Manga, The British Museum

“思春期誘惑” by 南宮博士 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Francesca Benatti, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities

I recently visited the Manga exhibition at the British Museum (23 May-26 August 2019), the largest of its kind ever to take place outside of Japan. Manga is the name commonly applied to Japanese comics. Behind this simple term hides a galaxy of artistic, historical and cultural practices, which the British Museum exhibition elucidates for a Western audience.

Manga are composed of frames (koma) and contain a combination of black-and-white line drawings, speech balloons, onomatopoeia and symbols (manpu). Together, these form a language of visual storytelling that is central to Japanese identity and is increasingly popular in the rest of the world.

The exhibition begins by explaining the historical roots of manga, from the 12th-century Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, to Hokusai’s 19th-century drawing manuals, to the satirical magazines inspired by Punch that emerged in the late 19th century. Kawanabe Kyōsai’s 17-metre Shintomiza Theatre Curtain (1880) is the spectacular apex of this part of the exhibition.

The ample section on Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) acknowledges his centrality in the development of modern manga through new publishing and artistic practices. Original artwork is on display from Tezuka’s seminal series, such as New Treasure Island (1947), Astro Boy (1952-68) and Princess Knight (1953-67), the first manga to address a female readership.

For a book historian like me, it was rewarding to see the attention paid to the dynamics of manga production. Interviews with manga artists (including numerous female mangaka such as Kōno Fumiyo and Hagio Moto) and with the commissioning editors of the major manga publishers illustrate the complexity of the creative and production processes of an industry worth £3bn a year in Japan alone. The weekly and monthly magazines serialising multiple titles, as well as the tankōbon collected editions can achieve sales of millions of copies across the various formats. By way of comparison, US comics titles struggle nowadays to sell more than 100,000 copies.

The diversity of contemporary manga is then illustrated through its multiple genres, including dramatic manga, comedy manga, shojo manga for female readers, shônen-ai or boys’ love manga (also aimed at women), shônen or boys’ manga and sports manga. Each genre is illustrated through noteworthy examples, such as the football manga Captain Tsubasa (a childhood favourite of mine in its anime television version), and Inoue Takehiko’s immensely successful basketball series SLAM DUNK and REAL, the latter notable for its portrayal of disability.

Where the exhibition truly shines is in its depiction of the sociological and cultural impact of manga. When studying literature, we are often taught to adopt a critical distance from our object of study. The opposite is true with manga, where audience participation is central to its impact, as shown here through exhibits and interviews from the twice-yearly Comics Market (Comiket).

The event, which attracts an audience of half a million otaku (persons with obsessive interests or fans), shows the extent to which manga readers enter into a dialogue with the medium. This takes the form of creative engagement through self-produced dōjinshi comics, which are sold at Comiket, and through the practice of cosplay (costume play), where fans dress up as their favourite characters, seeking physical immersion in their favourite manga storyworld.

The future of manga is the subject of the final section. Here the focus is on the growing transmediality of the form. Increasingly, print manga are part of a complex ecosystem that interweaves digital comics, television and games, highlighting the permeability of the form to new technologies and publics. The growing presence of manga outside of Japan is also brought to the fore, through collaborative works and through the adoption of the visual language of manga by European and American creators The appeal of manga to a wide audience both in Japan and in the rest of the world, its ability to adopt multiple registers, from escapism to social engagement, its embracing of new technologies and formats, all suggest that this art form will continue to transform and to engage readers for the foreseeable future.

Accompanying the exhibition is also an excellent catalogue edited by curators Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (British Museum) and Matsuba Ryoko (Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, University of East Anglia).

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Early days with the Professor of Literature

Dennis Walder, Emeritus Professor of Literature 

When I used to travel to Walton Hall for meetings I was fortunate to have Arnold Kettle, the Head of Department and sole Professor, sometimes invite me stay in the rambling old Kettle house in Aspley Guise.  After an evening discussing the politics of the day, we would listen to Arnold’s favourite opera singers, as he produced disk after disk from his vast collection.  He was hugely knowledgeable about opera (as is his elder son, Guardian columnist Martin Kettle).  At breakfast he would have two newspapers beside him – The Morning Star and The Times.  The first time I noticed this I enquired – Why The Times? ‘You need to know what the opposition is thinking,’ he replied.

Arnold Kettle was a prominent Communist, and knew he would never be appointed to a chair in a conventional university such as Leeds, where he had been Senior Lecturer for many years despite his eminence as a literary critic. His students there included Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it is striking that just prior to the OU he was briefly Chair of the English Department at the University of East Africa, Dar-es-Salaam. A few years ago at the University of Namibia I met one of his former students who recalled how Kettle had brought local African texts into their curriculum for the first time. ‘We are doing the same,’ he said proudly.

Kettle was the OU’s first Professor of Literature – not of English.  He chose the broader title for the Department too, believing literary study should range more widely than the standard English Department fare.  ‘You cannot say you know about the novel if you haven’t read Balzac and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Turgenev, ‘ he would say, ‘in translation if need be, as well as Dickens, the Brontes and James.’ He set up what became our massively popular full credit 19th Century Novel course, with an appropriate range of writers and issues.  And helped me to introduce texts from the former colonial territories into our curriculum, despite opposition.

Another early appointment, Brian Stone, a drama specialist, was a war veteran with an artificial leg, whose politics could not have been further from Arnold’s.  Brian provided the other side of the dialectic, remarked Arnold. There were many disagreements, not just between them. But everyone’s commitment to the idea of the course team, the most original and challenging departure from how conventional universities created and taught their courses, was profound. Nick Furbank, from King’s College Cambridge (E.M Forster’s friend and biographer), and Graham Martin from Bedford College London, were the next appointments, and a formidable group they were.  The emphasis initially was on more senior, experienced academics to translate their teaching into the new format, although soon there was also a young appointee, Cicely Havely, fresh from Oxford.

