Born and raised in Hungary, the actress Veronika Varga moved to Brussels to train at The Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Veronica then completed her training at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris.
In Paris she found her breakout role in the short film Emilie Muller, which merited much critical acclaim. Working across Europe in three languages Veronika has established a brilliant body of work; including roles in The Witcher, The King of Paris and The Serpent among others during her dynamic career across the European continent. Frequently travelling to London for film auditions Veronika has established links with Durham as her children now study here.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background? Where were you born – where did you train/move too etc?
I grew up in Communist Hungary, in a poor neighbourhood in Budapest, my father fought for my education and I was lucky to go to a good school despite of the circumstances.
Higher education is particularly difficult to get into in Hungary and so I left for Belgium for a year to learn French.
Acting has always been a passion of mine, and something that I have dreamed of as a child. I left Hungary, where Universities are particularly hard to gain a place at, so I applied to train at the Royal Conservatory in Belgium Brussels. I was supposed to return to Hungary the following year, but at the encouragement of my teachers applied to and won a place at the National Conservatory of the Dramatic Arts in Paris, which was a huge achievement, at a time when people wouldn’t easily leave Hungary, nor get back in, it was a risk that paid off!
Why did you choose not to return to Hungary to train?
The acting schools in eastern Europe are being called out for the way the treat young actors- they break them down to build them back up again. There is a degradation of creative young people, which is being spoken about and exposed at the moment. The first time I auditioned in Hungary I knew I couldn’t train there. Hopefully things will change for young actors training now.
One of your first works, the short film Emilie Muller (1994) was a critical success, and continues to be acclaimed today- could you tell us a little about the film and how it changed your life?
It’s a short movie, of about twenty minutes directed by Yvon Marciano. It’s about an audition of a young lady who presents what’s in her bag, giving a touching story for each item.
It’s like my little clock, it’s been twenty-six years, almost every week I receive letters, parodies or commentary on the film- pictures, drawing comedies- I’m always reminded of it. It was my biggest success: it was a big project, but if you don’t immediately bounce off it get more roles, it becomes difficult to have a big break- it was a hit but in the film world that doesn’t mean the actors instantly become famous.
Watch Emilie Muller here now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Om8e9494G-Q
You perform and act in three languages! What does this mean for you as an actress and do you believe the languages (French/Hungarian/English) communicate emotions differently?
As grew up in Hungary [then a communist state] I discovered the theatre by chance, on a trip to Belgium.
I was able to discover the world of theatre through the French language. I was learning the French language at the same time that I was learning to be an actress, they were intertwined completely, I learnt fluency in French through theatre roles. There is a formal space, a large space between the language of the play and the role of the actress, and I can fill that space through fully inhabiting a role on stage which breaks down any barriers in language.
For me it is so difficult to act in English. To audition for a scene in English it takes a lot of work. I am able to do improvisation in Hungarian and French, but not English. Before a scene in front of BBC casting director I trained with an English friend and even was hypnotised so I believed I could speak English for the audition!
Acting in different languages have also been symbolic of the different stages of my life, and my movement through the world and my own life. In terms of communicating emotions, English is still very difficult and I am working on a project where I have to speak English for a full series for a Hungarian project.
Do you feel frustrated that commercial projects are often in English, even when projects are European?
Well English is a communal language, the project I’m working on is Pan-European and offers insight into many different European cultures through the medium of English, which makes it accessible for many people across the continent.
What is your favourite medium to act in – theatre, television or film?
The theatre for me- it is my first passion, to act in front of the camera is not the same thing- it’s very, very different. I have come to like working in film and in front of the camera, but it wasn’t immediate, my dream was always the stage. My training in the conservatory focused on the theatre, we wrote plays as young students and trained performing in them. It’s the life you live and breathe as a young actor.
Do you have a favourite theatre piece or playwright?
The Seagull, by Anton Chekov is my favourite. I love this play, in my first film, and it was about the theatre, and in the film was focused around the performance of the play. it’s a story which happens in Paris in the thirties and is focused around the theatre.
What would be your dream role and your dream Director to work with?
I’d love to work with Thomas Ostermeier [a German director best known for his genre of Capitalist Realism, and applying his realist aesthetic onto classic plays] in my opinion the best director for Shakespeare. I have seen his work in Berlin and Budapest. He engages with the text and gives it a modern understanding, despite its classical groundings he engages with the text and digs for the hidden messages not just using modernity as a setting, but as a theme to deconstruct and understand the text.
I loved his production of Ibsen’s A Dolls House, A dream would be to play Nora in his production.
You recently starred in Small Country: An African Childhood, about a young French child who becomes caught up in the Rwandan genocide. What did the project mean to you and do you believe the film is political or simply a comment on history?
I read the book and loved it. I played the role of a beautiful character, of a teacher- a very fair and just person.
The film is both, it is a political and historical film. To me it’s interesting because it allows us to see the start of a political event, a genocide through the eyes of a child. We can understand how hierarchies of power filter down discreetly- we see the rise of a power but not directly through a power structure, but through a disempowered child. This allows the audience to analyse the insidious ways prejudices filter down manifesting into barbaric events.
What has been your favourite role to play?
Phèdre, has been my favourite role which I played in a production directed by Christian Rist. I worked six years on the piece. I travelled to six cities in Morocco and around France with the company. We played it more than a hundred times.
It is my favourite role, I got so attached and dug so deep that I understand the character understood the message, the character became very personal to me. The play is written in Alexandrine meter, the more I worked on it the clearer the meter became to me, it was like breathing when I was speaking. When I stopped playing the role it was like talking part of myself away, because the role meant so much to me.
You have spoken of your love of the English theatre- what have you seen and what makes it different from Hungarian or French productions?
