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Life and Language

Life and Language

By Michaela Mahlberg
Professor Michaela Mahlberg chats with her guests about life and why language matters.
Michaela is Professor of Corpus Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK
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Ganna Pogrebna – Data Science and Decision Making

Life and Language

Paterson Joseph - Historical Fiction
What can historical fiction do for today’s society? Paterson Joseph’s first novel tells the story of Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first known Black person to have voted in a British election. In this episode, we talk about Black presence in history, the challenges of writing historical fiction, and seeing the world through narratives (on the page, on the stage or in films). Paterson tells us about his personal experience of becoming an actor and a writer, and shares his thoughts on the writing of history as performance. As a special treat Paterson will read passages from his new book. Paterson Joseph is an acclaimed British actor and writer. He has starred in Peep Show, Green Wing, Safe House as well as in Royal Shakespeare productions. His debut novel, The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho will be out on 6 October 2022.
September 06, 2022
Sean Grass - Dickens, Identity & Commodity Culture
What makes Dickens enduringly popular and relevant to modern life? Who’d be better to talk to about this question than Sean Grass, the President of the Dickens Society. In this episode, we look at Charles Dickens in the context of commodity culture. Sean explains how autobiographical writing developed into a commercial genre. We look at the implications of exposing lives to public view and the social costs of commodifying identity. It won’t come as a surprise that we’ll touch upon questions of gender, too. Sean explains, for example, why in the 19th century Dickens’s novels were not really seen as appealing to a male audience. There's an opportunity to hear about portraits and Lady Audley’s Secret, too. Sean reads some wonderful extracts from 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'Great Expectations'. We talk about the art of compelling storytelling and what Dickens can teach us about community, empathy and personal well-being. And here a special treat: you will get some great advice for your own writing! Have a listen! Sean Grass is Professor of English Literature at Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York. He is an expert on Victorian literature and culture and he is the President of the Dickens Society. His many publications include The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative(Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend A Publishing History (Routledge, 2014).
July 01, 2022
James Tauber – Digital Tolkien
What is the connection between software development and Tolkien? In this episode, I talk to James Tauber. He is the founder and CEO of Eldarion, a company that develops web applications for a wide range of clients with a special focus on educational contexts. James leads the Digital Tolkien project and also teaches at Signum University. We talk about fantasy fiction, and how Tolkien creates worlds, names places, and invents languages. Obviously, James reads some fantastic text passages, too. He tells us about the Digital Tolkien project and shares his views on what makes a good software development team.
June 17, 2022
Peter Stockwell - Science Fiction
What are the ingredients of science fiction? To find out, I talk to Peter Stockwell, the author of “The Poetics of Science Fiction”. Starting with an example, Peter reads from “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury and explains why this is a great text to get you into science fiction. We talk about the history of the genre, its relationship with pulp fiction, Frankenstein as early sci-fi and time travel in Dickens. Science fiction is about the here and now. It is about page-turner stories and about the opportunity to imagine futures. Science fiction puts science into stories and creates narratives that make people care. This episode is full of examples and gives you plenty of recommendations for reading. Peter also reads an extract from his current favourite sci-fi text. I won’t tell… have a listen to find out. Peter Stockwell is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of “Cognitive Poetics: an introduction”. His most recent book is “Digital Teaching for Linguistics” (with Rebecca Gregory, Jessica Norledge, and Paweł Szudarski ) – which is a bit sci-fi, too.
April 29, 2022
Fiona de Londras - Human Rights
Why is human rights discourse so difficult? In this episode, I talk to Fiona de Londras about what it means to translate human rights into practical instruments and how language frames legal discourses. Fiona explains the difference between a human rights perspective and civil liberties talk that has been so frequent in the pandemic discourse. She shares her insights into why human rights don’t get much talked about in Prime Minister's Questions, we hear about her project on pandemic review, and we talk about the importance of language in the Irish abortion referendum campaign. Fiona tells us about her deep-seated dislike of inaccessible language, cooking as a way to measure time, and words as little pockets of Irishness. Fiona de Londras is Professor of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham. In 2017 she was awarded the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize in law. Her most recent book is ‘The Practice and Problems of Transnational Counter-Terrorism’, published in January 2022.
