Working with wolves…

Last weekend we had an Open Day at the university and I was there to give a talk to our visitors about how we use placements in our department. English Literature is not a subject which is usually thought of as highly vocational, but we take quite the opposite view here: we think that it qualifies you to embark on a life doing just about anything. Funnily enough, I was also contacting our alumni this week, those students who graduated with us over the last seven years and who are happy to be contacted by our current students who are seeking advice on how to get ahead in life. As one of these ex-students is now a lawyer, another is an investment banker and another is studying medicine, I feel that the case is proved!

Law image

Knowing that our students might end up anywhere, we were tempted to put in place a system of work experience placements, internships which would immerse our students in the world of work. However, we know that our Careers Service already does an excellent job of supporting our students in this endeavour, so we decided to something different. So we opened up every one of our English Literature modules for our second and third year students to select, should they wish, as a placement module. Students can do at least two of these academic placements whilst they are with us, and we work with them to ensure that the placement they undertake both reflects and enhances the learning on their module. We also know that it could help them find their way in life when they leave us.

It is exciting for me as placement tutor in our department to share this radical idea with our guests: there are always plenty of questions and I love telling them about the student who worked in an author’s museum on the moors of Yorkshire, or the student who worked with wolves for a fortnight…and if you want to know more, you can find out at




One of the things that often strikes me when I see our potential students and their families milling around the campus is just how overwhelming it must be. There is so much information to take in and so much to see. Looking at university websites and following their blogs can help and of course you are given plenty of material to take away, but I think I have discovered one good way to choose a university. Once you have done all of your research and made sure you are being offered absolutely the right course, then go with your gut feeling. You will be spending three years in the place, so it is very much like buying a house: if it feels right, it probably is right.

Question marks

A strange thing happened to me just after my talk on placements this year. A parent of one of our visiting pupils found me in the corridor and asked how I got into my job. What, she asked, would someone have to do to become a university lecturer and, more importantly, is it worth the effort? After I had spent some time outlining how challenging it can be to become a lecturer, and how much effort it might involve to get here, I was struck by the second part of her question. It reminded me again of something I have known for a long time: for me, being a university lecturer is the best job in the world.



You’ll grow into it…

I was remembering my school uniform last week. It was green, and generally quite pleasant, except for the fact that it seemed to be perennially too big for me. A blazer which had at least a few centimetres of give on each shoulder and a skirt which needed a belt for many months. This, coupled with the huge red coat my granny once gave me for Christmas, led one phrase to be burned into my mind as a symbol of childhood: ‘You’ll grow into it’ they would say, firmly, as yet another ill-fitting, hand-knitted cast off was passed down the line.

knitting needles

Generally, they were right, although there was that memorable pair of shoes which I decided I would never want to grow into and which I secretly, with little ceremony, buried in the back garden, never to be found again…hmmm. The point is that we do, eventually, grow into most things in life, however huge the jumper or large the shoes. What is sometimes so impossible is to believe that we will grow into what seems to be enormous, or that we would even want to. Being shown a too-large item of clothing can be disconcerting: do we really want to be the person who fits into that? Wouldn’t that mean that we were too large, too responsible, too grown up altogether?

Alice growing

Perhaps the strangest present in this category I ever received was from my great aunt Joan. She was actually my stepmother’s aunt but she seemed to be called ‘Aunt Joan’ by everyone. A fiercely intelligent woman, she had been well educated and had spent a life in worthy employment, although her career was much less stellar than it would have been had she been like her better educated brother. Given the restrictions of her generation she could have felt this as a frustration, and perhaps she did, but my abiding memory of her is one of demanding kindness: she expected everyone about her to be as determined and intellectually independent as she.

When I graduated I went to see Aunt Joan, keen to share what I thought of as my final academic achievement. Her congratulatory gift? The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a book I had never even heard of at that time. As a reference guide to the canon of literature, its authors and characters, I could not see why she would give it to me at the end of my degree course. When I asked her she smiled and told me firmly that she had no doubt about my future. I would go on, she said, to gain a PhD and one day I would write books of my own. ‘And that is why I have given you this book’ she said. ‘Because, whatever you think now, you have a long way to go and you will grow into it’. Aunt Joan was right, of course. I did have a long way to go and I am still ‘growing into’ her gift.


