“What is a letter?” Interdisciplinary symposium, Oxford, 2-4 July 2014

I was fortunate to be invited to give a paper at the interdisciplinary symposium: “What is a letter?” earlier this month, by the organisers, Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig and Caroline Socha.

It is hoped that the papers presented will be published and meanwhile there are full details of the programme, including abstracts, available from the symposium blog.  Rather than try to cover the main programme here, I thought I would mention a few side shoots from my experience there.  One such is a mind map produced (after I’d had to leave) which I think does a good job of summing up concisely some of the themes raised. For me, many of the issues that are often raised in Literacy Studies appear here; such as materiality, social practices and text trajectories, albeit sometimes expressed with different terms.

IMG_5175 mind mapA highlight of the extra-mural activities for me was the invitation to view some of the special collections of the Bodleian library.  We were introduced to some of the most interesting items by the Keepers, headed by Chris Fletcher.  The most fascinating letter for me was one written by John Evelyn to Samuel Pepys.  Of course these are the two most celebrated diarists of their age (if not for all time) in England, but what was salient at this point in their correspondence was their interest in naval affairs.  Evelyn was a board commissioner, concerned with sick and wounded sailors as well as prisoners of war while Pepys was clerk of the acts to the Navy Board. Evelyn’s letter, written apparently while he was indisposed, included this marvellous sketch of the Dutch fleet making a raid up the Medway in June 1667. This map (pasted into a book into which such letters have been collected) is so marvellously detailed it includes a key to the ships and even details of sandbanks.

IMG_5101 Evelyn map


An event I missed at the end of the conference was a workshop on letter locking by Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Jana Dambrogio (Conservator of special collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  From talking with them earlier, I know they are interested in many of the historical practices concerning, for example, folding letters to go through the post when envelopes aren’t available. IMG_5219 tuck and sealJana had shown me how letters were folded in the Soviet Union during WW2.  Here is another kind of example of folded letter.

folded letter

I’m certainly sorry I missed that workshop.

My own contribution was a paper about writing Edwardian postcards. There is a short illustrated summary here.

A couple of other papers at the symposium also drew upon an earlier work from the Literacy Research Centre, the book Letter Writing as Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall.

Post Literacies in the linguistic landscape


What could be more iconic of the British Empire than the red pillar box emblazoned with the monogram of the monarch? Both South Africa and the Irish Republic kept their pillar boxes after independence but the Irish ones were promptly repainted in green, while the remaining South African ones are still red. Meanwhile in both countries they provide a space for displaying official language policy. The South African one (photographed in 2012, but probably unchanged for at least 20 years) reflects the Apartheid-era policy of treating English and Afrikaans as equal official languages in accordance with the 1910 constitution, but ignoring the rest (there are now 11 official languages under the 1996 constitution). The Irish pillar box (photographed in 2006) shows English (the second official language according to the constitution of the Republic) and Irish (the ‘national language and first official language’), in that order (i.e. the second official language first). In both the South African and cases, exactly the same content is given in both official languages and the fonts and letter sizes are identical for both, metaphorically establishing the languages as equally important.

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Despite the South African constitution declaring 11 languages now to be official, the most recent incarnation of the posting box is just in one language – English. the same, incidentally, is true of the stamps.


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PhD studentship: Online development and assessment of deaf learners’ English literacy

Our colleagues at the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS), University of Central Lancashire, are offering the following PhD studentship.

Reference Number: RS/14/02

Applications are invited for a full time PhD (via MPhil). The studentship is tenable for up to 3 years full-time for a PhD (via MPhil route) [subject to satisfactory progress] and is open to both Home, EU and International applicants. The bursary will cover the cost of tuition fees at the Home/EU rate plus a maintenance grant of £3000 per year. International Applicants may apply but will be required to fund the difference between Home/EU and International Fees. The successful applicant will commence on 1 October 2014.

Project Title – Online development and assessment of deaf learners’ English literacy

Project Description
The iSLanDS Institute is pleased to invite applicants for a full-time PhD studentship focusing on the assessment of deaf learners’ literacy and the development of a virtual learning environment for the acquisition of written English by deaf Indians.

English language literacy for deaf communities is a strategic growth area for the iSLanDS Institute. There is an emerging recognition of the valuable role of sign bilingualism, and pedagogy relying on the medium of signed languages, in the development of deaf people’s English literacy. The Institute has considerable experience in creating online resources for language teaching, including a pilot project in which we established an English Learning Platform for deaf students. The studentship holder will make a substantial contribution to both the applied work and to the theoretical base surrounding the development of deaf literacy, by empirically determining how to perform more accurate assessments of deaf learners’ English language levels.

In summary, the studentship holder will play a key role in our work on deaf literacy by concentrating on the following:

1) research on content design for a virtual learning environment aimed at teaching English to deaf sign language users in India and at least one other country;
2) analysis of the English language output from these learners against the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Applications are invited from candidates with a postgraduate degree at MA level. We will prioritise sign language users, but given the limited pool of people who are proficient in a sign language, we will also consider non-signers who are willing to learn sign language during their time at UCLan.

Informal enquiries may be directed to Professor Ulrike Zeshan email: uzeshan@uclan.ac.uk

Requests for an application pack (quoting the reference number RS1402) should be directed to the Research Student Registry. Tel: 01772 895082 or email: researchadmissions@uclan.ac.uk

Closing Date: 23rd May 2014
Provisional Interview Date: 20th June 2014


One of our LRC PhD students, Michelle Lawson, has been writing about her PhD research in the blog post linked here:


Her work studies discourses of lifestyle migration around the British in France, combining analysis of media representations with analysis of online forum interaction and interviews with other British migrants.  This post focuses on her analysis of data from print media, showing a clear representation of the British as ‘an invasion, with no sense of adventure’.