I have seen Warhorse, and I adored it- and I find that English theatre is similar to Hungarian theatre, it is more accessible, and it is a wonderful spectacle and show. Theatre in France is less accessible, it is serious and classical and is less democratic than English and Hungarian theatre.
I’ve seen it- it’s a fantastic production! [Warhorse is available to watch on the National Theatre Live site until January 2021].
Have you ever been to Durham? What did you think of it?
I have been! I like the town a lot – particularly the Cathedral and Palace Green- it’s very beautiful.
What role did you have in The Witcher and what was it like to work on the set of such a big budget production?
It was a small role- I was a 'Cintra Upper Class Woman', but the set was incredible [shows photo of an elaborate set] and although my role was very small my hair alone took three hours, and had about three kilos of extensions. There was a lot of money behind the production and so the sets were really elaborate, it was filmed in Hungary and it was my first insight into how American TV influences and shapes Hungarian productions.
Three hours!! Do you enjoy the transformation process before you play a role, like hair and makeup?
I like the transformation. It’s one of the main characteristics of acting and my job, it helps to fully embody the character, it’s like dressing up in childhood. I used to tell my children I used to go to ‘plays’ and they used to get angry because they thought I was playing with other children and not with them!
Finally, who would play you in a movie of your life?
I would! Or a famous actress? Julia Roberts or Audrey Hepburn are beautiful and I adore them, so I’d pick either.
Thank you so much for speaking with us! Enjoy Christmas in Budapest!
Special thanks to Ilona Barbier for her help translating.
Check out some of Veronika Varga's film work throughout the holidays!
Emily Wright is an English Literature Undergraduate, with an interest in modern theatre, impressionist art and world literature particularly theatre works in translation.
Alix Collingwood Swinburn
After a BA in Visual Culture from Brighton University Alix Collingwood Swinburn studied a Masters degree in Art Museums & Galleries at the University of Newcastle. She currently works as the Curator of Durham University’s six-thousand piece Western art collection. Alix’s work as a curator of a collection without a ‘home’ or museum space challenges traditional ideas of viewing art, and has generated a creative and innovative curatorial response.
Alix defines her interest in “the contemporary role of the curator, in how we work with collections, and how we make them active and central to the user's experience”. Alix has previously said of the aims of her work that ‘creativity should be embedded into education and everyday learning and that art should be seen as a tool for research, education and social change”. The Definite Article spoke to Alix about working to diversify and democratise the Universities body of art, and celebrating art for all.
Hi Alix, thank you so much for speaking with the Definite Article! We are excited to engage and shine a light on our University’s fantastic art collection. Could you tell us about yourself, and your role at Durham University?
Hi Emily, thanks for having me. My official title is curator of the Western Art Collection and I have worked here for four years. I work with the collection of modern and contemporary art; we currently have around six-thousand art-works. The art collection currently lacks a central space and so can be found instead around the University estate- in the Palatine Centre, the Business School and within colleges. I previously worked as Curator at MIMA (The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), working there from its beginnings as a local authority run art gallery into its management by Teeside university. I particularly enjoyed working within the university-education context, as there are affinities between curating and learning.
Where is the collection from? What does it mean to ‘curate’ it?
The university has been collecting for decades. The art collection is comprised of works donated to colleges and departments. More recently, works have been acquired to support teaching, research, wider student experience and engagement. The University Library and Collection department has developed an Acquisitions Panel and a Collections Development Policy meaning any acquisition has to fit our strategic aims for the collection. Collecting is a considered development, and it takes resource and capacity to look after collections.
I see. What are the ‘strategic aims’ of the western art collection?
We are trying to fill the gaps we have and continue to represent contemporary practice. For our collection a generalised aim is the diversification of the collection- it is somewhat typical of collections of its period - it contains a large proportion of dead, male white artists. We are working to make the art more reactive and more relevant to our contemporary times.
How are you working to achieve this? How can art be contemporary and reactive?
We are attempting to acquire more artists from the local area and currently active artists. It is important that when looking back at the collection all periods are represented. Artists responding to current socio-political events are integral to the collection. For example, Craig Oldham’s work is a recent gift to the collection. It is a limited edition print created at the start of the first lockdown, and contains the slogan ‘May they Never Be Deemed Low Skilled Again’. It was a response to Priti Patel’s immigration ‘points-based’ immigration system in which ‘low skilled’ workers would not be able to enter the UK. The piece points to the fact that it was these so called ‘low skill workers’ who kept the UK going throughout Covid. The works were sold and the profits went to local charities in Manchester..
Very poignant. Can you give me some big names in the collection?
We have a Damien Hirst, prints by Andy Warhol, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Sandra Blow, Salvador Dali and Picasso. More recently we have focused on artists from the region and who are working currently. We have acquired a work from a recent PHD student Finola Finn, who won a commission at Lumiere, with ‘Know Thyself’ a throbbing red heart at the Counts House. We have collected a Craig Oldham print which is a project called ‘In Loving Memory of Work’ which reflects on the miners strikes of 1984/85 and is incredibly relevant to this area. Equally collages by Jo Stanness feature brutalist buildings in County Durham. We always try to collect considerately, and consider the conceptualisation and interpretation of the piece when collecting.
What does your job comprise of as curator of the collection?
My role at Durham takes two strands, firstly: collection management and organisation for the long term, organising public exhibition space and the practical management and care of artworks. Collection management focuses on looking after the artworks to ensure they are enjoyed by future generations to come. We are working to make the collection accredited. This is a a standard of best practise, and includes elements of conservation, collection care, collection engagement, documentation. sThis is what we are actively working towards. The second side of my role is around increasing access to the collection, and utilising the collection within the university and our local communities…
How have you been promoting the collection/ widening access to the local community?