Course Team Meetings often ended up, as we used to say, with ‘blood on the floor’ – especially when creating the first multi- and interdisciplinary courses. But, as I discovered after my appointment, you soon got used to colleagues from other discipline areas critiquing your work, and the result was plain to see, as we began to come across well-thumbed copies of our course materials in other university libraries, despite the unusual A5 format of the ‘units’, and the initial disdain of other institutions. My own PhD supervisor at Edinburgh University seemed embarrassed to confess he was taking a bunch of our materials with him when he went to the States to teach a semester. ‘So well written,’ he muttered.

Initially drawing external examiners from established chairs elsewhere ensured growing acceptance of our ‘standards’, although there were some surprises on both sides.  At one exam board I was chairing on the 19th Century Novel Course the external reluctantly agreed that a paper was a First, adding, ‘but it’s not a transcendental First!’

In any case, Kettle did not believe that we as teachers of literature should be concerned overmuch with firsts.  As he said to me once, ‘The students who are going to get firsts can look after themselves; what we should be concerned with is teaching the majority, who will not get Firsts.’

Kettle was wise and subtle, and, as a chair, would keep his comments to a minimum.  His expression was often hard to read, which could be intimidating. So too was the fact that he had a phenomenal memory.  He could on occasion be cutting: once when a distinguished BBC colleague who always arrived late and with a hefty bag slung over his shoulder, came into a course team meeting with the usual commotion, Arnold turned to him: ‘Come for the night, Alasdair?’

He had a healthy skepticism about how much you could teach literature through television.  The real work was done through the printed materials, textbooks and the marking of student essays. His own academic background was relatively traditional, through Cambridge and Yale – although his Yale PhD was unusual in those days.  I once asked him about his Yale experience, and he said that while there he met the one person who had left the most lasting impression upon him of anyone he had come across:  the great bass baritone singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson.

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Voices from the Past: Peterloo and New Historical Fiction

It’s exciting to hear that Hilary Mantel’s novel The Mirror and the Light will be published in March 2020. Like many thousands of historical fiction fans, I am impatient to see how she concludes her epic trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell. However, I’m also keen to see historical fiction focus on the lives of those who have been given only a footnote in the historical record.  Earlier this month I organised a conference in Manchester with my Creative Writing colleagues Heather Richardson and Joanne Reardon, commemorating the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre and considering the role of historical fiction in celebrating marginal voices from the past.

Held at the People’s History Museum, the conference brought together a number of speakers including writers and academics from different disciplines. The keynote was Jacqueline Riding, historical consultant to Mike Leigh for the film Peterloo.

Jacqueline briefly summarised the events that took place on 16 August 1819. On that day at St. Peter’s Field, a combined force of local yeomanry cavalry and British-army regulars  tore through a pro-democracy meeting of 60,000 people. Many of the local yeomanry were drunk.  At least 15 people were killed or died later from their injuries, including an infant and two women, and over 650 were beaten and maimed. This terrible event is the focus of increasing interest, with a number of books published recently including Jacqueline’s Peterloo: the Story of the Manchester Massacre.

The first panel discussion looked at the way in which historical fiction writers interact with historical fact, and why they tell the stories they do. Novelist Emma Darwin suggested that often readers go to historical fiction looking for stories that aren’t covered by history, sometimes focused on whole sections of the community, sometimes on individual voices that have not been heard, citing the example of Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light which tells the story of Maire O’Neill, partner and muse of Irish playwright J. M. Synge who became a successful Hollywood actress.

Michael Green talked about his novel The Ghosting of Anne Armstrong, and his research process. It is based on the story of a 14 year old girl who went before a justice in Northumberland  in 1673, accusing her neighbours of witchcraft. Michael came across the story on a plaque in his local pub, and became engrossed in the research journey, which eventually led him to the National Archives at Kew where he found Anne’s depositions. Her unlikely story caught his imagination: ‘A voice gets me and won’t go away.’

The panel ‘Touching history – tactile historical fiction’ focussed on the importance of tactile objects when connecting with the past. Vivienne Richmond presented on her work on the clothing of the working class and talked about her book Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England. It is hard for us to understand the way that clothing was coded in the past, and historical fiction set in the Victorian period – such as The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber – can help decipher such codes, because writers producing work for 21st century readers make information explicit which would have been implicit in the work of Victorian writers.

Vivienne also suggested that as the scraps of fabric that mothers left with their babies when leaving them at the Foundling Hospital in London are often vibrantly patterned, we can assume that they wore dresses made from such fabrics. The concept that we generally have of ‘the poor’ wearing clothes that were shabby and drab would only apply to the most deprived.

Heather Richardson talked about her research process in her novels Magdeburg and Doubting Thomas, and her recent project ‘A Dress for Kathleen’, in which she commemorates the life and death of her aunt Kathleen during a blackout in World War II by making a dress using a contemporary dress pattern and creating an artefact that blends the verbal and the tactile.

The conference also encompassed new ways to present historical fact. Graphic novel Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, a collaboration between cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald ‘Polyp’, artist and activist Eva Schlunke and academic Robert Poole, demonstrates that it is possible to distil detailed academic knowledge into the succinct visual form of graphic art.

The final panel event was a ‘Big Book Group’ discussion in which Emma Darwin talked about her book The Mathematics of Love, which encompasses the Peterloo Massacre, and her latest publication: This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin. Emma described how The Mathematics of Love began as a response to a writing exercise where the prompt was ‘watch’. Immediately the image came into her mind of a red-coated English soldier watching a girl bathe in a Spanish river – and so her main character was born.

Throughout the conference there was a sense of connections being made and links being forged, and of possibilities for future collaborations. One conclusion is that this is a vibrant, multifaceted form that offers continually evolving interpretations of past realities. There is a full report of this conference on the Contemporary Cultures of Writing site.

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‘An Agreement Born of Impossible Conversations’: Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, Belfast, 25-31 March 2019


Patricia Ferguson, PhD student, English Literature

I have taken as my title this arresting phrase with which the poet Matt Kirkham, writing in ‘The Belfast Agreement: Twentieth Anniversary Issue’ of Irish Pages, sums up the Good Friday Agreement, an anniversary which is also the theme of this year’s Imagine! Festival.[1]  In his preface to the programme, the director Peter O’Neill invites us to enjoy ‘a unique way of imagining the future of this great city [ … ] as we try to make sense of this volatile world’. It builds on last year’s theme of restorative justice, which asked, ‘How do you change a punitive mindset into a restorative one?’

