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Faculty of Arts & Humanities Blog



6 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to London from a Rural Area

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 29 May 2023

UCL student Catrin Manning shares 6 things you need to know before moving to London coming from the UK countryside.

So you did it! You moved to the big smoke. You might find it different to your old life in the countryside, so here are some must-knows before embarking on your new big adventure!

  1. Set a budget (and stick to it!)

One of the most important tasks you should do when moving to London as a student is set your budget. London can be an expensive city, especially when you’re used to living in the countryside. Calculate how much you can spend each week, and stick to it!

  1. Student discounts

Ahh student life. That means one thing; student discounts galore! Be sure to sign up to Unidays or Student Beans to get some serious savings on your spending. There are so many discounts to be had, everything from discounts on your favourite brands to 2 for 1 drinks. You can even get a student discount on the Tube! (Just be sure to link your railcard to your oyster card).

  1. How to Save on Food Shopping

Shopping in discount supermarkets such as Aldi or Lidl can be a lot cheaper than the big brands, and can save you some serious cash. Shopping around the end of the day can also save you some money since supermarkets tend to reduce their prices around this time. Some supermarkets, such as Morrisons also offer a 10% discount for students.

  1. Join a Club or Society

Student life doesn’t last forever, so make the most of it! Joining a club or society is a great way to try out a new activity and make new friends at the same time. It’s a win win! Be sure to attend the welcome fair at the start of term. It’ll give you the opportunity to talk with students from different clubs and societies, as well as find out about the various services UCL has to offer, such as UCL Careers or Mental Health services.

  1. Making Friends within your studies

Going to your first class can be daunting, but don’t be afraid to talk to people, especially in Arts and Humanities where most class sizes are small. Everyone there will be in the same boat, and will be glad if someone else makes the first contact. Your classes will seem much less scary if there are friendly faces waiting for you! Take some time to explore the many study spots around campus together, or create a study group. This might help you fill any gaps in your knowledge, to help you improve your grades.

  1. Get Out There and Explore the city

This one may seem obvious, but so many students don’t realise just how much there is right on their doorstep. Coming from a rural area, you might not be used to the idea of having so much to do, so close to home. Get out of the house and see what’s around. Take a trip up to Hampstead Heath, or challenge your new friends to a round of mini golf at Junkyard in Shoreditch. If your Instagram is all about food pics, then take advantage of all the weird and wonderful food places all across the city. Try Dans le Noir for a dining experience in the dark, or Beigel Bake for the best salt beef bagels in town. Temple of Seitan is a great place for all you vegans!

How to make your UG firm and insurance on UCAS

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 25 April 2023

UCL student Joseph Hurley shares their advice making your undergraduate firm and insurance on UCAS.

Hey, welcome to the world of university applications! I’m Joe, and if you’re like me, then you’re probably in that awkward stage of choosing between uni offers.

You may have already started to think about what factors to consider when making choices for your firm and insurance university. As someone who has applied to universities via UCAS in the 2021-2022 cycle, I can say that choosing both your firm and insurance on UCAS is a difficult decision- so this blog will hopefully give you advice about the things I considered to choose my first and second-choice universities.

Unlike myself, since the pandemic has (more or less) blown over, visiting universities during open days has become possible for prospective students, and is easily one of the best ways to choose between offers. This can give you a sense of the vibe at a university or the city it’s located in, as well as giving you the opportunity to meet current students/staff. Whether you’re interested in learning more about your course content or concerned about accommodation, an open day will be able to iron out any doubts a prospective student may have. Even when I “went” to virtual open days for my chosen unis last year, I found it really helpful to learn about things like the style of teaching and the specific pros of going to one university over another.

The other most important factor to consider is the difference between the grade requirements of your firm and insurance university. I think this varies a lot depending on how confident you feel about the predicted grades you submitted in your application in comparison to the strictness of the offer you receive. As a general rule of thumb, I’d make sure that whichever university you choose as your insurance, you choose one that has requirements that are just one or two grades lower than your firm university’s requirements- unless you prefer a university with lower requirements. This should give you enough room for error on results day (in the unlikely case that exams don’t go as planned) if you miss the requirements for your firm offer.

I applied to universities including UCL, Exeter, Bath and Surrey to study Philosophy and Spanish during my A-Levels. I firmed UCL after visiting it in person because the busy atmosphere on campus and the architecture appealed a lot to me, then I chose Exeter as my insurance because its requirements were slightly lower (I needed grades AAA for UCL and AAB for Exeter). This isn’t to say I didn’t like Exeter though, it also appealed to me a lot as a social and student-friendly city where plenty of students were out enjoying the nightlife.

I hope this helps reduce any stress about choosing between universities! If you’re still in doubt, you can always ask your friends/family/teachers as well as doing your own research.

Best of luck!

Top 10 Study Spots in London

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 6 February 2023

UCL student Hasret Altun shares their top 10 study spots in London.

1. UCL Student Centre
The Student Centre has many floors which are great for different things! You can social study on most floors, and there are quiet study rooms that you can pre-book. Most of these rooms offer PC Desks or Study Pods. There are plenty of plugs and great wifi. This spot is open 24/7, so you can study whenever! Conveniently, the basement floor of this building has prayer and meditation facilities. There is also a cafeteria on level 3 with an awesome variety of food, a water refill station, and a microwave!

