This is the first of our ‘Life of a Lecturer’ blog posts to appear on our department Facebook page, and it got me thinking about ripples. Before you get carried away with a delicious fantasy, I don’t mean this sort of ripple:


Lovely as that would be to a woman trying to avoid the chocolate bars lurking in her desk drawer, I mean this sort of ripple:

Ripple on water


Actually, now that I come to think of it I suppose I don’t really mean either of these, but rather the ripples we leave in people’s lives by our love of literature.

This blog was started with the idea that it would give school and college students some idea of what life is like at university; we also hoped that our own students might like to take a look behind the scenes. It has ended up being a bit of a meandering journey through a part of my life, and the life of my department, with plenty of stops along with way to admire both literature and our reaction to it.

At the outset, I had not realised that friends and family members might stumble across it. I had not even considered that alumni of the university would see it and get back in touch – a delightful bonus. So the blog has rippled out further than I might have expected, but I still feel some control over it. I decide what to write in it, and I was posting to it for many months before deciding to link it to Facebook.

I at least have the illusion of control, but our students can have no idea of the ripples they create. I was talking to a group of students last week about the way in which we respond to literature; I was hoping to get them thinking about how literature is sometimes valued as an artifact more than for the experience of reading. I was reminded of a lovely student who I taught some years ago. Over the course of her time with us she became so excited about literature, and the idea of owning books, that she wrote an essay on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an artifact, including her memories of the book as an object of beauty on her parents’ bookcase.


Alice old edition


Some months after she graduated the student told me that she had spent a significant part of her first month’s salary on old edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and that she was determined to buy a first edition of one of her favourite books as soon as she could. She could have had no idea that, so many years later, her passion for literature would still be rippling through the department. Telling my students all about her opened up a lengthy discussion on literature and literary artifacts. I found my students confessing to the books they yearn to buy, as well as the ones they have read and reread to a state of tattered decay but which they cannot throw away.

I can’t identify the exact learning point we achieved in the session, but I do know that the ripples of my ex-student’s love affair with books were felt all around that room and, for that short time together, we all reminded ourselves of just how passionate is our love of literature.

Drink tea and read books

My daughter sent me this image earlier today:


Annie drink tea

She sent it to me because it mentions two of my favourite things in life, tea and books, but it got me thinking about two aspects of our lives as literature enthusiasts. The first is the way we read books. I read them on my kindle when I am settling down to sleep each night, but I use hard copy versions when I am going to teach from them. When I want to make a handout for a class I will often find a text online and then cut and paste it into hard copy: I am sure that students prefer nicely presented, neat bits of text on a handout. When I cannot recall where a few scraps of text come from I will google them and experience the satisfaction of elusive words springing up in their correct context – what a lovely feeling that is.

The second thought I had was about just how entwined my life is with the books I encounter. This is not always entirely a good thing, when I give myself an hour to prepare some material for a seminar and then I find myself so engrossed in the text that two hours have drifted by, with me stuck in a fictive world, the time ticking by and my deadlines crumbling all around me.

My days are punctuated by books – the ones in my office which remind me that I am at home here, the ones I see my students reading all around me (and who can resist taking a peek to see what someone else is reading?), the books I have read to my children that still make me smile when I glimpse their covers and the books I have yet to read: the long ‘wish list’ on Amazon that will keep me happy for years to come. Books are how I learn more about my world and, as importantly, how I learn more about who I am and what I hope to become.

It doesn’t matter whether I am lost in them, dashing though them, pulling them apart to teach them or snuggling up with them and a huge cup of tea – they always make me happy.


But on the other hand, what’s not to love?

Looking back at my last post has made me think of a seminar I ran last week, in which I came to realise that it is quite difficult not to love, or at least highly appreciate, most pieces of literature, as long as they are of a quality to demand your appreciation. To say that I ‘ran’ the seminar is a very loose definition of what happened. In fact, a student who was going to give a presentation ended up running an entire hour-long seminar. She excited everyone’s imagination with her observations and made us all think anew about what we are seeing. It all began with Romeo and Juliet

 Romeo and Juliet

I have had quite a tortuous relationship with this play and I don’t think it is ever going to be in my top-ten all-time favourite list of Shakespeare plays. I read it as a teenager, I studied it at school, I ignored it as much as possible at university and yet still it catches me out. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a favourite for outdoor performances and so I get caught up with watching it because I enjoy outdoor performances, and then my children studied it at school and I wanted to make the point that plays should be seen and not just read, so off we went to watch it yet again…you can see how this has happened to me.


It is not that I do not appreciate the play, it is just that I had read, studied and seen it so often that I sort of fell out of love with even the pieces of it which had originally appealed to me. Then, as if fate were determined to catch me out yet again, I found myself teaching it. This was not an entire accident. I convene the module on which it is being taught, so I could have chosen another text, but the module is called ‘Shakespeare on Film’ and I knew that Baz Luhrmann had done a brilliant version, and my students would benefit from seeing it, so there I was again with Romeo and Juliet, although this time it was Romeo + Juliet.

Thank goodness – I just love, love, love that film. I even cried at the end the first time I saw it. How could that happen? I knew the ending for goodness sake! I should have been annoyed that Lurhmann had taken a few liberties with the script so as to play up the drama, but instead there I was, popcorn in hand, willing a happy ending. How daft!

So I loved the film, but still I thought I might be in danger of getting too used to it. So great was my concern that I was tempted to take it off the module list of texts this year, worried that I might not teach it well if I had lost my enthusiasm (and aware that there are some great filmic versions of Shakespeare out there – this is not a module which will ever run short of texts).


Then came along the brilliant performance by my ‘Shakespeare on Film’ student. I had already seen two excellent presentations in our previous seminar, so my enthusiasm for talking about the film had been rising, and I was delighted when she showed us the clip she was going to analyse. It is the masked ball scene, where Romeo and Juliet see each other through the fish tank and fall in love at first sight. What was so invigorating about the presentation was not just that the student covered all of the aspects of both the text and the film-making process that one would expect, it was that she took us to realms of speculation that we do not always get the chance to explore.

Juliet is dressed as an angel, but could Mercutio, in his white cross-dressing outfit, also be seen as a sort of false angel as he descends the steps, dancing and flapping the ‘wings’ of his outfit? What might that say about the potential rivalry between Juliet and Mercutio for Romeo’s love? Tybalt is dressed as a devil, so could we link this back to the idea of angels and devils battling for the soul of a good man, with Juliet showing the path for god and Tybalt, the path towards evil? Or is Juliet another false angel, luring him to his death?

You can see how things developed, with interpretations being postulated, discussed, refuted and endorsed, and with our presenter plucking relevant quotations from the text as if she had lived and breathed it for several days.

By the end of the seminar there were some delightful results: we all (including me) knew more about Shakespeare, film and Luhrmann’s Shakespeare on film than we did when we walked into the room; we had learnt that film directors can simultaneously expand and restrict your interpretation of a text; we had also decided that few of us would object to being wooed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the years before The Wolf of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio

What was most surprising – and most delightful – for me, is that I have a renewed appreciation of Romeo and Juliet. Despite all of these years, I have not become too accustomed to the play after all. The gifts our students give us.