On that occasion I learned about friendship clubs, integrated schools, and heard Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners speak from the same platform. I thought this last the most heartening of all. I thought that this Irish genius for conversation, which they call the craic, might prove sufficient to heal the city’s wounds. I realise now that none of last year’s conversations could suffice, because not one of them was impossible, not even that between the ex-prisoners. That conversation, I now see, was not in fact between them; they told their stories to us, the audience, not to each other, and left the stage unreconciled.

The conflict lasted so long that ‘only people of my age, pensioners, can recall what the peace was before the Ulster Troubles. We can speculate what life might have been like, had we not had our thirty year war’.[2]  Given such a history, that the Agreement ever happened is something of a miracle, but the brittle accord which it achieved might yet be shattered by Brexit into nothing more than a twenty year truce, because, as Mary Robinson warned, it institutionalized sectarianism. Can there be any irony more bitter than this, that ‘when a cross-party delegation visited South Africa, even Nelson Mandela had to address Unionists and Republicans separately’?[3]  If the peace is to survive, let alone grow stronger, they must learn to talk to each other.

The poet Damian Gorman (‘What Rhymes with Conflict?’), who spent ten years working with young people from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, understands this perfectly. He read to us from his poem ‘If I was us, I wouldn’t start from here’, which is a reflection on the Agreement. He exhorted us to ‘tell your story until it’s told’, but no less vitally, to listen to the other person’s story – and he means listen; to do that, he said, you must clear a space inside yourself and let your enemy in, because ‘Each generation has a sacred task – |To tell a better story than it was told’.

I helped facilitate the Open University’s event, ‘Reading in Conflict’. The members of my group got no further than the first extract, a passage from Anna Burns’s novel, No Bones, set in Belfast in 1983, and bringing back the most searing memories of growing up as children of the Troubles. I wish I could have recorded their stories! But as with the ex-prisoners, Catholic and Protestant talked to us, the visitors, not to each other. As the week went on I became ever more aware of the Belfast people’s urgent need to find ways of talking to each other across the sectarian divide – but how can they, when the very geography of the city is designed to stop them? The Peace Walls are obvious enough, but a multi-disciplinary research project at Ulster University, (‘Hidden Barriers’) has been able to prove that, in redeveloping the city, the authorities closed off former thoroughfares, divided through-streets into cul-de-sacs, and put in ‘a proliferation of dead-end alleyways and courtyards with a single entry-exit point’ with the express purpose of keeping Catholic and Protestant apart, a policy which defines Belfast to this day.[4], [5]

We saw some of this for ourselves, looking at Ligoniel through virtual reality headsets, and then properly on the ‘History of Terror Walking Tour’. Like Damian Gorman, our guide Paul Donnelly has spent years as a mediator; ever since the ceasefire he has been working on dialogue projects between Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners. The interview he gave to Chris Luecke for ‘Pubcast Worldwide’ can be found here  It’s well worth a listen!

Perhaps it is because of the Brexit frenzy that the divide seems deeper than ever this year. When on the one hand I heard the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama of the Corrymeela Community use a story from the Bible (‘The Book of Ruth, the Moabites and Brexit’) to illustrate his plea for generosity and a more civic discourse; then on the other heard Ruth Dudley Edwards, quoting her friend Lionel Shriver, dismiss Sinn Féin as a ‘cancer’ (‘How Violent Republicanism Entrenched Partition’), I think I was the only person who had attended both talks. The question and answer sessions made it quite clear that neither group was there to learn; they were there to be comforted in the views they held already. Here are a few more lines from Damian Gorman’s poem on the Agreement:

The kind of myth my generation supped
Was, ‘We have better heroes than they’ve got.
For ours are much more decent – to a fault,
And if we’ve a rotten apple, they’ve the Rot’.

I burn to point out which side it is that has the Rot, but I know that until I can be cured of that, I am not part of the solution but part of the problem. I too must learn, in the poet Moya Cannon’s delightful phrase, ‘the nobility of compromise’.[6]

[1]     ‘Mission Impossible’, Irish Pages, 10, no. 2 (2019), 148-60 (p. 159)

[2]     Robert McDowell, ‘On Educating Memory’, ibid. 138-40 (p. 119)

[3]     John Gray, ‘A November Night’, ibid. 61-68 (p. 64)

[4]     David Coyles, Brandon Hamber and Adrian Grant, Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast (Belfast: Ulster University, 2018), p. 10

[5]     To this day, indeed: a headline in the Belfast Telegraph, 9 April 2019, reads: ‘It should be renamed Sectarian Street – [Orange] Order questions building of houses near Belfast Orange Hall’.

[6]     Title of Moya Cannon’s article, ‘On the Nobility of Compromise’, Irish Pages, 10, no. 2 (2019), 76-83

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Reflections on Critical Thinking in Italy, France and Scotland

Judith Gorham former MAED (Applied Linguistics) student

My summer 2018

Critical thinking is a term much bandied about. Undergraduate and postgraduate degree course programmes tend to include it in their aims, though how this plays out differs. We know it when we see it – when a student essay shows a stance on what has been read – and we know it when we don’t see it – in endless descriptive regurgitating of reading.  I’ve even heard of an Italian university offering a single lesson on it, which ticks the box.

How do we actually get students to integrate critical thinking into an iterative working process? This was what led me to my dissertation main research question: Can student dialogue during group-based activities act as a medium for joint critical thinking?

Dialogue seemed a good place to start because of its potential for many-voiced texts, aka different ways of looking at a problem. In an Action Research study with a C1 (advanced) English for Academic Purposes class, I asked students to plan group presentations over three weeks, using discussion of sources to develop and refine slides. I decided to consider face-to-face and online dialogue, where distributed collaboration could lead to knowledge evolving over more extended time. I hoped for cross-multiplication of modes, where a multimodal text forges original meanings.