2. UCL Main Library
The UCL library is great if you want to study quietly with a spacious desk, plugs, and free wifi. The library is sectioned based on departments, which is inspirational. You can pre-book seats or find an empty seat which is usually available.

3. The British Library
This location offers free wifi and plugs. However, it can be difficult to find space, so going early is ideal. Nevertheless, if you register on the ground floor you can access the reading rooms which are emptier and for quiet studying. This also means that you can borrow items!

4. Your Local Library
This is a great option if you don’t want to travel far and want to support your community. Most public libraries offer free wifi and are perfect for quiet studying. You can check your local library on GOV.UK.

5. Dillons Coffee, Waterstones
If you prefer to be somewhere other than a library this cafe is great! There is plenty of seating, plugs, and discounted refreshments (with a Waterstones student card).

6. Paper and cup
This is a not-for-profit Cafe and bookstore, with inexpensive books and menu items. This low-key cafe tends to be quiet and has plenty of seating, so it is great for both social and quieter studying. The wifi is free and speedy!

7. Costa Coffee St Pancras
This spot is great if you like to study early morning or late at night. It is open 24 hours a day and has free wifi, plugs, and a satisfying menu. I would recommend this spot for group studying, but if you are going super early or late it is suitable for quieter studying!

8. Hyde Park
It can be calming to study in nature during the summer! Hyde Park is great for both social studying and quieter studying as it is usually not loud in certain areas. Nevertheless, there is no wifi, charging facilities, or seating. So be prepared!

9. Starbucks
Starbucks can be easily found anywhere, so it is a great option if you are on the go. Most Starbucks offer free wifi and have charging facilities. This spot is great for group projects and group studying in general.

10. The Terrace Knightsbridge
This floral cafe has many seating options. The soft lighting is great while studying and there is an amazing menu. However, this spot does not offer free wifi and can be loud, so it is an option for social studying

5 Top Tips to Help You Prepare for a University Interview

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 23 January 2023

UCL student Gabija Barkute shares their top 5 tips to help prepare for a university interview.

University interviews can be very daunting, but a little bit of preparation goes a very long way; if not to improve the scope of your answers, to make you feel more confident and at ease about the process. How, then, do you best prepare for a university interview? No need to panic!

Here my 5 top tips to help guide you in the preparation process:

  1. Don’t try to learn anything and everything: be strategic. Admissions tutors do not expect you to be an expert already; there would be little point in you applying for the course if this were the case! That said, you would not be making a great first impression if you had no recollection of a particular book you mentioned in your Personal Statement. For that reason, it would make sense to dedicate more time to researching the topics mentioned in your Personal Statement and less time to scoping out other important aspects of your subject (say, for a languages degree, getting a very general picture of Spanish Literature and its main movements/authors).
  2. Spend time reviewing your Personal Statement again and underline everything that could lend to further questions, allowing you to anticipate possible questions and think about how you would approach answering them. It is worth asking somebody without any subject knowledge to do this as well, as their questions are likely to differ from yours!
  3. Dedicate time to practising thinking critically. Critical thinking is at the heart of many humanities degrees, so admissions tutors often look out for students who can go beyond merely regurgitating information. When completing further reading, take the time to reflect on the arguments posed by the writer. Do you agree with all the ideas, or are there any gaps? Do these ideas contradict those of other writers?
  4. Stay up-to-date with your subject in the news. Many university lecturers also undertake academic research alongside teaching, and their research helps to shape the course that a specific university offers. In this way, keeping up with your subject in the news will give you insight into the main issues and debates in your field and how current events affect these.
  5. Try your best to stay calm. The fact you have gotten to the interview stage demonstrates that you are a strong candidate for the course. Remaining calm, confident, and collected will allow you to give more coherent responses and think about what is actually being asked.

I hope that you have found these tips useful; we all wish you the best of luck!

Championing LGBTQ+ Inclusion

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 28 September 2022

Photo of Mie Jensen

Mie Astrup Jensen (PhD Candidate in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Hebrew & Jewish Studies) was shortlisted for the Championing LGBTQ+ Inclusion UCL 2022 Inclusion Award. Mie was nominated for her work on Queer Pedagogy and departmental initiatives on LGBTQ+ inclusion. Mie shares with us her journey in developing inclusive classrooms and learning.

My EDI work focuses on pedagogical conversations, training, and changes. I’m very interested in classroom pedagogy, learning material, and inclusive language, which is evident in my projects.

I am Dr Cathy Elliott’s research assistant on a small-grants funded project on queer pedagogy. I have done extensive research on queer pedagogy, and conducted, transcribed, and analysed 25 qualitative interviews with students in Arts and Social Sciences on queer pedagogy and gender and sexuality inclusion in higher education. The interviews covered teaching and engagement with gender and sexuality topics, learning experiences, campus experiences, and support for students.

It was clear that Arts & Social Science departments approach gender and sexuality differently, which had led to very different learning experiences. Many students noted that much can be done to make their educational experiences more trans and non-binary inclusive, and that their engagement with sexuality has tended to focus on heterosexual and homosexual identities rather than being attentive to bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and demisexual identities. Nevertheless, and importantly, the majority of students feel safe to express their gender identity and sexual identity at UCL.