The collection has been relatively unknown in the past, both in the university community and in a wider national and international community as it doesn’t have a museum/home and perhaps lacks a identity museum or venue identity. Part of what we’ve been doing is thinking about how to increase access to a collection that doesn’t have a public space. We have been lending the collection out and developing public facing activities with the collection, with exhibitions in our other university museums, and in temporary pop up exhibitions. We have also developed an arts festival, working with Durham County Council, student music and student theatre called ‘Summer in the City’ (www.sitcfestival.org). The visual arts programme is inspired by and works with the art collection. We also work with MA and BA students to work on curatorship and curating their own exhibitions. Furthermore, we have set up the ICAN art network for any students interested in art or creative visual culture, to share best practise and ideas.
Your role as curator of the art collection is particularly interesting as the collection has no ‘home’, museum or central place for display, and challenges a traditional academic way of engaging with art. How has this challenged you as a curator ?
It is our be our ultimate ambition to have a space. We are currently looking at a medium term solution,to display the collection and to test the want and need from an art gallery space from the local community. I am keen for the space to become an ‘art hub’, and that it has a wider holistic offer- including workshops, film spaces, potentially resident artists working within the space. I am also keen that it won’t be a permanent, long term display but offer shorter term rotating exhibitions increasing our ability to change and interrogate different works and different themes from the collection, alongside showing artists from outside of our collection.
Sounds great! You have also created the Student Art prize- could you tell us a little about that and how students can get involved?
The art prize concept responds to student feedback around the display of student artworks and conversations with Alumnus Richard Roberts, who is incredibly passionate about art. So the concept of a yearly art competition with cash prizes was born. The Student Art Prize is very generously funded by Richard Roberts, a St Johns College alumnus. and offers £1500 for first place, £1000 for second and £500 for third. He has funded the art prize for the next twelve years providing an opportunity for art to flourish and expand within the university. The winner is added to the art collection each year and sits within the wider collection. The theme for this year is heroism and is inspired by the events of the last year, however we are encouraging for students to approach and interpret the theme in its broadest sense and seek heroism in nature and objects - in anything! You can find out more at www.dur.ac.uk/art.collection/artprize/
Are you providing any support to students who may want to enter?
This year The Art Prize will be running an Art School, with various artist workshops, talks and activities- there will be art packs available to be sent out to students to encourage creative activity throughout the year. Details will be on the website soon, so do keep your eyes out. [The Art Prize closes on the 15th February 2021 and any entries are strongly encouraged].
As an MLAC focused magazine are there any pieces from the collection which might be of particular interest to our readers?
We have two series of Salvador Dali’s work; Biblia Sacra and Divine Comedy, illustrations for both books respectively, perhaps of particular interest to students studying Spanish. Also, there is a portfolio of artworks called ‘Hope and Optimism’. It iscreated in is a charitable project launched in 1990 with the benefactors being Magdalen College, Oxford, and art and artists around the world. They invited each the National Gallery or the equivalent in each country in the world to nominate an artist and donate a print to the portfolio, a nominal set were printed and auctioned them off for charity. The series has a resounding message of the international or global citizen and engages with some really interesting artists.
Brilliant stuff. How can students get more involved in the art collection?
We have various opportunities throughout the year. There are many opportunities to get involved in the Summer in the City Festival. Last year we had students work on podcasts on specific pieces of the collection for us, interviewing artists and arranging art trails around the city. This year we are mainly looking at remote work, but we are always excited to hear from people about ways they might want to get involved.
Has the collection got anything planned for the future, and coping with Covid?
We are talking to DUAS abo our civic responsibility to share the artwork with the students and the communities around us. Our recent (pre-Covid) exhibition projects, teaching, pop-up curating projects with the students is really about getting the collection seen and used. I am keen that the collection is an active, useful resource- it’s not just frames on a wall !
Thank you so much for talking with us today Alix! We are hoping to continue to shine light on the work of the curators of Durham’s other art collections within the coming weeks!
No problem! Thank you!
[Please do continue to explore Durham University’s brilliant archives and art collections online: https://www.dur.ac.uk/art.collection. The collection ut running a Street Gallery Project. Working with East Durham Createsand regional artist Ellie Matthews in Seaham, Ellie encouraged a local community to respond to images of works from the art collection and other artistsposted through their letterbox and pin the responses they to their windows to create a ‘street gallery’. We are hoping to start a student street gallery project beginning in the Viaduct, and to grow this project over the next year.
[Check out local artist Eleanor Matthews ‘Street Gallery’ here: https://www.eleanormatthews.com/artworks]
I love the sound of a street gallery. As a closing remark Alix, could you comment on who the collection belongs to and how students might respond to it?
Although under the ownership of the University, the collection is very much present within students and community realms,, in that it is is more than happy to talk to students about the works and any particular areas of interest. Get in touch at email@example.com.]
Interview with Dewi Erwan, postgraduate risk student and enthusiastic President at the Effective Altruism Durham Society. EA Durham is a student-run society consisting of Durham students across a range of subjects, who try to unravel what the biggest problems in the world are and what they can do to help.
1. What is Effective Altruism, and what does an ordinary EA session look like?
Effective Altruism is a social movement that tries to determine the best way we can act that will improve the world and make the world a better place, be that in maximizing the amount of pleasure in the world or reducing the amount of suffering. That includes humans in the present and in the future, non-human animals, essentially anything that has the capacity to suffer or to feel pleasure – including even aliens, but don’t mention that!
Each week, we have a range of different sessions. We have predominantly had discussion seminars, whereby a student will introduce a certain topic such as biotechnology, climate change, animal suffering, artificial intelligence, etc. They will present an overview of that topic, and then we will invite members of the audience to discuss them by asking philosophical questions relating to that topic. In the breaks, we also have lovely free vegan pizza! We started to have more regular pub-located podcast discussions too, as well as starting an EA mentoring scheme.