April 08, 2022
Deryn Rees-Jones - Poetry and the Unsayable
What if there is no language to describe what the body experiences? In this episode, I talk to Deryn Rees-Jones about poetry and illness. Deryn shares what it feels like being a poet and tackling the complexity of life. With her personal experience of Long Covid, she talks about the challenge of how to use language to describe the precarious state of the body and finding ways to connect with the experience of others. In this amazing conversation, we go deep into topics of the everyday that are at the same time fundamental to human existence. Poets try to find a bridge through language so that experience can be articulated, understood, and shared. Moving beyond illness, we look at poetry and intersectional feminism, the climate crisis – and war. As a special treat, Deryn reads two of her poems: “The Cure” and “Drone” - both are immensely powerful and scarily topical. Deryn Rees-Jones is a poet, an editor and a critic, as well as a professor of creative writing at the University of Liverpool. In 2004, Deryn was named as one of Mslexia’s ‘top ten’ women poets of the decade. In 2010 she received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors. Deryn’s most recent book of poems, 'Erato', published in 2019, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and shortlisted for The Welsh Book of the Year and the TS Eliot Prize in 2019. You can find her poem ‘The Cure’ here  You can read ’14 Little Pieces on Love’ here  ‘Drone’ is one of the poem in ‘Erato’ 
April 01, 2022
Alice Roberts - Stories of Humanity
Starting from Ancestors, the latest book by Alice Roberts, we chat about storytelling and the excitement of embarking on science projects. We hear about some of the protagonists in Ancestors, including stories around gender and the role of women in stories and in science. Using her experience as an anatomist, Alice tells stories of human and bodily experience. She reminds us: “The body doesn’t make sense without the environment around it”. You will hear an extract from Ancestors that illustrates this point vividly. The stories that Alice tells show how the past is here in the present. One of the examples we discuss is the histories of diseases and what we know about viruses. In very practical terms, Alice shares some of her own experience of working with words, how teaching has affected her TV work, and what it means to write for children. She explains her specific approach to producing documentaries, and how conversation is a way of learning: stories are created through conversations. We chat about different types of evidence and how there is a place for fiction, too, as an important source of historical knowledge. I ask Alice about her views on the future of universities – and you will also get a bit of a preview of one of Alice’s next books! Alice Roberts is an academic, writer and broadcaster. She’s written numerous popular science books. She was the first recipient of the Royal Society’s David Attenborough award for Public Engagement in 2020. She is professor of Public engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham.
March 11, 2022
Mary Ann Sieghart - The Authority Gap
Mary Ann Sieghart’s book “The Authority Gap” raises awareness of unseen bias and suggests ways to tackle systemic sexism. In this episode, we talk about how Mary Ann’s experience as a journalist enabled her to write this book, she shares plenty of examples from interviews and research studies. We talk about women finding their strengths, gender and the climate crisis, the profound effect of fiction, films and TV on how we see the world, and the accumulation of small solutions needed to change the situation for women. You will also get a glimpse of Mary Ann’s next book. Mary Ann Sieghart is a journalist, she worked for 20 years as Assistant Editor and columnist at The Times, she is a broadcaster (you might know her from programmes on BBC Radio 4), she is a non-executive director, and a visiting professor at King’s College London.
November 26, 2021
Sita Brahmachari - Water Stories
In this episode, I want to find out about ‘water’ in stories – and especially in stories for children and young adults. Who better to chat to about this topic than the wonderful Sita Brahmachari. Sita is an award-winning author of children's books, young adult novels, and short stories. As you will find out, water plays a special part in Sita’s stories. She tells us about and reads from her books, including 'Where the River Runs Gold', and you will be treated to poetry, too! Fiction is never just fiction though. We talk about storytelling, science, politics and activism. Water is a profound reflection of what it means to be human - diving, surfacing, living rivers, water pollution & climate chaos. In the climate crisis we need creativity more than ever. Sita Brahmachari’s first book, 'Artichoke Hearts' won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2011. 'The River Whale' was one of the best-selling World Book Day stories in 2021. 'Where The River Runs Gold' and 'When Secrets Set Sail' were Waterstones and Blackwell’s Books of the Month. 'Tender Earth' won an Honour from the International Board of Books for Young People. Her latest book 'When Shadows Fall' is out in November 2021. Sita is an Amnesty Ambassador for children's rights.