The project brings forth numerous recommendations for improving educational experiences. As a result, UCL’s Arena has requested to use the findings for staff training. This includes discussing ways to incorporate more gender and sexuality material into the learning material, ways to make material more inclusive and representative, and equipping staff with resources so that they sufficiently support LGBTQ+ students. Cathy and I will publish our report to UCL, and are writing an academic article on queer pedagogy too.

As a member of SELCS-CMII’s EDI committee and HJS’s Athena Swan/EDI Committee, I have worked on HJS’s Athena Swan application, and organised and facilitated, with the assistance of an EDI grant, a seminar series for students, staff, and the public with international experts discussing gender, sexuality, and Jewishness. I have conducted an EDI review of the MA Gender, Society, and Representation programme, which I am a PGTA on, with Dr Alex Hyde, and have consulted on multiple LGBTQ+ Inclusion initiatives.

If you are interested in finding out more about the exciting projects Mie is working on, please contact Mie on mie.jensen.20@ucl.ac.uk

Doctoral Summer School in the Environmental Humanities

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 31 August 2022

Serena Pei shares her experiences in the Doctoral Summer School in the Environmental Humanities.

The first edition of the UCL-CIVIS summer school Environmental Humanities: Climate, World Literature, and Behavioural Change took place in Rome on 13-17 June 2022. The project originated from a partnership between Sapienza University of Rome, Stockholm University and Université Libre de Bruxelles, in collaboration with University College London. This year’s edition was jointly curated by Professor Stefan Helgesson (Stockholm), Professor Franca Bellarsi (Brussels), Professor Iolanda Plescia (Rome) and Professor Florian Mussgnug (UCL).

My Comparative Literature PhD research project is on Daoism, Romanticism and Environmental Humanities so when I first heard about this summer school from our departmental Graduate Tutor, I was excited and determined to join it.

Before we met in Rome, we took some preparatory online activities on 19 and 20 May 2022, which was very helpful. Each activity allowed us to become more and more familiar with each other’s research areas, which enabled opportunities for insightful discussions later on. More importantly, throughout the summer school, the lead professor on each day gave an introductory talk so students could grasp the general idea of what we were going to explore on that day. I remember Professor Florian Mussgnug remarkably put forward the following notion on Ecology as culture and culture as ecology: “[the] realization that culture is relational and therefore mutable as it is determined by the dynamic interaction of humans with each other and the environment; and an understanding that ecology is increasingly anthropogenic as it is determined by the ideas, customs and behaviours of humans and how they interact with the environment”. This opened up a new appreciation of the relationship between ecology and culture for us students.

I arrived in Rome one day before classes started and was immediately attracted and touched by the city’s unique atmosphere. For me, Rome is an ideal place to learn about nature and ecology. The interaction between the city’s history of thousands of years and its modernization can be vividly illustrated by the various entanglements between human and the ‘more-than-human’ world from the ecological perspective.

13 June, Monday

After students’ presentations, we explored the topic of Environmental Humanities and Politics – Perspectives from Literary Studies and Philosophy with Professor Mussgnug, which was followed by Professor Rebecca Ruth Falkoff’s talk on Autarkic Skies: Nitrogen Capture and Atmospheric Imperialism in Fascist Italy. Following this, Professor Simone Pollo from Sapienza University gave a wonderful talk on the subject of Darwinian Civilization: Science, Philosophy and Democratic Progress, from which we gained an interdisciplinary insight of science and the humanities through the lens of modern ecological issues.

14 June, Tuesday

We looked deeply into the genre of ‘eco-poetics and eco-poetry’ with Professor Bellarsi through three main themes: From Dark Ecology to Environmental Elegy and Prophecy, Deep Environmental Circulations, and From Dark Ecology to Ecospirit and/or Ecocomposing. Professor Bellarsi’s insightful lecture on eco-poetry indeed enlightened me hugely on the notion of ‘eco-poetics’ and the sense of ‘entanglement’ within the idea of modern ecology. The most fascinating moment in my mind from her talk is her philosophical illustration linking neuroscience and Zen Buddhism: “Thinking through the body and breathing through the mind” — this concept really struck me!

15 June, Wednesday

Our discussion focused on Looking at language and working with texts ‘ecologically’ with Professor Plescia, and our first session was on Early Modernity and Environmental Concerns: ‘Green’ Shakespeare. After a short coffee break, Professor Daniela Francesca Virdis from the University of Cagliari gave an inspiring lecture on Ecological stylistics: Theoretical approaches to discourses of nature, the environment and sustainability. We investigated several very interesting linguistic aspects in detail, which was my first experience of linking linguistics and environmental humanities.

In the afternoon, we were involved in a group workshop Attempting Eco-Translation: Virginia Woolf’s Flush in conversation with Professor Mussgnug. This was for me one of the most unforgettable moments from the summer school: we were sorted into different groups according to our own native languages, translating the same paragraph from the novel into different languages, such as French, German, Italian, Swedish, Greek and Chinese. I was very moved by this vivid scenario, a lively sense of global network and friendship.

16 June, Thursday

We were engaged in a deep discussion on Thinking the planetary age from the global South with Professor Helgesson, especially on the notion of ‘the wet’ and ‘the dry’ in the global South, as well as the Temporalities of the Anthropocene. This was followed by a seminar discussion with Professor Helgesson and Professor Mussgnug about different ecological themes in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age.

