Tag Archives: 50th anniversary talks

The future of studying old art

Sarah McBryde, PhD student in History of Art, discusses a recent workshop considering the value of Art History as a discipline and why the study of ‘old’ art will continue to be important into the future.

‘The Future of Studying Old Art’ workshop, chaired by Dr Dorigen Caldwell (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, Birkbeck) kicked off another day of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the History of Art Department at Birkbeck, by considering the current state of the discipline and the ways in which ideas about old art are taught and communicated to a wider audience via digital media and cultural institutions. The various speakers outlined their own experiences and perspectives, creating a lively debate on the reasons why the study and display of ‘old’ art continues to have relevance today.

Robert Maniura (Reader in History of Art, Birkbeck) asked why we still study historical objects, both artworks and architecture. Why should we care about something which has survived into the modern era, but was created hundreds of years ago in a society with different values and beliefs from our own? He began by posing some key questions for art historians: What is it? Why is it here? Why does it look like that? And importantly, why is it still here when other things have disappeared?  Maniura argued that in answering these questions art historical analysis can reveal the underlying functions of art in society; be that to impress, inspire, persuade, provoke, control or mislead. He challenged the view in the mass media that art history is somehow ephemeral, frequently framed as a ‘leisure activity’ unless vast sums of money are involved, and questioned why man-made objects should be any less deserving of rigorous study than objects from the natural world undergoing scientific investigation. He also addressed the shifting cultural meanings of artworks through history, citing as an example the Medieval Dečani Monastery located in modern day Kosovo. Prior to the 1990s conflict, this Orthodox Christian church was venerated across different local faiths, but now finds itself a symbol of Serbian nationalism in the Kosovo region, surrounded by armed guards and tank traps still under the control of NATO KFOR peacekeepers.

As Chief Curator of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance collections, Peta Motture discussed how the galleries were redesigned to incorporate new approaches to the display of objects and the views of museum visitors. The stated aims of the project were to ‘inspire, engage, preserve, connect and transform’ by reformatting the way objects were displayed to provide informative contexts for their production and use, while still maintaining a chronological sequence to the rooms, which the public preferred. Defying some criticisms that particular iconic items would lose their status when embedded in a wider context, the redesign has been highly successful since it opened to the public in 2009. Motture noted that art historical research formed a vital part of the project, which along with gallery design, enabled displays to reflect the historical reality of individual objects and bring them to life. For example, cassoni marriage chests are displayed at shoulder height, as they would have been seen carried in Renaissance bridal processions, and costumes are displayed on mannequins without plinths, so the viewer is directly confronted ‘face-to-face’ with a figure from the past.  She also commented on the continuing commitment of the V&A to engage new audiences, finding ways to display contentious objects, such as those with colonial origins, in contexts which reflect our modern and diverse culture and continue to give relevance to old art for future generations.

Peter Maniura (Head of Digital Development, BBC Arts) reflected on visual images as vehicles for storytelling, vital to broadcasters like the BBC. He discussed the recent reboot of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), reformatted as Civilisations (2018) with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Maniura observed that the new series demonstrated the changing attitudes towards art history. Whereas Clark’s version conformed to rigid parameters of what belonged inside and outside the (western) ‘canon of great art’, the new BBC series brought together the distinct perspectives of three separate academic presenters and encompassed a diverse range of source material previously excluded, to both represent and engage a modern, multicultural audience. He also discussed the associated Civilisations Festival, launched by the BBC in tandem with the series to connect local communities with their museums via 280 free public events. He outlined BBC Digital’s continuing projects to develop technology to bring the arts to a wider audience, such as the release of an augmented reality app through which users can manipulate 3D images of museum objects to access information, and #OperaPassionDay, which made live streamed performances and events from opera houses across the UK available via an interactive website. Maniura made the important point that shaping the future for old art is an urgent task to ensure that in a blizzard of visual information, the next generation will choose to engage with our respected cultural institutions.

This concern was addressed by the final speaker, Rose Aidin, whose project Art History Link-up, provides ample proof of the appetite of young people for Art History. The charitable organisation, set up in 2016/17, offers a fast-track AS Level/ Extended Project Qualification in History of Art to students aged 16-18 from state schools where Art History is not available on the curriculum. This qualification is free and requires the student to attend Saturday courses held in various partner organisations including the Wallace Collection, National Gallery and Courtauld Institute. Advertised via social media, Aidin noted that the uptake has been phenomenal, to the extent that they do not currently have enough places to support all the applicants. This fantastic programme engages a wide range of students who would otherwise have little or no access to art history education, and takes young people into museums and galleries to experience art directly. She commented on the hugely positive feedback she has had from former students about the impact of the course in developing a wide range of skills, from visual analysis to critical thinking, while also providing an accredited qualification towards their future university applications. As well as benefiting the students, Aidin noted that the courses provide valuable teaching experience for art history graduates further down the line. Currently, the project is London-based, but one might hope that our national cultural institutions may support similar regional initiatives in future.

