August 14, 2017, by Rob Ounsworth

Professor James Moran: why cultures are enriched by writing and performance

Professor James Moran on his role as lead of the University of Nottingham’s Cultures and Communication Global Research Theme.

You lead the Cultures and Communication Global Research Theme (GRT) at Nottingham. What does this entail?
Here at the University of Nottingham, we have a truly world-class group of researchers who are working on issues related to cultures and communication. My role is to coordinate and administer research in this area, allowing Nottingham to continue being a leader in cutting-edge research that speaks to the real-world concerns of our partner organisations across the public, private, and third sector. For example, one of our interdisciplinary teams is focusing upon understanding British identities, a focus that is of compelling interest at a time of Brexit. Another of our teams is focused on health and wellbeing, something that again has urgent implications for policymakers, healthcare providers, and the public. Our clusters of researchers are therefore able to offer an agile response to some of the most pressing questions that we face, both nationally and internationally.

How does your work fit within the Cultures and Communication GRT?
‘Culture’ and ‘communication’ concern me a great deal because much of my own research focuses on the way that different groups (whether ethnic, national, or social) have worked to express their identity through writing and through performance. That research involves me working closely with scholars from varied methodological backgrounds, as well as with external partners such as the BBC and the National Theatre, so the interdisciplinary nature of the GRT dovetails neatly with my own approach.

Can you explain what your research is about?
My research is into modern Anglophone literature and theatre. So I reevaluate the work of famous writers such as DH Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, and WB Yeats, and I also spend time recovering the writings of less well-known figures such as Kate O’Brien. In general terms, I find out more about the cultural, political, and social contexts of such writings.

What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
Well, I began to study literature and theatre because I found it deeply pleasurable. For me, one of the real privileges of this career is that it allows me to read and discuss the kinds of material that I’d want to be reading, regardless of my line of work. In addition, literary study is an invitation to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes, and I’m motivated by the idea that this helps us better to understand different communities and societies.

How will your research affect the average person?
There is certainly a stereotype – promulgated perhaps most grotesquely by Jonathan Swift – of academics being entirely removed from everyday concerns. Yet our research does affect the broader public sphere. If I look at my diary for last week, I spent quite a lot of time in the rarefied archives of the British Library. But then I joined a Sunday-morning discussion about culture on BBC Radio. Next, Brendan Walsh, a book-review editor at a national magazine, asked for a short piece on my holiday reading. Then I worked with Musharraf Hussain, who is producing a new translation of the Quran and who wanted some advice on making the text accessible to a modern audience. And then I went to Hall Park Academy in Eastwood, along with my brilliant colleague Andrew Harrison, to lead a workshop for year-nine students about the work of DH Lawrence.

So you see, research in the arts and humanities is the bedrock of an extremely rich cultural ecosystem. Each year the UK’s ‘literature sector’ is worth something like £2 billion, and publishing sales are worth another £4 billion. London’s theatres generate £2 billion for the UK economy, and cultural industries such as television, film and radio are vital sources of economic growth and ‘soft power’. All depend on university research to inform and refresh their output. Our research clusters, lecture halls, and libraries are essentially the R&D labs for such products.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Pass. I tend to be wary of ‘greatest moments’, because the academic career is a varied one, with many ups and downs, and perhaps the only sensible way to survive it is not to get too carried away by the successes and not to be too demoralized by the failures and follies.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?
Go and talk to the key researchers in the field as early as possible. It can help you to figure out where the cutting-edge interventions might be made, plug you into the right networks, and help sharpen your ideas. I remain profoundly grateful to so many generous and inspiring mentors who guided me in the early days of my own research career.

What’s the biggest challenge facing researchers in your field?
I think sometimes the biggest problem is one of perception. Certain government ministers do love to show off the research of universities by posing with complicated machinery or expensive scientific equipment. There’s a danger that those of us who don’t work directly with such impressive bits of kit do tend to look like we aren’t part of the major thrust of the university mission. Of course, that impression is entirely misleading. University research really is a communal enterprise. We are analysing where we have come from and how we might face the challenges of today and tomorrow, and this requires the input of researchers from across the disciplines, as well as partnerships outside the academy. My colleague Louise Mullany, for example, works in sociolinguistics and is leading some fantastically innovative research with businesses, analysing how to communicate most effectively. After all, what is the point of developing something like low-carbon technology if you fail to communicate and convince people that it is needed?

How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?
I’ve long appreciated the fact that Nottingham University provides the space for individual scholarship to thrive, but also encourages collaboration between colleagues from across disciplines. Some of the most vexing research questions are increasingly going to require us to develop our work in multidisciplinary teams, which is why initiatives like the GRT are so important.

James Moran is Professor of Modern English Literature and Drama in the School of English. He holds an MA and PhD from the University of Cambridge, and has been working at Nottingham since 2004. He has been a Philip Leverhulme prizewinner; a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow; and, since 2010, the presenter of a monthly book review on BBC Radio Nottingham.

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