17 June, Friday

After student presentations and feedback, we attended a very exciting talk on The Vanishing Partisan Woman: an Anthropcenic Exploration with Professor Shaul Bassi from Ca’ Foscari University. This lecture covered a wide range of research fields from Greek mythology to modern ecological theories, such as Donna Haraway’s tentacular thinking – a fascinating interdisciplinary exploration, as well as intercultural investigation.

I was truly inspired by this summer school experience and it has broadened my horizons, changing my previously limited, dualistic view of the relationship between the human and ‘more-than-human’ world and will certainly influence my future research.

Celebrating International Yoga Day

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 6 June 2022

We come from different departments (UCL Research, Innovation & Global Engagement, UCL South Asia Regional Network and the UCL Arts and Sciences) to celebrate International Yoga Day. This blog brings you perspectives of lived experience, living through yoga, and a scientific account of the positive effects of ‘pranayama’, or yogic breathwork. Our aim is to open evidence for how practicing yoga works, and encourage a deeper understanding, to stimulate wider practice.

Katherine Liddell (MASc Creative Health) and yogi

Katherine Liddell (MASc Creative Health) and yogi

Katherine Liddell (MASc Creative Health student, yogi):

This is HAPPENING. Yoga is HAPPENING. Yoga is always in the background, offering constant, non-judgmental support. It’s been happening for several thousand years – first written about in the Upanishads and the Vedic texts that underpin sister traditions of Ayurveda and yogic philosophy. It is a free knowledge exchange: available for anyone who wants to partake, whenever they want to, starting from where they are. It doesn’t require knowledge, experience, or bendiness. It asks you to leave your ego at the door and sit on your mat and allow the experience of a practice to carry you away into internal exploration and focus during your stay. From 20 minutes to 3 hours, it’s what you can give, no more no less, no questions.

I have been practicing for decades but I still can’t stand on my hands away from the wall. Well, I can, for a limited amount of time, but the older I get the more fear of falling I have. Which is kind of a metaphor for my life too. But yoga has always supported me, since I found her (I will call yoga ‘her’ as, for me she typifies my existence of my feminine goddess form: outwardly I am seen to be one thing but internally, I have many qualities, unshared with the world, kept for me, but who make me the person I am). Yoga has made me strong, meditation and breathwork has partnered with her to bring a roundedness to my practice. For me, sometimes yoga invokes Kali, the goddess of death and transformation. She is fierce and strong, but compassionate and love also. Death is not the end, but a transformation, a reincarnation. Kali is the essence of Freedom and pushes boundaries, reminds me to calm my mind and focus.

The point for me to practice yoga is to calm the ‘chitta vritta’ – the monkey mind. By focusing on the breath during a yoga practice we are able to calm the chatter of the mind and be present, in the moment. Calm the mind, calm the breath. Calm the breath, calm the mind. In the Vedas, Patanjali defined yoga through the Sutras: if you can be in the moment, then you are in yoga.

We could consider the mind to be the chatter that constantly invades our thoughts. And our intellect is fact. What we know to be true, the rest, the chatter is just that: noise. If we aim to bring our breath to our consciousness whilst on the mat, we can calm the chatter and the intellect for just a moment. But a moment that will feed our wellbeing, our essence and return us to our spiritual self.

As with many things that have existed for centuries, many people want to OWN it, say it was they who first discovered x, y or z. Does it matter? If in the longer term, there is spill-over and others benefit exponentially? Western science would say they discovered certain health benefits from meditation and mindfulness as a modern phenomenon. Religions of all colours have practiced meditation and mindfulness for centuries: being self-aware, humble, accepting. Where we actively listen to others and try to be the best version of ourselves. Does it need to be ‘owned’ by some noun when historically, the knowledge has been shared freely. We don’t need to appropriate other cultures, but accept that Others can teach us, sometimes more than we already know, and honour and be grateful for that knowledge. In Western culture we have striven for evidence-based research: Ayurveda and yoga have known the intangible value of yoga, which is why it has lasted. It is written, evidenced, if you want to look. Passed down through the centuries. Perhaps it is a time when we can recognise the goodness that other cultures bring to the table.

Tori Bate (MASc Creative Health) and Yogi

Tori Bate (MASc Creative Health student, yogi):

‘Pranayama’ is an overarching name for multiple breathwork practices. ‘Ayurveda’ translates from Sanskrit to ‘the knowledge of health’ (1). Yoga disciplines have derived from ancient Vedic texts that aim to bring about physical, mental and emotional health. Here, yoga shall be used to encompass both asana (postural) and pranayama (breathwork). We examine the impact and efficacy of pranayama practices.

One study found Bhastrika Pranayama (translated as ‘breathing practice’) had a 1.3% increase in VO2Max (Maximum Oxygen Consumption) over a six-week Bhastrika Pranayama intervention where p= 0.05 (1). Plotting pre-post low-frequency heartrate variability, a tendency toward a normalisation state in both naive and experienced cohorts yoga practitioners (2). Normalisation implies yoga asana and pranayama can promote homeostasis of the cardiovascular system.

