My experience at Birkbeck as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor and its impact on my research

This post was contributed by Professor Michel Rosenfeld, a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Birkbeck’s School of Law

As my semester at Birkbeck is all too soon about to come to a close, I briefly pause to take stock on how my experience has added up to a rich, rewarding and unique contribution in furtherance of my research. I have greatly benefited from exchanges with faculty and students at Birkbeck as well as at other UK universities where I made various presentations as part of my Leverhulme obligations.

For many years, my research has focused on how pluralist societies that are divided along religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural lines can live together in an institutional setting and under laws that they could all genuinely accept as legitimate. In the past, I have conducted separate inquiries within my various fields of expertise, namely legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, and American and comparative constitutional law, on the other. My work has always been interdisciplinary and comparative and I have elaborated a normative pluralist perspective that I have named “comprehensive pluralism”. In the past, I have explored the latter’s implications for each  of my separate fields of inquiry, and more recently, in conjunction with my Leverhulme award and my coming to Birkbeck, I have concentrated on integrating and harmonizing the insights and the learning that I had gathered from my separate areas of inquiry.

Three subjects present particularly difficult challenges to any attempt to balance unity and respect for a plurality of viewpoints and basic commitments within a constitutional democracy. The first of these is the handling of crises that threaten the physical or psychological well-being of the citizenry, such as in the case of global or international terrorism. The second subject is religion, particularly in view of its revival, re-politicization, the growth of fundamentalism, and diversification primarily through migration, which have been prevalent in the last few decades.  This has led to various clashes between secularism and religion as well as among diverse religions, and has raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of constitutional secularism which has long been deemed an essential prerequisite to the success of the modern democratic state. Finally, the third subject is the broad question of justice within a pluralist constitutional society in which people disagree over what the good life consists in and over what political society should require from, and provide to, each of its members.

I have had a chance to explore all of these subjects in my various Leverhulme interventions, starting with my Leverhulme lecture I at Birkbeck on October 31, 2014 on “Constitutionalism, Globalisation and Ethno-religious conflict” in which I addressed all three of the above subjects. At a faculty legal philosophy workshop at King’s College I focused on the subject of justice, and presented a paper entitled “Is Justice All-Encompassing or Subject to Moral Override?” in which I explore the role of justice in pluralist societies where there is wide disagreement about moral values and what should count as the good for all. At the University of Glasgow, I co-taught with Professor Adam Tomkins of that university an advanced seminar class that focused on comparing how the UK and the US have handled the international terrorist threat through legislation and judicial intervention. I addressed the constitutional problems posed by the increased politicization of religion at a faculty workshop at Westminster University where I had a political theorist, Professor Chantal Mouffe, as my principal interlocutor. A few days later, I had a further discussion of the new challenges posed by religion in front of a diverse, interdisciplinary audience at a Public Law Discussion Group meeting at the Oxford University Law School. Finally, in what has thus far proven the most enriching and rewarding experience in terms of my current research projects, on December 5, 2014, a full day workshop was held at Birkbeck in which eight scholars, including Professors Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schutz from Birkbeck, and various scholars from other UK universities and from France and Italy, provided invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions on my paper entitled “Constitutional Theology?” in which I provide a very preliminary analysis of a major issue that I intend to make the subject of a book project:  in the context of the daunting new challenges posed by the revival of religion and post-modern critiques, should modern constitutionalism rooted in the Enlightenment be reconceived as elaborating a theology of its own–albeit one that does not appeal to the transcendent or the metaphysical–or as that which remains distinct from all theology and that may be reframed so as to preserve a its capacity to mediate among competing religious and non-religious ideologies?

I look forward to my last official intervention of this extraordinary semester that I have spent at Birkbeck, the Leverhulme II Lecture on “Post-Secular Constitutionalism“, which will take place on Friday 12 December 2014. In that lecture, I will address certain aspects of some of the subjects mentioned above, and in particular how secularism might best fare in view of the various religious and post-modern challenges it has encountered in the past couple decades. Would secularism fare better in the future by remaining firmly anchored in the institutional framework established by the constitution? Or would it be better off by being recast as one ideology among the many that are deserving of constitutional recognition and protection?

