Are you a GCSE or A Level English Literature student, teacher, or homeschooling parent? If so, please feel free to get in touch with me, either via this website or on my email (sophie dot duncan at chch dot ox dot ac dot uk). I’m very happy to help with resources/discussion for either Shakespeare, 19th century literature, or 20th century drama.
I have recently done a lot for A Level students on Hamlet, King Lear and Othello: get in touch for details.
If you’re in need of help with other texts, don’t hesitate – if it’s not my area, I’ll find you someone who can. Similarly, if you’re preparing an Oxbridge English application, I’d be glad to talk about that! I should have been lecturing at the UNIQ Easter school – if you were meant to be coming to UNIQ for English, let me know! We can chat!
Meanwhile, I’m (as per) trying to write a book, work with a Mutual Aid group, and grow a lot of vegetables from scratch in our living room. At the last count, our flower pots included repurposed Pringles tubes (halved), a Lurpak pot, an apple juice carton, and a bottle. Our watering can is a former oil drizzler. I hope you’re all keeping well, and please, stay at home.
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:
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!
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.
Know some dates? You can make a point about chronology! Don’t finish the essay without doing so.
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?
Frame your argument in such a way that it’s clearly generated by the question – signal this in the language that you use.
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.
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.
Be evaluative in your use of critics; make it clear what you think of their conclusions.
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).
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:
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
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!
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).
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.
(This is a type of post stolen entirely from the lovely Simon at Stuck In A Book. Simon and I first met when we were the only two Masters students who wanted to do nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama. Simon now has a job that I don’t really understand, but which seems to involve him using MS Paint for money, at OUP. Over the years, Simon has introduced me to many things, including the Magdalen salad bar, Irene Vamburgh, and middlebrow interwar women’s fiction. Kirstie Allsopp once replied to him on Twitter).
This weekend, I have been reading How To Live Alone And Like It and Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time. The first is a bible for the ‘extra woman’ and a fabulous guide to having a really nice life in one’s London flat. My flat is in Oxford, and I don’t have a maid, so by the book’s standards, I am already failing. I do wholeheartedly concur that one should have manicures and delicious food and splendid clothes whenever possible. I don’t think Margaret Hillis would approve of me eating yoghurt in my pyjamas while I proofread. I would like to read this book forty-five times and then travel back to 1936 and live the book while dressed entirely as Harriet Vane. Diary of a Provincial Lady is also wonderful. Mademoiselle and Vicky are my favourites. What I love most is how they all sit around fretting about pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring and/or the general proximity to penury, but never consider dismissing the servants.
I also reviewed Bitch Boxer, now playing at the Soho Theatre – read the review here.
An American photography and fashion blogger, Melissa Aquino, uploaded scans of the late-90s US catalogue dELiA*s, with its fashion for pre-teen girls. I have been howling in recognition. Whilst I always lived in & bought clothes in the UK, visceral memories of Tammy, Red Herring and the equivalent publications – Girl Talk, Shout, Mizz, Sugar, and the highly unsuitable More – came flooding back. I had Kangaroo platform trainers with a bit of a platform. And things with stripes down the side. What can I say? I was 11, it was 1998, and I think my parents were mostly relieved I’d come out of the Black Clothes Phase that had started when I was seven. In the spirit of the 90s, I’d like a Body Shop lip balm, some gel pens, a chain letter and a nice blue hair mascara.
I am currently designing my first ever term-length Shakespearean syllabus (I’ve taught Shakespeare quite a bit in the past, but not designed a course myself). This is hugely exciting. Those of you who’ve course-built yourselves, how do you prefer to structure it?
Other things I like: the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals‘ collaborative project to read Wilkie Collins’sNo Name online; the utterly fabulous Spanish Les Mis rendition of One Day More, “Sal el Sol” (Geronimo Rauch is the current West End Valjean. The Spanish Enjolras is just pretty); and, crucially, this gin brooch (which was in the Modern Art Oxford shop for £5 more, chuh).
I will now carry on imbibing Radio 4 and trying to rewrite my latest chapter. I have pages and pages of proper theatrical history to get through before I’m allowed to talk about vampires.
* please note that in Week 8, lecture will take place in Lecture Theatre 2.
Building on the success of last year’s Before Oscar lecture series, we’re back in 2013 – now with added Emma Smith and Naomi Wolf. I hope to see many of you there (you may have noticed that I’m first up, this coming Wednesday…).
My first stable crop of BA (Hons) English Language and Literature finalists start their exams this morning. Everyone not tutoring finalists for the first time thinks I am over-invested. All my peers who are tutoring finalists for the first time agree that the experience is, you know, just a little like taking Finals again, several times, with no control over the outcomes!
My thoughts will be in the Exam Schools every morning this week. I am so proud of them all – which includes my non-student undergraduate friends, especially the wonderful NDK – for getting this far, and know they’ll do well (I’m already dying for July and the results). Oxford Finals are horrendous, and English is particularly tough because it’s so early & intense in the season. They’ll have an exam every morning this week, and then a final exam (which, like most of the others, lasts three hours) next Tuesday. The good thing is that Englishers also finish very early, leading to the GOLD RUSH: three glorious weeks of nostalgia, booze, punting, parties and (when not desperately cramming in aquatinted, heart-melting dreaming-spires experiences for the v. last time unless you just do more degrees) blessed, blessed sleep while everyone else still has exams to do.