Pranayama-based studies (3)(4) have shown statistically significant decreases within cardiovascular measures, with greater improvement seen within slow-pranayama exercises. Research highlights yoga’s therapeutic qualities and low expense with recommendations to introduce pranayama as a blood-pressure management technique within the medical profession. A yoga-lifestyle based intervention saw a reduction in blood glucose in both sexes whilst lipid profiles significantly improved only within females (5). Fast pranayama significantly improves cognitive performance over slower technique. An increase across all Audio and Visual Reaction Times (ART) were seen with statistical significance within ART and VRT-Red where p<0.05, and VRT-Green at p<0.01 (6). Studying the practice of chanting. Ramamoorthy et al. (2020) evaluated the effect of Sudharshan Kriya Pranayama (Ujjayi, Bhastrika and chanting). Results showed favourable oral and gut health with 1/3 improvement in microbiome (7). One study illustrated experienced practitioners had preferential levels of anxiety, fatigue and tension with HRV also showing significantly higher autonomic variability, vagal tone and ability to recover from mental arithmetic stress (8). One study showed those engaged in mindful walking were 53.1% less Depressed than the control group when using the BDI (9). Blood sample analysis demonstrated an increase in neuroplasticity and psychosomatic communication biomarkers post 12 weeks, CI=95% (10).

As my friend says, if you don’t bring something to the table, what’s the point? No matter how small or insignificant, bringing yourself to the mat is committing to a better you, a better version of yourself, a calmer, stronger, healthier, person. How wonderful.


1. Bal BS, Kaur P, Singh D, Bhardwaj M. Effects of 6-weeks Bhastrika Pranayama Intervention on health-related components of physical fitness. Physical Education of Students. 2021;25(4):230-8.

2. Shinba T, Inoue T, Matsui T, Kimura KK, Itokawa M, Arai M. Changes in Heart Rate Variability after Yoga are Dependent on Heart Rate Variability at Baseline and during Yoga: A Study Showing Autonomic Normalization Effect in Yoga-Naïve and Experienced Subjects. Int J Yoga. 2020;13(2):160-7.

3. Sharma VK, Trakroo M, Subramaniam V, Rajajeyakumar M, Bhavanani AB, Sahai A. Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students. Int J Yoga. 2013;6(2):104-10.

4. Bhavanani AB, Sanjay Z, Madanmohan. Immediate effect of sukha pranayama on cardiovascular variables in patients of hypertension. Int J Yoga Therap. 2011(21):73-6.

5. Yadav RK, Magan D, Yadav R, Sarvottam K, Netam R. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol increases following a short-term yoga-based lifestyle intervention: a non-pharmacological modulation. Acta Cardiol. 2014;69(5):543-9.

6. Sharma VK, M R, S V, Subramanian SK, Bhavanani AB, Madanmohan, et al. Effect of fast and slow pranayama practice on cognitive functions in healthy volunteers. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014;8(1):10-3.

7. Ramamoorthy A, Mahendra J, Mahendra L, Govindaraj J, Samu S. Effect of Sudharshan Kriya Pranayama on Salivary Expression of Human Beta Defensin-2, Peroxisome Proliferator Activated Receptor Gamma, and Nuclear Factor-Kappa B in Chronic Periodontitis. Cureus. 2020;12(2):e6905.

8. Tyagi A, Cohen M, Reece J, Telles S, Jones L. Heart Rate Variability, Flow, Mood and Mental Stress During Yoga Practices in Yoga Practitioners, Non-yoga Practitioners and People with Metabolic Syndrome. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2016;41(4):381-93.

9. Schuver KJ, Lewis BA. Mindfulness-based yoga intervention for women with depression. Complement Ther Med. 2016;26:85-91.

10. Bisht S, Chawla B, Tolahunase M, Mishra R, Dada R. Impact of yoga -based lifestyle intervention on psychological stress and quality of life in the parents of children with retinoblastoma. Ann Neurosci. 2019;26(2):66-74.

Remembering Together, Rebuilding Together: Reflections on ‘The Night of Ideas’ 2022

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 23 February 2022

Sara Azzi and Vega Osman Bisschop from UCL Arts and Sciences share their reflections on ‘The Night of Ideas’

Vega Osman BisschopVega: I’m a first-year undergraduate studying Arts and Sciences with a major in Societies and a minor in Health and Environment. Having grown up in a French-English bilingual environment in Geneva, Switzerland, going to the French Institute’s Night of Ideas, felt, in some ways, like coming home. In our piece, we decided to reflect on the way that lessons from the past can aid us in the attempt (that was the subject of wide-ranging discussions throughout the evening) to ‘build back together’.

Sara AzziSara: I’m also a first-year undergraduate student at UCL studying Arts and Sciences and majoring in Societies. As a Lebanese, the idea of the importance of memory felt very close to my country and its current situation. A crisis of remembrance and commemoration has definitely played a big role in the crisis which Lebanon finds itself drowned in. The Night of Ideas was very enlightening as it made us think of our roots and pushed us to focus the piece on the importance of remembering our past and finding a balance to rebuild a better future together.

