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How arts and humanities experts are sharing stories during lockdown

Dr Joanne Paul's virtual book launch - © Shiru Lim

Me Not You by Alison Phipps

Dr Chris Warne's daughter Emily, Vivienne Westwood, Prof Lucy Robinson and former Sussex student Molly Timms

From book launches to in-conversation events, social distancing and lockdown rules have put many events on hold. But academics at the University of Sussex have found other ways to share their works, connecting with new audiences online.

Dr Joanne Paul, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, launched her new book Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought (Cambridge University Press) on Zoom last week with over 40 attendees from all over the world.

Such an international audience may have been unlikely through a physical event.

Dr Paul said: “As soon as it was suggested, I realized it was an opportunity to invite friends and colleagues who would never have been able to attend if it weren’t online, opening doors for celebration and collaboration.”

Dr Paul also took part in the Getty Museum Challenge which went viral on social media last month. The Californian art museum challenged people to recreate their favourite artwork while indoors and practising social distancing. Dr Paul’s attempts together garnered almost 2,000 likes.

She said: “It’s a load of fun, and really makes you think creatively about the various elements of the piece of art. As both the paintings I did were from the Renaissance, I also encouraged my students studying the period to have a go.”

Dr Paul isn’t the only one spotting opportunities for online connections while we stay physically distant. With his book launch also coinciding with the UK lockdown, Professor of Human Geography, Ben Rogaly was invited to take part in a webinar hosted by Manchester University Press on his new book Stories from a Migrant City: Living and working together in the shadow of Brexit.

Over a hundred people registered for the talk in which Prof Rogaly revealed why he wrote the book and read a few extracts before answering questions from listeners in India, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere. The event is now available to watch again on YouTube.

Prof Rogaly said: “The book is based on long-term residential fieldwork and biographical oral history interviews in the city of Peterborough – a key focus is the experience of international migrant workers and others in food factories and warehouses, set in the context of their broader individual life stories. 

"It confirms the importance to the whole of society of the lives and livelihoods of people who work in the food supply chain and in distribution more broadly. It also details the often harsh working conditions there – conditions which are currently the subject of spontaneous protests in various countries as workers refuse to risk their lives through insufficient enforcement of distancing and hygiene measures.

"The book’s analysis of the ways structures of racism cause inequality and disadvantage resonates with the devastating injustices evident from the disproportionate numbers of BAME people dying from coronavirus in the UK.

“In the final section of the book – and in the webinar too – I highlight how sharing stories is one of the ways people sometimes come together in adversity and across difference, through renewed awareness of what is common to being human. This feels particularly apt right now.”

Professor of Gender Studies, Alison Phipps also took part in MUP’s webinar series, Armchair Events, speaking about her new book Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism to a fully-booked session of over 100 people. You can watch her webinar on Vimeo.

Following the event, Prof Phipps is also writing a series of blogs to cover the questions she did not have time to answer – you can read the first one here. Prof Phipps has also participated in events for Lighthouse and Blackwells Books since the launch of Me, Not You.

She said: ‘it’s very strange to have a book coming out in the middle of a pandemic. But although I’ve felt ambivalent about promoting it when there are such grave and enormous things going on, I’ve also seen that many people are relying on books to get them through lockdown. It’s lovely to have something to offer to pique their interest, and people who’ve read it have been so kind.’ 

As social distancing looks set to remain for the foreseeable future, many more events are being scheduled for online, as academics across the arts and humanities show that there are still ways to come together and share stories even if, physically, we have to be apart.

On 13 May at 6.30pm, Professor of English, Nicholas Royle will take part in an online event hosted by Myriad Editions to celebrate the publication of his new book Mother: A Memoir. During the event, he’ll be in conversation with Anna Burtt, host of Radio Reverb’s Brighton Book Club.

Prof Royle said: “My book about my mother is not really academic at all, but it’s about how the love of storytelling, poetry and words (aka my discipline, ‘English literature’) is essential to our well-being and survival as a society.”

And it’s not all for adults either. Professor in Collaborative History, Lucy Robinson has been running online storytime sessions on Instagram as @livestorylation. What started off as a way to connect with her grandchildren, who call her Old Blue, became an online community of families tuning in at teatime.

Prof Robinson said: "When I'm feeling really isolated, sharing stories has made me feel much more connected. Something that started as a way to connect with my family, has turned into a proper community thing, which is lovely.”

Prof Robinson is also going to be using Instagram to curate a new book club, launched by Vivienne Westwood called ‘Intellectuals Unite’.

She said: “I’ve been meeting, talking and thinking with Vivienne since her IOU: Intellectuals Unite event in 2016. Her starting point is that we are all intellectuals. If you think about the world; if you participate in it critically and culturally – then you are an intellectual too. The context we currently find ourselves in forces us to do just that.

“The Book Club is partly inspired by a letter Vivienne wrote to her grand-daughter Cora who she had been missing. In it, she recommended the 19th-century books that Cora work through.

“As someone who misses her grandchildren so much that it hurts, and has been trying to maintain a connection with them by sharing books with them online, this totally struck a chord. But more than that, this is the literature that I grew up loving, grew in confidence studying and, I hope, could help us to feel connected to both each other and to the past, in these extraordinary times.”

Find out about other upcoming events and activities online here.

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 13 May 2020

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