Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914

This post was contributed by Dr Louise Hide, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

In July 1905, a young draper’s assistant from south-east London was admitted to Bexley Asylum. Gertrude L. was 25 and this was her third admission into a lunatic asylum.

Initially, she was described as ‘strange and irrational in manner’. But by January 1906, she was corresponding with her friends on the outside. One letter that was copied and left in her case file provides an intriguing insight into asylum life from the patient’s point of view:

in this so called asylum … you are … treated like the worst form of cattle … We work all the hours God sends without proper nourishment or a proper bed … our hours of work are from 8 in the morn to 20 or 30 minutes past 7 in the evening … and you never see the colour of a copper coin.

From the 1960s to the late ‘80s, Marxist and feminist scholars set out to disabuse Whiggish historians of the notion that the understanding and treatment of mental illness had followed an uninterrupted upward trajectory called ‘progress’ from the late 18th century. As a result of this work, we know a great deal about why and how people were admitted to asylums, but far less about what actually happened to them once the ward door had been shut and the key turned.

What was life like inside these vast ‘monster’ institutions? And how were relationships between doctors, nurses and attendants, and patients constructed by shifting ideas around masculinity and femininity?

Book coverMy book, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914, sets out to answer these questions through a detailed analysis primarily of asylum case notes, committee minutes and annual reports. I have focused on two institutions, Claybury and Bexley. Each was built for 2,000 patients by the newly formed London County Council and opened in 1893 and 1898 respectively.

The turn of the century was an important moment in asylum history. Late Victorian psychiatry was experiencing a ‘clinical turn’ away from the old prison-like asylums towards the new mental hospitals, from the ‘lunatic’ to the mental patient, the attendant to the nurse. That, at least, was the idea even though the reality took some time to catch up.

Location is important, too. London had far higher lunacy rates than any other part of the country. Why?

Migration into the city was one reason. Lack of space and desperate poverty was another; families were simply unable to look after members who could not contribute to the household budget. But there was another reason, too: the abhorrent notion of degeneracy, which claimed that physical, mental and moral ‘defects’ (criminality, prostitution etc.) were passed on from one generation to another, creating an increasingly ‘unfit’ population. And this hereditary ‘taint’ was believed to be particularly prevalent in large, overcrowded urban areas, such as London.

Indeed, degeneracy theory fed directly into eugenics, making the early 20th century one of the darkest periods of psychiatric history.

My book looks at the impact of some of the overarching ideologies that were circulating at the time – degeneracy, feminism, socialism, science and the medicalisation of madness – on people in the asylum.

General hospitals had a powerful influence on the faltering discipline of psychiatry. Gradually, a new generation of well-qualified and scientifically-minded physicians, including a handful of women, started to take up asylum posts. Nurses began to receive formal training and gain recognised qualifications. And, perhaps most controversially, female nurses were moved into male wards shaking up these men-only bastions.

As a result, the highly gendered male doctor/female nurse binary was reinforced, marginalising many male attendants and reducing some to little more than nursing auxiliaries.

To return to Gertrude L., the patient experience is an important part of the book. During a period when virtually every aspect of asylum life was intended to act as ‘treatment’, I endeavour to reveal the effects on patients of the admission process, drugs, seclusion and restraint, the ward environment, work and amusements.

Why, for example, were the ‘rougher’ women put to work in the laundry? How were ward interiors designed in order to distract patients from their dark and troubling thoughts? In what way was food rationed according to a patient’s sex? And what were the consequences of forcing pauper patients to wear communal clothes?

There was, of course, no single patient experience. However, my book does, I hope, provide greater insights into how wider social and medical discourses influenced the lives of men and women living and working inside London’s late Victorian asylums at the most quotidian levels.

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Cultural Policies in East Asia: Dynamics between the State, Arts and Creative Industries

This post was contributed by Dr Lorraine Lim, Lecturer in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Book coverThe past 10-15 years have seen interest in arts and cultural products from East Asia in Europe steadily increasing. Regular screenings of Japanese Anime films such as Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli are no longer confined to the art-house circuit and it would probably be difficult to find someone who has not heard or seen the Korean pop song Gangnam Style by Psy. Artists such as Yayoi Kusuma have had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern recently and both modern and historical Chinese art have been showcased at the Barbican Centre and the British Museum.

There is no doubt that the growth in technology has allowed many more people to access myriad arts and cultural products from East Asia. After all, the music video for Gangnam Style became the first video to reach a billion views on YouTube. With Japanese anime, bilingual fans on internet communities provide translation services for free to allow non-native Japanese speakers to watch or read the latest manga and anime. However, can the growth in visibility and interest of arts and culture from East Asia be linked to technology alone?

My book Cultural Policies in East Asia: Dynamics between the State, Arts and Creative Industries (written with Dr Hye-Kyung Lee) attempts to shed some light on how arts and culture in East Asia have developed in the recent past through looking at various government cultural policies to determine what has led to the various arts and cultural products that most of us in Europe are familiar with today.

