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New-generation thinker warns we’re losing a culture of criticism

Shahidha Bari, a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, is one of the 10 academics selected for the New Generation Thinkers Scheme. She is researching early English translations of Arabian Nights to trace the legacy of the English Romantics engaging with the Arab world.

Have you always been confident about your academic X-factor?

I’m not very X-factor at all, I’m quite wary of the vanity of public intellectuals. I don’t think the X-factor tag is one we’ve attached to ourselves. I think it’s a bit of a problem. In a way, the project isn’t about new-generation thinkers per se; it’s about new-generation thinking.

What is your main message to Radio 3 listeners—what can we learn from Arabian Nights?

It’s the idea that something that seems very English, like romanticism, has a different kind of origin. Ideas of identity and nationhood—particularly English nationhood—aren’t formed in isolation; they’re formed in conversation with other identities and nationhoods. Englishness is absolutely bound up with Arabness and we can trace that through literary history. So, in a way, there’s something very relevant to the contemporary, political moment there.

What’s so compelling about radio—why not TV?

The radio project was obviously what was advertised and I’d love to do other projects. But the material I’m dealing with is textual and the tradition of those Arabian tales is oral. So there’s something particularly special about beginning that conversation in an oral medium. Also, there’s a certain intimacy that radio allows.

We’re in the middle of a shake-up of the UK university system. Do you think England is a good place to be an academic?

In terms of the changes we’re about to face, the answer is no, obviously. But that’s precisely because the UK has been such a great place to study and to be an academic. I’d say we’re about to lose something incredibly precious, which is a culture of criticism. Universities are spaces of dissent in the UK, which they aren’t everywhere. The marketisation of universities is something we should be really anxious about and we should continue to resist. I feel very strongly about that.

You would probably get high scores for ‘impact’ in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework. What do you think about the increased pressure on academics to prove the impact of their work to get funding?

Like most academics, I think that the impact agenda is divisive and distasteful. I think what’s most delightful and important about scholarship is the outcome and the value that we can’t predict. But at the same time, I also think there’s a premium on our ability as academics to be lucid and articulate about what we do—particularly in the humanities. I guess I would like to do that outside an impact agenda that delimits what we do. I still think it’s important to be lucid and articulate but I don’t think an impact agenda is the way to do it.