For us, the French Institute’s Night of Ideas was not only one of ‘rebuilding together’, as the title of the event put it, but one of ‘remembering together’. The poet, Anthony Anaxagorou, opened each talk that night with a poem linked to the topic of each discussion. His words immediately grounded the discussions that followed and that looked to the future in the feelings and sentiments at the heart of the various topics at hand. These feelings, transmitted in his poetry through metaphors and tone, evoked a sense of the importance of memories. Rebuilding and innovating, it seemed, starts by re-grounding and re-rooting.

Poet Anthony Anaxagorou (above) performs one of his poems before the last debate of the night.

So, for example, when discussing how to creatively take apart and reconstruct the economy, Philippe Aghion touched on exactly this concept of remembrance and acknowledgement of the past: in order to rebuild effectively currently dysfunctional economies, it is crucial to comprehend the way in which they were originally built and why they look the way they do now. Despite seeming obvious, such an idea may get easily forgotten in our striving for innovation. Rather than causing stagnation, thinking about the past can accelerate the action in the present that is urgently needed to address climate change. Learning from what past actions and practices went wrong, as well as which went right, can be invaluable. We cannot undo the unfolding of climate change – as Aghion put it, we cannot plan to ‘degrow’ the economy – and therefore only have the option of moving forward and growing innovatively.  In the same debate, UCL economist, Marianna Mazzucato, pointed out how societies have rapidly mobilised at previous moments in history. Governments have launched huge military operations within days and civil movements have rallied nation-wide support to shape police. In times of national crisis, countries have been able to put in the urgent effort needed to face an emergency.

Today, we might be tempted to view what is commonly termed the ’emergency’ or ‘crisis’ of climate change as a new and exceptional moment in history. But economists Mazzucato and Aghion, as well as panellists speaking later, drew parallels between this ‘crisis’ and the 2008 financial crisis. Not so much a moment of complete surprise, the financial crisis was the result of sustained financial instability. UCL academic and chair of this session ‘A Guide To Living In An Apocalypse’, Tim Beasley-Murray, drew a literary link, noting the way that the moment, when we suddenly recognise how disastrous the circumstances are in which we have long been living, is similar to the moment of anagnoris in Greek tragedy.  Likewise drawing on Ancient Greek thought, the Parisian philosopher, Olivier Remaud, reminded us of the way that, for the Greeks thousands of years ago, this moment of crisis and insight was essentially seen as moment of decision. Opposed to the paralysis that may often be understood as synonymous with crisis, this rediscovery of the essential meaning of crisis might offer hope.

In order to take an informed decision, we need to engage in a ‘processus d’apprentissage’, to use Remaud’s original French words. The essence of this ‘process of learning’ lies in lessons from the past: remembering and making sense of the historical plot of humanity. And similar to a tragic hero in literature, humans being are – as UCL professor, Jack Stilgoe, reminded us in the same discussion – simultaneously agents of the ‘crisis’ of climate change and also agents of the solution to it. Nonetheless, it is easy to forget the fact that some inhabitants of the planet have both contributed less to the tragedy climate change than others, but also bear its burden more heavily.  So, UCL anthropologist and Africanist Hélène Neveu Kringelbach urged us to ask: whose perspective are we discussing here? Perhaps listening to those in the Global South, who have lived more sustainably and in greater harmony and symbiosis with their environment, can provide us with the lessons we need to reshape and rebuild. To us, this is what rebuilding together really looks like. And this importance of togetherness extends to the connections between generations: connections, through rituals and traditions, for example, that are also crucial to humanity’s apprenticeship and learning. Intergenerational transmission allows us to remember for the sake of the future.

Discussion of this sort of about the role of memory in building a better future characterized other sessions during the evening, for example novelist, Elif Shafak’s reflections on ‘what is essential’.  Lessons learned from our individual or collective past are crucial to build a better future and avoid past mistakes. But, as Shafak reminded us, memory is also important in recognizing past tragedies and victims’ sufferings and ensuring accountability of people who are responsible. We can give the example of unresolved historical memory about France’s historical role in Algeria that leads to continuous political tension between the two societies in contrast to the historical accountability and memory in the case of the Nuremberg trials that brought Nazi war criminals to justice.

Memory plays an important role in bringing people together, by creating common ground to build on. But that does not necessarily mean it is always crucial. In some cases, forgetting can be as useful as memory, where historical memory only preserves and fixes the past, rather than helps build a future. Collective memory would in that case lead to an increase in resentment instead of reconciliation and might not be beneficial.

In sum, this is what the discussions of the Night of Ideas led us to conclude: it is important to find a balance between remembering and forgetting.  On one hand, it is crucial to have some sort of common sense of our past to learn from, to have something that brings people together. However, we still need to distance ourselves from the past to be able to embrace a present that is evolving and to allow room for progress – to build back together.

Find out more about the Night of Ideas – Institut Français du Royaume-Uni

Night of Ideas

Art Deco: A Literary Style?

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 8 July 2021

Art deco building from the 1920s

Words by Ada Wordsworth

Professor Maria Rubins’ inaugural lecture explored the concept, one which she herself coined, of Art Deco literature. Traditionally associated with the visual arts, Professor Rubins posits that the Art Deco movement of the early twentieth century also seeped into literature, as can be seen in the work of, among others, Victor Marguerite and Irene Némirovsky.

The Art Deco movement is distinct to the 1920s, the decade which F Scott Fitzgerald diagnosed as ‘the most expensive orgy in history’. The carefree, libidinous style emphasised the eclectic, hedonistic and beautiful, as society reeled from the loss of philosophical, ethical, and religious as a result of the tragedies of the First World War.