2. Australian wildfires, plastics in whales’ stomachs, increasing social injustice in developing countries… Which are the biggest issues our societies should be dealing with right now?
My greatest fear is biotechnology (Interviewer’s note: this interview was conducted before the novel coronavirus outbreak). I am mostly worried about genetically engineered viruses that are capable of infecting the majority of the human population by spreading very quickly, as well as killing most people who catch that virus. I think this is probably the largest risk we face as a society over the coming decades. This technology is developing very quickly, and some biologists are now capable of genetically engineering very virulent viruses to be airborne transmissible between humans.
Other large fears include the future of artificial intelligence, which is a big question mark at the moment, but subject-matter experts are very worried. Then, there is the obvious climate change, however, given it’s received so much attention in the past few years, it’s less neglected so it’s no longer as high-impact a career as working on more neglected risks. Another thing to worry about is the fact that a billion people are still malnourished, which is quite frankly appalling in the world that we are currently living in, given that we have so much abundance. The suffering of animals in factory farms, potentially 70 billion land animals each year without even considering fish, is also something that worries me immensely.
3. You are thinking about the state of the world daily. How do you cope with it and stay positive?
I am naturally a very positive individual, however, I also have many habits that ensure that this remains the case: having cold showers, meditation, exercise, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, having close friends who support me, journaling - you know, all these various things that promote good mental health. Although I certainly don’t do these things as regularly as I’d like to - it’s a work in progress.
In terms of thinking about the largest problems in the world, I am not just thinking about what the problems are, but what we can do to improve the situation. The framework that effective altruists use to determine which focus areas they ought to be working on are scale, tractability and neglectedness. How large is the problem, how many people or sentient beings does the problem affect? Can we, as individuals or as a community, actually do something to improve the situation? And how neglected is the area, does it already get loads of attention? I am thinking about solving the issues, as well as the problems themselves. That allows me to remain positive, because I am envisioning best-case futures and learning from other people who are implementing solutions.
4. What is the strength of our generation?
Interesting question! People our age have grown up with the internet, we have grown up with a huge access to information and the ability to have fairly good critical analysis. We do not just assume things are correct, because we can see counterexamples all the time if we want to on the Internet. We have abundant access to information, and we know how to access that information. Although I would not claim that we’re all entirely rational and not prone to conspiracies, there is a huge amount of work still to be done here in promoting rational thinking and transparent information.
A good thing about young people all over the world throughout time is that we are willing to take risks that older people are not. We are willing to critique old ideas, whereas the older you get, the less likely you are to do so, because you have a lot more responsibility and you’ve lived a certain way all your life. Being young also means that you can more effectively prioritize your career pathways, as the older you get, the more committed you are to a certain path and it’s harder to pivot away if you realise your career isn’t as high-impact as it could be.
5. What can one do, on an individual basis, to be an effective altruist?
I don’t think we should be dogmatic about what it means to “be an effective altruist,” but in terms of what can you do to have a large positive impact in the world, I would say that the first thing you could do is to learn more about the biggest problems in the world. Go into your learning experience with an open mind, be willing to challenge yourself, learn about how you do not know things that you previously thought you knew. It is also important to recognise cognitive biases in your thinking when you are considering hard questions.
And then, in terms of your daily life, the classics are trying to reduce your personal contribution to suffering. The easy ones there are to stop eating animals. More long-term approaches are to go into a career that has a high social impact or that contributes to the prevention of the extinction of humanity, such as working in a high impact NGO or in government helping to develop or implement effective policies. Or you could donate a significant amount of your income to charities (at least 10% is a frequently suggested figure - check out Giving What We Can) that are very impactful and cost-effective in terms of their ability to reduce suffering per pound spent.
To summarize, I would suggest: go into a high impact career, donate money to charity, and stop eating animals.
6. Can anyone from any field in terms of degree join the EA movement and EA Durham?
Absolutely! All the world’s biggest problems these days are interdisciplinary. They require all kinds of different perspectives and an understanding of the world that is greater than one person, one culture, language or gender. We need a diverse set of people in order to better understand what the problems are, so that we do not have incorrect assumptions about what we are doing and how our solutions may play out. In order to make good predictions, we need diversity of thought, both within an individual in terms of your ability to be ideologically flexible, and within a group of people and their ability to have a wide range of perspectives. If you’re interested in making the world a better place, the EA community is a great place to be.
If you want to learn more about Effective Altruism, I’d highly recommend you check out Peter Singer’s TED Talk and the 80,000 key ideas page, and hopefully we’ll see you at one of our events soon!
By Elise Wolff
1) What does Durham for Refugees do to support refugees in Durham and elsewhere and inform the student community about the lived experiences of refugees?
Durham for Refugees supports refugees both globally and in Durham by raising awareness on the issues that they face. This often involves presentations and film showings about current refugee crises and occasionally, casual discussions surrounding the problems refugees face daily. We are keen as an organisation to make people look beyond the label ‘refugee’ which can be seen to dehumanise the real people behind these labels; they are families, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends, just like us. Last year we held ‘A Taste of Syria’, a community event with delicious Syrian food and lots of dancing! All profits went to charities supporting refugees and the Syrian families who prepared the food were paid fairly, too! We also promote other organisations like SolidariTee which also work to alleviate the poor conditions and issues that refugees often encounter.
2) Which are the most important issues that refugees face in Durham?
One problem refugees face is a shortage of basic things, such as toiletries and clothing. As more refugees arrive within County Durham, there has been a drive for extra donations to support organisations like Durham City of Sanctuary in helping refugees have access to these things. Another major problem is discrimination against refugees, whether this be through a lack of social support or racism, which can impact significantly on a refugee’s mental health. Many refugees have undergone traumatic experiences in their journey to escape the severe situations they faced at home, so to face discrimination in a place they thought would be (and should be) safe can negatively impact them further.
