Charles Burdett appointed as the new IMLR Director

At the end of October, SAS and the Institute for Modern Languages Research announced the appointment of a new institute director, Charles Burdett, succeeding Catherine Davies. Professor Burdett, who currently holds a position as professor for Italian studies at the University of Durham, is known for his research in the field of transnational Modern Languages. He will take up his post in mid-January 2021 and build on the interdisciplinary and transnational work of Catherine Davies as IMLR director. The announcement, which comes at a time of planned restructuring of the School of Advanced Study, was not positively received by all.

IMLR staff and students are excited about the news for Modern Languages research due to Burdett being a principal investigator of the Arts and Humanities Research Council project ‘Transnationalizing Modern Language’. Godela Weiss-Sussex, the current acting director, commented ‘it is really no exaggeration to say that we are absolutely delighted at Charles’s appointment’. In contrast, others took their frustration of the appointment to Twitter, relating it to the planned closure of other SAS institutesVoices of UoL argued that the University might ‘perhaps [be] embarrassed at making this (full-time, no doubt well-remunerated) appointment at a time when other staff in the School of Advanced Study are facing compulsory redundancy’. 

 On the one hand, IMLR students look forward to the opportunities Professor Burdett will bring to the Institute of Modern Languages Research based on his area of expertise. His appointment is undoubtedly important and necessary for the field of Modern Languages research. Godela Weiss-Sussex commented that ‘his work on transnationalising Modern Languages, which has been hugely influential in defining the discipline’s agenda, is an ideal fit with the IMLR’s focus and direction of travel‘. Professor Burdett already advocated that ‘Modern Languages needs to become a broader interdisciplinary field unbound by national limits’ in 2016. Such interdisciplinary and international approaches can and will introduce new opportunities for many research students such as collaborations and networking beyond the United Kingdom. The appointment has been widely celebrated by Modern Languages scholars in the United Kingdom with Charles Forsdick, Professor of French at University of Liverpool, tweeting that the appointment is most welcomed ‘at [a] critical time for Modern Languages in UK and beyond’.

 On the other hand, however, we are all deeply concerned and saddened about SAS’s planned closure of ILAS and ICwS, and the message such an appointment could send to other institutes and disciplines. As members of the SAS community, IMLR staff and students alike are supporting their peers in the challenges that lie ahead. The School of Advanced Study insists that organisational restructuring has changed the ‘portfolio of institutes […] many times: new institutes have been created, some have been closed or merged’. This, nevertheless, is not an acceptable excuse. In recent years, arts and humanities have faced budget cuts and decreasing government support. Yet, discourses on issues, such as the recent debate on a government ad and demands of reevaluating Britain’s Black History more critically, indicate the need for responses from a variety of scholars of those disciplines. All School of Advanced Study Institutes play a vital role in these discourses by hosting events, publishing academic responses, and through public engagement.

 Professor Burdett was quoted in the official announcement of his appointment saying the IMLR is ‘an institute that is essential for the wellbeing and survival of the disciplinary field of modern languages at a time when it needs urgently to respond to a rapidly changing national and global environment’. A statement that can be applied to all the institutes of SAS. 

 The appointment of a new IMLR director does not come as a surprise. We can assume that the lack of fanfare for his appointment was linked to the School’s proposed restructuring. These difficult circumstances, after all, require empathy and sensitivity. While the IMLR is looking forward to having a more celebratory welcome when Professor Burdett takes over in January, they are also awaiting the School’s decision on the proposed restructuring later this year, fearing for colleagues’ and peers’ futures and wellbeing. 

For IMLR staff and students as well as for Modern Languages research in general, it is certainly good news to see the appointment going ahead in these unprecedented times. In an email to the IMLR associates, the new director was quoted: ‘I can think of no group of people with whom I would rather work, and I feel sure that we will be able to achieve a huge amount together’. And we speak for all IMLR students when we say that we are looking forward to welcoming Charles Burdett. 

 While you are here: SAS still welcomes your comments on the proposed restructuring until the 23rd of November. Please write to sas.orgchange@sas.ac.uk and make your voice heard! You can also sign the petition to save the ICwS and the petition to save the ILAS.

Written by Monja Stahlberger, IMLR PhD Candidate

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