Cinema plays a central role in this phenomena. Though originally perceived as a threat to literature, promising mass production and commercialism, thus containing the potential to destroy the individual thought necessary for literature, certain authors instead used it as a model.

Their writing is distinctly cinematic, with accentuated descriptions of features and gestures replacing the introspective psychology of 19th century writing. Other tropes typical of the style include that of the business or sports novel, starring eccentric charlatans as their protagonists, often with non-Western origins, and suffused with racial clichés and stereotypes.

Alongside this protagonist stands the heroine. She is most typically exemplified in Victor Margueritte’s novel La Garçonne (‘The Tomboy’; ‘The Girl-Boy’; ‘The Flapper’), as a bisexual, bohemian, independent woman, picking up typically masculine traits whilst simultaneously sustaining her femininity and sexuality.  For a clearer idea of this ideal, Art Deco woman, I would recommend looking at Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker, or Schad’s Sonja.

The women shown in these portraits are depicted alone, in cafés, smoking or drinking. Unlike similar portraits from the 19th century, they are not prostitutes – they are independent, free-thinking women. Ideas of high and low culture were, therefore, undermined, along with the growth of the bohemian middle class.

Professor Rubins emphasises the role of the newly-arrived Jewish refugees in Tel Aviv in the development of this style. Whilst it was emerging throughout the Western world – as can be seen in the extensive writings of French writers such as Marguerite, it was in Tel Aviv that it was able to thrive.

The city was seemingly without any history, having only been founded in 1909, whilst simultaneously existing on the crossroads of civilisations, combining aspects of the traditional Jewish shtetl, the European metropolis, and the Arab, Middle Eastern city. Jewish poet Leah Goldberg wrote of the city as ‘a speck of Europe in the middle of Asia’. This melting pot epitomised many of the values of Art Deco, providing the perfect backdrop for its literary development.

Facilitated by Hebrew grammar, in which ‘city’ is a feminine noun, Tel Aviv was consistently portrayed as a woman. Specifically, Tel Aviv took on the role of a muscular, sporty woman – complying with the Art Deco ideas of womanhood, in which the cult of physical health reigned supreme. It was, for example, portrayed as Diana in Natan Alterman’s Little Tel Aviv  reminiscent of the Roman goddess of the hunt, the Moon, and fertility. Much as the Art Deco ideal of the woman centred around liberation and bohemianism, Tel Aviv’s atmosphere as a city strived to emulate this. Café culture was central to this, creating a home for Jewish eccentrics and artists in which to experiment with form and style, away from the rising fascism and anti-semitism in Europe.

Art Deco literature therefore stretched from French prose to Hebrew poetry, engulfing Europe at a time when the dominant ideology was trying to crush these sentiments. Driven by Jewish émigrés such as Némirovsky, Alterman, and Goldberg, it is clear that the concepts surrounding Art Deco made just as much of an indent on the literature of the time, and ever since, as they did on the visual arts and cinema.

Professor Rubins masterfully guided the audience through this working of the concept, and I would like to thank her for a hugely enjoyable lecture, and congratulate her on her new position within SSEES.

By Ada Wordsworth, Fourth Year Russian Studies BA, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Post photo by McGill Library on Unsplash

Transformations: Editing Life in a Day

By UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, on 18 June 2021

Life in a Day

Words by Isabelle Osborne

Running from the end of May to mid-June, UCL’s Reimagine series offered an exciting collection of short courses, master classes and workshops that encouraged participants to reimagine their future. UCL academic staff, film-makers, writers, digital experts, journalists and other successful industry experts made up the company of speakers and facilitators, offering inspiring insights into their chosen fields.

One of the incredible events of the programme was ‘Transformations: Moving Image Storytelling’, a Q&A event with film industry professionals. The event centred around Life In A Day, a documentary that captures the day of July 25th, 2020 from a global angle. The film followed the Life In A Day that was created in 2010, a documentary of similar form. Over 300,000 videos from 192 countries were submitted to the project, connecting themes of love, death, hope and more. The event aimed to capture the experience of editing this intriguing, captivating film.

The panel was chaired by Kate Stonehill. Kate is an award-winning director and cinematographer whose work has screened internationally at film festivals and galleries including the BFI London Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest, AFI Docs, and DOC NYC. Kate was joined by Mdhamiri Nkemi, a film editor whose work has won awards at festivals such as Sundance, Berlinale, TIFF, SXSW and the London Film Festival, and Nse Asuquo, editor of The Stuart Hall ProjectJazz Ambassadors and House of My Fathers and nominee for the Jules Wright Prize for Female Creative Technicians in 2016. Both Mdhamiri and Nse were involved with the making and editing of Life in a Day.