3) What could be done by the University and local authorities to solve those issues?
Durham University is certainly in a position where they could help refugees. They could provide financial donations to local organisations supporting refugees, and they could help to set up donation stalls for basic items. As a major part of the Durham community, it could be argued that the university has a responsibility to help local people, regardless of where they are from. In terms of the local council, it is a more difficult situation due to budgetary restraints and the political climate.
4) What do you think European countries can do differently to better support refugees?
Nearly 5.2 million refugees and migrants (some of which may be refugees without official recognition) migrated to Europe by the end of 2016, and the number has only increased since that time. Whilst European countries do at least host some refugees, there is a vast difference between countries within Europe in the number of refugees they hold. Germany accepts significantly more asylum seekers than the UK, for example. It would be good to see more European countries taking their fair share, especially when countries close to the origin of refugee crises typically accept a lot more. At the same time in 2016, Lebanon alone hosted 1.5 million refugees which is around 20% of the country’s entire population. Compare this to the UK with 0.26% of its population having refugee status. Increased budget allocation for refugee aid would be very helpful but educational awareness must also be implemented to ensure that refugees feel welcome.
5) What can one do, on an individual level, to find out about refugee experiences and help?
One of the best things an individual can do to find about refugee experiences and to help refugees, is to see if any local refugee organisations are hosting any forms of awareness-raising events such as talks or presentations, and to check if these organisations need any volunteers. There is a vast amount of information on the internet, particularly the UNHCR, and if there are not any local opportunities available to you, a simple donation, financial or otherwise, would certainly help any organisations supporting refugees. Durham City of Sanctuary is an excellent example of an organisation that helps refugees in the local community. Another simple way of helping refugees is to be welcoming and kind. Spreading this message of tolerance and respect may influence others to follow!
6) What can someone gain from getting involved at Durham for Refugees?
Durham for Refugees has an entirely new exec this year, so we’re currently in the process of planning future events. We recently hosted an open meeting where we discussed important issues facing refugees locally and globally. The meeting was open to everybody and provided new insights for all who attended. We have made group chats for those wanting to be involved in social media, or events, or volunteering, which you can find advertised on our Facebook page. A student group can only do so much, but helping refugees, in any way, big or small, can provide someone with a feeling of global citizenship, knowing that they are doing good in the world for refugees who have faced awful experiences and just want somewhere safe for themselves, their families, and their friends.
By Angelos Sofocleous, Interviews Editor
Interviews Editor Angelos Sofocleous, talks to Mairi O’Brien, Third year Physics student and Co-President of Durham University Women in STEM society.
Durham University Women In STEM (previously Durham WISE) is a student-run society consisting of a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, across a range of STEM subjects.
What does your society do to support women in STEM?
Our society focuses on showing the women currently studying STEM subjects at Durham that there are many career options available to them within STEM and provides them with an opportunity to listen and talk to employers and Durham alumni about their careers. It also provides a community for women to get to know each other using our social events.
Which do you think are the reasons that women are underrepresented in STEM fields?
I believe that this problem begins in as young as primary school children. From the toys we are given to play with to the TV and films we watch, we are being shown that there is an expectation for girls to enjoy certain things. We are shown through the media and in real life that men dominate STEM fields, and this reinforces the idea that this is not something we would succeed at as women. Once we reach sixth form age, many girls will not choose to study A-Level subjects like physics and computer science. According to the Institute of Physics, only 22.2% of physics A-Level students in 2017 were female. From those, even fewer continue to study STEM subjects at university. Some subjects, like biology, are female dominated at undergraduate level, but this is not the case higher up in the department.
Which are the biggest barriers that women in STEM face at Durham University?
As a physics student, I personally feel outnumbered in my lectures, and sometimes out of place. I have no female lecturers this year at all, and for many other STEM subjects there are very few female lecturers and professors too. It is difficult not seeing many people like yourself being successful in your field, and sometimes students can feel excluded. With a lack of role models available, it is the case that many female STEM students do not choose to pursue a career in STEM.
What do you think should be done to solve these issues?
There is little that can immediately be done about the fact that there are few female lecturers and professors, it will take years for this to balance out. I believe it would be good for the female professors and department staff to make themselves visible. I am the undergraduate rep for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee in physics, and I believe that committees like these should promote the work they are doing to students, to show what is being done in the different departments across the university.
How can men in STEM support women in STEM?
Come to our events! It is always great to see men at our events, as we want to make sure we are not cutting ourselves off further by making our events exclusive to women. It gives people a chance to see successful women in their respective fields and may change people’s perceptions of what a STEM graduate looks like. It is also good for everyone to have awareness of how women are outnumbered in certain subjects, so if you study a very male-dominated subject, take a second to look at how many women are in your lectures, and become aware of how they may feel.
What can one gain from joining your society?
Our society membership is free, and events are open to all genders. We offer the opportunity to interact with graduate recruiters and women (and men) from a variety of STEM fields, to ask them questions about what they do and understand what is available after university. We also have a de-stress event and other socials planned for second term, which are all free to attend!
By Angelos Sofocleous
Sometimes you don’t have much choice. And that’s okay.
For a student enrolled on a Modern Languages degree, often the year abroad is a non-negotiable requirement of the course, rather than an optional extra. I lived abroad because I had to; I made new friends because I had to; I practiced the language because I had to. This turned out to be a good thing. My year abroad was an amazing experience, and I am grateful to have had no choice but to embrace it.
Sometimes you don’t have much choice. And that can be unfair.
When considering the year abroad, students tend to be presented with a variety of options, ranging from volunteering and studying to an internship or British Council Language Assistantship. In reality, however, options can be limited depending on budget, the number of months you are able to commit to a certain location, and what you want to get out of the year abroad itself.