The countries covered in the book: China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan while occupying a geographical diverse space, share many common historical and cultural features which allow for interesting comparisons. A common history of colonisation, for example, has resulted in cultural policies where governments in Singapore and Taiwan have used arts and culture to create or nurture common national identities. Culturally, it has been argued that these countries possess strong Confucianist traits such as a respect for authority and a belief in success through hard work. These cultural traits have led to the support of arts and culture that is built on strong state intervention. Countries such as China and South Korea are two such examples where artists are in constant negotiation with the government. While many of the countries in the book examine the problems that can occur when the state intervenes too closely with arts and culture, Japan provides an interesting counterpoint where decades of a ‘hands-off’ approach is now being questioned by the arts and cultural community.

A historical look at the development of arts and culture in these countries provide a snapshot of the current state of arts and cultural development in the region. At the moment, the continued economic growth of these countries in East Asia (and Asia in general) have led to a corresponding increase in their political power and a desire to make a mark on the global cultural landscape. The governments in these countries are investing more money into supporting arts and culture as they recognise the potential impact arts and culture can have in the world. By examining the support for the creative industries through online games, the film industry and the development of creative clusters, the book offers a look at where the future lies for arts and culture in East Asia.

One thing is for sure; in the near future it will be highly likely that the next big pop song or movie will come from East Asia!

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Critical Work Placements

This post was contributed by Dr Sophie Hope, Lecturer in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Critical_Work_Placements_logoToday, students and graduates are expected to be nurturing their entrepreneurial selves; moulding themselves into the brand that will appeal to prospective clients or employers. Students are often pressured by tutors and peers to carry out extra-curricula voluntary activities to help improve their ‘employability’. Universities are taking their responsibility in producing work-ready students more and more seriously by revamping careers advice, embedding work placements and offering recruitment services. The purpose and nature of university education is changing.

The situation in the creative industries

In the creative industries and arts sectors, employers offering regular or permanent jobs are few and far between, rather, students embark on a flexible, freelance, portfolio career which in reality involves a lack of separation between work and non-work, no pension, no sick-pay or other employment rights. Because the work is supposedly creative and you are ‘doing what you love’, you are expected to express gratitude and enthusiasm for the ‘opportunity’ to be entering into such a career path. A love of and commitment to the work is often used as an excuse for little or no pay. Within the context of academic study, ‘employability’ is often approached uncritically and in a vacuum, disconnected from the theory, history and politics of the changing realities of work. This is happening in a context where enquiring minds are supposedly being nurtured. Critical, independent thinking practiced in the university and efficient project management and communication skills expected in the job market have a difficult, contradictory relationship. Welcome to the world of credited work placements.

The fragmented career structures of graduates together with this disconnect between employability and critical thinking advocated by the academy were both triggers for my colleague Lorraine Lim and I to think about how work and education intersected in a university context.

Unequal access to work placements

Through our research, which led to the Critical Work Placements resource, we found that employability is a luxury not all students can afford. Indeed, students undertaking placements tend to be a self-selected group who are motivated, engaged and in the case of self-organised placements, are also expected to be confidently networked so as to know who to contact and how. Our research aimed to explore what a ‘serious, ethical, substantive academic’ period of work experience might look like for students, tutors and employers in the arts, and if this is at all possible. The resulting ethical tripartite agreement, developed with students, hosts and tutors, is a practical toolkit of flow diagrams and recommendations for students, host organisations and placement tutors working in higher education.

The case studies we looked at demonstrated a spectrum of approaches, from students self-organising their own placements to tutors working with partner organisations to ‘marry’ students to specific projects. The reasons for this range of approaches depended on the learning objectives of the course and resources available to the tutors to act as brokers and ‘relationship managers’ between hosts and students. While this diverse range of approaches is necessary because of the specifics of each course, it was pointed out that some support for those students who are not networked or confident in approaching potential hosts should be supported by the tutor, although it is recognised that this has resource implications for the department. Based on our review of existing literature, we found that well informed students and courses that explicitly connect the concepts, theories and realities of employability through practical experience and academic, critical reflection are perhaps a way forward.

There is increasing pressure from both students and managers in higher education to provide credited work placements, but the realities of placing students in organisations to carry out a specific project related to their academic learning is becoming more difficult. While there are some funded programmes supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access placements, those students who do not qualify for this support but cannot afford to take up unpaid work placements continue to be at a disadvantage. The sector remains distinctly un-diverse. Placements are often reliant on the goodwill of people in those organisations who decide to invest their precious time and resources to provide necessary support to the student. Similarly, well-run credited placement programmes involve significant work-load for tutors and unless a university can provide the necessary paid staff-time to support students, running such programmes might be detrimental to their reputation and sustainability.

