Donne was right…of course

O how feeble is man’s power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall!
But come bad chance,
And we join to’it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o’er us to’advance.

This stanza is from one of my favourite poems by John Donne, who is my top, all-time favourite poet (well, perhaps joint first with Shakespeare and Marlowe). Indeed, the verse comes from one of the very few poems I have ever learned off by heart.

I was reminded of it today by some third year students I saw earlier. They are still keen to be involved in a project on which I am working, and still considering all of their options. Should they spend time working with me on activities which would look good on their CVs once they leave us? Will they have enough time to do it well? Most important, would they be able to produce something of which they could be proud? And therein lies the rub. Last year those same students would have had a very different point of view – university life stretched ahead of them, apparently without limit. Now they are aware that they are going to leave us in a few months, which they have already started counting in weeks.



Those of us lucky enough to work here have the luxury of enjoying the challenges of the term as they arise, feeling that Spring, let alone Summer, is still a long way off. For finalists, the time is whizzing by perilously fast, not just in terms of their workload (how on earth am I going to read all of this and learn it and reflect upon it in time for the exams?) but also emotionally (how am I ever going to be able to face leaving uni and starting a whole new life this Summer?). Not all of our students feel this way, but an awful lot of them do.

Dick Whittington

That’s where Donne comes in. The speaker in this poem insists that we extend the length of our angst by worrying about it, by looking forward to it with trepidation, by pondering on how much we will miss something when it is gone. Human nature, he would argue, dictates that we enjoy our pleasures only fleetingly and endure our pains to the fullest extent possible. What he fails to mention, and it might be worth our finalists remembering at this point in their university careers, is that in retrospect we can recall our lives in delicious detail. You ‘cannot add another hour,/Nor a lost hour recall’, as he so rightly says, but you will recollect it later and take pleasure in your achievements.

Looking back, I think I have always enjoyed this poem because, as one would expect from Donne, the speaker is expending a fearsome amount of intellectual energy, just taking leave of his loved one. It sort of makes me wonder what he will be up to once he leaves her. But perhaps you would read it as an utterly sincere expression of love and the dread of absence. That’s the beauty of studying literature, of course: it can take each of us to different places…might be worth you googling and taking a look at the whole poem? Perhaps just a little peek?

 Clip art Graphic of a Honey Bee Cartoon Character

Damp toes and the pleasure of the familiar

I had an odd start to the new term. I should say, first off, that I love the start of term. I never sleep well the night before, always anxious in a rather unfocused way about what I may have forgotten to do in the run up to the teaching term (you may know how that feels) but I do always enjoy the feeling of a new term. In fact, I prefer the new term to the New Year; that always carries with it so much pressure to improve and turn over new leaves all over the place.

The beginning of this term would have been the same as always except for a couple of things: I went to Iceland for the weekend, and I came home to find that a river near me had burst its banks and so my house was under a couple of inches of water. Indeed, as I write this I can look out of the window at my daughter rowing down the middle of the road to meet the postman. Both Iceland and the flooding had an impact upon my start of term. I had never been to Iceland before and was woefully ignorant about the country. I went on a walk between two continental plates which push apart at a rate of 2cm a year. I saw the huge volcanoes looming up either side of me and wondered how on earth I could not know about where these continental plates joined, and pushed apart.


I also went to see the Northern Lights, taken on a coach to a mountain top and told to look at the sky. And look. And keep looking. And look just one more time. I felt a little more knowledgeable this time, knowing that the Northern Lights are not a guaranteed lightshow on a nightly basis, and was sorry for my family, most of whom had expected to see huge swathes lights and, as I teased them, serried ranks of angels singing in the sky. We did see the Northern Lights, but it was little more than a curving cloud in the sky, a bit like a cloud rainbow. I was sure that I saw a green glow at the base of it, but others were far less certain. Still, I reckon I did see that glow and I was partially vindicated when we looked through a camera lens and saw it so much more distinctly.

northern lights

I learned two things as I stood on that mountain. First, I was reminded that knowledge is sometimes a matter of faith in the early stages, believing from your existing knowledge that certain things can be found, and then going out to find them (most researchers know this feeling). I also realised that ‘knowledge’ is not easy, that we learn things only as well as we can, and ‘know’ things only as deeply as we are able at any time. We do not always have the intellectual equivalent of a camera lens when we are trying to see our way ahead clearly. You will find this in your own life of study. Whatever you are learning now will become more complex and satisfying for you, one day, when you are ready.


When I started out for work on the first day of term I found making morning tea in my wellies a bit odd, but other than that it was not too bad. I got a lift into work (too much of a wimp to drive through the floods) and then I changed from wellies into posher boots in the car, a bit damp and dishevelled. Then I came into the building and it hit me: the familiarity of the English corridor, the smell of coffee from the café, the posters on the walls. Then a couple of colleagues wished me ‘Happy New Term’ and we smiled. In my office nothing had changed and everything felt so reassuringly normal. Damp toes I might have had, and new experiences I might have enjoyed, but sometimes, nothing beats the familiar.