November 05, 2021
Steffen Kuehr - Talking Sustainability
Steffen is the Founder and CEO of the California-based TekTailor – a green business! Learn what it means to run a benefit corporation, make real change, and turn things like decommissioned fire hose into products with a truly heroic past. Steffen is a sustainability advocate. It is absolutely amazing to hear about his experience working in the textile manufacturing sector and supporting the maker movement. He talks about his vision for rethinking waste, his work in education, teaching new concepts like repurposing and upcycling, and the need to create new stories. Be inspired! You’ll get some tips for saving waste this Christmas, too. And if you are wondering, yes, Steffen and I went to school together.
October 29, 2021
Ryan Heuser - Distant Reading
Ryan explains how computers can help us overcome the human constraints on reading time. The distance of distant reading brings out the scale of history. We chat about the computational study of culture and literary history, and what computers have got to do with creativity. Ryan gives plenty of exciting examples from his research. He talks about telling the history of words like ‘culture’, capturing a geography of emotions of London, and the question of what Jane Austen really tells us about what Mr Darcy looks like. We also hear about Prosodic, a tool Ryan developed for metrical-phonological annotation (give it a try on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets – or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!). Dr Ryan Heuser is a research fellow at King’s College at the University of Cambridge.
October 22, 2021
Deborah Cameron – On Being a Feminist and a Linguist
Deborah Cameron explains how feminism and linguistics work together and we learn about her experience as a stand-up comedian, too. We chat about the importance of stories and narratives as a powerful way of human thinking. Deborah reminds us to critically look at how repeated narratives get normalised, as in the influence of folklore on crime reporting.  We talk about equality, training targeted at women, and systemic challenges for feminism. Deborah shares advice on public engagement, the impact of linguistics, and the value of writing textbooks. She describes linguistics as an eye opener of culture and social relations. It is a way to think about lived experience – which sometimes can include a man in a potato suit. Deborah Cameron is Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford. Her books include The Myth of Mars and Venus.
October 15, 2021
Stephen Mumford - Talking is Real Work
Stephen explains the basic structure of reality in simple terms. We chat about how knowledge is created collectively and how talking and debate are part of the process. Words and actions are closely related, which becomes very clear when Stephen likens certain forms of debate to a blood sport! He shares fascinating examples of the relevance of philosophy to many areas of life, from public health to football. It’s clearly always useful to have a philosopher as a critical friend! Stephen also tells us about his experience as a novelist and his views on systemic historical injustices. When we talk about equality and diversity, I test some very tough questions on him! You don’t want to miss this! Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics at Durham University and author of the novel "Glimpse of Light". 
October 08, 2021
Julie Sanders – On Shakespeare and University Leadership
Julie talks about Shakespeare and adaptation, how he gets used by different times and cultures and what we can learn from his plays about everyday practices. She shares her experience of teaching Shakespeare in the pandemic, where the closure of theatres was not only a historical moment but had become “now”. We chat about the need for languages of the humanities to talk about the climate crisis. We discuss challenges of equality and diversity, and the need to demystify how institutions work. Julie powerfully talks about stories of grief and love, languages of hope, and how theatre is about making things new. She shares with us her own story of getting into Shakespeare, what she learned from travelling the world, and why it’s important to find the longer horizon. She encourages us to use the tools that language offers and to take the opportunity of literature as “a way of thinking it through”. Tune in and give it a try! Julie Sanders is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost at Newcastle University, and Professor of early modern literature and drama.
October 01, 2021
Ganna Pogrebna – Data Science and Decision Making
Ganna explains how data science can help us understand human behaviour. She talks about different types of biases that affect human behaviour (like when we tend to think we are better drivers than we actually are), how data is biased, too, and how building algorithms needs insights from qualitative research. Ganna gives us lots of examples, including from her work on movies and supporting scriptwriters. She shares her thoughts on diversity in tech, positive change, and powerful story telling. As a behavioural data scientist, Ganna combines economics, psychology and computer science. She is co-author of The Big Bad Bias Book and has just written her first children’s book The Smartest Animal of them All.
September 24, 2021
Philip Davis - Reading for Life
Phil shares his thoughts on reading as an aid to living. He talks about the vitality of reading aloud and together in a group. We learn about his work in Liverpool and activities of the Reader. Phil is Emeritus Professor of Literature and Psychology at the University of Liverpool. His most recent books are Reading for Life (OUP, 2020) and with Fiona Magee, Arts for Health: Reading (Emerald, 2020). 
September 16, 2021