Out and About: Adventures Off-Campus – The English Association’s ‘English: Shared Futures’ Conference at Newcastle

This month I attended the English Association’s ‘English: Shared Futures’, held in Newcastle 5-7 July 2017.  It was the first of its kind: a version of the U.S. ‘super-conference’, with over 500 delegates and 150 panels over the three days (and, sadly, no lunch break).

Based at Leicester University, the association was established in 1906 with its aim being to further ‘knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the English language and its literatures, as well as to foster good practice in its teaching and learning at all levels’.

Several associations such as University English, National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), the Institute of English Studies and the HEA worked alongside the English Association to organise the three-day event.

What was fantastic about the conference was that it brought different aspects of English, all together, under one roof. Not only this but it was also enjoyably inclusive in corralling together those whose practise is in schools, universities as well as in the third sector. All this meant that one was able to mingle with those who you might never meet — the continuum of specialisms within ‘English’ was well represented with discussions between school teachers and those inheriting their students.

There were several strands running through the conference: literature, language and creative writing, and each of these had subject specific panels running over the three days. Their were also good opportunities to be had for Early Career Researchers and PhDs. These included the implementation of a mentoring scheme in which I had the good fortune to participate, HEA fellowship workshops, sessions on the REF and discussions on the future of English Studies. There was also a particularly good strand on pedagogical matters  – issues surrounding the new A-Level, transitions between FE and HE, teaching practices, as well as work done in the third sector regarding literacy and engagement with English literature, language, and culture more generally.

Beyond this there were more subject-specific papers ranging from Shakespeare, Anglo-Saxon literatures, genre, the digital humanities, scientific literacy and cultural awareness, as well as public linguistics and impact. 

For me, as a tutor in Applied Linguistics, the stand-out event of the conference was the plenary given by Professor Deborah Cameron (Oxford) who spoke about ‘Language and the Problem of Female Authority’. Anyone interested in language and gender, its impact on culture and our everyday lives, Deborah Cameron is a well-known figure. At the Newcastle event, she spoke about the problem of (or more accurately ‘with’) female authority.  Building on her work from her 2007 book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really speak Different Languages? Cameron discussed examples of the myths that surround the linguistic behaviours of men and women: women apologise too much, women are less confident than men in speech, or women talk more than men. In the category of non-verbal language, it seems women don’t do so well either: women use too many head tilts in conversation, women don’t interrupt enough, smile too often and inappropriately, and women take up less physical space. The  list goes on….

Armed with data and amusing quips, Cameron took us on a whirlwind tour of her research into what she essentially sees as a problem of culture, rather than that of nature. One of the most entertaining examples she offered her audience revolved around one of her recent blog posts (Cameron blogs at Language: A Feminist Guide) on the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s commercial branch, called RADA in Business. The commercial arm of the theatre school  offers various (expensive) courses such as presentation skills, personal impact and a strand aimed solely at women (‘Confidence and Presence for Women’, Impact and Influence for Women’ and ‘Executive Presence for Women’). Cameron picked apart the flawed logic in RADA’s assumptions about new graduates heading for their first jobs: that while female graduates obviously need confidence building fresh out of university, male graduates ‘are not thought to have the same skills deficit’ and naturally posses the right skills to enter employment nirvana.

Cameron‘s talk problematised the notion of the so-called ‘difference approach’ to the linguistic behaviours of men and women – promulgated in the 1990s by writers such as Deborah Tannen (You Just Don’t Understand Me: Men and Women in Conversation) and John Gray (Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus). In a fashion, the claims made about gender differences in men and women’s linguistic styles  –  seen as the root of all miscommunication between the sexes – are bogus, according to Cameron.

Indeed, she argued that, in light of later research, not only do they not stand up to scrutiny but they are also the other side of the ‘deficit approach’ coin: in that they almost always end up favouring the suggestion that women should behave more like men.

Thus Cameron’s talk asked a central question: if the deficit model of linguistic behaviour – proffered by early linguists such as Otto Jesperson, and most famously in the 1970s by Robin Lakoff in her work Language and Women’s Place – has been rejected by later (more methodologically rigorous) linguists, then why is it still so popular with the popular press and popular culture? The problem lies, she suggests (and this may not be new to some) with ‘female authority’.

The talk then went on to give an overview of the media coverage of the latest general election and the figure of Theresa May as an example of this problem (one might also add in Hillary Rodham Clinton and Julia Gillard for other examples of the treatment of female leaders across the globe). After her rigorous plenary, I even had  the chance to get my book signed by her and solicit tips for teaching on the subject!

Of course Cameron was not the only speaker there and the conference treated us to some fantastic panels, provided a good chance to discuss issues with colleagues from across the UK and to meet publishers (and buy books….).

A highly successful conference, and a good resource for the discipline, the English Association’s president, Adrian Barlow, assured me that the next conference (to be a bi-annual event) will be bigger, better and brighter.

I can’t wait.