Interview: Seán Williams

In the latest of our New Generation Thinker interviews, Seán Williams discusses creating the worst closing line for a UCAS statement and why it is important to listen to people telling you you're boring.


Seán is currently writing a cultural history of the hairdresser from the 18th century to the present day exploring their role as ‘outsiders’ in society. As a lecturer at the University of Berne in Switzerland he taught German and Comparative Literature and wrote articles on flatulence in the 18th century and contemporary satires of Hitler.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on cultural history of hairdressing. Can you explain more about the importance of hairdressers and barbers and how they are portrayed and why you decided to research more about it?

SW: There must always have been hairstylists of some sort – there is even evidence that Upper Paleolithics, or “cave men”, groomed their heads. But I’m interested in the cultural portrays of the hairdresser, and two features became particularly prominent from the late eighteenth century onwards. The first is the hairdresser as a self-made individual. Around 1800, hairdressers were usually presented as outsiders: in novels they were depicted as illegitimate children and as travellers, for instance, who made their own way in the world and rose up through society through their charisma and connections. The second feature of the hairdresser in cultural representation since around 1800 was that this figure became an artist. The term Haarkünstler (“hair artist”) was coined in German at this point. The hairdresser is an artistic, self-made character, but also an ambivalent one – often gently satirized. You can read my first article emerging from this research, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Hairdresser around 1800, which is in open-access format.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

SW: Yes — though it was more of a Eureka week. The charity Villiers Park offered courses for sixth formers from all school types, introducing students to university study. I went on the week for German. Everyone else at my comprehensive school had dropped languages by A2 level, but I thought I might want to continue with the subject. In that week we were introduced to literature, cultural history, philosophy, and so on — in other words, German as a proper academic subject. We read a Rilke poem there that ended with the line “you must change your life”. Embarrassingly, I used it as the (worst) closing line for my UCAS personal statement, which must have given the admission tutors a laugh. Thankfully, they forgave me… and actually, it has sort of rung true.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

SW: Actually today I have finished editing a special issue of German Life and Letters on anthologies in the eighteenth century, with contributions from Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and the US as well as the UK. The topic doesn’t have anything to do with hairdressing, but it goes back to my doctoral dissertation on prefaces around 1800: textual forms that are often considered trivial, but turn out to be pretty fundamental to the ways we understand literature, for instance. I’ll be excited to see the volume appear in January 2017 — right now I’m relieved that it’s all come together!

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for the outsider (ie hairdressers) in literature?

SW: Um, the book I read in my first week at university — and it wasn’t the book I was supposed to be reading at that time — was Judith Butler’s classic, Gender Trouble. In that book Butler talks about drag to elucidate something fundamental about identity, the performance of gender. And I suppose since then I’ve been fascinated by the apparently trivial and marginal.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

SW: The macaroni?! Named after the pasta, the macaroni represented social aspiration and mobility in English culture during the 1760s and ‘70s. He was a youthful, male and gumptious character: a sort of early dandy-type figure who embraced extravagant, even absurd fashion and exaggerated wigs. (Clearly I’m joking!)

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

SW: People tell hopeful academics, just like actors or journalists, not to do it. There are more and more qualified researchers for fewer permanent posts. And yet we still go ahead and pursue our projects anyway. If you’re inspired to think about a particular question for years, and resilient for when you enter a competitive academic job market that can easily get you down, it’s absolutely the right thing for you to be doing. I’m very happy indeed that I followed this career path, and I’d encourage others to do so as well. But I should be honest and say there was self-doubt and fear about my future along the way.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

SW: I think it’s our role as Arts and Humanities scholars to impart critical, creative thinking, to help raise the level of cultural debate, and yet to be in tune to the general sentiments around us, making comparisons with historical contexts, say, as part of a conversation on the radio, TV, through blogging or whatever. Any attempt to wield authority because of greater expertise isn’t going to work. We can’t just pass on what we know in a very one-directional fashion; we have to engage people. We could equally say that comprehending the present helps us understand the past or future.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

SW: The long eighteenth century. The period was a paradigm shift from the feudal system and society at court to the mobile, modern individual – who posed a challenge to authority, and became aware of social class. Society became commercialized, and a celebrity culture developed. It was the age of the French revolution, the industrial revolution and, following the Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution. It saw the rise of the political citizen, the powerful customer, the popular philosopher, and above all: the self-made, self-educated subject. There was a new consciousness of the individual and of individual consciousness. Yes, the long eighteenth century — without a doubt!

AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

SW: As academics I think we often overestimate how much the general public will (or should!) be interested in our projects. We shouldn’t change what we are saying, but we do need to think about how we say it. Listening to someone telling me why my work seems irrelevant or boring to them has helped me significantly.

AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

SW: It’s been fun picking up a new skill: trying to read cues from a presenter about how long an answer can or should be, for example, or making sure to censor overly academic words (such as “discourse”: I hadn’t realised how much I say that!) I’m still learning, but I really enjoy the experience.

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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