a showcase of talent

By Tia Byer

On Wednesday 7th February 2018, English Literature students at York St John University were treated to a Literature Research Showcase. English Literature Faculty members presented their research and gave the low-down on what they are working on. Third-year student and Sub-Editor Tia Byer reports.

Continue reading “a showcase of talent”

big summer read: gospel, testimony or testament?

This summer, the York St John Literature programme invited students and staff to read and respond to Colm Tóibín’s 2012 novella The Testament of Mary, a study of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth as she comes to terms with her son’s crucifixion at hands of the Roman Empire. In today’s post, Adam asks: Why is it called a ‘Testament’ anyway?


By Dr Adam James Smith

Much as Margaret Atwood’s 2008 novella The Penelopiad relished the opportunity to give voice to a woman too often left silent despite her centrality to both her myth of original and subsequent literary culture, Colm Tóibín clearly delights in offering centre stage to a woman without whom there would be no New Testament. Defined and iconicized as the Mother of Christ, Mary is most often understood through her maternal relationship to the son of God, rather than as an individual in her own right. Continue reading “big summer read: gospel, testimony or testament?”

York Literature Festival: James Montgomery Performance. “For books, my friend, are charming brooms”.


By Nicoletta Peddis

On Wednesday the 22nd of March, as a part of York Literature Festival, Dr. Adam Smith guided the audience through the life and poetry of James Montgomery delivering an engaging performance combining readings of Montgomery’s poetry with interesting insight of the biography of this complex historical character.

Trailer for Adam Smith's performance on Montgomery at Sheffield's "Festival of the Mind" in 2016.


Montgomery was born in Scotland, the son of missionaries of the Moravian Brethren. He was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds. At Fulneck, secular studies were banned, but James nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of poetry and made ambitious plans to write epics of his own. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield. After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield to work at the Sheffield Register, directed by Joseph Gales. At the Register, a newspaper of radical ideas, Montgomery rediscovered his passion for literature and started to write inflamed poems in the poetry section of the publication, the “Repository of Genius”, regarding themes such as the abolition of slavery and the conditions of the working class. In 1794, Gales left England to avoid political prosecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris. These were times of political repression and Montgomery was charged with sedition and treason for the publication of a poem that he never wrote and imprisoned in 1975 at York Castle prison for three months. He continued to write poems that were sent to the Iris and to which readers responded. A pamphlet of poems written during his captivity will be published in 1796 as “Prison Amusements”. After his release, Montgomery is charged again in less than a year for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. After this experiences James Montgomery’s life started to change. He turned away to politics and activism and turned to business. He carried on writing poems and started to write hymns. He later was decorated with the title of Poet Laureate and became a Tory MP.

Did James Montgomery become the establishment he was fighting against? Did he turn his back to his ideals? He was definitely a complex and fascinating character and, as Dr. Adam Smith reminded us, even though his political views changed the theme of slavery always remained extremely important to him and Montgomery definitely never turned his back to literature and poetry.

The performance that Dr. Adam Smith delivered at York St John’s University as part of the York Literature Festival is part of a wider research regarding the connection between poetry and radical protest in Sheffield between 1790 and 1810. The focus on James Montgomery is one of the results of this broader research ending in “The Wagtail Poet Prison Project”. It is possible to find out more about this project at https://yorkwagtailpoets.wordpress.com and it is also possible to respond to James Montgomery’s prison poems either creatively or critically getting in touch with Dr. Adam Smith at a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk .

Robots in Fiction: A Watch List

By Adam Smith, Lecturer in English Literature



Our business is representation. Whether we be literary scholars, films scholars or creative writers, our business is always representation. Events happen, ideals or anxieties emerge, they get represented, and then we study (or create) the representation. First comes reality, then comes representation. Of course, if you’re half-way through a degree in English, Media or Creative writing you already know that it is never really that easy.


Thinking like this assumes that there exists a dichotomy between reality and representation, between fiction and non-fiction, between the real and the hyper-real. We should always be sceptical of any apparent binary and of this one in particular. One cause for scepticism is that it presumes a chain of influence that only goes one way: something happens and people write about it. Real world stuff becomes fictional stuff. Science becomes science fiction. But what happens when fiction starts to inform reality? What happens when what we imagine informs our lived experience? What happens when science-fiction has an impact on science? Nowhere is there a better example of that, I don’t think, than in robotics.


This was the opening premise of a lecture that I gave earlier this week on ‘2EN440: Imaginary Worlds’, a second-year optional module about science fiction. The module is taken by students on the English, Media and Creative Writing programmes who this week were reading Villiers de L’isle-Adam’s The Future Eve (1886) and watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).