Sometimes you have a fair amount of choice, but not the final say.
As part of my year abroad, I spent around seven months working as a Language Assistant in France through the British Council. While applicants have the opportunity to state preferences in terms of preferred age-group to work with and city to teach in, the final say isn’t your own. Furthermore, even if assigned your first choice of city, you may end up located in its outskirts. I was assigned to a Lycée in a small town in the North of France. This turned out to be extremely beneficial for my French, as very few people in the town spoke English. When you have limited say and go into the process knowing you have limited say, you have to accept things as they are and make the situation work for you.
Oftentimes you have more choice than you think.
Though I may have had the impression of spending a year abroad because I was obliged to do so, ultimately, it was my own decision to enrol on a Modern Languages course in the first place. It was also my own decision to make ‘restrictions’ work in my favour. I made the most of small-town life, getting to know the locals, frequenting the local bar and cafés and improving my language skills in the process. The friends I made, and the knowledge and skills I acquired were all down to my own determination to make the year abroad a success as per my own aspirations and expectations. I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend time in Spain, meaning what was lacking in France I could actively strive to compensate for in Madrid.
Though sometimes it may seem that decisions are made for you, it is never quite so simple. You are free to set your own goals and, importantly, to decide how to use the experience to your own advantage.
There’s something about Swing (and DUSS)
Imagine the famous La La Land hit ‘A lovely night’ but with hectic improvisations and a whole room rhythmically clapping at a jazz solo dancer. These and other fantastic scenes I have witnessed since I joined the Durham University Swing Society (or DUSS), and I am now madly, and desperately, in love with it. So here for you Garance Zinzen, founder of the society, to find out why you should absolutely get involved.
Why do you think people should choose swing over other forms of dancing?
There are scientific reasons (e.g. improvised partner dancing helps with physical and brain health), but those are a bit boring and can easily be found on Google so I’ll talk about the non-scientific reasons instead.
Swing is an African-American vernacular jazz dance which emerged in the 1920s in Harlem, New York. As such, it is based on traditions of African dances which focus on rhythm and community dancing. Community is therefore built into the core of the dance and since swing is a social dance, its improvisational nature means that you don’t have to stress about doing the right step. Being involved in the swing community also helps you to become a better person – the more you learn about the dance and its roots, the more you learn about race, gender, and politics. Particularly, at DUSS, we try to emphasise things like the importance of the history of the dance and cultural awareness.
The swing community is unlike any other dance community in the world. If you’re looking for an incredibly social society to join, then a swing dance society is the way to go! There’s a story of a girl who spent a year travelling the world and never had to pay for accommodation: she would stand at the airport she had arrived in holding up a sign which read ‘lindy hop?’ and another dancer would always come up and offer to help her out!
Why do you think this is the moment to join the society?
Oh my gosh, we have so many plans! We’ve already run a beginner-friendly weekend festival and we have plans for two more (Wear Shagging All Weekend in February and Summer Swing in June). Every December, we have our annual Weekend Away, where we hire out a whole hostel in the middle of nowhere and do activities together – beyond just dancing! On a more regular basis though, we have weekly Sunday classes and fortnightly Tuesday classes, and we have our regular Tuesday social, Library Stomp! We also regularly travel to other festivals and events around the UK.
What kind of environment do you strive to create for members?
An environment in which everyone feels welcome and able to express themselves through dancing. One of our mantras is ‘there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s all a variation’, and I feel that sums up nicely what our classes are like. We do a lot of work on safe spaces and ensuring that everyone feels comfortable the whole time they are at DUSS.
Do new members need dancing experience to join?
Absolutely not! Most of our members had never done any kind of dance before joining. We’ve had so many people claim they have two left feet, then they come along to a class and they’re able to social dance by the end.
What is your advice for people wanting to try it out?
Don’t be scared to come along! All of our beginners classes are run as drop-ins so if you are worried you’ve missed content – don’t be! We also pride ourselves on being a super welcoming society and run fortnightly socials, so if you’re not sure about whether you want to join, come to The Library Bar on Tuesdays every fortnight.
By Claudia Sterbini
Encounters with strangers are always unpredictable, sometimes awkward, most of the times stressful. This is especially the case in interviews, where, you, the interviewer find yourself in a unique situation: After doing substantial research on your interviewee, you sit in front of them and you just have one task: ask them questions.
Interviews differ significantly from how we usually interact with people in our everyday lives. The uniqueness of interviews in terms of style and their dynamic, implies that interviews include special rules which it is advised that you follow if you would like to conduct successful interviews.
The Interviews section of The Definite Article presents to you some useful tips on conducting successful and engaging interviews.
Organize the interview well. That means contacting the potential interviewee well ahead of the day you would like to interview them and give them flexibility on the dates you would like to conduct the interview. It is important that you think of the place you would like to conduct the interview at well. If you are interviewing a person with whom you disagree on certain issues and the conversation is likely to get heated, then it would not be a good idea to conduct the interview at their place. Their sense of being ‘at home’ might give them an unfair advantage in your disagreement. In such a case, find a neutral place which will let you conduct the interview free from any external influences.
Of course, at the beginning of the interview, you don’t want to make the interviewee feel uncomfortable in any way. Be polite, courteous, on time, and thank them for the opportunity to interview them. Make them feel at ease by making some small talk or an informal conversation before the interview starts. They will not give you what you want if you come out as hostile to them or if you are just looking for an opportunity to damage their reputation.
Know your interviewee better than you know yourself. They might had been a stranger a few days before the interview, but at the time of the interview you need to have a clear grasp of who they are, their personal lives, their ideas, their strong and weak points. In this way, you are able to focus on the right things during the interview and maybe push them a little to reveal aspects of their lives or expand on ideas you know they hold.
