The latest episode in the SAHA Conversations series includes an insightful discussion with Professor Sally Mapstone FRSE.

As Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, Professor Sally Mapstone directs the University’s Strategy and is responsible for the University’s operations. She is also Vice-Convener of Universities Scotland, a board member of Universities UK, a trustee of UCAS and of the Europaeum, Vice-Chair of the Board of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Higher Education Policy Institute. Sally is a medievalist with expertise in medieval and Renaissance Scottish literature. She is President of the Saltire Society, which champions Scottish culture. Sally is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, our SAHA member.

In our SAHA Conversation, Professor Mapstone reflects on her career trajectory, her work on medieval Scottish literature. We also discuss the advantages of having a humanities education today.

Resources mentioned in this episode

[00:01:26] Cristina: Thank you for joining us, Professor Mapstone.

[00:01:30] Sally: My pleasure. Absolutely my pleasure.

[00:01:31] Cristina: In your role as principal of the University of St. Andrews, you oversee work across different disciplines, but you have a direct interest in humanities yourself. Could you tell our listeners, please, a little bit more about your academic background? And what made you choose an English language and literature degree for your studies? 

[00:01:53] Sally: So my academic background, for I guess the past 30 or 40 years, has been that I am a researcher in the field of older Scottish literature. And that is literature produced in Scotland, principally between about 1500 and 1700. So cutting across from the late middle ages into the early modern period. And I work primarily on literature in Scots and in Latin, on political literature and on book history. And that interest in Scotland and Scottish literature came out of studying, as you said, English, English language and literature at the University of Oxford, which I did during the second half of the 1970s. And, I read English at Oxford because I was essentially, I was either going to do history or I was going to do English. I always knew I wanted a focus on humanities. My parents both came from scientific and medical background, so it was slightly surprising that I went in that direction. But my elder sister had read history at Oxford. I have a slight feeling that I read English Oxford, ‘cause I didn’t want to read the same subject that she did. That’s the kind of choices you make when you’re 17 years old. But anyway, the thing about the English course at Oxford then, and to some extent now, was that it was very historical. In my generation the joke was that you studied everything from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, which was true actually. I mean, the course tended to stop at about 1941. But the advantage of studying as it were the whole course of English literature, was that you were compelled to read something from every single period. And it was when I was working on the 15th century, which is a rebarbative period in English literature mostly dominated by profoundly lengthy prose or verse romances, I realized that the literature that I greatly preferred was written by Scottish authors, it was feisty, it was experimental. It was very interestingly poised on the cusp between if you’d like the highly generalized experience, and, if you like, the emergence of individual experience. And I found Scots absolutely distinctive and I found the language very interesting. So that began a sort of love affair with Scottish literature, which I guess has, has continued right up to now.

[00:04:24] Cristina: And to widen the discussion a little bit, I wanted to ask you, how do you see development in arts and humanities responding to societal challenges today?

[00:04:33] Sally: That’s a huge question. Obviously, I would say that one of the most dramatic ways in which developments in the arts and the humanities have manifested themselves in my lifetime is through the explosion of possibilities that digitization has produced. Those have been utterly transformative I think in the way in which they have democratized the humanities, that if you can get online, there is so much now that you can see and experience, which was simply impossible, 30 or 40 years ago. So I think digitization has done the extraordinary thing of bringing artefacts of all type into popular and public consciousness in a way that really was previously unimaginable and is comparable really to the sort of explosions of literacy that came out of printing in the 15th and 16th century. So I think that’s been a revolution. It’s been a revolution in my subject as well in that when I first started as a medievalist, iif you wanted to understand and see a manuscript, you had to go and look at it and you had to try and memorize what the scribe’s hand was like and take extensive notes on it, because it was extremely unlikely that you would be able to photograph it or even on occasion sometimes photocopy it, but that was rare. So you had to learn to look. You had to learn to look really hard. And nowadays, of course, you can just go in with your phone and take pictures of manuscripts, or you can get them sent to you. You don’t even need to go see the manuscript in question. There are some downsides to that. I occasionally think that although people see more, in my field they have lost the ability to look because they don’t have to recollect in the same way. So I think, you know, there are downsides, but then once you realize that downside, then you have to, you have to, as it were, extend your skillset and be very conscious of the skills that you need to acquire when things are so ubiquitous and so easy to access. So I think I would have to say that the online availability of material is something which in large part, even as a book historian, you know, my career has been very much about the tangible, material book, I think that the revolutionary possibilities of digitalization have had an amazingly popularizing effect. And that that is something that should be seen as diversifying, inclusive and very positive for the humanities.