[Note: interested parties can still register for this free public lecture 6:00 – 8:30pm 12 December via Eventbrite]

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The World Prison Brief: database of global imprisonment levels

This post was contributed by Roy Walmsley, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies’ world-renowned World Prison Brief. In November ICPS was merged with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

iStock_000012313253XLargeThe aim of the World Prison Brief (WPB) is to enable more well-informed discussion about appropriate levels of imprisonment and about issues such as the use of imprisonment for women, the use of pre-trial imprisonment and the problems of prison overcrowding; and to contribute to the making of sound evidence-based decisions by all who are endeavouring to improve prison systems worldwide.

The WPB was launched in September 2000. It contributes to the knowledge base on the use of imprisonment by giving details of prison population levels in over 220 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the variations in practice in different countries, regions and continents and makes it possible to estimate the world prison population total (over 10 million). It also gives information on the proportion of pre-trial, female, juvenile and foreign prisoners in the total, as well as on the official capacity of each prison system and its occupancy rate, thus indicating the level of overcrowding. Recent trends in prison population levels are also shown.

The information comes from a variety of sources, principally the national prison administration, the Ministry responsible for the prison administration or the national statistical office. So these are official figures and they are obtained from publications by these bodies (including annual reports and data on official websites), direct communication with contacts in the prison administrations, responses of these bodies to international surveys etc. Sometimes information comes via a third party (e.g. an international body or a non-governmental organisation) and such material is used when the source is established as reliable and the data consistent with what is already known about prison population levels in the country concerned. Information is collected on an ongoing basis and the website is updated monthly with data obtained during the previous month.

It is essential that the information should be as reliable as possible. This is of course dependent first of all on the reliability of the data published by the official bodies in the countries concerned. In practice the main difficulty encountered – apart from the fact that so many countries do not publish prison population numbers, or do so only rarely – is incompleteness of data. This can result, for example, from the omission in some countries of figures for a part of their country that is separately administered and in other countries the omission of data on persons whose pre-trial detention occurs in police facilities instead of prisons. When this is known to be occurring the WPB draws attention to it alongside the official figures.

Ensuring the reliability of data also depends on validating it carefully. Newspaper reports quite often quote a prison department or Ministry official giving a figure that is obviously wrong. All new figures are compared with data previously recorded in order to minimise the chances of mistaken information appearing in the WPB.

The WPB is the only source of comparative data on prison systems worldwide and is regularly quoted in briefings by Governments, by inter-governmental bodies such as the OHCHR, UNESCO and OECD, by NGOs and pressure groups, in academic articles and journals and in the media.

Academics use  the data in the WPB to explore policies that lead to higher or lower rates of imprisonment  issue, and politicians, NGOs and think tanks use the data in arguments against the introduction of policies that will lead to a higher rate of imprisonment relative to comparable countries.

That the WPB is considered relevant in prison policy-making circles around the world is evident from the fact that the comparative figures appear in prison administration annual reports in many countries. There is widespread sensitivity to the ranking position in which a country is shown to be, particularly in comparison with its nearer neighbours.

Sometimes it is clear that national policy is quite directly being influenced; governments occasionally send up-to-date figures so as to demonstrate that their situation has improved – numbers have come down – since the figure that the WPB was showing. One government has developed a project to introduce reforms that are designed, in the words of their published report, ‘to eliminate their country from the 50 that are leading in terms of prison population’.

The WPB has, therefore, affected the discourse on the use of imprisonment among governments, academics, NGOs and think tanks. The ability to compare a country’s prison population level with that of its neighbours, the rest of its continent and the rest of the world has caused administrations to think more deeply about their own use of imprisonment.