Garland’s Ex-Machina. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link


Over the course of the lecture I referred to an awful lot of films and TV shows (even for me!). Subsequently a few students have asked me to recap everything I recommended, so I’ve written the list up at the bottom of this post.


Before starting your way down the list (make sure you have provisions to hand, it may take some time) let me just give you some context for these suggestions, just in case you didn’t see the lecture itself.


During the lecture, I sought to foreground the peculiar relationship between the fictional robots that saturate our popular culture and the actual robotics industry. After familiarising ourselves with the ‘pop culture’ robot in the form of the Forbidden Planet’s famous Robbie we considered the frustrated perspective of roboticist Joanna Bryson. In her controversial essay ‘Robots Should be Slaves’ Bryson argues that the robotics industry is inhibited by the misguided notion that robots are owed some sort of ethical obligation, a misconception that she blames on science fiction.


Robby the Robot

The representation of the robot as slave has been there from the very beginning. Karel Capek’s play R.U.R (1921), which stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, is often acknowledged as the first popular use of the word ‘robot’ in the sense that we recognise it today, and here it is the Czech word for ‘slave.’ The play essentially stages a slave uprising, with factory robots rebelling against their human masters. Elsewhere literary scholar Gregory Hampton has successfully foregrounded the similarities between American Slave narratives and common robot narratives, a point rendered startlingly overt when comparing a text like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) with Issac Assimov’s Positronic Man (1992), later adapted into the movie The Bicentennial Man (1999).


Hampton finds such treatments of the robot (both inside and outside of fiction) profoundly disturbing. When a relationship is recognisably one of master/slave, regardless of whether the slave is human or robot, born or formed, physical or fictional, there will be harmful psychological side-effects. Hampton stresses that it doesn’t really matter if robots have feelings or not, the question is: how will engaging with robots change us, and what we consider acceptable behavior?


Does it make sense to say Boston Dynamics ‘bullied’ their robot Atlas?


In both of the texts studied by Imaginary Worlds students this week, The Future Eve and Ex Machina, this question is explored through the treatment of robots who are clearly coded as female. In fact, it is central to a series of questions raised by a huge range of science fiction texts interested in what it means to have sex with ‘female’ robots. Can you truly have sex with a robot? Where do you draw the lines of consent? How must you think of robots to want to have sex with them? And, what are the psychological effects on the participating human?


We get a disturbing contemplation of this in Ex Machina, as Domhall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith slowly discovers what Nathan Bateman has been doing with all of the robots on his island, becoming increasingly sadistic in his behaviours as he goes from having sex with the robots to torturing them, only to eventually be killed by the robot Ava in an act that lends itself very openly to a reading in which she is taking cathartic revenge on her depraved abuser. And, just like that, we’re back to slavery again: the common narrative of the megalomaniac slave master who, drunk on the power he holds over other subservient humans, becomes increasingly cruel, killing and raping his own slaves in an overflow of nihilistic and hedonistic violence.


So, what can we take from this? Well, first the idea that when it comes to robotics, for better or worse, the representation can clearly be seen to dictate the reality. Perhaps the most important question is not about whether people should or shouldn’t treat robots badly but about why it is that people feel compelled to treat them badly.


And second, you can take from it the a hugely ambitious list of things to watch, detailed below.




Further Reading


Gregory Hampton, Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film and Popular Culture (2015)

Joanna Bryson, Robots should be slaves, IN: Close engagements with artificial companions (2010)


Watch list (in the order that they appeared in the lecture)


  1. Film


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dir. by Garth Jennings (2005)

Prometheus, dir. by Ridley Scott (2012)

Robocop, dir. by Paul Verhoeven (1987)

Short Circuit, dir. by John Badham (1986)

I, Robot, dir. by Alex Proyas (2004)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dir. by J. J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, dir. by George Lucas (1977)

Wall-E, dir. by Andrew Stanton (2008)

Transformers, dir. by Michael Bay (2007)

Interstellar, dir. by Christopher Nolan (2014)

The Black Hole, dir. by Gary Nelson (1979)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, dir. by Steven Spielberg (2001)

Lost in Space, dir. by Stephen Hopkins (1998)

Aliens, dir. by James Cameron (1986)

Alien, dir. by Ridley Scott (1979)

The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir. by Robert Wise (1951)

The Terminator, dir. by James Cameron (1984)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, dir. by James Cameron (1991)