[00:06:59] Cristina: Thank you. I wanted to ask you also, you serve as a chair for the Universities Scotland’s Admissions Policy Group and I was wondering what were the main lessons that you learned from working on analysing the admission processes across Scotland? 

[00:07:16] Sally: Yes, it’s a very interesting question that I think that the great advantage of working on admissions policy and processes in Scotland is that it is possible to bring in changes that affect the entire sector. One of the things that we have been able to do over the past five years is bring in changes to the way in which admissions policies are rolled out in Scotland, that benefit candidates, because they are consistent across all the 18 Scottish higher education institutions, which is universities have admissions policies to admit candidates. I’m rather accepting the Open University, which takes a different approach. But one of the things that we’ve been able to do in Scotland, which has not been done in England, because there are so many institutions and it’s not been possible to achieve that degree of consistency is that we have brought in, in Scotland, what’s called a minimum entry requirement approach, which means that for every course, at every university in Scotland, if an applicant is applying and they come from a widening access background, they have the opportunity to receive a minimum entry requirement, which is different from the standard entry requirement. And that minimum entry requirement is calibrated for that course of that institution. And we’ve also made great strides in explaining that to candidates in language, which is directed at them rather than being, essentially the institutions talking to themselves. We did a piece of work where we looked at the way in which we were expressing our entry requirements and admissions policies to candidates. And it was very clear that we made a lot of sense to what we, as institutions, were saying to ourselves. We made rather less sense to candidates because we weren’t explaining ourselves properly. And if you look to what the University of St Andrews was saying, the language was rather different in kind from what say Glasgow Caledonian University was utilizing. So we’ve done a lot to bring in far more consistent language and candidate-facing language, which again, I think has improved the experience for candidates. It’s been an exercise that has been inflected by a humanities understanding, in the sense that it has been one which has been founded on an approach which is inclusive, but which also is very linguistically oriented. Sometimes taking a look at your own language and switching the perspective from which you see, it can tell you a great deal, if you think about it from the perspective of what it says to another person. And I think a number of the people who were involved in that work came themselves from that kind of linguistics background training. And therefore there was a, an absolute read across from the backgrounds they came from academically and in terms of their university degrees to the work that they were doing. So having a humanities training can manifest itself in all sorts of advantageous ways. And I would like to think that this was one of them.

[00:10:07] Cristina: That’s very important to note because there’s an ongoing debate around the contribution of humanities and sometimes it sneaks up on you in unexpected ways when having someone with an arts and humanities background on a board or in a wider process that doesn’t actually target humanities, can actually make a very big difference.

[00:10:29] Sally: I agree with you. And I often say that, you know, I taught at Oxford for 30 years, I suppose. And although often I was teaching Anglo-Saxon middle English, I was teaching people to read and read that language and learn, and learn about those literatures. A lot of the time I felt that my role as a humanities tutor was encouraging students absolutely to say what they meant. So frequently – the great advantage of a tutorial is that you spend an hour with somebody and there’s no hiding place for them – so they need to be able to, to really be sure that they’ve said what they meant. And I realized that a lot of the time when I was teaching, one of the questions I would ask most frequently was one which began by: ‘When you said that did you mean this?’. And I would be sense checking what they were saying to me. And that process of iteration is a very good one for actually clarifying meaning and making absolutely sure that an individual has said what they really wanted to and in life that’s an incredibly valuable skill.

