…and then messing it up altogether

Rarely does anyone get the chance to see some spectacular entertainment, for free, during your working day, but that was exactly what happened to me last week. A well-known and much respected Shakespearean actor and scholar, Ben Crystal, came along to give a talk on the way in which Shakespeare’s plays would have been spoken to the original audience.

Ben Crystal

The work that Ben and his father, David Crystal, have done in the area of original pronunciation is startling. To hear familiar lines of Shakespeare delivered in a way I had never heard before was beguiling, and to have them delivered by such a consummate actor was sublime: the absolute silence in the hall as every audience member leaned forward to hear was testimony to the power of the acting, the brilliance of the language and the strangeness of the original pronunciation. A remarkable experience.

shakespeare on toast

For me, it was bittersweet. Ben delivered two speeches that I had taught this term and his new exposition of them revealed to me several rhymes which it is easy to miss in modern pronunciation, and a subtle shift of power and meaning in the opening sonnet of Romeo and Juliet. That is one of the frustrations of the life of a lecturer. Now I will have to wait a whole year to pass this exciting new knowledge onto my students. Or maybe I could just email them now….


Scrambling the order in my brain….

It is not often that anyone gets to sit and listen to a medical doctor, a scientific advisor to the government and two academics in the same conference, let alone on the same panel talking to one another, but that is what happened to me this week. They were there to celebrate the launch of a new, university-wide research centre called ‘The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science’ (www.reading.ac.uk/irhs) with a public roundtable discussion held at the university, based on short talks given by each invited speaker.

Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science

Even the name might put you off at first. What, you might reasonably think, does science have in common with the humanities? Then you begin to think about it and realise that the title of the event ‘Science and Storytelling’ is not so bizarre after all. Most of us know the story of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, and that was certainly a link between science and storytelling and, as the event progressed, I realised that there are plenty of ways in which we have used storytelling to explain science (many myths are rooted in science, apothecaries wrote in literary forms, science fiction is ever popular). Then I thought about our recent fascination with forensic science in our literature and on our screens: that is certainly linking science and literature.


I started to feel on more comfortable ground until I realised that the speakers had been asked not to talk just about science influencing literature, but they had also been given the dastardly task of talking about how literature had influenced science. Surely, I thought, that is not likely? Literature is the vehicle we use to explain all sorts of things and it is the product of our imagination, whilst science is about fact and reality, so the former could not influence the latter – it would have to be the other way around. Then I learned that early practitioners in psychology and even in physical medicine would use accounts from literature to explore and diagnose diseases of the mind and body. I also found out that our understanding of many scientific phenomena has been influence by literary creations. The link is sometimes fleeting, but it is there: it does seem that storytelling can influence science.

Science and books

So, I started the week with two nicely divided compartments in my brain: literature sat on one side and science sat on the other. I was quite good at science at school and so have a fondness for the subject, but even so I was happy to have them divided. By the end of the week I sit here having had that nice order scrambled up. There is now a mental channel in my mind between literature and science. That is what happens when you work or study at a university: you cannot guarantee that anything will stay the same from one week to the next. Thank goodness.

We are learning too…

I went to a Teaching and Learning Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning run by my faculty last week and soon found myself caught up in a welter of newly coined words and an array of freshly minted acronyms. I learned how my colleagues were using our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) and video to create a ‘flipped classroom’ where students engage with new information in a new and exciting way. I heard about blogs and websites being an increasingly popular way for students to produce material for assessment, and how podcasts are being used to provide better feedback and support for students. Finally, I discovered that, with the power of MOOCS (massive open online courses) and SPOCS (small private online courses) we could aim to educate well beyond the boundaries of our campus.


At times it would have been easy to wonder how this could apply to English Literature as a subject for study, given that it all felt very instant and spontaneous and our subject relies on contemplation and gradual exploration. Indeed, there were moments when all of the new words and acronyms made it seem almost anti-literary, even anti-language. That is nonsense, of course. We regularly cajole our students into trying new words. I run an entire seminar on text/techno language and its impact on our lives. We tell our students to be precise and effective in their use of language, but to remain open to new textual and linguistic options. What was happening to me was what I encourage in my students.


It might have seemed unfamiliar to some colleagues to be asked to consider how they could facilitate learning using these methods, but then that is the whole point. These new ways to teach and to learn are ripping up some of our comfortable old assumptions and challenge us, quite rightly, to justify how we teach and to articulate more precisely what we anticipate that our students can learn.

new ideas

Although I call these ‘new’ ways to teach and to learn, many of them have been around for some time now and they are working. They do not require us as lecturers to abandon all of the ways in which we know we can teach well, but they do give us invigorating news ways in which to work with our students. That is perhaps the most striking thing about teaching methods which employ technology in one way or another: they all rely on students as active, and enthusiastic, participants who are prepared to take a leading role in their learning. Once that facet of technology enhanced learning is grasped, it all becomes simple: that is what we have been encouraging our students in English Literature to do for many years.


It occurred to me as I sat in the conference that, more often than you might expect, being a lecturer is not that different from being a student. When you first come to university you are faced with words which you might not understand and abbreviations that you have never heard before. You are asked to respond to our teaching, and this will sometimes require you to learn in a wholly new way. It can be bewildering at first but the aim is still the simple one I mentioned a moment ago. We want to help you to learn in a way that allows you to be your own person, fuelled by your own imagination and desire to grow. We will provide the tools that you need, we will encourage and direct you and if sometimes the whole process seems muddly or daunting, think of me at the conference, having to remember all of those new terms. We really are all learning together.