Science in Culture module wins University Award

We are delighted to announce that the new third-year module on Science in Culture, run jointly by English Literature and the School of Biological Sciences, has won a University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning. John Holmes and Andrew Mangham in English launched this module this term with David Stack in History and Nick Battey, Keith Chappell and Steve Ansell in Biology. We have been teaching students from a wide range of disciplines, from English to Zoology, alongside one another in a mixed group. Our aim has been to bring together our very different approaches to understanding science and its place in culture, so that students and staff alike can learn how to combine literary, historical and scientific perspectives on topics such as evolution, monstrosity, genetic modification and scientific objectivity itself. We’ve been learning in the lab and museums, as well as the lecture theatre and seminar rooms, and reading scientific papers and controversies alongside novels, science fiction and poems. It has been a rich experience in itself, but also a really valuable experiment in interdisciplinary education, breaking down the barriers between what C. P. Snow called the ‘Two Cultures’, showing how science is embedded in culture, yet also how scientific and humanities approaches to knowledge can complement rather than undermining one another. It is great that the University has given its full backing to this experiment with this award, and we are looking forward to carrying it on next year with a new cohort of students.

Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science

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Ewan Page Prize awarded to Rachel Birt

The department would like to congratulate one of our students, Rachel Birt, on a well-deserved prize.


Rachel writes:

On Wednesday 18th March, I received an email out of the blue informing me that I had been selected to win the Ewan Page Prize, named after a previous Vice-Chancellor of the university. I was amazed as I couldn’t think what I had done to deserve the award, and reading through the email I discovered that it is an award given annually to three Part 1 students for receiving the highest entry A-level grades in their year. Having achieved A*AAA, I assumed that there must have been some students who achieved higher, as these were by no means the highest results at my sixth form, but I was extremely pleased nonetheless.

The Head of English Literature, Professor Peter Robinson, emailed me shortly after congratulating me, and arranged for a meeting so he could present me with my award – a book token worth £130! The idea is to enable me to purchase all of my Part 2 books (and possibly some Part 3 as well) without money being a concern, and I am very grateful for this generous prize. It was a privilege being awarded the Ewan Page Prize and I owe my grades to my excellent sixth form teachers, as I couldn’t have done it without them.

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CIRCL conference

At the forthcoming CIRCL conference in Seoul, Korea, on ‘Childhood and Gender’ Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein will give the keynote lecture and other CIRCL members, including Dr Sue Walsh, will be giving lectures. Past PhD students of CIRCL will be coming from Taiwan, Japan, and Greece to speak at the conference, as well as a close colleague from China. The whole conference was organised by our past MA alumna, Professor So Jin Park, who was appointed several years ago as the first specialist Professor of Children’s Literature in Korea at Sookmyung University in Seoul. The conference is being funded by the Asian Association of Women’s Studies (RIAW).


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An exciting dissertation experience…

Lucie Stroud, one of our dissertation students, writes: 

A year ago my dissertation was a daunting topic and a journey I was dreading embarking on. Now, just a few terms on, I’ve completed one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I’ve ever done. Basing the ten thousand words on three of my favourite books I also used my time to contact one of the authors, Audrey Niffenegger. More than happy to give me an interview and assist in information for my topic, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife inspired new paths for my dissertation.

time traveller's wife

Taking the time to write an email and wait for a reply from the author seemed minute compared to the excitement and delight I now felt from writing on my topic, especially with the endorsement from the author herself! A lead I encourage everyone to follow, contacting writers may seem intimidating but there is no one better to advise you on your topic than them. My experience with Audrey was that she was thrilled someone had chosen her book to write on!

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Congratulations to Matthew Sperling!

Dr Matthew Sperling, of our department, has been awarded this year’s Faculty RETF Prize for the best output by an Early Career Researcher. This is for his monograph, based on his recent PhD thesis, on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill:

Matthew Sperling publication


Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (OUP, 2014)

The library have an ecopy of the book:

Matthew’s prize will be awarded to him formally on March 23rd, at the University’s annual Court.

Many congratulations, Matthew!

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 International Women’s Day Event (9th March, 2015)


Members of the English Department led an evening of talks and debate to celebrate International Women’s Day. More than 100 staff and students attended and a lively debate produced an excellent conversation. Dr Madeleine Davies organized the event and began the talks by asking whether the vote has become an empty symbol in a political system that continues to marginalize women: connecting with Virginia Woolf’s description of women as a ‘society of outsiders’ (via Russell Brand and Eleanor Roosevelt!), Madeleine argued that if women vote simply to register their right to do so rather than in an active exercise of positive choice, they risk endorsing a staging of democracy designed to exclude them. Emphasis throughout the talk was placed on the fraud of ‘equality’ in the Western context, and the idea that women across the world have made huge progress in this area was questioned.