The workshop provided a highly positive view of the future for studying old art. It illustrated the continuing importance of Art History, as well as demonstrating the variety of ways in which the discipline is developing to welcome new and diverse audiences to all aspects of visual culture. As all the speakers demonstrated, in these times of fake news and social media manipulation, the role of Arts and Humanities is ever more important as a gateway to understanding the world around us and also to provoke us to think about and question the ‘facts’ we are presented with.


Internationalisation on campus – or is it?

This post was contributed by Louise Rolland, a NewRoutePhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalProfessor Jennifer Jenkins presented a talk on the 18 March as part of a series of talks celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck. Professor Jenkins gave a brief introduction about her early career in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and shared the first experience that triggered her passion in this field. She gave her take on the development and trends of ELF and then  talked about her recent projects in details.

Professor Jenkins started her career as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher and taught large groups of students from all around the world. During her experience in teaching EFL, she made a keen observation of students’ ability to apply the English language rules very well in classrooms and exams but hardly ever elsewhere. She noticed that even though the students were not applying those rules outside classroom premises, they still managed to communicate successfully with each other. This struck up a question for Professor Jenkins as to why it would be necessary to teach students ‘native English’ when they were effectively capable of using English in their own way. This question has led Professor Jenkins on a journey to explore  non-native students’ use of English among each other, i.e. their use of English as Lingua Franca, in her PhD and  a number of publications such as English as a Lingua Franca, Attitudes and Identities (2007, Oxford University Press) and English as Lingua Franca in International Universities (2013, Routledge).

The 2014 monograph is based on her research project which she outlined in-depth in the talk. It investigated the following aspects of the use of English in international universities using different data collection methods ranging from analyzing website data to open ended questionnaires and unstructured interviews:

  1. The prevailing academic English language policies and practices of universities around the world that teach partly or entirely in English medium, in respect of any stated or implicit attachment to native academic English norms
  2. The academic staff’s dominant beliefs about non-native academic English
  3. The perceived effects of current English language policies and practices on international (including mainland EU) and home students

The project findings as a whole pointed to the fact that international UK universities demonstrated a lack of critical thinking about language on the part of many who work or study there. Some of the main conclusions from the study indicated that positive orientation to diversity was rarely extended to English. Native English speakers among management and staff showed little awareness of difficulties faced by non-native English speakers operating in their second or third language and had no sense of linguistic fairness.

Professor Jenkins thought that  Doiz et. al.’s (2013) comment in their conclusion of their book Global EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) on diversity echoed her views on ELF. They quote that “diversity does not prevent the emergence of many commonalities between the different case studies presented” (p.213); but rather “Every context has its own characteristics and, therefore, studies rooted in each specific context will be much welcomed. Results from other contexts may always be helpful and enlightening, but every situation should carry out its own research, which ideally will lay the foundations of the most appropriate language policy for them” (p. 219). This inspired her to start her second on-going project by comparing practices in universities (now nine universities in nine different countries have joined the project). Data will be compared and contrasted to answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent do language practices correspond to stated language policies in the partner institutions?
  2. What are the overt/covert English language expectations of/made of students and staff, and how far do students and staff feel they meet these?
  3. What similarities, differences, and implications from questions 1 and 2 emerge across the nine research settings? Are there any particularly noticeable differences between the EM and English dominant settings, and/or across the nine settings, or across the two English dominant settings?

Professor Jenkins concluded her talk on a positive note. She explained that despite the two massive obstacles in English in HE, i.e. academic publishers and international exam boards such as IELTS and TOEFL, there are many signs of change in relation to ELF. The Editorial of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca stated that “We see no need to insist on conformity to native-speaker usage for its own sake… . We have therefore removed conventional publisher’s submission guideline … and simply ask that authors submit manuscripts writing in an English that will be intelligible to a wide international readership.” (Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, Editorial, Vol 1, issue 1). In addition, McNamara (2014) stated that “The distinction between native and non-native speaker competence, which lies at the heart of the movement, can no longer be sustained; we need a radical reconceptualization of the construct of successful communication that does not depend on this distinction.”


  • Doiz, A., Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (Eds.). (2012). English-medium instruction at universities: Global challenges. Multilingual matters.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a lingua franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford University Press.
  • Jenkins, J. (2013). English as a lingua franca in the international university: The politics of academic English language policy. Routledge.
  • McNamara, T. (2014). 30 Years on—Evolution or Revolution?. Language Assessment Quarterly11(2), 226-232.