This last week I have seen lots of ‘growing into’ all around me. For the students who have just arrived with us, and equally for those who are entering their later years, the first couple of weeks of teaching seem alien. There are so many things to get used to: new teaching rooms, perhaps some lecturers you have never met before, a whole new set of expectations about the way you work and what you can achieve. For our new students you can add to that the practical newness of the place: working out where the cheapest coffee can be bought, knowing when the queues tend to form at the library, hoping that you haven’t spent too much in your first couple of weeks.


If you are in this position you can take comfort from something that has just happened to me. This morning I asked a first-year student if she could move away from the coffee machine so that I could use it. She was so busy chatting with her friends that she just hadn’t noticed me standing behind her. It made me smile to myself: last week she was standing quietly in the queue with nobody to speak to and looking very new and anxious. This morning she proved that she is growing into it, and you will too.

Here we go…

Here we are, with the first ever proper post on our new blog. I had no idea how difficult this would be! When we decided to set up this blog I had so many ideas of what I might like to say to you, and now my mind is blank. In that way I realise that it is a bit like an essay. You have ideas, then you lose them, then you get anxious about whether you can write it at all and then, being academically inclined, you do what I just did: you look something up.

Looking it up

So, I looked up ‘blog’ – I never knew that it is short for ‘web log’. That is the funny thing with words: we get so used to them that we forget where they came from. Of course, that is also the great thing about our language: we all have the chance to make up words as we go along and, as long as there is a good reason for the word and people find it useful in expressing what they want to say, we all adopt it. Words can die over time as well, and you would rightly be reluctant to put this year’s new words into your essays, but it is still good to know (in most cases!) that they are out there if you want them. I cannot imagine that you will ever see a selfy of me on the internet, and I am not sure this word will exist by 2020, but we shall see…

Once I had looked up ‘blog’ I naturally went on to look up ‘log’, and Wikipedia tells me that it is, amongst other things, ‘a daily record of personal experiences’. It also tells me that it is ‘an algorithm used in digital image processing’ and ‘Les Paul’s first solid-body electric guitar’ – what an amazing language we have. The internet being what it is, I could have linked through from either of those definitions to other pages, so I had to resist that temptation to get on with talking to you here. That is a dilemma you might have faced too: getting on with the essay when your research is taking you to all sorts of interesting – and completely irrelevant – places.


You might have noticed that I looked all of this up on Wikipedia but you have perhaps been told that this could be a problem. There are always scare stories about students who have no idea that Wikipedia is not always completely accurate (its very nature, being created by the world, for the world, makes this inevitable to some extent) and use it as if it were a printed encyclopedia of sure and certain facts. That is why some teachers and lecturers ask students to avoid it altogether, and this would be a safe bet, but on the other hand it does allow you to do what academics do all the time: find a source, read what it has to say and then check it against a handful of other sources to make sure it is reliable. Not bad practice for your life at university, maybe.


Now we both know what I should be aiming for in this blog and I do hope to bring you, week by week, a record of my personal experiences tempered with some insights into life as a lecturer at university; I will also share with you the things I see around me, the lives of university students.  What has happened here, in our first ever meeting, is just what tends to happen with the essay I referred to right at the outset. By the time you have done the research and tried to put it into order, and made some notes reflecting on what you now know, the thing is almost written. As Alexander would say, ‘Simples!’


Welcome to our new blog!

In the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading we decided that a blog might be a good way to show school and college students what it is like in a university department such as ours, and we thought university students, too, might like a peek behind the scenes. Our departmental blog is always busy, with announcements about events and posts about what we are all up to. Here we hope to provide something a little more reflective, giving you a good sense of the feel of a university department: what it is like to work here and, as much as we can, what it is like to study here.

Dr Cindy Becker

 Each week there will be a post to the blog by me, Dr Cindy Becker. A tiny bit about me before we get going: I was a student here in the English Lit department where I am now an Associate Professor, so I have been here (and loved being here) for a good many years. I teach across a broad range of modules and I am also placement tutor for the department. I occasionally deliver professional training courses away from the university, so I get to see graduates in the workplace as well as students on campus. I write books for students and so have the pleasure of hearing from students across the world about their lives in academia.