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. 

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.

 

Women in Oxford’s History podcast: Emily Wilding Davison

(c) Bodleian

800px-emily_davison2c_c-1905-_282295528763629A few weeks ago I had great fun recording an episode of the Women In Oxford’s History podcast on the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and the suffrage movement in Oxford. It’s a story of torchlit processions, Woodstock Road drawing rooms, police brutality, and terrorism.

Wilding Davison is best known as the suffragette who died after stepping in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby. This podcast was a chance to tell the story of Emily’s life, rather than her death, and how the struggle for suffrage disrupted Oxford’s dreaming spires.

2894700
Suffragists reach Oxford during the 1913 ‘pilgrimage’ from Carlisle to London.

The Women in Oxford’s History podcast explores women’s contributions to the life and history of the city: Wilding Davison was a finalist (and Chaucer fangirl) at St Hugh’s College. St Hugh’s was founded – as we discussed – as an affordable alternative to Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall for the first generation of women university students. Fun fact: Whittard’s on the High Street was once a W.S.P.U. suffrage shop!

The episode is available via iTunes and SoundCloud, and a blog post accompanying the episode is here (bereavement! bluestockings! Middlemarch!).

My thanks to producers Alice Parkin and Bethany White for having me on the programme.

(And if you like this, you’ll love the book…)

Advent 10: East Oxford Snow Day

IMG_6531Obligatory festive stomp to South Park. Remaining undergraduates have bought up Tesco’s baking trays for sledges; small dogs in dog-Barbours circle. One northern slope has been designated best for sledging; a husky howls and then barrels off into the flurry.

Subsequent festive stomp round the St Mary & St John Churchyard: lucky wife gets to join me on never-ending quest to locate grave of grocer’s wife who murdered entire family in 1909. Enormous teenage snowball fight develops on western side of graveyard.

IMG_6538Make chilly progress down Manzil Way. Pass the East Oxford Health Centre, surely the only health centre in Britain with its own kebab shop on the ground floor. Behind the mosque, the Asian Cultural Centre is running a Christmas Mina Bazaar which, although much incommoded by snow, includes many small Asian children in Christmas jumpers, colouring in pictures of festive trees and snowmen. For £1.50, eat enormous bowl of chana chaat; try to answer organisers’ question ‘Is it spicy enough?’ without tears. Promise to come back for the Women’s Festival in March. Downstairs, see the burned-out oven from Mrs Smith’s Oxford Community Soup Kitchen; the oven exploded some weeks ago after twenty-five years of service – for a video about Icolyn Smith’s soup kitchen, watch the video below.

Back on Cowley Road, one of the unclassifiable quasi-hardware stores is selling plastic sledges for £12 each. A slowly-cruising, very ancient car boasts a snowman on the actual bonnet. A boy in football-strip pyjamas has been locked out of his shared house, to the great joy of onlookers and indeed his housemates. A snow-plough gritting van zooms down the road towards Cowley centre, plough well above the ground and no grit spraying.

IMG_6539When we return to the front of the flats, a group of boys is building a snowman on a sledge, complete with hat and wine bottle. They are ecstatic to be noticed. The snowman’s name is Inigo, after a friend who is apparently ‘a bit of a wino’ and ‘has been to Siberia’. When I ask if they’re students (they are implausibly pink-cheeked and wholesome), they say ‘Yes’ and ‘Well, sort of’, then confess to being sixth-formers at a local school (the snowman’s name should indicate which). They pose with alacrity for photographs and would probably do so for hours.

Tomorrow it’s library times to read about severed heads and painted faces (oh yeah), but until then, enjoy a much more serene version of snow-based fun with this gorgeous song from the best Christmas film not to feature Muppets, White Christmas (1954): ‘Snow!’.