See the online recording of the lecture here.


“English as a lingua franca: Fetishism and critique” by Dr John O’Regan

This post was contributed by Alexandra Shaitan, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalAs part of the ongoing events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck, Dr John O’Regan was invited to give a talk on “English as a lingua franca: fetishism and critique.” Dr. O’Regan is Senior Lecturer in Languages in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is an alumnus of Birkbeck, where he graduated with an MA Applied Linguistics in 1994. It was a great opportunity for the students to get familiarized with Dr O’Regan’s research related to English as a lingua franca (ELF) and hear his arguments. The lecture was very interesting and generated a variety of diverse questions from the audience. As O’Brien admitted during the Q&A session, the study stirred a controversy among the academics in the field, where, at times, he was labeled a ‘Marxist’.

In this blog, I will attempt to present O’Brien’s (2014) study to make his arguments clear for my peers and the audience who is interested in the ‘ELF’ movement. I will thus refer to the actual study to provide the readers with the evidence from the article.

Dr O’Regan presented his recently published article in the journal of Applied Linguistics (2014) “English as a Lingua Franca: An immanent critique.” In his article he debunks the ELF movement from the perspectives of Marxism, globalization theory and postructuralism by means of an imminent critique. The main argument of the article is that the ELF movement is ideologically conservative, is inconsistent in its arguments and is lacking in theorization (O’Regan 2014: 2).

Furthermore, in this article both the theory of ‘ELF’ and the historical context for the claims of the ELF movement are closely examined with the purpose of showing not only how ‘ELF’, as presented by the ELF movement, is theoretically inadequate to its own concept but also how by allowing the social conditions of the historical context, that is globalized neoliberal capitalism, to ‘invade the inner logic’ of ELF theory, makes it possible to highlight several lacunae and problems within the ELF movement’s theorization of English in a globalized world (O’Regan 2014: 3).

Why is the immanent critique then? The author employs the immanent critique as a type of close reading whose purpose is to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions issuing from the self-representations of an object of knowledge. It may take the form of a textual as well as philosophical argument, an ideology, a theoretical concept, a discourse, an individual text, or a combination of these.

By placing under the scrutiny the discourse and the texts of the ELF movement, the articles underscores that the ELF movement is inconsistent and misleading in the claims that it often falls into contradiction. Additionally, by utilizing the concept of ‘lingua franca fetishism’, the study highlights how ‘ELF’ can be conceived as a type of ‘false consciousness’ to which the ELF movement adheres for it claims.

Moreover, O’Regan masterfully debunks the myth of the ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself, meaning that users of English-of whatever stripe-in multicultural settings become speakers or users of an hypostasized ‘ELF’, one which projects ‘ELF’ into material existence, often by means of a noun phrase (p. 4). According to O’Regan,hypostatization…is a form of reification in which abstract concepts are artificially concretized and made real. The author thus clearly demonstrates that ‘ELF’ cannot be treated as a solid or systematized thing-in-itself.

As a rationale for using the immanent critique, the study utilizes Marxist and Foucauldian theoretical perspectives in highlighting the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the ELF project” (O’Regan 2014: 4). In particular, the thinking of Marx related to the nature of the commodity under capitalism. According to Marx, commodity is “the form of appearance’, it is the visible thing which appears to our senses…and the content which is distinguishable from it and obscured, i.e. making it ‘products of labor’ (p.128).  Thus, it exists as a ‘thing’ even as it obscures the social relations which produced it. Additionally, Marx refers to the commodity as being one off fetishism in which the physical commodity exists as a mystification of the real social relations which produced it, and from being the product of a definite social relation, the commodity becomes simply a ‘thing’ to be bought and sold (p. 165).

According to O’Regan (2014: 7), ‘ELF’, like the commodity, is a mysterious thing…here and yet not here, fluid and yet congealed, normative and yet hybrid – appears to exist in some reified and yet simultaneously liminal space in the circulation of Englishes in the world. The author further claims, rather than in its real form as Englishes of various kinds in contact, ‘ELF’ appears instead as an irreal and especial hypostasized form, or in Marx’s words – in the fetishism of English as a lingua franca the linguistic pragmatic interactions of speakers of different first languages assume the nature of a fantastic relation between speakers of an hypostasized universal code. The author makes a fundamental distinction between commodity fetishism and what he labels the lingua franca fetishism of the ELF movement is that where the commodity is a real entity in a fantastic relation with other commodities, the obverse is true of ‘ELF’, which is only artificially made real through the hypostatization of an abstraction. In a concluding remark, the author demonstrates that, “ the hypostatization and fetishism of ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself thus constitutes the irreal mystification, or projection, of a real content which is obscured, and so in classical Marxist sense maybe said to designate a ‘false consciousness’ or ‘abstract objectivism’ in relation of the circulation of Englishes in the world” (p. 8).

