I had one of those double-take moments when I saw this tweet from the Arts and Humanities Research council. One of the major funding bodies for the Humanities in the UK couldn’t be going this low, becoming this superficial in its attempt to demonstrate relevance and grab attention … could it?
Unthinking supporters of the impact agenda, like those of open-access, have a habit of using straw men and platitudes to enforce their agenda. So, to be clear – I am all in favour of approaches such as using reenactment to mediate historical knowledge, engaging ironically with stereotypes to prompt reconsideration of the past, or using new media to communicate research findings.
But to justify the posting of that clip in that way on such grounds, would be to misrepresent the superficial thinking behind it. Let’s take it apart…
1. This is a children’s tv series, and classified by the BBC as such. Making research accessible and interesting to the younger generation is vital, but this particular clip communicates very little in terms of new knowledge to a viewer of any age.
2. The ridicule of healing rituals toward the end, in particular, does not stimulate further enquiry or curiosity. Instead, it mocks the past as primitive and absurd – precisely the kind of stereotyping one would have expected the AHRC to question rather than perpetuate.
3. As far as knowledge goes, we learn that some English words have Scandinavian origins: ‘scare’, ‘anger’, ‘berserk’, ‘die’, ‘cake’, ‘rotten’, ‘mistake’, ‘hit’. That is interesting, and one can see – I mean this without any irony – why a programme for children might be content with communicating that as a clear fact.
4. Children, however, are not – as far as I am aware – the AHRC’s main stakeholder. So it is remarkable that there is not even a hint of the further information that an intelligent adult might appreciate – such as what the Norse originals actually were. Too intellectually challenging?
5. For the same reason, the hashtag ‘#Modernlanguages’ is misplaced: the entire clip is in English – a bizarre way to bring to life knowledge about borrowing between languages. The tag also ignores the fact that we’re not talking about ‘modern’ foreign languages at all, but about their medieval predecessors. Perhaps ‘#OldNorse’ or ‘#medieval’ are not considered contemporary enough…
It’s a sobering exercise in close-reading a tweet. The amateurishness is evident not least from the youtube description of the linked video, which suggests that it may not be entirely legitimate (or at least, that permission to upload had not been sought from its owners). In fact, I cannot help wondering whether someone just typed in ‘Viking words in English’ into youtube and posted the first thing that came up in the search results…
If deployed with care, a clip like that could do so much. It is amusing, and it could support the communication of all manner of more ‘serious’ points: what the borrowed words were in their original form, what they might have sounded like, how the idea of English as a ‘national’ language relates to the various ‘foreign’ sources from which it has borrowed… But none of these aspects features in the tweet. Further intellectual enquiry has been written out of it.
Not that including such information would have taken much effort. A value-adding link to one of the many publically available online resources about Old Norse and English, for example, would have built the crucial bridge between the ‘exciting’ video and the ‘serious’ content (I put those terms in quotation marks because I dislike the supposition, inherent in much of the impact and public engagement agenda, that the the two aspects are mutually opposed to begin with).
The material here, for example, might have done the job – but why go to the trouble of finding it when one can just type ‘Cake!’?