In the spirit of things, here’s a picture of me finishing Finals in June 2008. Oh, goodness, just – if you’re finishing your Oxford BA this term, do everything in those amazing weeks which follow. I’ll stop now before, like, Tom Lehrer, I’m so-o-ggy with nostalgia, but, yes. Love is the only education worth having, and I loved (the last part) of that last Trinity term.
…of course, it wasn’t the last term at all, and I hope it won’t be for some of my finalists, but nonetheless…. /recruitment drive for eternal ACADEMIA.
Competing (and interestingly conflicting) histories of the English language. The first is by the British Council, produced in 1943, with according anti-German propaganda, emphasis on John of Gaunt’s Richard II “sceptred isle” speech, and a cameo by Churchill. The second collates the 10 shorter videos produced by the Open University, narrated by satirist and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.
1) History of the English Language (1943)
2) The History of English in Ten Minutes (2011)
As you may have guessed, my teaching for the the Final Honours School Linguistics paper begins tomorrow! Hurrah for Private Eye‘s contribution to the same. In other news, I am going to Montpelier to perform in Antony & Cleopatra.
In news the third, I would like to make an official declaration that it is never, ever sexist to ask a five-foot-tall girl if she would like any help lifting a frankly ludicrously large suitcase from high train to platform. All those decent, strapping men forced by equality-panic to disguise themselves as bovine, selfish oafs (for indeed, this can be the only explanation): consider yourselves relieved of your potential chauvinist arsery. Ask me if I’d like some help. You will STILL be enlightened male feminists. I promise.
I am currently in the process of moving house – into my first proper shared house! I am aware that being 24 and having lived exclusively in college-owned rooms/flats indicates the kind of moral solubility that makes people hate Oxbridge students. Accordingly, I’m looking forward to becoming a proper, landlord-dodging, milk-sharing, sex-life-overhearing housemate/human being.
The house is BEAUTIFUL. The house is not beautiful. The house is exquisite in its entirety, with the exception of the kitchen to which my father is lovingly adding a skirting-board (one of my housemates didn’t know what a skirting-board was, and she has a PhD and has lived out, so clearly I’m not that far behind in life skills). The skirting-board is white, but the kitchen’s terracotta. Confessions of the perverse: I love terracotta. I have also always, absolutely always longed to live in a terraced house. My only regret is that we don’t have a cellar.
We do have, however, A DINING ROOM, and three decent bedrooms, NONE OF WHICH are in fact on (or below) the GROUND FLOOR. There is abundant natural light in every room. My room is the loft conversion! I have skylights! The bathroom suite is not only white but relatively new. The garden will look infinitely better when more of it has been lopped, bagged, and taken away. The front path is a deathtrap and the hedge is dead, BUT the floors are beautiful, the hot water is abundant and I feel happy every time I cross the threshhold.
There’s only one problem. We have a killer robin.
Housemate, mother and I were in the garden yesterday (loppin’, baggin’) when what we thought was a delightfully tame, Frances-Hodgson-Burnett-type robin started leaping about in a twiggy, festive fashion amidst the debris/refuge/other vegetable matter.
Then it hopped even closer and became so witlessly tame we assumed it must be brain-damged.
Then it started hovering, not so much near as at us, doing its best impression of a murderous humming-bird and with an unmistakeably psychotic look in its tiny eyes.
It did this three times, each with visibly killer intent, staging an aerial wardance and/or audition tape for a Hitchcock remake.
I have known for years that robins aren’t the fluffy boodlums one coos over on a Christmas card. Second only to blackbirds in the garden’s guerilla hierarchy, they have marked personality problems and would benefit from anger management. Nevertheless, this shook me.
Our killer robin isn’t even red, but orange; lean and hungry-looking, it seems unnaturally elongated in the body, and looks so scary as it skydrives near, round and at us that all three of us admitted later that, had we been alone, we’d each have dropped the loppers and made a dash for the house.
I don’t know what it wants from us.
Nevertheless, the dimwitted festival sentiments persist. Last night housemate and I started researching bird feeders and discussing them via facebook. Apparently, robins prefer bird tables and baths to vertical/cage-like affairs. Unconsciously resigning myself to a year spent fulfilling the whims of an abusive bird, I decided it could have a bowl of water on the garden table I’d spent part of the afternoon scrubbing. None of this seemed unreasonable. What DID seem unreasonable was the information I found on types of feeder/bath. Apparently, all robin-feeding/bathing apparata must include a RAMP UP and a SHALLOW EDGE so that small birds can easily climb out and not drown. First off, it’s a robin not a penguin and, therefore, can fly. Secondly: rubbish to the tray idea. That bird can clearly cope with any scavenging opportunity that presents itself. Personally, I suspect it likes to eat its meat straight off the bone. Preferably our bones.
We should all be permanently in the house before too long; self, two housemates, and/or this robin which I keep wanting to christen Sidney Poitier (housemate can do a very bad impression). Just down the road, excitingly, is Alex of More Books, Please, so it’s practically a literary enclave. Between us and the Cowley Road, we can boast a convent, a tattoo parlour, a burned-out pub, a wiring-money-home shop (no idea of the technical term), and a charity shop. The tattoo parlour is undoubtedly the poshest of the lot. I have been inside the convent only once. I think one of the nuns has a lava lamp.
ION: Brogan, my guinea-pig first student got a 2:1. This makes her completely awesome, and me a very relieved and happy practising-teaching-paper-8-before-I-start-doing-it-for-money tutor. HURRAH.