Director Series, Fellowships & Networks, Interviews, Languages & Literature
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Interview with Professor Catherine Davies

We talk to the director of the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) about her desire for the institute to take the lead in putting modern languages high on the government’s agenda and the importance of modern languages research in multilingual, globalised world dominated by conflict, miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Professor Catherine Davies, a champion of modern languages research, gained her PhD at the University of Glasgow in 1984 and has since taught at the universities of St Andrews, Manchester and Queen Mary. Her research interests include gender and nationalism in Cuba and Spain, particularly the formation and transmission of liberal thought in 19th-century Spanish and Spanish American literature and cultural history. She has written a number of books including on abolitionism in Cuba and co-wrote South American Independence: Gender, Politics, Text, the first book to address gender in the history of the Wars of Independence. Professor Davies was appointed director of IMLR in August 2014.

What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Modern Languages Research?
There is no typical day. Most of my time is spent doing three things: reading and responding to documents (committee papers, reports, CVs, other people’s research, grant applications, PhDs, reviews and so on); meeting people (in groups or one-to-one), and answering emails. What I don’t get much time to do is: to think (other than during walks or in bed), or to write (other than on holidays). By ‘write’ I mean writing something substantial and in-depth, not just blogging or putting together mission statements, strategies and the like. What I enjoy most is helping young colleagues who are starting out.

You joined SAS from the University of Nottingham; how does the life of an academic there compare to SAS.
My life in Nottingham was quite different and in many ways tougher. I was head of a large School of Modern Languages and Cultures with more than 100 staff and almost 2,000 students. Most of my time was devoted to matters concerning teaching, REF (Research Excellence Framework), and staffing. My current post does not involve undergraduate teaching or REF. But I do miss teaching, as students always keep you on your toes and are endlessly interesting. This new post is challenging in a different way as it forces me to work outside my academic comfort zone and meet people in all walks of life.   

Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
I would really like the IMLR to make an important contribution to putting Modern Languages high on the government’s agenda, so that the UK government takes education and research in modern languages as seriously as education and research in physics and mathematics. I sincerely hope the IMLR can take a leading role in this respect, because this is what we are funded to do. Colleagues in universities are swamped by teaching, research and bureaucracy and have little time or energy to devote to these big national questions. This is where the IMLR can and should take the lead.

What was your own experience of being a student like?
I was extremely privileged. All my education was provided by the state: an excellent primary school, a grammar school and university, all for free. In fact I was given a local authority grant and travel allowance to go to university. The sad thing is that I never realised how fortunate I was; I naively believed this was how it would always be. So university for me was absolute liberation – it was a space to think and act differently. Money was irrelevant. I was at Essex University and involved in all kinds of weird societies. The best was the Flat Earth Society. But I never bathed nude in the lake.

What’s the focus of you current research?
I am involved in two large projects. The first, now coming to an end, explores the role women played in the Spanish American Wars of Independence, the civil wars of the 1810s and 1820s that brought the Spanish Empire to an end (bar Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines). Nobody had looked at this when we started in 2001 but today it is a hot topic. The other is around the abolitionist movement in mid-nineteenth century Spain. Slavery in Cuba was not abolished until 1886 – mainly due to Cuban and Catalan vested interests. The Spanish liberal governments of the 1870s tried repeatedly to abolish slavery and have hardly been credited for their efforts.

Why do you think modern languages research remains relevant today?
How can it not be relevant in a multilingual, globalised world dominated by conflict, miscommunication and misunderstanding? Do we want to know about peoples and societies that speak languages other than English? Of course we do, and we must. We can only fully communicate with others if we put ourselves in their position, understand them, and see the world from their perspective. A modern language (unlike an ancient language) is any language currently in use. Modern languages research is at the centre of conflict resolution and mutual understanding across the globe. There is so much more to be done.

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