Advent Day 8: Project Shoebox Oxford

IMG_6519
Shoeboxes: all packed, and waiting to be distribtued

I spent some of this evening in Headington, helping to pack shoeboxes for Project Shoebox Oxford. This brilliant initiative assembles donated toiletries, cosmetics, small gifts and confectionery into decorated shoeboxes to be given to people in need. I went along in the expectation I’d be packing gifts for women in domestic violence shelters, but in fact there were also boxes for men, children, and babies. Most of the boxes go to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services, but the shoebox gifts also help Simon House, the Gatehouse, and Asylum Welcome, the subject of an earlier Advent post. Simon House is a 52-bed, mixed-gender hostel for local rough sleepers and the vulnerably housed – which is due to be ‘decommissioned’ in April 2018, because, hey, it’s not like homelessness is getting worse every night in the city centre, or anything. The Gatehouse is perhaps Oxford’s best-known homeless initiative; a drop-in cafe for homeless people over the age of 25, at St Giles’ Hall on the Woodstock Road.

IMG_6513
Box for a girl aged 6-9

Volunteer packers are given a list and then go ‘shopping’ through the huge numbers of donations for the essentials, which (from memory) include toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, face wash, flannel, soap, lotion, comb and hairbrush, sanitary products, hair products, cosmetics and makeup remover, and sweets  [ETA: after writing this, I found there were guidelines here]. Those covered, you fill up the box with treats and whatever you think would surprise and please the recipient. Finally, you write and enclose a Christmas card, seal your box with an elastic band, and label it.

 

IMG_6514
At this point, I was obsessed.

What really charmed me was the excellent quality of most of the donations. Of course, value or own-brand products are all many people can afford to give, and everything helps, but it was really exciting to put together an amazing box with treats from e.g. Kiehl’s or Clarins for a woman in a refuge, or to give the kind of colourful Body Shop and Soap & Glory I still used to enjoy to a seven-year-old girl. There were Braintree Bamboo Socks, Ted Baker body sprays, several hundred nail varnishes, and all sorts of pieces of jewellery and toys.

 

IMG_6515
FLATLAY. AESTHETIC. EAT YOUR HEART OUT, SELFRIDGE HAMPERS. 

Project Shoebox Oxford’s ‘Packing Parties’ are running this weekend and into next week, with the first batch of boxes going to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services soon. Party listings are here, and the location is easy to find on New High Street, Headington. Tea, coffee, custard creams, and technically also some fruit are much in evidence. There is still a HUGE amount of stuff to pack, so do come along if you can! Goods can also be brought to the party and put straight into boxes. Based on my limited experience of tonight, I can offer a few quick tips…

 

Particularly useful/we seemed to keep running short of:

  • Face wipes and makeup remover (I cannot overstate how desirable these became, I haven’t searched for anything so assiduously since Beanie Baby-collecting  in the late 1990s).
  • Sanitary products in sizes/absorbencies less than super/max (for modesty/privacy, it’s quite nice to have a little purse or similar to keep these in)
  • Combs and hairbrushes, see specifically the ecstatic joy of locating the latter
  • Hair bands/slides
  • Socks
  • Small gifts/jewellery
  • Stationery, especially for children (see also: crayons)
  • Small children’s books
  • Shampoo/conditioner in sizes of 350 ml or less (larger ones make the boxes very heavy, take up room, and are difficult to store. Bigger ones already donated will go to other charities).

There were, conversely, VAST amounts of body lotion, moisturiser, hand cream, nail varnish, and soap.

For safety reasons which require little imagination, charities ask people to avoid giving sharp or glass items, e.g. mirrors, tweezers, reading glasses, razors, or scissors. They also have to refuse alcohol, or items with sexual imagery on the packaging. Cosmetics are hugely popular, but avoid foundation, concealer, or other products which depend on the lady in question being a certain skin colour (Project Shoebox Oxford will put together a grab bag, though, for refuge residents to sift through themselves, but it’s not a shoebox item per se). It should go without saying (AND YET), but used/opened products are no good at all, look at your life and your choices if you think otherwise. Glittery/messy/unwrapped products can also wreak havoc.

Many thanks to my lovely colleague Catherine Redford, whose support of Project Shoebox first alerted me to said project’s existence. If you can’t make it to a party, but would like to support Project Shoebox Oxford, you can donate money online here. I hope that everyone who receives a box is helped and pleased by it, and that all the recipients are in their own homes, facing much brighter futures, by this time next year.