This was my plan. Then I started working with the students…

Half the class didn’t consent to their data being used – despite assurances, they believed it would take up too much of their time. In the first lesson, half (a different half!) were absent, so my carefully planned groupings had to be reworked on the hoof during the lesson. The next lesson everyone came, so all original groups of three had to accept a latecomer. Some groups viewed this positively, but others less so, and some latecomers remained ‘on the edge’. It also meant that the online threads got off to a rather haphazard start, and remained the weakest mode of discussion, critically speaking.

My carefully planned intervention was not as absorbing for students as I’d hoped, and I was surprised by how meandering some of their discussion was. More unsettling was the way some groups used superficially friendly interaction, apparently welcoming contributions before quickly contracting the interaction, and redirecting the discussion. This was only really apparent through my later Exchange Structure Analysis, adapted from North (2008), and SFL analysis of interpersonal metafunction. I related these analyses to my critical thinking categories, which were developed from Krathwohl’s (2002) reworking of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning objectives.

It was not all bad news. Some face-to-face discussion really did lead to critical thinking, and one group built on each others’ ideas productively, using grammatical metaphor particularly effectively to open out space for critical thinking to emerge.

But the data where critical thinking was least evident was in the slides (visual language), and there was very limited exploitation of the cross-multiplication of modes that had seemed so full of potential. Groups were keen to paste images from the internet into their slides, transferring adverts with minimal recontextualisation, so endorsing wholesale the voices implicit in them, with a negative impact on the coherence of their own critical stance.

It was quite disappointing.

Eventually my analyses led me to two complicating factors that I had underestimated. These were external motivation in the form of a grade for the presentation, and internal motivation in the form of empathy. Negative past experiences of group-work had led to a lack of trust in the process, as well as a kind of persistent ‘novice’ approach, where tasks are divided up and then brought together without any real collaboration.

What did I learn?

Certainly that people are unpredictable. Also that my Spring 2018 data collection was about no more than Spring 2018. I wrote the dissertation last summer and by the end felt I knew the students better than they knew themselves. By September I had met many of them again in new courses and had to rethink my conclusions. The student who had shone in data analysis had become lazy; one group villain turned out to be a really creative thinker.

When I read the dissertation now, it takes me back to the places I worked on it last summer: our basement in Italy, a French campsite, someone else’s study during a house swap in Scotland. Moving about might seem a recipe for losing focus, but I found it actually helped to create deadlines. Data analysis had to be completed in France; writing up was during the month-long house swap. It was a bit like chapters. I think there’s some French beach in the data analysis and some Scottish weather in the writing up, though hopefully not cloud cover!

North, S., Coffin, C. and Hewings, A. (2008) ‘Using exchange structure analysis to explore argument in text-based computer conferences’, International Journal of Research and Method in Education, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 257 -276.

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview, Theory into Practice, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 212-218.

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Inspiration in the Third Space

Marielle Meulenberg, Former Masters Student, Applied Linguistics, WELS


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” While inspiration nodded its acknowledgement, anxiety reared its ugly head to taunt me on a regular basis. I had spent the module previous to EE819 panicking about a research topic. Being a private language teacher didn’t lend itself to extensive study of formal learning and provided little material to work with – or so I thought. As we progressed through the initial stages of EE819, I felt like there might yet be a glimmer of hope as ethnographic study took a front seat in our syllabus.

Then BOOM – enter centre stage, ‘The Third Space’. This is where lines are blurred and any combination along the formal-informal continuum has its merits (and faults, but let’s focus on the positives, shall we?). I found I was able to allocate my teaching environment to the Third Space, and that this too was a valid area of study. Having wrestled at length with doubts about the benefits of my teaching to my learners, my EE819 research project provided the perfect platform from which to begin systematic and critical study of this question. It would either assuage my guilt, or kick it up a gear.

I conducted a qualitative single case study that incorporated action research. It involved video and audio recording, participant journals, and (follow-up) interviews. Despite having only one participant (acknowledgement to said participant for being so dependable, committed, and patient), the amount of data produced over our ten-week data collection period was impressive. I spent many hours at my kitchen table transcribing and studying video data, poring through participant journals, reviewing and revising my literature review, and catering to the demands of two very rambunctious little monkeys. Oh, did I say monkeys? I meant my daughters…

Being a wife and mother as well as a private language teacher, I would spend the daylight hours living my ‘normal’ life, and then, come evening, I would retire to the solitude of the kitchen where I had my caffeine within arm’s length (literally), and the solution to most of my girls’ requests easily obtainable (let’s face it, water, food, and a first aid kit solve most daily child-related issues). But despite the division of actions between ‘normal’ and ‘study’ life, I admit that I was hard-pressed to halt thoughts on my research. Wherever I went, whatever I did, I was constantly thinking about how to condense and prioritise my findings, how to structure my interpretations in a clear and systematic way, and how to take the findings from my very informal teaching environment and make them relevant to formal pedagogical discussions.

I was battered by a combination of ‘eureka’ moments and self-deprecating thoughts of inadequacy. I experienced the highs of a well-formatted descriptive sentence that further served to link themes and the anxieties of staring at my computer screen while wondering whether I could ever pull it all together. Nonetheless, as I gradually approached the submission deadline, I was on track with my self-imposed writing schedule (summer holidays with two young children required an adapted timeline). As my data interpretation was iterative and ran parallel to data collection, I had the advantage of kick-starting the writing process early on. I wrote far more than 12,000 words over a period of three months, and the most painful challenge was to mercilessly cut themes from my discussions. With files full of data and a stack of literature at my side, I returned religiously to my research questions to ensure that the findings I included were the most relevant and evidentiary.

It literally hurt (okay, more emotionally than physically) to exclude themes – especially in relation to the action research aspect of my project. My limited teaching environment had suddenly expanded into a much larger world of potential learning, for myself as much as my learners. The act of reviewing videos and studying learner journal reflections enhanced my awareness and criticality of self as teacher while permitting me an appreciation of the environment I created for my learners. The EE819 research project became much more than an academic obligation. It was the confirmation I needed to accept that I was indeed teaching, but even more importantly, it evidenced how ‘Third Space’ learning fomented my roles as mentor and motivator to my learners.

