Taking ourselves seriously

Jasmine Donahaye says that if we’re going to achieve international recognition we need to take ourselves more seriously.

Back in March for St David’s Day the Empire State Building was lit once again with the Welsh colours, and the Google doodle featured daffodils. Each year the Western Mail seems to report these American moments with growing delight, as though this is the apex of international recognition. Yet where international recognition matters, there is almost none, and this is a consequence of failing to take ourselves seriously.

In November 2014, in his capacity as a Vice President of the Learned Society of Wales, Professor M. Wynn Thomas convened a meeting to discuss the vulnerability of teaching, research, and academic publication to do with Wales, and to set in motion an Association for the Study of Wales to help lobby for change.

One might assume that, as in any nation aware of itself as a nation – and with control over its education system – Welsh universities would be obliged to offer the opportunity to study Wales, and to conduct research on it across many disciplines. Surprising though it is, there is no such obligation either at the institutional or the governmental level, and nor is there an expectation of this provision either. Where university departments do offer opportunities to study Wales, or conduct related research, this is the result of dedicated efforts by a few individuals. Consequently the study of Wales across disciplines is not only marginalised and fragmented, but also perpetually vulnerable.

Without an explicit, structural commitment by government – and consequently commitment also at the institutional level – support for teaching and research in the study of Wales will falter and fail. This will leave the nation uninformed about its past and its present, which is bad enough, but it will also leave us poorly equipped to shape and control our own future, and it will continue to incapacitate us in our relationship with the rest of the UK, and internationally.

My own area of research in Welsh and Jewish matters provides a telling comparative illustration of one of the consequences of this situation. It is still possible for scholars in the field of British Jewish studies to fold Wales into England in a way that has never been possible, for example, with Scotland. This is not because Scotland provides a greater degree of Jewish material for analysis, but because Scotland demands outside recognition of its own particularity, and it does this by itself according this particularity recognition –at the level of government, in institutions, and in academic publishing. In the absence of such self-recognition in Wales, the ability of the country to project itself in relation to the rest of the UK and internationally is severely curtailed. Of course there are historical, economic and political reasons behind this difference between Scotland and Wales, but there is also simply a difference in assumptions about self-worth.

An Association for the Study of Wales is a necessary development, but it does not provide a solution. There is also a risk that it might help perpetuate rather than challenge the existing marginalisation. To consider the study of our own country as ‘Welsh Studies’ – as it will no doubt be known, no matter the name of any organisation – is effectively to internalise that marginalisation. An illustrative example of this is to be found in visual culture. Much of the substantial body of Welsh visual material we now have, and understanding of a national art tradition, is a recent development, and is the result of efforts by Peter Lord over years of challenging powerful institutional resistance. The biases of an anglocentric view meant that there was no framework in which most of the visual culture of Wales could even be seen, let alone discussed. The compelling evidence which Lord uncovered and which he presented on its own terms, rather than within what he called a connoisseurial tradition, meant that ‘Welsh art’ could no longer be excluded from our national institutions or consciousness. However, even now there is no constitutional commitment in our art institutions to make the visual culture of Wales the starting point, rather than an add-on, or wing, or temporary juxtaposition to the ‘international’ (by which read Anglo-American) art tradition. Consequently, the manner in which Welsh art is shown both perpetuates this marginalisation and makes it difficult to challenge.

At that meeting convened last November, Professor Richard Wyn Jones identified the ‘Diamond Review’ as an opportunity to lobby for a commitment to university teaching, research and publication about Wales. ‘The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements’, to give it its proper name, would seem to have little to do with the status of Wales in the world, but in fact it does, and critically: as Wyn Jones pointed out, it will likely determine the shape and direction of the HE sector for years to come. Consequently, when, in February of this year, there was an invitation to submit evidence to the Diamond Review, the Learned Society of Wales issued a call to action, and there was a significant level of response. Both within academia and outside, and both within Wales, the rest of the UK, and abroad, many people found the revelation about the status of the study of Wales within Wales shocking, outrageous and bizarre.

An important part of the submissions that people made to the Diamond Review also concerned University of Wales Press, because of course academic publishing is an inextricable part of teaching and research. As the country’s sole reputable and internationally highly regarded academic publisher, UWP plays an essential role in providing the platform by which we might know ourselves, by which future generations might know themselves – and by which we can project ourselves confidently in the world. However, given the poor credibility of Welsh subject matter beyond the borders of Wales, it is difficult to place scholarly work with academic publishers. By their nature, such works have a niche readership and are not economically viable without subsidy. At present, there is a strong, deep commitment at UWP to support publication of research on Wales despite the challenges in funding, and despite the fact that there is no constitutional obligation to do so, nor the institutional or financial support to ensure that this is viable. As with the efforts of individuals within academic departments to lobby for a Wales focus, so the current commitment to publishing Wales-related research at UWP is the product of the committed vision of its director and the University of Wales, of which it is a part. Nevertheless, without constitutional obligation, and without committed funding support, the publication of Wales-related research is dangerously vulnerable, because all publishers are under the pressure of contradictory economic, cultural and political imperatives.

Yet when UWP is situated in the wider context of the publishing sector in Wales, the funding situation looks both bizarre and indefensible. New books of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction published by Welsh presses with a definable publishing list are all potentially eligible for funding through the Books Council. So, too, are the journals that discuss them, and provide a platform for their authors. Indeed, works that are of cultural value to Wales are grant-supported in recognition of their limited potential readership. Other more commercially viable works are also supported: it is understood that the profit generated by these more ‘popular’ titles will help support a publisher’s unprofitable works of cultural value.

By contrast, academic works – both journals and book publications such as those published by UWP – are not eligible for support. It is certainly appropriate that they not be subject to the same funding criteria, because what pertains in the one market (which, on the English-language side, is in competition with UK and US publishing conglomerates) does not pertain in the other. The expectations of peer review demanded by any reputable academic press and practised rigorously by UWP are as alien to the Books-Council-funded commercial/cultural publishing sector as are the promotion requirements of a debut novel to the academic sector. But funding criteria aside, the huge disparity in the amount of public funding for the two sectors is wholly inappropriate.

Until recently, UWP was able to publish works on Wales with the help of a small sum from HEFCW. That fund of £132k was recently withdrawn and, despite protests, will not be reinstated. By contrast, the Books Council distributes some £2.7m annually to non-academic publishers. The two publishing sectors are, nevertheless, interrelated: some of that research on Wales published by UWP also profiles and legitimises literary works published with WBC support. This makes the disparity in funding even more indefensible.

HEFCW now allocates its £132k in funding to universities, rather than to UWP. However, individual university funding for publishing is allocated according to the priorities of that institution. If neither teaching nor research in the study of Wales is a priority in any given institution, support for publication on Welsh subject matter is even less of one – and yet, as will be immediately apparent, teaching, research and academic publishing are inextricably bound up with and mutually interdependent on one another.

If the government itself does not accord to the study of the country its due status and recognition, how can our higher education institutions do so, or our academic publisher? If the government doesn’t explicitly require and support the teaching, research and publication of the study of Wales, what hope is there for its future, when economic and market pressures will dictate other priorities?

By all means let the Western Mail celebrate the daffodil Google doodle once a year – but if we want to leave a more lasting impression, we have to rectify this failing in self-worth first. For if we cannot take ourselves seriously in this way, how can we expect others to do so?


Jasmine Donahaye is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University. Her latest book is The Greatest Need, a biography of Welsh Jewish author Lily Tobias. She is a former editor of Planet, and was formerly Publishing Grants Officer at the Welsh Books Council.

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