Life at Christ Church (six weeks in)

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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.

 

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On The Last Four Months

I am still here. I can’t believe I never updated this whirring box of tricks to say that I did, in fact, pass my viva and am, in fact, Dr Sophie Duncan BA MSt DPhil (Oxon) (all right, Dr and DPhil is a bit of a tautology, and if I paid Oriel the necessary LUCRE I could be MA MSt DPhil, but give me my letters and my moment of glory). I had my viva on 27 September, implemented my minor corrections and was officially signed off/passed/”given leave to supplicate” (the last and most bizarre Oxford phrase of my student career) in early October.

Then lots of things happened.

  • I was a Stipendiary Lecturer at St Catz! I loved this job. My colleagues were fabulous, I became embarrassingly attached to the ten Freshers (against whom all future Freshers shall be judged, sternly) for whose education in the realm of nineteenth-century literature I was responsible, and there was a cheeseboard every day. In sunlight, the SCR looks like the triumphant set of a Roger Moore Bond film and, in darkness, a sinister chamber from an old version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • I was an Admissions Tutor at Catz. This was very different to my previous experience at Hertford, but equally great. St Catz will have some amazing first-years, come October (well, it has amazing first-years now, see above), and I wish I were going to be teaching them. As ever, Admissions was hectic and fascinating and infuriating and left me with a desire to burn down the British schools system and rebuild it along more egalitarian lines. It also reinforced my faith in the Oxford admissions process.
  • Now I am at Harris Manchester, Oxford’s college for mature students (which means over 21), as Supernumerary Fellow in English. This is brilliant in a very different way: tiny year groups; a small, close-knit SCR; and, frankly, something fascinating happens every day. I also have the most beautiful office (which now contains two framed RSC posters, starring one David Tennant; many mugs from my parents’ kitchen; any number of books; and a typewriter). As you’ve probably guessed, the “mature students” bit means that many of my undergraduates are older than me. So far, all this has meant is that I’m intrigued by their backstories, and what their experiences to date (of work, travel, and – frequently – very successful study in a totally different field) allow them to bring to their work. I should say that my only other “mature student” turned out quite well. On the teaching side, I’m the Organising Tutor for a team of four, all female and relatively early career. This is great.

It’s hard to keep blogging when you’re teaching a lot, less because of the time commitment (it’s not like the DPhil was part-time) than because all the most interesting things that happen in your professional life revolve around your students and colleagues – the things they write, the things they think, the hilarious bits, and the much harder pastoral issues. I can tell you that my Catz students temporarily and erroneously thought I was very jet-setting when I emailed one of them from a plane: actually a last-minute attempt to distract my flying-fear by tapping on my Blackberry before flying to Hamburg for under 72 hours, but they seemed to assume I’d jetted off to the Caribbean in celebration of the end of 4th week. I can also tell you how much I enjoyed seeing Oxford again for the first time, through their eyes, right up to the moment when I found myself being asked to suggest costumes for an Unhappily Ever After bop (one of them went as The Titanic, I’m not really sure how, but I admire it). So my posts between now and June will probably say relatively little about how I’m spending most of my time.

And then, in October, I’m starting a three-year research contact at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Postdoctoral Research Associate on “Adults at Play(s): The Psychology of Dramatic Audiences”. I’ve got the blurb —

Adults at Play(s) will study the psychology of dramatic audiences. At its heart is the notion of make-believe, which is psychologically puzzling: audiences know that what they see or read is fictional (the characters, the plot) but they respond to it emotionally as if it were real – a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This oddity raises psychological questions: what psychological mechanism(s) make(s) these seemingly contradictory mental states (knowing while pretending) possible? What benefit do audiences derive from this investment and engagement? At the same time a reciprocal literary question arises: how do dramatists manipulate the nature and the degree of the audience’s commitment to the transaction (‘I know this is not real but I temporarily behave as if it is’)?
 
Audiences at Play(s) will explore the psychological and literary questions in tandem. The methodologies will be drawn from both psychology and the humanities. We will, on the one hand, carry out practical experiments with live audiences and live drama, as well as cognitive experiments online and in the lab; and we will, on the other hand, study the dramatic texts.
The aim is to further our psychological understanding of how adults believe in things that are not ‘real’ as well as to study the textual and performance-related cues that audiences respond to. Our chosen body of material is Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
 
— and it’s basically a project about what happens when we go to the theatre. Since going to the theatre is one of the most interesting things in the world, and generally extremely high on the list of things I’d most like to be doing, at any given moment, and this since the project is led by Professor Laurie Maguire, Dr Felix Budelmann, and Professor Robin Dunbar, and based at Magdalen, this is essentially my dream job. The interview remains a blur of terror, although I remember interrogating the panel on why we clap plays, and talking a lot about the time I spent working in Front of House at the RSC. And I had an aggressive handout with bits of bibliography on it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of these as a strategy.
 
Meanwhile, thanks for sticking around, and I hope to start using this blog more frequently!

Good luck to the English Finalists!

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.