Kate began by asking what Mdhamiri and Nse were looking to capture within the final film, one that, she notes, was created in a ‘transformative year.’ Nse reflected on how open she was going into the experience and the fact she had no expectations, whilst Mdhamiri knew the film would have an ‘extra layer of impact’ following the international experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mdhamiri spoke of how, in addition to COVID, the wider conversations of the time framed the video submissions they received, and how the recent death of George Floyd became an ‘important thing to talk about’ in the film. It was important, too, that the film did not feel like a collection of films categorized as a list, but that they instead worked to capture ‘the human experience in its essence and have all [the] themes feed into that naturally.’ Kate believes the film strikes a balance between ‘being alive to the time in which it was made’ and the mundane events of ordinary lives that ‘could have been shot at any time.’ Although her world felt very small whilst being confined to her home during the pandemic, the film gave Kate a window into life ‘on the other side of the world.’

The discussion moved onto reflecting on the experience of editing a film without the element of hindsight and instead editing global experiences that were happening in a moment that Nse and Mdhamiri were themselves very much a part of, and whether this was a challenge. Nse agreed that it was challenging, as director Kevin Macdonald didn’t want the film to be a ‘YouTube thing’ but rather wanted people to express what was going on in their lives. Nse also touched on the issue around how to portray the Black Lives Matter protests, as a lot of the footage was of people talking about the protests without being ‘intimately connected’ to it; they entered the theme emotionally through a personal story of someone who was directly affected by the protests.

Kate was interested to know whether any unexpected themes presented themselves in the footage that was received, to which Nse commented on how memory became a dominant theme in the film, as did loneliness; the film captured both the universal and the personal at the same time. Mdhamiri spoke of the database that was developed to enable the team to keep track of the themes that were coming through in the footage, and offered an insight into the process by showcasing the database to the audience; such offered a unique and special window into the editing world of Life in a Day.

Hearing about the editing process was a fascinating element of the event, especially when Nse and Mdhamiri spoke of the challenges they faced during the experience. They referred to a deeply moving, vulnerable and emotional piece of footage of a Scandinavian lady who had miscarried, which spoke to a universal theme of loss; whilst they knew they wanted to put the footage into the film, they struggled to place it amongst the other clips that made up the various montages without disrupting the ‘rhythm’ of the film. This built into another issue which Nse touched upon, of knowing when to move on from an emotion and recognising when the emotions of a particular sequence became ‘diluted’ when ‘[they] had too much.’ Moving deeper into the editing process, Nse also shone a light on how all the editors worked on all the scenes so as to gain a sense of ‘ownership’ of the whole film as well as to prevent anyone feeling ‘precious’ over particular pieces of the work.

Capturing the global nature of the film, an audience member was intrigued by the aspects of language and translation reflected within the film – was there footage of people that held a lot of value visually but who spoke a language that was difficult to source a translator for? Mdhamiri said nothing was impossible, but some footage was ‘very hard’ to translate. Referencing the scene with the Mongolian school children, Nse added that, with certain clips, the visual element was enough for the audience to gain an understanding of what was going on, thus language was not an indefinite barrier.

When asked whether they had learnt anything about editing through the experience of Life in a Day, Nse reflected on the ‘humbling’ nature of the film-making process and how she both loves and hates it simultaneously; it is a process of constant questioning and constant learning, as well as the difficulty of being aware of the detail and the broader picture at the same time. For Nse, the experience was a ‘privilege’, and she spoke of how she did not feel she had the ‘right to hear these intimate stories from people.’ Mdhamiri agreed, commenting on how ‘special’ the opportunity was and the rare experience of gaining an ‘insight into humanity.’ Whilst having experience in documentary work before Life in a Day, this was Mdhamiri’s first experience of working with a feature documentary, an experience that involved accepting the reality that one person could not watch all the material they received and ‘having to surrender to that.’

Moving on to discuss what they each look for as editors, Mdhamiri referenced the footage that provoked an emotional reaction and that featured people who you wanted to spend time with, as well as those that offered a narrative journey that the audience could follow. Nse reflected on the ‘intuitive’ nature of editing; it has to be something you feel. Part of the process is being able to understand what is being ‘revealed’ rather than just that which is being ‘shown.’ Nse also added that this process reveals a lot about oneself, as you have to question ‘Do I understand things just on a surface level or do I look deeper?’

The panel turned to the audience’s thoughts, one of whom asked whether the editors think about the stories within the footage today and do they wonder how the people they met through the footage are doing. Both editors said they do, and Mdhamiri commented on the virtual cast screening that brought together many of the people who featured in the film, which sounded like a phenomenal experience to virtually meet the participants that had become part of their work.

Another audience member asked about the editors’ favourite stories, both of those that made the final cut and those that did not. For Nse, the footage of an ex-marine speaking about PTSD gave a moving insight into his ‘vulnerabilities’, in addition to the birth sequence at the opening of the film, a sequence that also resonated with Kate and, most likely, the wider audience. Of the ‘endless gold mine of characters’, Mdhamiri told of how ‘moved’ he was by the Black Lives Matter footage from Oregon and Portland, as well as the ‘resilience and strength’ shown through the Indonesian transgender woman who features as both a busker and as a sex worker.

The inspiring discussion closed with Mdhamiri and Nse’s advice for UCL students who are interested in pursuing a creative career. Nse advises us to ask ourselves why: ‘if you know why, you won’t be swayed so violently by other people’s opinions or setbacks and things.’ Mdhamiri agreed, commenting on the importance of finding a network that you can collaborate and grow with.

Overall, the evening was a fascinating insight into the making of an incredible piece of art and a wonderful opportunity to hear the wisdom of two accomplished creative professionals.