Writing about the proliferation of credited work placements in the US, Ross Perlin writes that “universities are falling over themselves to outsource their students’ education and lend credibility to illegal employment practices”. He provides examples of credited placements which involve envelope stuffing and leafleting. In the development of the Critical Work Placements website we took the position that students carrying out work that is far removed from their academic experience should be paid. Where students are paying to carry out work experience through university fees, the payoff has to be a rigorous, critical, reflexive, well-supported learning experience. It was recognised that placement students are not workers and that the placement is part of a broader, formal learning process, the outcomes of which will depend on what skills and learning the student wants to get out of it in relation to the course they are studying. The need to strike this practice/academic balance is central to the debate over credited work placements. This resource aims to provide a framework for that debate which students, hosts and tutors are invited to engage in.

Further reading:

  • Equality Challenge Unit. 2010. Work Placements in the Arts and Cultural Sector: Diversity, Equality and Access. London: Equality Challenge Unit/ Institute for Policy Studies London Met.
  • Perlin, R. 2011. Intern Nation. How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. London: Verso.
  • Yorke, M. 2003. Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. London: Higher Education Academy.
  • Barrow, R., Behr, C., Deacy, S., McHardy, F. and Tempest, K., 2010. “Embedding Employability into a Classics Curriculum: The Classical Civilisation Bachelor of Arts Programme at Roehampton University.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 9, p. 339-352.
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Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Politicians can be forgiven for not having much time to read the fine print when asking advisers to translate research findings into workable policies. Or does it work the other way round? Do politicians decide on policies first and subsequently ask advisers for appropriate research findings to back up the policy?  This seems the case when considering the wide consensus across the world about the benefits of early introduction of foreign languages (FLs) in pupils’ school curriculum. The expression “younger is better” in education sounds perfectly plausible, is simple and convincing, and must be a vote winner.

In the UK, FLs used to be introduced in secondary education. Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education, changed this policy in 2002, scrapping compulsory modern FLs for 14- to 16-year-olds, and introducing them in primary schools. She claimed in 2006 that: “Starting at a much younger age is the best way of making sure we get more pupils taking exams and, more importantly, more of them enjoying and feeling confident about speaking a language other than their own”.

In other countries, FL teaching has even been introduced in nursery schools.  There seems to be a universal consensus among politicians that an early start in FLs will lead to a smoother, quasi-effortless learning process leading to high levels of proficiency in the FLs. Is this a myth?!

Spanish Class

Counter-intuitively, research suggests that adolescents and adults progress more quickly than children when learning FLs in a school context (so-called “instructed FL learning”). Many researchers have serious doubts about age of onset being the most important variable in successful FL learning. Indeed, research shows quite clearly that starting age is only one of many independent variables in very complex question.

A crucial distinction exists between so-called naturalistic and instructed FL learning.  Research on naturalistic learners, typically immigrants, shows that younger children are indeed more likely to become undistinguishable from native speakers of the FL compared to their parents and older siblings. However, the picture is not so clear in research on instructed FL learning, a crucial distinction that is commonly overlooked.

A large-scale study in Barcelona has shown that no differences existed among 30 year-olds who had started learning English at school early (age 8) and those who started later (age 11). However, the amount of input in the FL played an important role: those who had studied English for longer, had used the language more frequently in and out of school outperformed those who had had less input.

Another study found no advantages of an early start among Swiss learners of English even after a five years of instruction. The writing skills of late starters caught up with those of the early starters within six months.  One possible explanation is that older learners have greater metalinguistic, metacognitive and strategic skills.

This does not mean that there are no age effects at all in learning and later use of the FLs.  Indeed, younger children seem to be more motivated in learning FLs. In my own research on language choice and self-perceived proficiency among more than 1500 adult bi- and multilinguals, I found that early starters in a FL felt more proficient in speaking, comprehending, reading and writing their FLs. They were also more likely to choose the FL for the expression of anger and feelings, for inner speech and mental calculation.  Interestingly, the effect of mode of instruction was even stronger than age of onset: participants who had acquired the FL naturalistically or in mixed mode (formal instruction combined with authentic use) outperformed participants who had learned the FL through classroom instruction only.

In their excellent overview of the literature on age and the teaching of FLs, Lambelet and Berthele (2014) point out that more research is needed on improving age-appropriate teaching techniques in order to boost motivation levels and metalinguistic awareness of FL learners of all ages. Moreover, extra thought needs to be given to the primary school teachers who are suddenly expected to teach a FL and who may lack in confidence and competence. In other words, those arguing for an early introduction of FLs at school need to take the nuanced research findings into account and avoid promising miracles.

At what age did you start learning a foreign language? How do you think this affected your fluency and confidence in the language? Please leave your comments below.

 

Further reading

  • Dewaele, J. M. (2009). Age effects on self-perceived communicative competence and language choice among adult multilinguals. Eurosla Yearbook, 9, 245–268.
  • Enever, J. (2011). ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe. London: British Council.
  • Lambelet, A. & Berthele, R. (2014). Âge et apprentissage des langues à l’école. Revue de literature. Fribourg: Research Centre on Multilingualism.
  • Pfenninger, S. (in press).The literacy factor in the optimal age debate: a 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
  • Muñoz, C. (2011). Input and long-term effects of starting age in foreign language learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49, 113–133.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

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