It’s one thing to teach formal language structures, it’s another to inspire and motivate others to put aside their self-consciousness and be willing to engage in the target language outside of the language classroom. It took me almost ten years of teaching, three years of part-time Masters study, and a few months of research and manic writing, but I now proudly state that the latter has become my personal benchmark for success in my language teaching.


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Thinking Aloud: Ethical Research

Shafquat Towheed, Senior Lecturer in English

[Image 1: The Africa Museum, Tervuren, Belgium]

‘In a very few hours, I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre’, said Conrad’s Marlow about his return to Brussels in Heart of Darkness (1899). Following in Marlow’s (and Conrad’s) footsteps and carrying with me a well-thumbed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to re-read on the journey, I recently stopped in Brussels on the way to Africa. For me, this was a trip with special significance, for perhaps more than any other single work, it was Conrad’s searing indictment of colonial exploitation, fashioned in the form of a quest romance, which first introduced my teenage mind to the possibilities of literary fiction. Before encountering Conrad, as a child I had been an avid reader of encyclopaedias, National Geographic magazine, books of adventure and factual travel writing, but not of high ‘literary’ fiction. In essence, Conrad was my introduction to the literary canon.

I had been waiting to visit the now rebranded Africa Museum (formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa) in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, for a long time. The Africa Museum is the largest single collection of objects, artefacts and archives relating to Central Africa (Congo, Rwanda and Burundi) anywhere in the world, with over 10 million zoological specimens, 170,000 photos, 120,000 ethnographic items, 8,000 musical instruments and some 3 kilometres of historical archives; only 1% of the collection is on permanent display. Initially conceived as a propaganda exercise for the Brussels International Exposition of 1897, the museum moved to its grandiose, purpose built palace (modelled on the Petit Palais in Paris) in 1910.

The collection represents in material form, the staggering acquisitiveness of high 19th century European colonialism: the stolen natural and manmade treasures of Central Africa on display at the heart of Europe, a display that has been called ‘a monument to the worst excesses of European plunder’. Even more disturbingly, during the Belgian colonial period, human exhibits were a standard feature of the museum; Congolese men and women brought to ‘animate’ the collections during colonial expositions lie buried in unmarked graves in its grounds.

Over the course of the last decade the museum has been the subject of an extensive refurbishment, opening on 8 December 2018 after a five year period of closure. The refurbishment (and indeed, the reimagining) of the museum was long overdue; the Royal Museum of Central Africa had become an embarrassingly large colonial relic.

[Image 2: gilded statue of King Leopold II inside the Africa Museum]

Nothing can disguise the naked paternalism and casual assumption of racial superiority at the heart of King Leopold’s venture, demonstrated most viscerally in the gilded statutes of the Belgian monarch engaged in the civilising mission that dot the marble clad interior of this palace museum. But the refurbished museum is now making a start at acknowledging some of the unpalatable truths from which visitors had been shielded for over a century. As Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) has shown a century after Conrad, the sheer brutality of forced labour in the Belgian Congo resulted in the deaths of over 10 million people and has been called a ‘hidden holocaust’. The Africa Museum now features a new educational centre and information that begins the conversation about how an archive such as this, constructed as an unrepentant celebration of imperialism, can be used to interrogate and confront in the past – and be of relevance to new, multicultural generations growing up in Europe’s political capital.

[Image 3: forced labour in the Congo Free State, c.1904 – on display in the Africa Museum]

So, why should any of this matter to us today? Conrad’s writing on colonial atrocities in Africa in Heart of Darkness had a clear impact in terms of shaping my early literary interests, and proved pivotal in my choice of subject to study at university; eventually, this led to a career as an academic in English Literature. Likewise, visiting the newly reopened Africa Museum after a lengthy period of closure represented the fulfilment of a personal wish; but curiously enough, there is also a particular relevance to my own practice as a researcher which I should like to reflect upon, something it is relevant to anyone researching in the humanities and social sciences today.

Academic research (like the rest of life) does not exist in a vacuum, but is always shaped by historical, political and economic forces. I have recently been awarded a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to support my research. I am of course, delighted to be the recipient of this prestigious small grant, which will allow me to develop over the course of two years (October 2018-October 2020) a current research interest of mine, the reading (and engagement with reading cultures) of the explorer and travel writer, Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993) . Like almost all funding councils, the British Academy is bound by a code of ethical standards and is committed to supporting excellence in research; it really is as it claims, a ‘voice that champions the humanities and social sciences’. But where did the money for my research project actually come from?

The Small Research Grant scheme is funded in partnership with the Leverhulme Trust; founded in 1925 as a bequest by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1856-1925), this registered charitable trust provides annual research funding of over £80 million. Leverhulme, like Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) whose tainted legacy is now the focus of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, was both an extraordinary philanthropist, and a ruthless imperialist. Leverhulme’s business empire (Unilever) was substantially based on the exploitation of African land, labour, and raw materials. As the historian Jules Marchal has demonstrated in Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo, Lord Leverhulme was a personal friend of King Leopold of Belgium and an unapologetic supporter of imperialism in Africa. Unilever massively depended upon forced labour in Congolese plantations for its guaranteed supply of palm oil for the production of soap (this practice continued uninterrupted until Congolese independence in 1960). Incidentally, the British Academy was first proposed in 1899, the same year in which Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first serialised in the pages of Blackwood’s Magazine; it received its Royal Charter from King Edward VII in 1902, the year in which Conrad’s novella was published in volume form, and is currently based at Number 11, Carlton House Terrace, which from 1856 to 1874 was the home of W.E. Gladstone, Prime Minister at the time of the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) that formalised the European colonial carve-up of Africa (and confirmed King Leopold’s personal fiefdom of the Congo Free State).