No matter how much research you do beforehand, however, in an interview you have the opportunity to get the fullest picture of a person. And this is because in an interview you have the opportunity to ask the right questions, of course, but also to observe how the interviewee behaves, how they sit, how they talk, how they treat you and other people, how their house or office is decorated. A good interviewer does more than listen. A good interviewer observes.
Try to engage into conversation with the other person. Forget what traditional and orthodox interviews look like and do not just read one question after the other. This ensures that you can ask follow-up questions and tells the other person that you have been listening to what they are saying. If you just read the questions you have on paper in robotic-style interviews then it seems that you are dismissing what they are saying and you are just interested in reaching the end of your list of questions. Instead, let the interview take its natural course.
Conducting an interview is a unique opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction with another person for an extended period of time in which you control and set the rules of the conversation. Following the above advice is crucial in managing to get the most out of your interviewee and having a successful interview.
Angelos Sofocoleus- Interviews Editor
Does public speaking give you nightmares? Have you been learning a language for several years but the cat gets your tongue every time you encounter a native speaker? Hyper-polyglot and three time TED-Talk speaker Sébastien Roger de Nuñez would like to share his simple but effective advice with you.
Sébastien grew up in France with an Argentinean mother, and has travelled and worked in several countries such as Argentina and Romania. Sébastien is a linguistic mastermind. He speaks 12 languages including fluent French, Spanish and English and managed his own language school for several years. However, what makes this polyglot really stand out is how he allies his language skills with other forms of communication. Sébastien applies his skillset as an improv actor to his current position as a communication coach; offering one-to-one classes and organising workshops which are the key to success for business people hoping to get their voices heard amongst the crowds of competition.
Amongst his language studies, acting and public speaking pursuits, Sébastien directed an award-winning documentary film, What music do you speak?, in which he embarks on a road trip from Buenos Aires to the north of Argentina. Sébastien’s work is organic and authentic. His documentary film allows ordinary local people whom he encounters at village festivals and local bars the chance to share their remarkable stories with the unimposing camera. Sébastien’s approach as a director is to listen, follow and weave together a logical sequence of events; whilst equally reflecting the spontaneous beauty of the trip. This endeavour would broaden Sébastien’s understanding of the art of communication. In his film, he demonstrates that music is a language which transverses all linguistic and cultural borders. It unifies us whilst celebrating our differences. Embodying the universal nature of music in Argentina, Sébastien shows us that in Argentina, you do not need a fancy piano, nor a qualification, nor even an ounce of natural talent to pick up an instrument.
One of Sébastien's striking abilities is his positive energy and a can-do attitude which has inspired his 223,000 TED-talk viewers to take up language learning. In his talk ‘Un polyglotte sommeille en vous’ (‘The Multilingual in You’, in French with English subtitles), Sébastien explains that he was never born with a natural gift for language acquisition. He struggled to make any progress learning Japanese in the classroom environment. The real turning point was when he decided to start to speak the language from Day 1, focusing on what he already knew from languages that he had previously acquired. Sébastien’s no-frills approach is all centred around communication; if you are understood, he says, you have succeeded in your mission.
By reading Sébastien’s advice, you may well be able to turn a corner in your journey as an MLAC student. After all, learning to become a great communicator goes far beyond hitting the grammar books and reciting endless lists of vocabulary!
Hi, Sébastien. Thank you so much for offering to share your experiences with The Definite Article today. First, tell me a little bit more about your background and your studies.
Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here. So, I grew up in France and my father is French but my mother is Argentine. Since my father’s Spanish is very limited, French was the main language in my household growing up. Although I did understand some Spanish, I certainly did not speak the language perfectly. In terms of my studies, I actually completed an engineering degree but as soon as I graduated, I knew that it was not the right career for me.
Well, an engineer doesn’t really exchange with other people and I had a thirst for a career which would enable me to socialise and communicate with others. I had already started to learn English and Japanese whilst I was at engineering school before I went to live in Argentina for 2 years. By this point, I had got the bug for language learning!
Why are languages so important to you?
For me, languages open the door to understanding diversity. Human beings speak multiple languages simultaneously; not only on a linguistic level but also an emotional, logical, physical, spiritual, visual and auditory level.
The French and the UK education systems both have very poor reputations when it comes to language learning. Why do you believe that so many students never succeed in obtaining a reasonable level of second language acquisition by the time that they leave school?
In France, I would say that it isn’t the teachers’ fault, as they are very qualified. The problem is that the main objective which the school system is geared around is getting good grades on a piece of paper. The school system focuses on what you ‘must’ do; you ‘must’ get good grades, you ‘must’ learn a certain way, etc. and students conform to these rules out of fear. In contrast, in order to succeed in language learning, you must first encourage the learner to want to learn the language. You cannot force the student to be enthusiastic. Instead, you must create situations that will gently encourage them: for example, by setting up a debate in the classroom.
This is interesting because there is a common belief that children under eight years old are a lot more capable of naturally picking up other languages. Do you believe this to be true?
I don’t think so as I can learn a new language in three weeks! The more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to pick up new ones and that’s why I was able to start to understand and form some basic sentences in Dutch and Polish very quickly. I saw that my mother had reached fluency in a foreign language after just five years. This taught me that it was possible to learn a new language, which fed my positive mentality. I disagree that children learn languages very quickly; a child is completely immersed in a native speaker environment and is forced to learn the language in order to interact with the world around them. Even then, it takes them three years to start to maintain basic conversations in their mother tongue; compared to the three weeks that it takes me to start to speak a foreign language! The moment that you decide that learning the language is a priority, you are able to quickly make progress. When I was at university, I learnt two foreign languages without ever having the intention of going to the countries. Of course, I ended up giving up because if the idea does not seem rewarding, you will never have the motivation to persevere with your language studies.
