10 tips for sitting Finals in English (good luck!)

Final Honour School exams for BA (Hons) English Language and Literature begin at Oxford on Monday. Grey-faced third-years wearing full sub fusc and white carnations will be at the Exam Schools sitting three-hour papers. Eleven of those English finalists are my students, and for the past few weeks we’ve been revising papers in English 1550–1660, 1660–1760 and 1760–1830. Said students are now experts in a hugely diverse range of literature, and I am rooting for each of them – and for everyone preparing for Monday! I hope you all have carnations and an abundance of clean white shirts. 

What follows isn’t a formula or a recipe. However, for anyone who’s an English student, the very best of luck and here are ten things which one tutor (and former Finalist) hopes you remember when you’re sitting in the Exam Schools:

  1. Think about the question as much as the answer. When you did your interview, you probably close-read something unseen. These are all little unseens. Pick them apart like they’re literature – most of them probably are! 
  2. It’s so, so much less about the quantity of your knowledge than the quality of the way in which you deploy it. Flexibility is key.
  3. Know some dates? You can make a point about chronology! Don’t finish the essay without doing so.
  4. You can always make a point about form. Don’t finish the essay without doing so. Think practically: what’s the effect of an idea being expressed in a sonnet vs a sermon? A prologue spoken by an actor out-of-character vs. an in-character soliloquy? 
  5. Frame your argument in such a way that it’s clearly generated by the question – signal this in the language that you use. 
  6. Keep the question in sight. Never miss an opportunity to return to its terms; create those opportunities. Your conclusion is the final way in which you answer the question. 
  7. A thematic structure serves you better than a text-by-text structure in terms of developing your argument and placing your texts in close conversation. 
  8. Be evaluative in your use of critics; make it clear what you think of their conclusions.
  9. Introductions: a statement of focus “This essay will look at/explore…” is not an argument. One of the main jobs of your pre-essay planning is to get you to a point where you have a clear thesis statement which you slap down as the centrepiece, starting point, or culmination of your introduction (whatever works for you), but which is unmistakeable as your argument, born in response to the question. What follows are your proofs of that argument. You analyse text and incorporate critics (to agree or disagree with) in the service of that argument. Also, write your introduction in the present tense. It sounds more authoritative (n.b. this is the most subjective thing on the list).
  10. You can do this. You absolutely can. Give yourself time to plan: 30 mins at the beginning, at which point you write all three essay plans, picking apart the questions. Write your essays strongest to weakest (creates a good first impression), 45 mins at a time, adding in things to your plans for later essays while writing the earlier ones. This helps stop you from thinking of the key bit for your third essay 10 mins after leaving the exam. 30 + 45 + 45 + 45 leaves you 15 minutes for contingency and checking. This isn’t my method – I think Sos Eltis first taught it me – but it honestly, honestly works to ensure well-planned essays, the best distribution of info, and to minimise late-exam panic.

And, because this is English not Maths, so counting need not matter:

tip 11. Or, you know, hall.

11. Bonus tip: eat breakfast before each exam, put a plastic grippy thing on your pen to save your poor claws, and write on alternate lines if your handwriting is atrocious (or even if you only suspect it might be). Avoid psychic vampire course mates who want unsettling postmortems (and also #never4give if someone tries it, signed, Sophie-From-2008).

12. The actual bonus tip: your life and your worth are not, contrary to appearances, defined by your degree results. You are going to be great whatever happens, and if you’re feeling like a disaster right now, or worried about being heartbroken later, please take it from me that these exams are not going to determine your future, and that all the right people will be massively proud of you. You are brilliant. My fingers are crossed for you all. Finals is, as a colleague reflected to me the other day, “an unenviable state of life”, but I promise that actually sitting Finals is so much better than preparing for them. 

Also, remember to talk about form. 

[CFP] Infinite Variety: The Older Actress On Stage 1660–Present

Dame Judi Dench as Titania (2014). Photo by Nobby Clark.