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Harnessing emotions in the foreign language classroom

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

“Putain putain, c’est vachement bien, nous sommes quand même tous des Européens” (“Fuck, fuck, it’s really good, aren’t we all Europeans after all?”) was the chorus from an outrageous and hilarious French-Dutch-English song by the Belgian artist Arno that all (adult) students of the Advanced French class were belting out, heading towards the door at 9pm on a Friday in Brussels in the late 1980s. As their teacher, I was quite amazed by the level of enthusiasm that the song had generated: a perfect ending for an evening class. I will never forget what happened next. As I pulled the door open wide with a theatrical bow, the school director, who must have been leaning against the door listening to the racket inside, fell flat on the floor, got up blushing, and congratulated me meekly for a good classroom atmosphere and mumbled something about the appropriateness of the song.  Students burst out laughing, and headed home singing and yelling. (Arno has produced more melodious songs such as “Les filles du bord de mer”, and the striking English song “Oh la la la” as singer in the Flemish group TC Matic. He was born in Ostend, has a strong Western Flemish accent in Dutch, and sings in equally accented French and English.)

This little episode from the first year of my teaching career is a nice illustration of the concept of “flow” (in that case rather “overflow”). Flow is the mental state of operation when people perform an activity in which they are so fully immersed and involved, with such focus and enjoyment, that they forget everything around them.  When members of a group reach a state of flow they experience spontaneous joy and it strengthens bonds with other group members. It is described as the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

The point I want to make is that learners’ emotions are like wild horses (or at least, ponies).  Learners can, with a little dexterity, and with a little help from teachers, harness the power of their emotions to absorb more of the foreign language and the culture.

Happy-studentsOne of the main problems of foreign language (FL) teaching is that the emotional component is too often ignored, resulting in relatively emotion-free (and therefore often boring) classroom sessions.  It is undoubtedly easier for curriculum designers and teachers to focus on rigid learning activities that require little emotional investment and therefore little potential for unpredictability, outbursts, surprise, risk-taking, embarrassment, anxiety … and enjoyment.

In fact, it is my strong belief that by trying to play it safe, curriculum designers and teachers got the wrong end of the stick. Teachers need the liberty to do unexpected, challenging and funny things. Routine is a killer in the classroom.

There is no doubt that teachers play a central role in establishing a positive learning environment.  The progress of the learner is linked to the chemistry that develops between the learner, the other members of the group, and the teacher. Pertinent and appealing subject matters combined with non-threatening techniques create a positive language learning experience, support and promote group solidarity, boost motivation and lower levels of FL anxiety in the classroom.

Gregersen and MacIntyre, inspired by the Positive Psychology movement, explain that negative emotions are not always bad, as they can help learners to eliminate an obstacle but they can be paralysing. Positive emotions on the other hand “can broaden the field of attention and build resources for the future” and help learners “to build relationships, personal strength, and tolerances for the moments when things become difficult”.

In a recent study with the Canadian psychologist Peter MacIntyre, we considered the relationship between FL Enjoyment (FLE) and FL Classroom Anxiety (FLCA) among 1,746 FL learners from around the world. We found that both dimensions were negatively correlated, but that the amount of shared variance was relatively small. In other words, learners reporting higher levels FLE experienced less FLCA, although some did score high, or low, on both dimensions. To our relief, we discovered that levels of FLE were significantly higher than those of FLCA. The difference between levels of FLE and FLCA was relatively small for beginning learners, but widened for more advanced learners. In other words, as learners progress, their FL anxiety weakens and their enjoyment grows.  It is thus crucial not to give up FL classes too early.  Interestingly, female participants (who scored significantly higher on self-reported proficiency in the FL) reported both significantly more FLE and more FLCA. It thus seems that emotions (both positive and negative) are the driving force behind FL learning. “Putain putain, c’est vachement bien”, if you forgive my French.

Further reading:

  • Arnold, J. (2011). Attention to affect in language learning. Anglistik. International Journal of English Studies, 22, 11-22.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
  • Dewaele, J.-M. (2011). Reflections on the emotional and psychological aspects of foreign language learning and use. Anglistik. International Journal of English Studies, 22, 23-42.
  • Dewaele, J.-M., & MacIntyre, P.D. (2014). The two faces of Janus? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4, 237-274. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.2.5
  • Gregersen, T., & MacIntyre, P.D. (2014). Capitalizing on Individual Differences: From Premise to Practice. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

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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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