The Art of Internships

Amidst the continuous reading, endless essay deadlines, various extra curricula’s, and office hours spent crying at – I mean, having intellectual conversations with – your lecturers, you should find time to apply for an internship.

Obviously don’t apply to some big city corporations that you have absolutely no interest in (yes as an English student you can do an internship at global conglomerates such as investment banks or corporate companies; it is, however, better to do an internship at places that focus on your field of interest – though if big investment banks are your thing then go for it). Now, you may be thinking, why should I spend two weeks of my summer, or the whole of the summer if your interning at the big city banks, to do a voluntary placement (paid if you’re lucky)? The answer simply is that internships make you more employable and illustrate that you did not spend three years of your degree on Netflix marathons and eating pasta out of the saucepan. It also gives you that dreaded thing that employers ask for: experience.

So, here are my tips on what you should do to apply for an internship and how Queen Mary can help you secure it.

Make Regular Pilgrimages to the QM Careers Center

The Queen Mary Careers center is a gold mine. They have advisors that help you with your CV and an extensive list of events to boost your career (I went to the annual Law Fair every year because I wanted to be a commercial city lawyer). You can also book mock interviews and browse their invaluable books on how to start off your journey to your dream career. They also work with the alumni network that brings in previous QM students who work in various fields. The opportunities that the Careers center offers are priceless and if you come to Queen Mary or are already here it is the one place that you should make use of a lot. If you know the career you want or if you’re completely clueless, this service can definitely help steer you in the right direction.

Research, Research, Research

Before you go ahead and send your applications, make sure that you are not only eligible, but you know a lot about the field of work you’re applying to. This enables you to stand out amongst hundreds of applicants who you will be competing with. This requires endless research, which is a skill that a degree in English will definitely equip you with. Most professional jobs such as law, consultancy, banking, journalism etc. have positions opened for Winter, Easter, and Summer interns. However, some just require a cover letter at anytime during the year, which will give you that much needed experience. In addition, not everyone is eligible for every scheme. For example, in law, winter schemes are usually for finalists or graduates and summer schemes are for penultimate year law students. So, make sure that you start your research into fields that may interest you very early on at university. You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity.

Don’t Apply Everywhere

Once you’ve figured out the field that interests you – lets say, for example, Consultancy – don’t apply for every consultancy internship there is, because you will fail to make really good applications to each of the firms. It is better to make five amazing applications than fifteen really basic ones. In my second year of university I applied to around twelve internships and I only got one. Though places for these schemes are terribly fierce I do believe that if I had properly researched into each firm I would have gotten better luck. So remember one amazing application is better than five basic ones.

Competencies

With every application you make, you will have to demonstrate certain competencies which recruiters are looking for. These can range from leadership, teamwork, resilience, attention to detail, communication, etc. Now, recruiters that I have met have always said that they would much rather hire someone who ‘demonstrates’ their competencies rather than those who just say they acquire them. So, in other words, ‘as secretary of the music society, I have had to book rehearsal rooms, liaise with different members of the team to ensure that tasks were done efficiently and update our members on the Facebook page’ is much better than, ‘I have demonstrated team work through being involved in the music society’. Ensure that you are an active member of events and hold positions of responsibility to be able to fully demonstrate these competencies.

Interview

Once you’ve passed the paper stage of the application (Well done!), most internships will require an interview. Do not panic. The QM Careers center are able to give you a mock interview for practice and I’ve found that recording myself on my laptop camera is really good at evaluating my posture and how I respond to questions. The biggest tip I can give you for interviews is to just be a likeable person. No one will hire you if you are not enthusiastic, and if you don’t seem like a nice person. The second tip is, don’t make the interview like a Q&A session. It is usually up to you how you set the tone. Make it more of a conversation, strike up some sort of debate and you’ll be on your way to secure that internship and hopefully your dream job.

Manage Your Time

This is the last and possibly most important thing. During all these stages you’ll most definitely have deadlines and reading to do so managing your time is vital. Some make lists, some plan weeks ahead, any method that suits you is fine as long as you don’t fall behind. Prioritising is hard work but it’s one of the skills you can illustrate in your internship interviews. Don’t be afraid to say no to things that you don’t actually have to do, but you feel guilty because a nice person has asked. Saying ‘I’m sorry I can’t’ is possibly the most liberating skill I have learned over my time at university.

I can’t say that following all these guidelines will guarantee you an internship but they’ve really worked for me. For months I researched into the career I wanted to go into (commercial law) and had mock interviews at the Queen Mary Careers center before my internship interview and my graduate job interview that I was able to land last semester. So, even if you haven’t a clue what you want to do, internships are a great way to gain experience in the work field, gain some employable skills and generally meet some amazing people.

Living in London: The Student Way

Over the summer, a number of book benches popped up around London. Their purpose was to demonstrate London’s literary culture and help you explore the city in a way you would never have thought of. There were fifty benches altogether, spread over four trails: The Riverside Trail, The City Trail, The Bloomsbury Trail and last but not least the Greenwich Trail.

My mum, sister and I spent two days travelling around London following the book bench trails, all set with snacks and drink and spent approximately £20 between us on both days. (Not including meeting my brother for a well-earned dinner afterwards).

