In partnership with the English Speaking Union, the Speaking Citizens project is delighted to be hosting three days of talks and roundtables at the end of the month. You can check out the full schedule here. For those who can’t attend in real time, we will be editing the videos and putting them online for you to check out about a month later.
We have called the event 'The Uses of Oracy', a title that calls back to a seminal book enjoying its sixty-fifth anniversary this year: Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (grab a free copy here). By way of introducing our conference and letting you know what to expect, I want to explain why.
Why 'The Uses of Oracy'?
The Uses of Literacy was a study of the mass media in the post-war British urban north. However, as those of you who have read it will know, the book was far more interesting and varied than this makes it sound. On one level it was a memoir of a Hoggart’s own journey from the tight-knit working class terraces of Bradford into a university teaching career. At the same time it was a profound analysis of the culture he had left behind, and how older traditions and ways of communicating and experiencing the world were being challenged by mass media, newspapers and television.
It was influential because it was one of the fist books of its kind to take working class culture seriously. It opened up a new debate, asking a new set of questions about what ‘literacy’ and habits of everyday reading and speaking mean. The book became a surprising popular success. It remains a formative work for all of those of us academics who consider themselves part of ‘cultural studies’. In 2016 the Guardian included it in their list of the Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of All Time.
Why bring this book back?
So why reach back to this book now? You might say that since half of our team is based in West Yorkshire, borrowing Hoggart’s title makes some kind of geographic sense. But beyond this we think that the book’s approach and insights have a lot to tell all of us who are thinking seriously about speech, education and citizenship.
For one thing, The Uses of Literacy was part of the intellectual background out of which the idea of ‘oracy’ emerged. The success of Hoggart’s study helped shape a cultural moment around the concept of literacy. In the book he had lamented that “I have not sufficient knowledge to pursue this examination of manners of speaking.” But others certainly did. Not long after Hoggart published his book, the word “oracy” was coined by Andrew Wilkinson at the University of Birmingham, and with peaks and troughs of prominence since it has become one of the most eagerly debated ideas in modern educational thought.
A second reason is because we like how the word 'uses' frames questions about the purposes that oracy serves. Practical empirical questions such as: how have ordinary people have used their speaking skills? How do teachers and educators use a focus on oracy in the classroom? But also a set of broader questions: How has the idea of speaking skills has been used throughout history? What purposes or what political agendas has the idea served in UK education or modern politics?
Most importantly, we are inspired by The Uses of Literacy because of how it brought multiple disciplines and ways of thinking together. That is what we are trying to do with the Uses of Oracy event. It builds upon the initiatives of Oracy Cambridge and others to breathe fresh life into debates about the role of teaching in schools. We have teachers, lobbyists, cultural and social historians, anthropologists, sociolinguists, scholars of literature and activists. Our aim is to think about oracy in the broadest possible sense, and to bring tensions in current discussions to the surface in ways that hopefully help push the debate forward.
What can you expect from our conference?
As you can see from the schedule here (subject to change, like everything else these days), we have structured the event around set questions about the place of oracy and citizenship today.
On Wednesday we will be beginning with an overview of where the debate on oracy is now, asking ‘what more can be done?’ on multiple fronts. This is followed by a special Q&A with David Lord Blunkett, former Education and Home Secretary who will be reflecting on his introduction of citizenship education and the lessons we can learn for the oracy agenda. This is followed by a panel that takes continues this historical view, asking ‘what we can learn from other times and places’?, bringing global perspectives from anthropology and history.
On Thursday we have a second plenary lecture by Deborah Cameron, professor of linguistics at the University of Oxford entitled ’The Trouble with Oracy’ in which she gives her critical analysis of the ideologies of language that have lain behind attempts to teach and assess spoken communication. Read the full abstract of her talk here.
This is followed by a panel asking ‘What speech styles do young people use?’ that tries to understand ways of speaking used inside and outside educational settings, bringing together examples from the context of Scottish Gaelic, Wales, the English North, and Multicultural London English.
On Friday, we begin with a perspective from across the channel. In 2021 the French government introduced a spoken assessment component into the baccalaureate, a test that has become known as ‘Le Grand Oral’. One of the chief advocates of this change, Professor Cyril Delhay of Sciences-Po Paris will be speaking to us about the Grand Oral and what UK educators can learn.
The next session on ‘how is citizenship performed outside the classroom?’ sees our Leeds-based team speak about their work with activists across various social movements.
The conference ends with a final panel on ‘how are pupils spoken selves embraced within Uk education?’ explores the spaces that exist in the UK education system for pupils to explore their identities and engage in thoughtful speech, and discuss the types of speech and discourse that reflect their experiences of a multicultural society.
We hope that you can make it to some of these broadcasts. But if you can’t make it, we’ll be editing the videos and putting them online for you to check out about a month after the event.