University of Birmingham makes splash at Hay

Some of the top researchers and experts from the University of Birmingham’s College of Arts and Law took to the stage to lead talks and debates showcasing their research areas at this year’s Hay Festival.

Dr Henriette van der Blom, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History delivered a presentation on 'The art of political rhetoric: antiquity and today’ where she explored how the study of ancient rhetoric contributes to current debates about political communication. 

Henriette van der Blom

Dr Ruth Gilligan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and bestselling author who has published four novels, including most recently Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan (2016) which was inspired by the little-known history of the Irish-Jewish community, delivered a session titled ‘Storytelling about ‘Other’ Cultures’.

Ruth Gilligan spoke about why fostering an understanding of cultures different to our own has become increasingly important in today’s multicultural world. One powerful way to achieve this is by using storytelling to break down barriers and develop ‘radical empathy’. She used the example of her successful project in partnership with Narrative 4 where three Birmingham schools  sent  15 students to Limerick, Ireland in November 2018 for three days to work with 15 local students from Limerick; here, they took part in creative writing workshops, cultural excursions and, most importantly, a ‘story exchange’.

We joined Ruth at Hay to find out about her experience of speaking there and the reception she received from the public. Sustainability Director at Hay Festival, Andy Fryers, also spoke to us about the value to the festival that academics bring (video, right).

Professor Henry Chapman, Professor of Archaeology tackled the subject of ‘Climate Change and Wetlands Archaeology’. Henry Chapman's talk looked at the relationships between human activity and environmental change within past landscapes. His current research is focussed on transforming the management of wetland, peatland and waterlogged sites by changing the practice of relevant organisations, including Historic England, and a wide range of archaeological providers and interested stakeholders.

Henry Chapman

Professor Michaela Mahlberg, Chair of Corpus Linguistics at the University of Birmingham and Dr Anna Cermakova from the Department of English Language and Linguistics delivered their joint presentation on 'Heroes, Heroines and Gender Inequality in Children’s Fiction'.

Based on their work with large collections of texts, Michaela Mahlberg and Anna Cermakova explored fiction from Dickens to modern children’s books to demonstrate how repeated language patterns reflect a gendered view of society. 

Michaela Mahlberg said: “Fiction is an important space for children to make sense of the world and Hay is a perfect opportunity to speak to a diverse audience about implicit gender norms and the way in which literature can shape children’s developing views of the world. This is not just an opportunity to share my research, but also to engage with the people who experience literature."

Michaela Mahlberg

The final contribution at Hay from the University of Birmingham was from Dr Fariha Shaikh who delivered a presentation titled 'Nineteenth-Century Emigration in British Literature and Art.' Fariha Shaikh used the session to explain the relationships in the nineteenth century between genre, form and globalisation by exploring the links between text and mobility in the context of nineteenth-century settler emigration. 

Fariha Shaikh

All of the speakers felt that the audiences had responded positively to their presentations. Fariha Shaikh commented 'The event was wonderfully organised, and I found the audience to be both engaged and thoughtful throughout the talk itself and in the Q&A session afterwards'. 

The academics also saw opportunities to develop their research in new directions following audience feedback. Henry Chapman said, 'Accessing a different audience like this is always beneficial in terms of raising awareness, identifying other avenues for potential impact that I’d not considered, and providing new lines of potential enquiry'.

The thirty-second Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts took place from Thursday 23 May to Sunday 2 June 2019.

The Festival brings together life-changing writers, fabulous stars of stage and screen, pioneers of science and technology, and future world leaders, for a party of ideas and stories.


Text, images and video from Victoria Beddoes, Matt Clulee, William Fallows, Hasan Patel, and Hannah Twist