[00:11:34] Cristina: Absolutely. In terms of what we’re facing collectively at the moment, we’re still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and I was wondering if you might be able to tell us how you see the COVID pandemic and the way it has made us to collectively rethink many of the ways that we live our lives and the social processes, what effect do you think the pandemic has had on arts and humanities, if you think it has had any effect at all? 

[00:12:02] Sally: I think that one of the most striking effects of the pandemic, which manifested itself from really quite early on, particularly once we were all in, in lockdown, was the need for culture. What was so to me, remarkable, and sometimes absolutely exhilarating and uplifting, was the way in which so many people felt that the absence of culture required them to keep creating it. And when I say the absence of culture, let me be clear, I mean the absence of access to cultural repositories, which we’re normally so acquainted with. So suddenly you couldn’t go to the theatre, you couldn’t go to the cinema and these things, you couldn’t go to art galleries, you couldn’t go to the ballet. The deprivation of these things undoubtedly meant that people went back to recorded forms online and on YouTube and digitized and so forth. But there was also a kind of explosion of simple creative opportunities. People making music, showing objects, reading poems. For me, there was a kind of rhythm in Patrick Stewart reading a Shakespeare sonnet every day. And I found that very salutary. I didn’t think he was right to skip a couple in a rather politically correct way, frankly. I think he should have just read them and let people make up their minds. But as he said, it was his choice. So I found myself, you know, having an argument with YouTube in relation to that, but I thought that was great. And I think what that actually said to us was that there was a kind of cultural … people felt at all levels, a kind of a cultural need, a need for those things, which literature, art, films, theatre give us in our lives, which absolutely manifested back that these are not trivial things. They are fundamental to who we are and what we do and how we experience the world. So that need for cultural stimulation that was so manifest so quickly, I think actually said a lot for what the humanities signify in our lives. And I think it’s also terrific that we’ve seen so much creativity come out of that. In my own university, we’ve had a group of early career researchers right across different subjects produce something which is called ‘Lockdown Tales’, which is people talking about their experience from me right across our community and people talking about their experience of lockdown and what it meant for them and how they found their way through it. That’s a very creative exercise about what it is to be human, which is what it is that the humanities explore and help us understand. So, I think that that sense that not only were our social lives impoverished, but our cultural lives were impoverished was an acute one felt by virtually everybody, but that it produced in return a remarkable outpouring of creativity, which in many ways I think is still continuing.

[00:15:06] Cristina: And it’s likely to continue for a while. I’d like to turn now a little bit towards the students and ask you, in your position as principal of St Andrews, especially now since the recent results from one of the leading league tables has placed you at the top of UK institutions, what advice would you give students who are considering arts and humanities degrees today? And also thinking of the students that are studying now and they’re about to graduate and move on with their careers at St Andrews, but also at other Scottish universities. 

