Faculty of Humanities

The Humanities do so much for us

"The Humanities are a necessity for our development as people and on a societal scale," says Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, the newly appointed Honorary Doctor at the Faculty of Humanities.

kvinne lener seg langs en vegg og ser inn i kamera
HONORARY DOCTOR: Shepherd-Barr has been studying Ibsen’s plays for over three decades and can’t imagine ever stopping.
University of Oxford

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Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford, and is the appointed Honorary Doctor at the Faculty of Humanities in 2024. She is deeply honored by the prestigious appointment in the field she dedicates herself to.

"The Humanities do so much for us," she says, and adds:

"They teach us how to read, think, and write critically. They help us develop excellent communication skills and problem solving abilities. They nurture curiosity and creativity and thinking outside the box. They model how to hold informed debate that contains nuance and understanding, and how to distinguish sham truths from real ones." 

"These are all vital and specific skills that are highly prized by a vast range of employers," she points out.

The core word in ‘Humanities’ is ‘humanity’

Shepherd-Barr urges that we need to keep countering the false narratives about the Humanities as not being financially lucrative or not leading to secure and lasting employment. These narratives are not going to go away; it’s up to us to set the record straight and make sure we’re not lone voices but are joined up with policy makers and research funding bodies as well as businesses and cultural institutions.

"We need to keep reminding people that the Humanities aren’t just about so-called ‘soft skills’ like emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication—they provide rigorous and tangible training in a craft," she says.

A key way to get this message across is to forge collaborations and partnerships with the creative industries. It’s a form of knowledge exchange that Shepherd-Barr has been advocating for many years, and practices through her work with theatre companies. Currently, she is collaborating with Breach Theatre company in the UK to develop a new play about Laura Kieler, the real woman behind Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Breach has just won an Ibsen Scope award based on this collaboration. 

"This project has been tremendously stimulating to my own research as well as generating a new play by Breach," says Shepherd-Barr. "And it has affirmed the power of art to tell brilliant and necessary stories."

"Going to plays, reading literature, watching dance, seeing an art exhibition, and listening to a concert are not just optional pasttimes, they are a necessity for our development as people and on a societal scale, so we need to continue to nurture young people’s love of them and increase access for all."

"We also need to keep developing our curriculum and making the canons of art, literature, music, theatre, and other forms fully inclusive and diverse. The core word in ‘Humanities’ is ‘humanity,’" she says.

The theatre helps us grow

In what way do humans need the theatre? Shepherd-Barr thinks about this question a lot!

"Every time I go to the theatre I’m struck by how much people still value it. The opportunity to come together for live performance really matters, in spite of all the challenges involved in physically getting to the theatre—Parking! Transportation! The weather! The hassle!—and the competition from streaming and home cinema," she says.

So why go to the theatre when we can just sit at home in comfort watching things on our devices?

"Theatre is still attracting audiences, despite being ravaged by the pandemic and being chronically under-funded and marginalized. It fulfils a real need for the communal experience of art, for the thrill and the total sensory engagement of live performance," she says.

Shepherd-Barr also thinks that the empathy that actors model—acting means inhabiting someone else’s character, walking in someone else’s shoes—is profound and is one of the most important ways in which theatre helps us grow, individually and collectively.

Furthermore, she adds, the theatre’s unique combination of liveness, full sensory stimulation, and communality make it extremely well suited to exploring today's societal challenges such as climate change and its implications. 

"It’s not surprising that theatre has always been a place where the most pressing concerns are aired, where people gather to bear witness and to think actively and collectively, from ancient Greece to the present.  Theatre is particularly good at balancing the private and personal with the public and political, showing how and why individual acts have large-scale significance," she says. 

Ibsen is perenially hip!

Shepherd-Barr has been studying Ibsen’s plays for over three decades and can’t imagine ever stopping.

"Like the plays of Shakespeare, they keep offering up new possible meanings every time I encounter them, both reading them and in performance. At the same time, such a long relationship with an author brings challenges! One of these is to recognize and face, rather than running away from, the uncomfortable aspects of Ibsen’s work as well as its brilliance and genius." 

"Ibsen is perenially hip!", she emphasizes, and refers to two startlingly different productions of An Enemy of the People that just ran to packed houses on opposite sides of the Atlantic—Amy Herzog’s adaptation in New York, and Thomas Ostermeier’s version in London.

"Ibsen speaks directly to us today because of his ability to dramatize issues that still haunt us—such as sexually transmitted disease, limited roles for women, environmental destruction, the perpetuation of stifling ways of being and the pressure to conform to them, and the hypocrisy of powerful institutions—the press, religious organizations, political parties."  

"How should this or that problem be solved? Ibsen shows you the problem but leaves audience to figure out the solution to it. His plays again and again expose the roots of the social justice challenges we still face. This is why they are often called ‘timeless,’" she says.

Breaks down barriers to reading

Not only a professor, Shepherd-Barr is also an entrepreneur as the founder and developer of LitHits, a digital reading project that allows users to select short, unabridged, and expertly curated literary excerpts according to how much time they have and what they are in the mood for.

"I remember when e-books and digital reading were introduced and there was a lot of hand-wringing and doom-saying about the end of the physical book. Yet not only hasn’t the book died, it’s become arguably even more cherished; in fact, the Guardian reported a few months ago that far from turning away from books, young people are embracing them with renewed passion, not just physical books but libraries as well," she tells.  

Shepherd-Barr says the article cited the ‘oversaturation and noise of the wild west digital landscape’ as the main driver in the rise of reading amongst this age group. In addition we can see the power of BookTok and the proliferation of book clubs founded by models, actors, singers, and other celebrities.

The subject is close to her heart because of LitHits, where the aim is to break down barriers to reading, such as lack of time, or feeling overwhelmed by too much choice, or the desire for a trusted source. 

It’s ironic to Shepherd-Barr that her original inspiration to start LitHits back in 2018 was the worry that young people were spending too much time on their phones and not enough time reading.

"Now we can see that young people are very much interested in reading and that we need to adapt to the multiple ways and environments in which people encounter texts, including the hypertextuality with which we all read now," she says.

"It’s such an exciting, innovative time for reading and for books and, as with so many things in life, young people are leading the way," Kirsten Shepherd-Barr concludes.