How did you eventually manage to motivate yourself?
It was travelling which really inspired me to learn languages. You see, when you close your eyes and imagine your end achievement and you can’t help getting really excited, then you know that you have the motivation that you need to succeed! I absolutely fell in love with travelling and working abroad. For me, learning a foreign language is ultimately acting; broadening the horizons of who you can be and how you are. It is a road of self discovery in which you embrace unfamiliar things along the way and embed yourself in another culture and an alternative perspective on life. This ultimately broadens your own vision of yourself and the world around you.
Surely not just anyone can speak multiple languages like you! Where does natural talent come into play?
I truly believe that anyone can do anything. This doesn’t mean, however, that your upbringing isn’t important. For example, if your parents never really spoke to you, then you are bound to experience some setbacks when learning to communicate yourself. Not everyone has the talent to be excellent at something. For example, anyone can play a musical instrument but very few people can play like Mozart. Languages are exactly the same but this certainly doesn’t mean that we should let others down by refusing to try to communicate with them.
I’m sure that I am not the only Durham student who has found that when I make an effort to speak with natives in the target language, they instantly switch to English as they are keen to practise! How would you act in this situation?
One of the very first phrases that I absolutely master when I learn a new language is ‘I don’t speak English.’ So when someone starts to speak to me in English, I put on this really confused face (lowers eyebrows and looks around) but you have to really use your tone of voice and your body language to make them think that you are totally lost! You can also fake your nationality, you (pointing at me) could say that you were Dutch, for example. You also have to be really, really stubborn. If they start to try to speak to you in your native language, continue to speak in the target language and don’t give in! Although this depends on the situation, of course. For example, if I meet a German person in France, I know that they are going to really persist in order to be able to practise their French with me. On the other hand, when I’m in Germany, I make an effort to exclusively speak in German.
Beyond language learning, it is often said that the new generation has appalling communication skills in general because they are constantly glued to their smartphones. Do you agree?
For me, the fact that the new generation is addicted to their smartphones is the symptom; not the cause. Actually, technology has allowed us to communicate more. The problem with today’s society is that we are too afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror. In the Middle Ages, it was only the king who was granted the authority to speak but nowadays, everybody has a microphone, everybody has the power to project their voice on social media. However, we cannot shift that lump in our throats knowing that an invisible audience lies behind our computer screen.
What is it about public speaking then that sends shivers down our spines?
It all comes down to human instincts. Our biggest fear is to be rejected by the rest of the group as in the forest, rejection meant inevitable death. When you start to speak in front of a crowd, you are asking the audience to judge you, which we naturally consider to represent a threat to our survival. However, we no longer live in the forest! If one group rejects us, so what? We can just stroll over to the next group! We must remember that it is not about us, but rather it is about them, our audience. We, the speakers, are just there to serve. All you need to imagine is that you are standing around a campfire and it is your turn to get up on stage and share your story.
So many incredibly intelligent scientists and mathematicians, for example, really struggle to get their message across and share their knowledge with others. Why is this such a problem for them?
A lot of people wear a mask to fool people into thinking that they are not afraid of judgement. For many people, this mask is the PowerPoint which is their way of saying ‘don’t look at me, look over there at the slide’. Their shield is their suit and their tone of voice which all help to put on a professional front. Even if their presentation is boring, this isn’t a problem for them as they are simply providing the audience with what is expected of them. After all, the audience cannot criticise what the scientist or mathematician is saying, as they are supported by the figures projected on the screen.
So, how can you prepare yourself before facing the audience?
A master doesn’t need to prepare! You see, there are several stages to mastering. First of all, there is ‘unconscious incompetence’: when you don’t realise that you’re not good at something, for example, children fall into this category. Then comes ‘conscious incompetence’: when you realise that you are really bad at something. Next comes ‘conscious competence’: when you can do something really well but it takes effort. The final stage is ‘unconscious competence’: when you would still be able to do it perfectly even if you were woken up during the middle of the night to do it. For example, musicians and athletes are so good at what they do that they make it look easy. It is quite simply a myth when people tell you that you won’t be judged by the audience when you go up on stage. You must prepare to be judged; people will naturally question if what you are saying is worth their time and trust. The ball is in your court if you are happy with where you are standing and you understand that the audience is there to help you to grow.
How can the audience help the speaker to develop?
Well, you need to listen to the audience’s feedback and opinions in order to reflect on your own performance. This doesn’t mean that you have to apply what they are saying, but you need to at least be open and listen. This means that you need to be able to accept compliments (rather than resorting to the default ‘no biggy’ response) and take on criticism (without blaming the fact that you were tired or anything else). Dare to face resistance head on, start off by recognising that people have different points of view and you will then earn their trust. This will clear the way for you to share your own opinion.
Finally, what direction do you think that your career will take in the future?
My journey as a communicator has now moved on beyond pure language learning. Now, my mission is centred around helping people to deal with resistance, own their own lives, love their jobs and make money. I aim to combine my expertise as a communicator with the general life skills which I have developed in order to help people to ask themselves ‘how can I shine the brightest?’
Thank you so much, Sébastien, for talking to The Definite Article today. I am sure that many budding linguists at Durham University will really appreciate your help!
Find out more about Sébastien’s work by clicking on the links below
Speaker reel: youtu.be/b7xanl6KUJs
TEDx Langues: youtu.be/vdImQveEI0c
Film trailer: https://vimeo.com/151503011
FREE full film in English: https://vimeo.com/154847574
Purchase DVD: www.whatmusicdoyouspeak.com
(Interview conducted in both French and English on 22nd March 2019. Sections translated from original French to English by Clorrie Yeomans).