[00:15:47] Sally: Yeah, so studying at a Scottish university gives you a particular type of experience, in that most of our degrees have four years in structure and they offer a very wide range of opportunities to put subjects together. My experience when I went to Oxford was that I was reading English language and literature for three years. And though as I’ve said, the course was very wide ranging in terms of historical coverage, that was it. You couldn’t go off and do something else at the same time under the curriculum. At Scottish universities, including this one, you can study a really wide range of subjects over a four-year period. And so you can bring the humanities into juxtaposition with social sciences and indeed on occasion the sciences. So there’s a rich panoply of material on offer in Scottish universities. And obviously when we recently in the Times and Sunday Times ranking were ranked first in the country, that was a big boost for us. But I think it was also a big boost for a university that is so very strong in the arts and the humanities and has a reputation for that. It said something about the fact that the student experience here is so positive that our students registered that. What I would say to anybody thinking of studying the humanities at any university is that if that appeals to you by all means do it, it will only open up possibilities to you. It will not close them down. And to give an illustration of that, there was a very interesting piece of work done at the University of Oxford about seven or eight years ago, which was a several years study looking at the career history of people who had studied the humanities in Oxford in the 1970s and eighties, following those people through. And I was quite interested in it because of course that related to my own experience. So if you look at me and I read English at Oxford, I’m now Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews. I had a career in academia. I also had an earlier career in the book publishing industry. The thing about a humanities degree is that it generally equips you with fabulously transferable skills. It encourages you to think critically and independently. It gives you an astonishing ability to absorb huge amounts of reading material very quickly and then to repurpose them as, as your own. It exposes you to a vast array of ways of seeing and thinking. And it challenges you to experience things that you will find disagreeable, challenging and unfamiliar. It gives you the capacity to write and write well and to speak and speak well. So the striking thing I think about the Oxford survey was that it showed that those who had studied these kinds of subjects did not routinely go into, automatically, into journalism or publishing. Yes, some of them did that, but lots of them went into investment banking, went into, working for NGOs, went into a really wide range of subjects from management consulting to charity work, frequently in ways that cumulatively would be very advantageous to society and the economy. So the notion that at some level, a humanities degree is an indulgence and is irrelevant to the social and economic prosperity of countries is in my experience just a nonsense and the kind of convenient canard for those who think that, you know, studying literature is not of value to society. I think the evidence for that is slim and the evidence in favour of… there’ve been terrific transferable relevant to studying humanities degrees at university is by contrast very strong indeed. And it’s a cliche to say that you, you know, studying humanities rounds you out as a person. But I think again, there is very good and valuable evidence that it does that. And when you think of some of our, you know, think of politicians who were active when I was an undergraduate, people like Roy Jenkins, you know, read books on Churchill, read books on Roosevelt, read books on Gladstone. That was somebody with the most fantastic cultural hinterland and I think that gave, if I take Roy Jenkins as an example, there’s a person who interrogated and to some extent reinvented their politics throughout their political career. I think that had a lot to do with having a very rich and historically-informed cultural life. And to me, that sense that you go on kind of growing as a person and your political views and ideas, directly informed by your cultural experience is in its own way an admirable model.

[00:20:46] Cristina: Thank you. Those are some very interesting ideas and they’re actually quite consistent with the other podcast guests that we’ve had, who stem from different degrees and they’ve had different career development although most of them share this background in arts and humanities. To finish our conversation, I wanted to ask you, going back to the wider arts and humanities landscape, what do you think is, could be, the future for this field?

[00:21:15] Sally: Frankly, I think the possibilities for the field of the arts and humanities are simply endless really. I think 30 years ago, none of us could have envisaged the explosion of digital provision that I’ve talked about. And again, I think there are things ahead, which we can’t possibly begin to imagine now, which will bring together fabulous technical discoveries and inventions with that creativity that actually also transports us somewhere else. By which I mean that I think frequently exciting technical advances have their greatest impact when they are coupled with cultural invention. And you can see this in video gaming. You can see it in, you know, in the longevity, say of James Bond, you know, why are the Bond films so fantastically attractive to people? It’s not just because Bond has become somewhat woker and has himself been kind of, you know, reformed and refreshed as a character. It’s also because the inventiveness that goes with putting those stories together has come together with fantastic technical versatility. So I think we will see the humanities and the arts absolutely continuing to go hand-in-hand with major developments in the way in which people work and live their lives and with the kind of technical developments that we’ve seen at pace over the past half century. I think none of us can properly envisage where that creativity will take it beyond appreciating that there will be continuities with the past and there will also be quite remarkable reinventions. And the humanities themselves have gone through a series of convulsions and revolutions throughout world history. One would expect them to continue to do that.

[00:23:08] Cristina: Thank you very much for joining us today, professor Mapstone, this has been a very interesting and thought-provoking conversation.

[00:23:15] Sally: Thank you for the opportunity to have some thoughts at this juncture. It’s a welcome opportunity and I’ve been pleased to have the chance to take it. Thank you.