Walking and tutorials – both good for you.

At this time of the term lecturers tend to see many of their students individually, either because they are seeing their personal tutees or because they are holding essay tutorials, offering individual feedback on a student’s essay or other coursework. For both of these types of session we usually have a fairly standard approach that we know in advance will work: for an essay tutorial we will expect the student to want to work through some of the comments on the coursework; for a personal tutorial we will be discussing landmarks in a student’s career, or simply asking how the term has gone. Students also seem to have a typical way to approach the situation, so the communication level is fairly high and both parties can be confident that everything has gone well. Except for one thing.

I have noticed over the years that, as students leave my office and I offer them an encouraging word and a smile, they often look wistful, and sometimes they will come and sit back down. ‘There is just one more little question…’ they say, and then they tell me what is really worrying them, or they talk about the paragraph of the essay they cut out at the last minute but wish they had been brave enough to include, asking whether I think it would have worked.

Last week I saw a student who did just this. I was about to leave my office alongside him, as I was going to a meeting across campus and he happened to be going to a lecture in the same direction. We spent a delightful ten minutes talking about the critical terms he had not quite grasped, and puzzling together over how best to present a theory in relation to a piece of literature he was studying.

The serendipity of learning, and of teaching, is one of the pleasures of this job. I had no expectation that I would be cramming an additional ten minutes of tuition into that day, neither did the student expect that we would be talking in such depth about his intellectual challenge, but I know that we both tackled the next task of the day with greater enthusiasm.

I am now busily counting the number of calories I might consume weekly if I were to hold all of my tutorials on the move…more cream cakes for me I think…






Who owns literature?

I surprised myself recently during a seminar with the realisation that I had no idea who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (it is an author called L. Frank Baum, in case you don’t know either). I was watching an excellent presentation being given by one of our visiting students, Chris Doehrmann, in a seminar for the Packaging Literature module. Amongst other things, Chris had been considering the work in various guises, and its adaptation and interpretation in various filmic versions.

This was all interesting stuff, but I remained a little distracted by my woeful ignorance of even the author of the book (which, it transpired, was actually a series of 14 books, with 19 sequels written by yet another author of whom I had never heard – who knew?!). As I looked around the room, searching for reassurance that I was not alone, I noted that students were frantically scribbling down this information, so I called the presentation to a halt and we talked for a while about this strange situation. I know the Wizard of Oz, it was part of my childhood, I feel some sense of emotional investment in the work, yet I have never read the book, not even to my children. So can I really say that I ‘know’ the work?

wizard of oz

It turns out that many of the students in the seminar had no idea who wrote it either, and several of them, like me, had only seen a film version or some literary adaptation, so could any of us claim to really know the ‘true’ work of literature? And is there just one authentic text, or series of texts? Does the writer who took over the series and added to it (actually, with more titles to her name than the original series) have any claim to authenticity as a producer of some part of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

Would further research help me to make up for my perceived lost ground? I learned from Chris that the author’s full name is Lyman Frank Baum, so for a moment I felt more in command of the material, or at least the history of the material, until the next point he made. He explained that the author who wrote the introduction to the Puffin Classics edition of the text is Cornelia Funke, a much loved German writer of children’s literature. We were assured that every German child would know her name, so I felt a distance opening up again between my experience and the text itself – this time a cultural as well as a literary gap.

wizard of oz puffin classic

Luckily, as so often happens to us lecturers, I was saved from my reverie by a student asserting firmly that she would read and enjoy anything related to Oz, and watches every film or TV version she can find, because she loves the original book so much, having had it read to her as a child. In this situation, she cares not a jot for authenticity, however we judge it, she just enjoys the story. Another student piped up in agreement: she is a particular fan of Wicked, both the novel by Gregory Maguire and the musical. Despite this enthusiasm, some students still had reservations about authenticity: shouldn’t the only ‘true’ version be that which is owned by the author, based on the fact that, after all, he actually wrote it? But then cannot we claim some ownership, if we read it, or see it on film, and buy into the ideas? What about if it has formed some treasured childhood memory of a parent reading a bedtime story?


Whist this debate was in full swing Chris had to wait patiently, hoping that we would let him resume his presentation before we took a coffee break. We did, and he continued with an information packed ten minutes before we took a break. As a student visiting our department I hope that he will remember our time talking about OZ when he returns home. The students in the room all felt the benefit of another perspective on a classic piece of literature and I, as so often happens, left the seminar with as many new questions in my head as I had answers to offer.

…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’ ( 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.




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!’