[Image 4: forced labour during the Belgian colonial period. Africa Museum]

As the motto in the welcome hall of the Africa Museum reminds us, ’everything passes, except the past’. This first admission of the brutality of the colonial past means that the decolonisation of the Africa Museum has only really started in 2018, and may take some decades to reach fruition. Sadly, the exploitation of Congo’s natural resources by corporate and neo-colonial external powers with the connivance of successive regimes, exemplified in the 30 December 2018 elections, continues to this day. A century ago, it was rubber, timber, ivory and palm-oil; today, it is gold, diamonds, and especially columbite-tantalite (coltan) ore to extract tantalum, the metal that powers the smart phones of the world.

[Image 5: welcome hall, Africa Museum]

We cannot change the past – but we all have a duty to acknowledge its pervasive influence on us today, for we are all, whether we like it or not, the products of European imperialism and colonialism. My visit to the newly refurbished Africa Museum as a grant holder of money, derived in part from the forced exploitation of Congolese labour, provided a salutary reminder about the personal responsibility we all bear in terms of ethical research: we must conduct our research in accordance with the ethical guidelines of funding councils, but also, and more importantly, openly acknowledge the source of that funding and the human exploitation and misery that created it. To do any less, would be to dishonour the countless victims of imperial exploitation, and be a grave disservice to ethical research.



The Africa Museum reopened to the public on 9 December 2018. It is open for visitors everyday apart from Mondays and the standard closure dates of 1 January, 1 May and 25 December. Shafquat Towheed is a Senior Lecturer in English at The Open University, and visited the museum on 18 December 2018.

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On writing a diary of literary terms

Richard Jones, Lecturer in English Literature

Daisy, I say, it’s time to put you in a blog post.

Not likely, she says and starts to squeeze out of it.

I don’t mind this. The whole point of the blog post is to see how Daisy gets out of it.

I’m just an experiment to you, she says, not an animal at all.

Let’s try rhyme, I say, or sonnet or perhaps something more Heideggerian like being thrown into the kitchen.

You’re lucky I’m not a cat, she says.

Daisy hates cats.

The cat that was put in a box was pretty cheesed off, she adds.  Whipping about like a mad thing.  It wouldn’t tolerate this.

A blog post is not a box, I say.

Speak for yourself, she says.


We are silent for a while as I try to think of a way to coax Daisy towards the blog.  The trouble is that her eyes are full of the outside.  That was Rilke’s insight about the face of an animal: we know what is out there only from its gaze. That’s the starting premise.


Daisy, it seems, has become fixated on the cat.  That Dear Reader chap, you like so much, she is saying, had a cat.  An insistently real one.  It unsettled him by padding about and following him into the bathroom.  We can try that out, if you like, she says.  Would you like to get undressed?

She is getting cross now.  Little by little, I find she is stepping onto the page.  Is that how the outside comes in?


Hey Daisy! I say. Have you ever wondered what Shakespeare would sound like on a kazoo?  Daisy raises an eyebrow.  She is curious.  So I pick up a kazoo (doesn’t everyone own a kazoo?) and speak a few lines of Hamlet into it.  Famous lines. Lines everyone would know. That gets Daisy’s attention. It turns out that Hamlet on a kazoo sends her wild.  It’s not because of the words, she says. It’s because they have been taken back to the borders of meaning. To be or not to be? is Hamlet’s question – but on a kazoo it’s a more pressing matter. To mean or not to mean? The suspense keeps me playing all afternoon.


That’s an example of a blog post.  One animal at the mercy of language and one who is not.


You are talking about the cat again, says Daisy. (She doesn’t like to be tricked like this.) I wish it would just die, she adds matter-of-factly.

The whole point about the cat, I say, is that it is in two states at once.

Like your precious Literature, says Daisy.

Exactly, I say.


We proceed like this.  Daisy trots up and runs on (enjambement), brings me a rag (a text), jumps at her own farts (the ghosts of her desire) and props herself at the bar (well, Saussure’s). We work our way through everything: images, shadows, beginnings, translation and interpretation, poetic feet and poetic fallacy, rhythms, excesses and lacks, machines and nature and wonder. What have we discovered?


You know, says Daisy, you remind me of one of your eighteenth-century friends: Very Stern. Didn’t he give a macaroon to a mule just to see what it would do with it?

I’m sorry about that, I say.

That’s just what he said, she replies.


I’m glad Daisy has brought up the eighteenth century. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I muse upon its gruff critical spirit.  Its experimentation.  It was a time when a writer could be a critic but (because of an enthusiasm for quotation) not a real critic, or a historian who (because of a talent for abridgement) was not a true historian or a novelist who (because of a love for borrowed plot lines) was not a true novelist.  It was a time of writers who (because some Victorians did not think so) turned out not to be real writers.

I sum up these musings by saying: talking to a dog is not real critical work.

Now it’s Daisy’s turn to take pity. Her eyes are full of the force of somewhere else.

The only way to find out, she says, is to look in the blog.

We tiptoe up to it.  Prepare to take a look.

Wait, she says all of a sudden. (Or was it woof?) Best stop here, she says.



The cause of this commotion is the blog, on which a new post can be found from time to time. Even though a link to the blog has been provided, there is perhaps more to be gained by not clicking on it.



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Teaching for the OU – having the time of my life!

Dr Lynda Morgan, Associate Lecturer

It is February 1976. I am 23 years old, recently graduated with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, and I am about to walk into a shabby classroom at Sarah Siddons school, Paddington. I have no idea what to expect; I am both excited and nervous. Balancing on rickety chairs in front of graffitied desks eleven students are poised to begin, among them the wife of a leading politician, a prominent woman designer, a young Egyptian man from Paddington’s bedsit-land who is struggling with his English, a woman who lives in one of the most expensive squares in London, an elderly man who left school at fourteen and fought in the First World War, and a middle-aged tube driver who tells us he reads the teaching material in his cab while the train drives itself. What unites this disparate group is hope – the dream of achieving something they all thought was beyond their reach. They are also all dreading the first assignment; it’s almost the first thing they mention. I am daunted, but struck by the realisation that they are more nervous than I am. I am also touched that they think the tutorial is worth coming out for on a cold wet night, and I am determined to make it so. That is my first lesson: it is about them, not me.

