Interview with Professor Jonathan Charteris-Black

by Craig Evans

Today’s blog features an interview with our very own Professor of Linguistics, Jonathan Charteris-Black. I asked Jonathan about his influences, role models, and more besides: here’s what he had to say.


When did you first know that you wanted to be an academic?

While I had always had academic interests, I was not initially interested in pursuing them professionally because I wanted to travel. Later on in life – once some of these dreams has been fulfilled – I discovered the advantages of combining a life of the mind with earning of living.


If you had not become an academic, what do you think you would have been instead? Is there any other career you would like to have had? (be a politician perhaps?)

I originally wanted to be a sports commentator then a foreign correspondent and travel writer. But these sorts of careers don’t work so well with family life as academia.


As someone who has extensively studied political speeches, have you ever written a political speech yourself?

That’s an interesting question: no I haven’t. I think the academic approach is quite different as you need to view  beliefs in rather a detached way, whereas to write a speech you have to be quite strongly committed to a particular ideological position: this was a lot easier when I was younger and things were more black and white!


What book has had the biggest influence on your life?

This feels like Desert Island Discs. Maybe reading books on Morocco such as Peter Mayne A Year in Marrakesh, and Walter Harris Morocco that Was as they led me to living in Morocco for a number of years – with all sorts of consequences!


Do you have a favourite film? What is it?

Certainly: Being There with Peter Sellers playing the role of a naïve savant gardener (Chancy Gardiner) who ends up being elected President of the USA when his literal statements about gardening are interpreted as profound metaphors on economic conditions. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Fellini’s Amercord are also favourites.


Do you know or have you met anybody famous?

I am not sure I agree with conventional notions of ‘famous’. For me ‘famous’ people are linguists such as Michael Halliday and John Sinclair – and I have met them both. I met the Sultan of Brunei a few times (reputedly the richest man in the world). I took some photos of Kathleen Turner while assisting an American freelance during the filming of Jewel of the Nile in Morocco. I have yet to be invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.


What is the most exciting place you’ve ever visited?

There is a certain magic about travel in central Java in a landscape filled with volcanoes – some of which could go off at any time!


Do you have any role models? Who would you say has been the most inspirational person in your life?

Yes I do, they are a group of Bristolians who I met while at University here. We still manage to meet every Friday night where we can discuss everything  that life chucks at us – with the aid of a few pints!


In your years as a lecturer, what do you feel have been the biggest changes in the culture of universities and teaching in general?

Without doubt the growth of a managerial culture that has replaced a more collegial one. Now the dominant culture throughout universities is a ‘business’ culture – nowhere has capitalism come home to roost more than in our universities: that is why many of you are now paying such high fees. We are managed, meet targets (or ‘key performance indicators’), have to position our research within institutional preferences, and all this has led to a decline of freedom without demonstrably improving the quality of education offered.


And finally, if there was one thing you could change about your current students, what would it be?

Another interesting question. Generally I have things to grumble about other than students; they have usually been the best thing about working in a university.  Probably a little more awareness of what is happening immediately around you, rather than on that little screen in your pocket. Oh – yes and occasionally reading a book!


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