Advent Calendar Day 5: Christina Rossetti

The fifth day of Advent belongs to poet Christina Rossetti, born on 5th December 1830. She has been much on my mind today, as admissions season continues. Back in 2004, when I was interviewing at Oriel, Christina Rossetti was one of two women nineteenth-century poets of whom I’d actually heard (the other was Emily Dickinson), and she crops up with candidates – especially women – today.

image_largeThis week, I have also been spending my evenings at Keble, whose chapel is home to ‘The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting, whose Christ has the face and head of Christina herself; her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and Millais.

‘The Light of the World’ was one of relatively few paintings that I could identify before university, partly because one of our schoolteachers was sufficiently obsessed to give an annual assembly on the picture, and partly because the PRB were amply exhibited in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (I also knew some other paintings, e.g. Guernica and some Van Gogh, and – less usefully – such items of folk art as The Really Big Pigs at Compton Verney).

Keble Chapel is sublime. No other college chapel changes so much with the weather. In sunshine, the mosaics glitter like a Children’s Illustrated Bible, and during a thunderstorm, it turns into Byzantium.

Christina Rossetti’s best-known poetic contribution to Christmas is ‘In The Bleak Mid-Winter’ (1872) now a much-loved carol that I remember learning in primary school, with appropriately mordaunt sigh-singing on snow on snow, snow on snooow throughout December. It’s the carol that springs horribly to mind when I witness homelessness exposed to a ‘frosty wind’ and ‘earth stood hard as iron’.

Rossetti’s other Christmas poem, though, is ‘Christmas Eve’ (undated pre-1886). I love it and it’s reproduced below.

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

I love this poem for holding in tension the tragic framing of the Christmas story, seen here as chillness, coldness and poverty  – with the joy of the season of Christ’s birth. I struggle with the joyless snobbery of some Christian commentaries on Advent. No, it’s not Christmas yet, yes Advent is penitential, and if the ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas is ‘depressing’, it’s perhaps rather less depressing than e.g. the ongoing sexual abuse scandals, the existence of Trump, and the rollout of Universal Credit. The world and the winter are cold and dark, and I am both doggedly Anglican and fond of tinsel. There are, it seems to me, so many more Christian things to do in December than grumble about secularised Advent: donate to your foodbank, bother your MP, chat to your neighbour, support a charity that helps those most vulnerable to the inequalities Christmas highlights. Light some lights and eat some chocolate. If you share the chocolate that is basically A Moral Good too.

Advent Calendar Day 3: Asylum Welcome

awlogoIn church this morning, in lieu of a sermon, there was an interview with John Fenning of Asylum Welcome, about the charity’s work with Syrian refugees in Oxford. Since September 2015, seventeen refugee families have been settled in Oxford (here is a Jan 2017 story about one of them), with the help of the charity and its supporters (among them the University Church). They come with nothing, often via other countries including Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. John’s job concentrates especially on working with the families in their first few weeks in Britain. He collects from the airport, helps make their accommodation more homely, takes them to GP appointments, tries to make sure their benefits come…reasonably swiftly… and sorts out school places. In the longer term, the charity supports community initiatives which put Oxford’s Syrians in touch with each other – with the growing numbers of Syrians, one especially important project is a Syrian Women’s Group, which meets every week. All of the refugees have experienced trauma; some, of course, have PTSD.

John stressed that although there is (as he diplomatically put it) a range of feelings about/responses to the presence of refugees in the UK, Oxford’s Syrian refugees have generally been made extremely welcome by their immediate neighbours. He also emphasised the benefits to Oxford of having a growing Syrian community. Many refugees are former business owners keen to continue their entrepreneurship in the UK (we already have several successful Syrian-run ventures in East Oxford); they bring amazing food, arts, and craftsmanship; they are incredibly hospitable. Among the new community is a talented poet, Amina Abou Kerech, who won this year’s Betjeman Prize for Poetry.

If you’d like to mark the first Sunday in Advent by donating to Asylum Welcome, you can do so here. The charity provides a huge range of services, including a food bank (see below), weekly lunch club, recycled bicycles, haircuts and work clothes, employment assistance, and specific schemes for young people, detainees, and families.

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.

The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.

The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).

But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.