in the US we’ve only just started to think about what the arts and the “softer” humanities bring to the table. In terms of modern history, what we might call the sciences of administrative reason – including law and social policy – have often been as responsible for perpetuating abuses as preventing them. By contrast, the humanities are good at understanding the messiness of human experience, and good too at imagining new terms for justice.

What are the core questions you hope to address in your new role?
Two questions, one critical and one creative. First, these are not good times for human rights. The bully boys (and girls) are back. The global institutions responsible for human rights are under attack for some good reasons (scandalous neo-colonial poor management, for example) as well as bad – anti-human rights – ones. We need, first, to take honest stock of where we are now and how we got here. Second, and at the same time, new postcolonial and transnational terms for human rights are being created right now – in refugee camps and communities in Lesbos, Beirut and elsewhere; in the work of transnational legal activists; in digital solidarities; and in the humanitarianism of diverse communities across the globe. How are these different creative and diverse human rights connected? What might help them to work?

How would you like to see universities engaging with human rights and the refugees who live alongside us?
Despite the incentives to stay in measurable categories, people who work in universities are good boundary-crossers. Most of us think that the best research is international, not because we’re elite cosmopolitans, but because we understand that the best results come from collaboration. One way that universities can take on greater responsibilities for human rights and refugees is to consciously work against borders, be they disciplinary – look at the banning of gender studies in Hungary – or nationalist. That means being prepared to buck the political trend and speak out for the things we value – such as universal rights and border-crossing knowledge.

What do you do to relax and unwind?
I have a bad Twitter habit, which helps me neither relax nor unwind. For family reasons, we spend a lot of time in France, where I do most of my sleeping, socialising – and dancing.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Volo ut sis: I want you to be (St Augustine, via Hannah Arendt). I’m tempted to get it tattooed on my arm so I can wave it at my students, friends and children.


Sean Wellington will become pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of Middlesex University’s Faculty of Science and Technology in April. He is currently associate dean for strategy and development at Oxford Brookes University’s Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment. A former electrical engineering apprentice with a PhD in sensor technology, Professor Wellington previously worked at Solent University, where he was head of the department of communications engineering. “We live in a world that is increasingly shaped by technological change,” Professor Wellington said. “The Faculty of Science and Technology…is ideally placed to lead and innovate, working with industry and the professions and empowering students with the ambition, skills and knowledge to succeed in graduate employment.”

Paul Theron has been named Atkins-Cranfield professor of cyber-secure engineering systems and processes. The newly created role is a partnership between Cranfield University and Atkins, part of the SNC Lavalin design and engineering consultancy group. Professor Theron has worked on cyber security in the French aerospace industry and held teaching positions at École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, the University of Poitiers and the University of Geneva. Rajkumar Roy, director of manufacturing at Cranfield, said that Professor Theron’s “extensive background in cyber systems, risks and governance will help to develop our thinking in this key area of manufacturing and engineering”.

Lisa Harvey-Smith has been chosen as Australia’s first women in STEM ambassador. The astrophysicist will spearhead the government’s efforts to encourage women and girls to study and work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, a programme awarded A$4.5 million (£2.4 million) in the 2018-19 budget.

Huw Williams has been appointed chief operating officer at the University of Salford. The chartered accountant and lawyer joins from the University of South Wales, where he has worked since 1992.

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