Infinite Variety: The Older Actress on Stage 1660–present

A two-day symposium on 18–19 October 2019, taking place at Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK. 

Symposium Directors are Dr Sophie Duncan and Professor Mary Luckhurst 

The event is jointly convened by the School of Arts, University of Bristol and Christ Church, University of Oxford, with support from The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). 

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central School of Speech and Drama), Professor Jacky Bratton (Royal Holloway) and Dr Fiona Gregory (Monash University). 

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
  • older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
  • older actresses and the one woman show
  • older actresses – stage v. film and television
  • older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
  • writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
  • genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
  • retirement and its alternatives
  • ‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
  • older actresses and non-traditional casting
  • the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
  • ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
  • older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
  • the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
  • retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.

Proposals, which should be 300 words long and accompanied by a brief biography, should be sent to the symposium’s directors, Dr Sophie Duncan (sophie.duncan@chch.ox.ac.uk) and Professor Mary Luckhurst (mary.luckhurst@bristol.ac.uk) by May 31 2019. 

PODCAST: Women and Power

Whether or not you’re joining us in Oxford for the Women & Power conference next week, I hope you’ll check out the National Trust’s Women & Power podcast series. The five-episode series is presented by Kirsty Wark, and features a whole host of great stories from across the Trust, and contributions from lots of different historians. I pop up in all five episodes, talking about Victorian Manchester and the Contagious Diseases Acts (Episode 1), force-feeding (Episode 2), Octavia Hill, violence in Oxford, and the NUWSS pilgrimage (Episode 3, with genuine piano underscoring), the suffragettes as terrorists and the myth of why women really got the vote (Episode 4), and the Six Point Group (Episode 5).

(c) Bodleian

The series is ace, with brilliant on-location sequences at beautiful Wightwick, Killerton, and Osterley (plus some very energetic Incidental Radio Acting), and I haven’t given it the blog love it deserves.  It’s been a lovely soundtrack to writing my keynote for next week’s conference at St Hugh’s, here in Oxford. I look forward to seeing some of you soon. 

P.S. the book of the Women & Power project, with all the info from the series and more, plus pictures, is still available online. You can also check out my episode of Radio 3’s The Essay on Shakespeare and suffrage, and my 2018 podcast episode on suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson and Oxford’s suffrage histories for Women In Oxford’s History. There’s yet more about Shakespeare and the suffragettes in my first book, Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle. A trove.

Identity and atrocity: international theatre since 1945

This post is a quick resource for students attending my lecture series (title above) in HT 2019. Links to all the handouts shared online are available below. Feedback is welcome, either in the comments section to this post or via email (sophie.duncan@ell.ox.ac.uk). The last lecture in the series will take place this Friday (Friday 15 February 2019) at 11 a.m. in Seminar Room K. All welcome.

Week 1: Southern Gothic, Gay Panic: Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958). Handout.

Week 2: Beckett’s History Plays: Krapp’s Last Tape (1957)and Endgame (1958). Handout.

Week 3: Colonialism: fantasies and nightmares in Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988). Handout.

Week 4: Sexuality and the Holocaust play: Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979)and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998). Handout.

Week 5: Black Histories: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island (1972) and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012).  Handout.

Thank you to all those who have attended the lectures or been in touch about them – you can still discuss the series on Twitter, via the hashtag #IDtheatre.

Women and Power: Redressing the Balance

I’m delighted to be giving a keynote talk at the conference Women and Power: Redressing the Balancewhich runs 6–7 March at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. Jointly convened by the National Trust and Oxford, the title responds to the National Public Programme ‘Women and Power’ which the Trust ran in 2018. I’ll be talking about my work with the Trust, researching stories of (pro- and anti-)suffrage and feminist activity in approx 108 Trust places in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and writing the book Women and Power: The Struggle for Suffrage alongside Rachael Lennon. Excitingly, said book is now a finalist at the ACE Awards for Best Guidebook with a turnover of over £1,000,000! I fear this may be the only time in my writing career that “turnover of over £1,000,000” is associated with my name. Do check out the other finalists across the categories – sadly, the judges are actual experts and not a Strictly-style phone-in, or I would be going absolutely mad for Suffraduck (Best Product, fighting off competition from Lady Macbeth’s Hand Sanitizer and a RAF tshirt) and the RAF teddy (Best Toy, vs. Build Your Own Lifeboat and a gargoyle).