They take it for granted that I know what I am doing. By the end of the evening I think I have made a reasonable job of appearing to, but the reality is that I was learning a lot myself that first evening. The one thing I could not know, however, was that in going into that classroom to teach my very first OU tutorial I was stepping into what would be the most important and fulfilling element in a long and varied teaching career. 43 years later I am still stepping into classrooms – some real, and, these days, some virtual – to teach OU students, and still valuing every minute of it.

The course I was teaching was A100 – known in those days as the Arts Foundation course. It was a wonderful module, packed full of material on philosophy, art history, history, literature and music, all brought together by Oswald Hanfling’s regular input on logic. Students tussled with Sophocles and Shakespeare, form and meaning in music, and, amazingly, D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The amount and complexity of material they took on at level 1 was breathtaking. On TV, usually at unsocial hours, they could listen to discussions of poetry (with the text of the poem scrolling across the screen), hear lectures on sound and a recording of Bertrand Russell’s memories of Lawrence, and watch scenes from Aristophanes’ Clouds. It is hard to realise now how groundbreaking all this was. I thought it was marvellous, and I realised how little I knew. Yes, I knew a bit about literature, but I was ignorant of all sorts of other things. In a way A100 began what I think of as my ‘real’ education – a rigorous schooling in argument, a bringing together of disciplines into a rich interplay of ideas, and a questioning approach that was to inform all my subsequent teaching, as well as my later postgraduate studies. I was introduced to things I had no idea about, and I can honestly say that teaching A100 took me at least as far in my own education as my first degree had done.

A100 also taught me how to teach. I began to realise that OU teaching wasn’t in essence about how much you know – though knowing things is obviously essential – but about bringing mixed groups of people together, and engendering an atmosphere in which they feel they belong and are safe to try out ideas and ask questions. It is about finding ways of rendering complicated ideas accessible, making apparently arcane material relevant, and empowering people with the belief that they, too, can understand and have a right to respond. It is about enthusiasm and excitement, helping students to think independently, and being able to tolerate it when their ideas are different from your own. Perhaps most importantly it is about thinking on your feet. In the early days I was constantly faced with questions I had never considered, things I had taken for granted in my own very traditional education: Why do we bother to study Shakespeare? Why do we write essays like this and not like that? Shouldn’t good literature be easy to understand? Isn’t making things difficult just showing off? I was also learning how to deal with awkward situations: the student whose first words were, ‘I hate poetry; what are you going to do about it?’; the student who sat in the corner with his back to the rest of the group, tutting loudly, and refusing to speak until he suddenly said, ‘I have never heard so much twaddle in my life’. Who knows whether he was referring to me, or to Jan Kott’s material on A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

A100 was replaced by A101, another demanding course with Hamlet and Jane Eyre as the literature texts, and then in 1982 I was appointed to teach A312, The nineteenth-century novel and its legacy. I was thrilled to be teaching level 3 literature, and the richness of this course enchanted me. This was in the days of summer schools, where we had the privilege of spending a whole day on Anna Karenina, and another on Middlemarch, and in between we fitted in Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’urbervilles, Cousin Bette, Germinal, On the Eve, and Huckleberry Finn. Bliss! We ended each week with an entertainment put on by tutors and students – the result of rehearsals squeezed into coffee breaks, and ‘brilliant’ ideas generated late at night in the bar. There were spoofs of Miss Havisham, and unlikely meetings between Pip and Count Vronsky, alongside inevitable jokes about the geese that left droppings everywhere on the lake-filled campus of the University of York; many a skit began with the actors examining the soles of their shoes. Every year I longed to be cast as the seductive Rosamond – every year I was the serious Dorothea … I can’t overstate how wonderful the many weeks I spent at York were, seeing the excitement and discoveries of students who were experiencing full-time study for at least one week of their lives, and benefiting from the dedication and support of marvellous colleagues who all taught me a great deal. Indeed, I met my fellow bloggers Dennis Walder and Richard Allen there, as well as many others I still think of.

I went on to teach a series of other courses, all of which did something new and exciting: A319, Literature in the modern world (which taught high-level critical theory alongside the literary texts. Many said the students wouldn’t cope with it – they did!);  AA316, The nineteenth-century novel (which gave students the opportunity to have fun with Dracula, and to read lesser known novels like The Awakening); A300, 20th century literature: texts and debates (which asked questions about the construction of meaning and the role of readers, as well as including many texts that students loved and said they would never otherwise have read – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Kiss of the Spiderwoman; poetry of O’Hara and Ginsberg); and currently A334, From Shakespeare to Austen (which particularly gives value to students’ own voices and their chosen research). I also played a part in the development of Creative Writing in the OU, teaching the first two 10-credit creative writing modules, A174, Start Writing Fiction, and A175, Start Writing Poetry, as well as acting as what was grandly and somewhat improbably called a ‘supermonitor’ for the award board.  After that I shared with my colleague Lynne Dixon the moderation of the national student and AL online forums for the new 60-credit modules, A215 and A363. We worked on those forums together for 10 years, and we would both agree that it wasn’t always an easy job. It was, however, a privilege to work with and advise so many students and colleagues, and also to work so closely with one another. Not many days passed without numerous emails between us discussing how to resolve this or that problem!

