October 25, 2012, by Rosamund Aubrey

Launch of the Centre for Advanced Studies

CAS, the Centre for Advanced Studies, was relaunched last week in its new home, Highfield House; our visitors were wreathed in smiles and the sun shone, well, for two days out of three.  Sally Bowden had the unenviable task of putting in place the three days of events and Friday evening must have been a time of celebration for her with a two or three glasses of wine, or four or … .  She may well be at a loss at what to do now after this challenge.

The events drew visitors from the Arts, Social Sciences and further afield.  All admired the cloisters, the new part of Highfield House, a design which enabled visitors to wander around a quad.  I wondered how the cloisters would ‘work’, but it proved to be successful concept, more versatile than a large open space.  There were display cases of books written by UoN academics; the Turning Pages kiosk which displays highlights from the Manuscript Collection, including the Woollaton Antiphon with music,  and lots of vertical spaces for posters.  All in all a great display of Arts and Social Science research.  And the events?  A really interesting and varied programme.

Public and civic engagement.  Two archaeologists, Will Bowden and Jon Henderson and experienced blogger and political scientist Phil Cowley, shared their experience of working with the media.  Phil’s research has been quoted by prime ministers and MPs, and is widely used as by journalists and broadcasters, providing accurate statistical information, and historical context.  His website about revolting back bench MPs, Revolts, is the ‘definitive source for academic analysis of backbench behaviour in Britain’.  Phil had a robust response to academics who protest ‘why should I use the media, nobody is interested in my research.’  ‘If absolutely nobody is interested in your research, why are you doing it?’

Will, whose dig at Caistor was featured on Time Team, emphasised the need to learn how to handle the media, but how you can be taken by surprise.  An academic paper, published in an obscure American journal about an aerial photo of a building shaped like a spaceship, was picked up by Live Science.  The report was grabbed by the international media, even the Daily Mail, which published a photo of three people standing in a dig shaped like a set square, rather an the aerial photo. Will also said that getting on television impresses your mum.

Jon actively pitches ideas to producers and realises the benefits of working with the BBC, you have far more control even if you don’t see the final version until it’s broadcast.  Pavlopetri, City Beneath the Waves was broadcast last year on BBC2 and he has made a documentary on the Vikings which will also be on BBC2.  The benefit of a press release is that the media have got the facts, so they’ve got no excuse for making things up, although that didn’t stop a radio interviewer introducing Jon as having found Atlantis.

All agreed that using the media meant their research reached in some cases millions of people rather than the few hundred who read academic journals.

Christina Lee, Health Humanities Network gave a fascinating insight into mortality and disability in the medieval period and posed the question.  There is evidence from burials that disabled children were cherished in their lifetimes, but was this true across classes and in times of economic depression?  In some burial sites all skeletons show signs of disease, but there is no temporal or geographical mapping of sites as yet – more research needed!

Julian Henderson has an ambitious and fascinating project on the Silk Road, the overland trade route to and from China and Europe. The research programme will investigate the movement and interaction between genetically characterised ancient and modern people, crops, spices and chickens and 9th-14th century glass and glazed pottery.  The Silk Road was a multiplicity of routes, which included Ningbo, but the research will focus on specific locations, either because there is archaeological evidence that they were cosmopolitan centres with international communities and/or that they formed centres for international trade.

Collective memory, identities and communities. Why do we memorialise negative events?  The Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda are both a memorial to the victims and a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity, but why are we are going to celebrate the centenary of WW1 in 2014?  Not all memories are negative though, hospitality and food are celebratory. Our memories are fallible, ever changing, and collective memories are time dependent.  Published records (memories) of European wars of the first decades of the 19th century, were markedly different to those of the latter part of the century when other conflicts had changed perceptions of earlier ones.  In our own century social media both memorialises young people who commit suicide, but the memoralisation is a public space.  Consequently the memory of the person becomes a collective memory of a type, rather than of an individual.

And we had music, composed for the launch by Alex Kolassa, a PhD Composition student.  The short piece for clarinet and flute will be available soon on the CAS website.  This is how Alex describes the genesis of the piece.  The title of the piece, a million random digits,  comes from the book,  ‘A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates’. The book is massive collection of random numbers and was important in the study of statistics, providing a basis for many of the randomising algorithms found around the world today. The piece uses these numbers in various ways, applying them to the composition of pitch, rhythm and dynamics. This may all sound very cold and calculated, but the real message of the piece is one of composer agency and how one can creatively interpret, musically, all this random data.

Laurie Taylor gave the launch a rousing finale.  A digression on his psychology degree at Birbeck; I’m sure getting his rat drunk was not part of Skinner’s experimental design.  Noam Chomsky demolishing Skinner’s theory of reinforcement with a funny book review – who knew sheeps could be so powerful.  And a challenge to social scientists who study those below, but don’t look up to those above.  Research on those below enables those above to manage those below more effectively.  His own research showed that relationships formed at school, (Eton), were stronger than those formed at university or in a profession; a finding supported by the Social Mobility report from the Sutton Trust.  He skillfully wove the anecdotes with the serious.

Laurie finished by urging academics to contact him about their research for his Radio 4 programme, Thinking Allowed.  Who would want to forego the opportunity to talk for twelve minutes about their research with a knowledgeable and interested interviewer.

But why, oh why, didn’t I ask a question.  What has happened to Maureen, the departmental secretary for the Department of Culture & Media Studies?

Rosamund Aubrey (Research & Business Development Officer, Social Sciences – Centre for Advanced Studies)

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