The Forbidden Planet, dir. by Fred Wilcox (1956)

The Bicentennial Man, dir. by Chris Columbus (1999)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Terminator: Salvation, dir. by McG (2009)

Metropolis, dir. by Fritz Lang (1927)

Austen Powers, dir. by Jay Roach (1997)

Blade Runner, dir. by Ridley Scott (1982)

Ex Machina, dir. by Alex Garland (2014)

Weird Science, dir. by John Hughes (1985)

The Matrix, dir. by Lana and Lily Wachowski (1999)

Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Mamoru Oshii (1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, dir. by Kenji Kawai (2004)

Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Rupert Sanders (2017)


  1. TV


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

Futurama (1999-2013)

Red Dwarf (1988-)

Doctor Who (1952-)

Lost in Space (1965-68)

Humans (2015-)

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

Westworld (2016-)


This is only loosely related to Adam Smith's post, but it's just a great track.
Kraftwerk: representing the robot community since 1978. Fair use, Link


Black History Month events 2016

Black History Month 2016

The School of Humanities, Religion and Philosophy will be celebrating Black History Month this year with an exhibition of student work and a programme of exciting events.

3rd October 3pm – 4pm Quad South Hall

Interview with Noma Dumezweni

Noma is an internationally recognised actress. She has undertaken several Shakespeare roles including Paulina in the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), The Winters Tale and more recently Alice and Mistress Quickly, as well as working alongside Jude Law in Henry V.

Amongst numerous stage roles, Noma recently directed, I See You at the Royal Court and appeared in the award winning A Human Being Died That Night which toured to the Hampstead Theatre, the Market Theatre Johannesburg and Brooklyn Academy of music in New York. Both plays explore reconciliation and South Africa after Apartheid.

Currently, Noma is cast as Hermione in the sell-out Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End.

This event will be a discussion about Noma’s roles including in A Human being Dies that Night, I See You, and for the RSC in the west end, a production of Henry V with Jude Law

Event starts at 3.00pm, all guests to be seated in Quad South Hall for a prompt start.

This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to reserve a space.

5th October – 27th October Arts Foyer

York/New York Exhibition

Earlier this year, English Literature students from the ‘Literature at Work’ module were tasked with developing and creating materials that could be used as part of York St John’s Black History Month 2016 exhibition.

Students have created, developed and curated a range of materials which allow us to celebrate the culture of Harlem, New York, right here on our ‘Old’ York campus. The materials include film, collage, photography and 3D models. Each work is an original and unique take on the cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance.  Please come and explore the work and learn a little more about this exciting moment in black cultural history.



5th October 5pm – 8pm Arts Foyer

York/New York Exhibition Launch Evening

The exhibition will be officially launched with an evening of discussion and live music. The students responsible for the art work and curation of the exhibition will be on hand to talk you through their work and the cultural value they place on the Harlem Renaissance and Black History Month as cultural experiences. The evening will be sound tracked by a four piece jazz band playing wonderful music from the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Come and enjoy a glass of wine with us and celebrate this evocative and enriching cultural moment.

This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to book your tickets.

26 October, 5.30pm -7pm De Grey 016

Black History Month: Comics Reading Group with Dr Adam Smith

Marvel Comics Superheroes Game Card 13 - Black Panther

Black Panther and Power Man: Marvel Heroes of the Civil Rights Era

Meet T’Challa and Luke Cage, better known in their heyday as Marvel superheroes Black Panther and Power Man. Among the first African-American superheroes to appear in mainstream American comic books each character’s origins are bound up in both the Civil Rights Movement and the popularity of Blaxploitation cinema in the 1960s and 70s. Now, thanks to Netflix and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both characters are enjoying global popularity for the first time. As part of YSJ Black History Month we invite you to join us for an informal discussion of some of these characters’ most celebrated comic-book appearances.

Email Adam Smith (a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk ) for a reading list.

This event is FREE but booking is required please visit the YSJ online shop to secure book a place.

27th October 6.30pm – 8pm Arts Foyer

An Evening with Jack Mapanje

To mark the end of York St John’s Black History Month events, human rights activist and award-winning poet Jack Mapanje will be reading from his latest poetry collection Greetings From Grandpa. Jack will also be discussing his memoir And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, and reflecting on his time as a political prisoner in Malawi. There will be an opportunity to ask Jack questions about his work, and he will also be signing copies of his poetry. In addition, the winner of the YSJ Black History Month Creative Writing Competition will be announced, and there will be a chance to hear the winning entry.

This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to book your tickets.