So much has filled my OU years that inevitably a lot has to be omitted. But there is one topic that I can’t leave out: what the OU has offered, especially in its early days, to women. Of course it has been important for men too, but as a woman myself I can’t help but be forcibly struck by the opportunities it made available to women, and its contribution to changing how they saw themselves. It is difficult to remember how unusual it was when the OU started for women to be educated to degree level. In the early years my groups were full of women of all ages and backgrounds who had not had the chance of an education beyond the age of sixteen. They talked about how no-one had thought it was important for them to do anything other than get a job and/or marry and have children. Many said that now their children were at university they wanted to prove they could do it too. It was not unusual for a student to pour her heart out about how her husband resented her study and tried to prevent her doing it. Others said they could only do it without complaints from their families if the study came last after every detail of cooking and housework had been completed. Some were studying secretly, with their study materials sent to a friend’s house – I would be instructed not to telephone them or write to them at home. Some arrived at summer school terrified because they had never been away from home on their own before. In the days before mobile phones there would be queues of women waiting to use the telephone every evening so they could tell their husbands what they needed to do the next day to keep things going at home. Most of them had filled the freezer with cooked meals for the week and had left lists of the order in which meals were to be taken out and put in the oven; they anticipated arriving back to piles of unwashed dishes. Newspapers sometimes reported on the so-called wild goings on at summer schools; but behind the sensational headlines there often lay moving stories of deeply unfulfilled women discovering that there was more to life than hoovering. A week away from home, with like-minded people and the excitement of full-time study, was a heady experience. Some women realised they needed to make substantial changes to their lives; I remember more than one woman refusing to go home at the end of the week unless her husband agreed to a divorce. This was a time of radical social shifts, and although the OU was often blamed for breaking up marriages it was not responsible for the changes taking place. It did, however, play its part in the shifting social landscape by giving women educational opportunities they had never expected to have. Of course plenty of women lived contented lives with families that were proud of them, and they were just thrilled to have gained a degree; others, however, needed the OU to help them lay claim to a different way of living. I received numerous letters from women students thanking the OU for opening up their lives in ways they could never have imagined.

Sarah Siddons, where this all started for me, has been demolished and replaced with luxury flats, and the OU itself has changed tremendously. It is, however, still staffed by people dedicated to offering an opportunity for excellent education to everyone who wants to try it, and it is still full of students excited by academic study who work their socks off to gain a degree. I hope this will remain the case for many years to come. But whatever happens to the OU in the future, nothing can change the fact that it is one of the most important educational developments to have taken place in the twentieth century. I am very proud to have been part of it, and grateful to it for the joy and fulfilment it has given me.

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Reading as a writer: ‘Offshore’

Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer, Creative Writing

As creative writing academics, we constantly remind students about the importance of ‘reading as a writer’, and in my own reading I sometimes wonder to what extent this should be a conscious process, and to what extent something that I try to sublimate, reading as a reader, enjoying the book in a naïve way on first reading at least. In an ideal world, I would read everything twice, but as we know, this world is not ideal. Therefore, the way I consume books is a compromise, shifting between immersive engagement with the narrative and awareness of the techniques the author is using. As with the business of writing, novel reading is protracted, sometimes disrupted, sometimes seeming like a professional duty.

So looking back on my reading in 2018, what stands out? The novel which made the greatest impression on me was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won the Man Booker prize in 1979. The narrative focuses on a group of misfit Londoners, on the posh side of classless, who live in a row of semi-derelict boats on the Thames during the 1960s. None of them quite know what they are doing, or are entirely honest with themselves, and their compromises and misdemeanours drift with the ebb and flow of the river.

It’s hard to identify a protagonist, or a clear narrative through-line. But chaotic Nenna James comes closest to being its heroine, and her haphazard, wilfully disordered life presumably reflects that of Penelope Fitzgerald herself, who lived on a houseboat with her children after her first marriage collapsed. The point of view shifts among numerous characters including Maurice, a romantic and part-time rent boy, elderly marine painter Willis and Richard, an ex-naval man now working in insurance. All live half-way lives, at the edge of both land and water.

Nenna is incapable of doing anything practical, even a trip to Stoke Newington on public transport seems to faze her. Her visit ends in near disaster, shoeless in a rainstorm, pursued by a lecherous stranger. Yet at the same time, she is resilient and stoical, her expectations of life heroically low. In contrast, her young daughters Martha and Tilda are bizarrely precocious and competent, managing their bohemian lives with pragmatic ingenuity.

What I love about the book is its wry, strange humour, and Fitzgerald’s evocation of a lost London, not the place that we would associate with the Swinging Sixties, but more like the city that Dickens would have recognised. This metropolis is a post-war ruin not yet obliterated by developers, the river still a thoroughfare as it has been since Roman times. Fitzgerald evokes the inner lives of all these drifting, dreaming characters with intense precision as their stories unfold on the leaking vessels that the river will soon reclaim.

So what did I take from this book that will inform my writing? Initially, I was resistant to the way in which the point of view shifts are handled, with the narrative spinning around so much that I felt disorientated. But the effect builds over time, so that some scenes are focused intensely in the point of view of one character, and others achieve a choral effect. I also realised, by the time I finished the novel, that this kaleidoscopic perspective is consistent with the subject matter. The characters’ moods, desires and allegiances are in constant flux, just as the Thames is never still. Any piece of writing must similarly find its own shape, and the narrative mode should emerge organically from the material. And yet there is always the temptation to force a work of fiction into an already familiar format, to make it recognisable.

In addition, this book informs my knowledge of writing as an occupation, as this was a notoriously controversial Booker winner. The judges (Asa Briggs, Benny Green, Michael Ratcliffe, Hilary Spurling and Paul Theroux) failed to make a unanimous decision, unable to agree on whether William Golding should win with Darkness Visible or V.S Naipaul with A Bend in the River and so they gave the prize to Offshore which was ‘everyone’s second choice’, according to Spurling in a Guardian review of Fitzgerald’s collected letters. Spurling writes: ‘The presenter of the BBC’s book programme told her angrily that he’d been promised she would lose. Drunken reporters upbraided her for making them rewrite copy citing the favourite… according to her editor, the misery of this episode and its repercussions haunted her ever afterwards.’

What interests me here is the arbitrary nature of literary awards, and the way that they have increasingly become a measure of esteem and status. There is no reason to suppose that Offshore was inferior to the two books that caused the dispute between the judges, but Fitzgerald was made to feel that winning the Booker was a compromised achievement, that not being ‘the favourite’ meant that she was a writer of lesser quality.

Reading her novel today, it flashes with brilliance and strange insights. I’m inspired by her quiet eccentricity and her determination to pare her work down, creating something elliptical and magical in the midst of the chatter and turmoil of the book industry. The noise seems even louder now, so quiet eccentricity is even more important.

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