Professor Grace Ioppolo spoke next and drew distinctions between the US and the UK contexts of feminist activity and protest. Emphasis was placed on the role of the social media in agitating for social change. In a particularly entertaining clip, a female Lebanese news anchor angrily put a British-based Islamist scholar, furious to be interrupted mid-flow by a mere woman, firmly in his place:

Other topics included:

Whether women really are trolled more on Twitter than men:

And why scholars are frightened by the treatment of rape perpetrators in film as ‘victims’, possibly proceeding from the trope of  ‘fridging women’:

Professor Ioppolo took on the controversy about the recent showing of the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ (now banned from, which explores the issue of rape in India via the appalling story of the murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. The quotes drawn from the convicted rapists, and from the rapists’ defence lawyers, proved chilling:

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein connected with neuro-science and suggested that recent scientific debate has halted progress in terms of considerations of sex, gender, and sexuality. Karin demonstrated how supposedly ‘neutral’ scientific research had been used to confirm gendered stereotypes when the data had been composed from highly limited samples and based on spurious science. Karin emphasized the risks involved here, particularly since Government units and educational advisory boards (not to mention the media) are basing policy on ‘scientific’ material infected with highly degoratory assumptions and judgments regarding in particular women’s roles and transgender identities. Here are links to the two articles Karin referenced in her talk: (Guardian article on male and female brains ‘wired differently’) (New Scientist 2012 study of ‘capturing transsexual brain on scans’)

The debate section of the evening was extremely lively with contributions interrogating and extending all the positions raised in the talks. What is the way forward if active protest is configured in terms of opting out? Do white feminists speak over black feminists when they present their stories (as potentially in the case of ‘India’s Daughter’)? Should we fear being labeled as ‘bad feminists’? How can we tackle low-level sexism which denies its existence but which is keenly-felt regardless? What role does religion play in female oppression? Contributions also indicated that focused movements can achieve huge progress, as for example the movement in Eire campaigning for women’s right to abortion.

The evening was fascinating and also hugely encouraging: the level of engagement was exceptional and the range of topics addressed suggests that our students are thinking and are concerned and are capable of action in the years to come. Reflecting on the evening, it seems to us that the future is in very strong hands. Many thanks to everyone for coming along and for making yourselves heard.

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Oli Ratcliffe – new RUSU President

Everyone in the English department would like to say a huge congratulations to Oli Ratcliffe, 3rd year English Lit and Politics student, who was voted in last week to be next year’s Reading University Student Union President.

Oli Ratcliffe

Oli, who will be well known to many in the department, ran a great campaign and popped up in various lectures last week. This is what he has to say: “First of all, thank-you to those who voted for me! It was a tough week with ups and downs, but it was all worth it in the end! From saying ‘have a lolly and vote for Oli’ to lecture shout-outs and late night campaigning; it was a week I will always remember, and I highly recommend running for a role next year!
“Over my three years here, I’ve got to know the lecturers in the English department well, so I know how much time they give up for their students and I look forward to being in close contact with them for another year. I plan to introduce a broader range of careers at careers fairs, as I know from experience that the current careers fairs are quite biased towards business-based subjects.  I also plan to have campus-wide debates with guest speakers, and improve the ‘rate your landlord’ website to make sure landlords are held to account. You can check out my full manifesto here:”
“I know the experiences of an English student here first-hand, so rest-assured you’ll be in safe hands with me as your Union President!
Thanks again guys!”

Best of luck to Oli when he takes up the post in July.

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Deryn Rees- Jones in the department

The acclaimed Liverpool-based Anglo-Welsh poet, Deryn Rees-Jones will be reading in the Department of English Literature (HumSS 125, Thurs 19 March, 6 pm) when she visits us to act as a PhD external examiner. 

Deryn Rees-Jones

She is the author of The Memory Tray (1994), shortlisted for the Forward Prize, Signs around a Dead Body (1998), a PBS Special Commendation, and, more recently, Burying the Wren (2012), a PBS Recommendation, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. 


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EMRC event today

Tessa Storey, English and Italian Regimens Compared:​ The Protestant and the Catholic Body, 1500-1700

Dr Tessa Storey is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has worked extensively on courtesan culture, prostitution and material culture in Counter-Reformation Rome as well as on the history of medicine in early modern Italy. Her paper draws on new research following her recent co-authored book (with Sandra Cavallo) entitled Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford University Press, 2013).

The seminar will be held in HumSS 128, 1.15pm, 11th March 2015.

You are warmly invited to attend!

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A God in Every Stone

Conor Carville writes:

You are invited to a reading by the award-winning novelist Kamila Shamsie on Monday 16th March in HumSS 125 at 5.00 pm. The event is free of charge and all are welcome.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, most recently A God in Every Stone (2014) which Jeanette Winterson called “A page-turner that is also a literary delight”. Her other books include Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into more than twenty languages, Broken Verses, Salt and Saffron, In the City by the Sea and Kartography (both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2013 was named a Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.

a god in every stone

See more at:


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