A very important point highlighted by O’Regan is related to the access to social, cultural, linguistic and economic capital, which plays a decisive role in determining where users of ELF are located on the cline (p. 16).

From a diachronic historico-social perspective, the ELF movement neglects the history and reality of capitalism – and more recently -neoliberalism – and the unequal manner in which it allocated economic and linguistic resources across social classes, and gendered and racial groups, within nations and within the world-system (p. 16).


Marx, K. 1976/1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. Penguin.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. English as a lingua franca: An immanent critique. Applied Linguistics; doi: 10.1093/applin/amt045. First published online: January 15, 2014.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. Intercultural communication and the possibility of English as a lingua franca. In Holmes, P. and F. Dervin (eds.).  The cultural and intercultural dimensions of English as a lingua franca. Clevedon: Channel View Publications. (Forthcoming)

You can view a recording of the lecture online.


“A multilingual approach to analysing test results and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community” by Gessica De Angelis

This post was contributed by Agnès Marchessou, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalDr Gessica De Angelis’ seminar was the second in a series of talks being hosted by Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, as part of its 50th Anniversary celebration. It gave us the opportunity to hear from one of the great alumni contributors to the field. De Angelis obtained her PhD at Birkbeck in 2002 with Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele as supervisor. She worked at the University of Toronto, the University of Bolzano and is currently Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin.

One of the most inspiring aspects of De Angelis’ research is the fact that it has sociopolitical implications, well beyond the field of Applied Linguistics. By presenting a critical overview of standardised tests, De Angelis exposes the language barriers to an equal education, with ramifications at policy-making level.

The research presented takes place in the province of South Tyrol (Northern Italy), a multilingual region where three languages coexist within the community: German (the largest population), Italian and Ladin (the Dolomites’ dialect). De Angelis took us through the traumatic and complex history of the region, torn apart by neighbouring nations. Of particular interest was the signing in 1972 of Article 19, the statute which gave the right to education in any of the three local languages, and introduced three separate monolingual school boards. By stipulating that teachers had to be of the same mother-tongue as their students, it actually made bilingual education illegal.

De Angelis presented two pieces of research in this complex sociolinguistic context.

The first study (De Angelis 2012; De Angelis and Jessner, 2012) looked at the relation between school performance and the language spoken in the community (population distribution), with speakers of Italian L1, German L2 and English L3. Written national evaluations undertaken by 14 year old students were used as data. The results showed a typical association between L2 exposure and proficiency, but most importantly, the research demonstrated that it was the absence rather than the presence of Italian L1 in the community that made the difference, by increasing proficiency in L2 German. In other words, a context with a majority of L1 German speakers gave the L1 Italian group more opportunities to communicate with them and therefore improved their L2 proficiency in the language of ‘the other’. This in turn had an effect on L3 competence, given that high proficiency in German L2 was found to have a positive effect on English L3.

The second study (De Angelis 2014) focused on the language proficiency of immigrant children attending Italian schools in Italian and German-speaking areas. National school test results on seven year olds were compared at a national and local level. Unexpectedly, in the case of South Tyrol, both 1st and 2nd generation immigrants underperformed to a similar extent, when it would typically be expected that 2nd generation immigrants would outperform 1st generation ones (as shown in national results). When reassessing the data in view of the language spoken in the community, 2nd generation immigrants actually also outperformed 1st generation ones in German speaking areas (where opportunities to practice Italian within the community are limited).

Consequently a multilingual approach can prove beneficial for the accurate reading of test results within specific local linguistic contexts. The misinterpretation of such results can have heavy financial repercussions for the use of (often limited) resources in education. Standardised tests also have important social implications (McNamara & Roever, 2006), therefore raising concerns about their interpretation may assist in addressing inequalities (in education for instance). I have found such insights into the language conflicts of South Tyrol most valuable, as my current research is taking me to another European border region, Alsace.

De Angelis, G. (2014) A multilingual approach to analysing standardized test results: immigrant primary school children and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community. Intercultural Education, 25 (1), 14-28.

De Angelis, G. (2012) The effect of population distribution on L1 and L2 acquisition: evidence from the multilingual region of South Tyrol. International Journal of Multilingualism, 9 (4), 407-422.

De Angelis, G. and Jessner, U. (2012) Writing across languages in a bilingual context: A dynamic systems theory approach. In R. M. Manchòn (Ed.) L2 Writing Development: multiple perspectives. Trends in Applied Linguistics Series. Mouton de Gruyter. 47-68.

McNamara, T. F. and Roever, C. (2006). Language testing: The social dimension. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

See the full recording of the talk here.