6th December 2022
Dear Professor David Latchman, Professor Matt Innes, and Sir Andrew Cahn,
We write on joint behalf of the Gender and Medieval Studies Group (GMS) and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), organisations which represent the study of medieval English Literature, and medieval studies more broadly, in the UK, the US, and globally. We wish to strongly express our concern at the news of the devastating cuts proposed for The Department of English, Theatre & Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Given the department’s recent success in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, a success which has been much lauded in the global arena, your proposal to render 50% of English Literature staff redundant is both inexplicable and contrary to the university’s interests. To proceed with the proposed cuts will have shattering consequences for Birkbeck’s standing in the academic realm, for the individual academics concerned, and for the vibrancy of the Arts and Humanities in London. As uncompromising advocates of equality and fairness in academia and the workplace, we also wish to emphasise the disproportionate effect that such action will have on talented academic staff already operating in a context of job insecurity in our sector and on the broad, often “non traditional”, student community which Birkbeck has historically championed and for which your institution has deservedly gained an international reputation. There are important considerations of gender equality, too. Any performance management processes implicated in redundancies will inevitably single out staff who have been worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, including home-schooling parents. In this light, we urge you to reconsider this decision by reflecting, like other institutions have successfully managed, on alternative ways forward to prevent the damage that will ensue on an individual and field-wide scale.
As you will be aware, there is evidence that the discipline of English Literature is at its strongest in London. While other London institutions such as Goldsmiths and Roehampton might narrow their offerings in English, Birkbeck has a crucial opportunity to increase its student numbers. There are many reasons for institutions like Birkbeck to champion, not threaten, the long-term survival of a subject that makes such an impact socially and culturally. As a vital humanities discipline, English Literature is also crucial to the UK economy. The subject of English Literature encompasses engagement with the most pressing social concerns, from climate change to social justice, from gender to racial identity. By teaching students how to communicate via the written word in an increasingly online world, developing students’ skills in processing information and thinking critically, and encouraging students to think creatively, English Literature provides invaluable skills for envisioning and executing new plans for the future in these precarious times. Graduates of English Literature are able to offer a level of criticality in society which is vital for the healthy maintenance of our democracy and freedom. The subjects in the Arts and Humanities must be central in the future vision of all universities, including Birkbeck.
The annual Gender and Medieval Studies (GMS) conference, which has international attendance and which is supported each year by the SMFS, is to be hosted by the English Department at Birkbeck in January 2023. This event will be an important occasion for the discussion of global medieval literatures and cultures, including those written and circulated in Britain; it will showcase the role Birkbeck’s Department of English, Theatre & Creative Writing plays in furthering research in this area. We are devastated that the very staff who are igniting future literary study are themselves threatened with the loss of their careers and the opportunity to promote the survival of our subject. Since Birkbeck offers a means of accessing study to a wide and diverse demographic, it also has a social responsibility to offer subjects like English Literature, which themselves give access to some of the most urgent human concerns. We urge you to rethink this decision, to help us in championing the subject of English Literature as a vital cultural mechanism, and to realise the importance of the discipline for academia, our society, and our democratic future.
The Gender and Medieval Studies Group (GMS) Steering Committee (UK)
The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS) Advisory Board (international, US-based)