It would be great to see you at the Women & Power conference! Speakers from museums, historic houses, theatres, and art galleries cover issues from LBTQ women’s histories to women’s presences in the National Archives, Wikimedia, and the DNB. The other keynote speakers are Annie Reilly (National Trust) and Melissa Benn (MELISSA BENN) so please do come if you can. To attend the conference, book here

To download the programme, click here. Any questions, please get in touch below.

Identity and atrocity: international theatre since 1945

This post is to publicise my lecture series this term on Identity and Atrocity in Anglophone theatre since 1945. It’ll be happening on Fridays at 11.15 in Lecture Room K of the English Faculty for Weeks 1–5 of term (18 Jan to 15 Feb), and the outline is below. For more information, leave a comment or email me (sophie.duncan at chch.ox.ac.uk). I’ll be tweeting about the lecture series at #IDtheatre – please join in, whether you’re attending or not!

Description:

This series looks at theatre written and performed in Britain, Ireland, America, South Africa and continental Europe since 1945, thinking about how drama presents transgressive and marginalised racial, sexual, and national identities when plays bring the past onstage. The plays in this series, disparate in form and setting, introduce post-1945 drama’s international contexts, exploring some of theatre’s most iconoclastic and influential responses to atrocity. All plays listed below are available via the database Drama Online, except The Island, copies of which are available in various university libraries. Key primary texts include:

Week 1: Southern Gothic, Gay Panic: Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958).

Week 2: Beckett’s History Plays: Krapp’s Last Tape (1957)and Endgame (1958).

Week 3: Colonialism: fantasies and nightmares in Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988).

Week 4: Sexuality and the Holocaust play: Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979)and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998).

Week 5: Blackness and Adaptation: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island (1972) and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012).

Life at Christ Church (six weeks in)

unnamed
obviously the House (I managed to say it!) doesn’t still look like a sun-kissed Loire valley chateau, it now looks like a resentful Venetian winter.

I am now six weeks into my new job. For the next five years, I shall be Fellow in English at Christ Church at the University of Oxford, teaching literature 1550–1760 to undergraduates, and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate work on drama from the Renaissance to the present day. My colleagues’ friendliness belies the buildings’ grandeur, afternoon tea is served daily, it’s the sole Oxford college with its own art room, and the students like play-readings and crisps. For the past four years, my contract has been full-time research with a significant, although intermittent, amount of BA and Master’s teaching across the last four-and-a-half-centuries of Anglophone literature – this is definitely more intense. But teaching the third-year Shakespeare paper alongside the second-year Renaissance paper is rich and rewarding. One reason is that the intensity of tutorial teaching gives tutor and students alike the luxury of focusing on the process and skill of writing as much as on literature. Although Oxford terms can often combine the worst of sprints and marathons, I’m trying to find spaces to help already strong writers develop their written style – and structures – as quickly as possible. Essays are, after all, attempts and experiments, and tutorial teaching allows them to be just that.

The other reason it’s so rewarding is the obvious one: the literature. I was always going to love reading and discussing essays on the drama of this period (i.e. the reason I’m an academic), whether it’s realising why A Woman Killed With Kindness should be read alongside Coriolanus, or getting excited about all the different ways you can die from an Early Modern painting. At the same time, though, it’s been great to work again on John Donne, and Anne Locke, and Thomas Southwell, among others.

Of course, I’m on my second cold in six weeks, I really need a haircut, and my face is falling off. I have, however, overspent on a Christmas tree for my office (there was an even pricier one with two-tone branches. I mourn it). Only two weeks left til Oxmas.