We spent the first day following the City and Bloomsbury trails, starting at the Tower of London. Walking for four hours around London following tiny print outs of Google Maps was a great opportunity for us to discover little alcoves you would never come across walking around London as a tourist heading to the main attractions. We found numerous little hidden churches and gardens where we stopped for tea breaks whilst on this literary trail as well as stumbling across unique bookshops, antique shops and clothes stores.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe bench in a hidden cemetery park on the Bloomsbury trail.

One of the most fantastic things about studying in London is that all the time, free days out like this are happening all over the place. After the book benches, buses appeared around London to celebrate TFL’s the year of the bus, currently a large number of Paddington statues have emerged all across London, and whatever is next is sure to be great fun and not too expensive.

It is no secret that living in London isn’t cheap. My rent is double that of friends at other universities, I don’t have the heating on but instead walk around the flat in several jumpers every night, and the price of a pint is enough to turn any student sober. However, what London lacks in the way of economical living, it more than makes up for in the never ending cheap and free arts and culture destinations. While other students spend far too much money on a long train journey to the capital to rush all it has to offer into a day or two, we can wake up with nothing to do and within an hour be at one of its numerous museums, art galleries, theatres and concert halls for the cost of up to £3 for the tube fare.

London’s free venues are, in my opinion, what makes it a spectacular place to study for three years and many of my modules at Queen Mary try to incorporate this. One module focuses on London in the Eighteenth Century and requires you to take a walking tour of an Eighteenth Century route and then create a journal about what you have learnt, how the route is today, and the similarities and differences between now and the eighteenth century. As a student at Queen Mary, which is part of the University of London, we get free membership to Senate House Library (also known as the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984). As a QMUL English undergraduate, in first year we were able to go and watch performances of two plays we were studying at the Globe Theatre for free, and we were lucky enough to be given a lecture at the Globe and go on the stage. In fact, many modules encourage trips to art galleries, museums, and even coffee shops to soak up the culture and get the most out of our time living in London.

Taking a photo of London’s architecture on an Eighteenth Century walk.

Away from the academic benefits of London, Queen Mary is in a wonderful location. It is a mere 15 minutes by tube into central London, 15 minutes to Shoreditch and we are surrounded by unique markets which are easy to walk to from campus. A great day out on a Sunday is to head to Colombia Road flower market, walk through Brick Lane market of course stopping at the biegel shop and at the many vintage stores to try and find a bargain, before finishing the trip at Spitalfields market.

Doing all these things for free is amazing but also sadly free trips are not always the case. Luckily for us there are apps which offer discount tickets to comedy clubs and theatre performances or, if you’re really keen you can queue up outside a theatre early in the morning to try and get £5 tickets to the best shows in London. Yes, having a night out is expensive but there are ways around that too. Most bars offer a happy hour, and at B@1, a regular haunt of my friends and I, there is an app which allows us to buy 2-4-1 cocktails to our hearts content. There is a roller disco in Vauxhall for the ridiculous cost of £3.50 on a Thursday night for students, the world famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is £5 for students after 11pm and if you’re feeling a particularly cheap night out, Cheapskates near Tottenham Court Road always lives up to its name.

A more than affordable kebab to end a night of surprisingly affordable cocktails

London is honestly the best place to be a student, there is nowhere else with a wider range of unbelievably cheap and free excursions. Sign up to alerts from companies like Time Out London for exclusive offers and The Londonist for everyday email updates of free and wacky things to do and soon the cost of London won’t seem so high once you start seeing all it has to offer for free.

Educating the East End: Getting into Teaching

You know that moment when someone asks you what you’re studying at uni, and you reply “English” and they immediately say “Ohhh so you want to be a teacher then?”. It physically pains me to do so every single time, but I am that person who replies “yes, I actually want to be a teacher”.

I always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was tiny and used to force my sister to play school with me and fill in scrawled, home-made worksheets which I then proceeded to fill with big fat ticks. The ambition faltered slightly in my college years as I imagined being a high-powering publisher, just like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal. That was the dream. Even if it was just for the tight skirts, tall heels and perfectly groomed eyebrows. Then I rediscovered it again this year when I got offered the job of being a classroom tutor at a local high school.

It’s brilliant. Busy, but brilliant. I spend every morning working in classes of year 10s and 11s, usually one-to-one with students that need extra support. The teachers whose classrooms I support, support me in return in my PGCE application, offering to let me plan and teach my own lessons and ask any questions I may have about what teaching a classroom full of hormonal teenagers entails. Working in an East End secondary school is definitely an experience, with rich, multi-cultural diversity being its unique, and most fabulous, focal point. The kids I work with aren’t what I thought they’d be like at all – they have the ‘don’t-care’ attitudes we all had at 15 years old, but they’re bright, respectful young adults and it’s literally like being in a constant episode of Educating the East End. 

I’ve recently just been offered a place at the University of Manchester to study for my Secondary English PGCE come September 2015, so I thought I’d give my version of 5 top tips to applying for teacher training:

1. Get some experience before you apply.

Applications open around the end of October and the minimum most institutions ask for is one week within a classroom setting, but I personally think you need a lot more – not just to hit the minimum requirements, but to actually check this is what you want to do as your career. Because teaching is a career, and it is one that I think that people should only do if they know how much work is involved: lesson plans, targets, reluctant kids, long hours, lots of responsibility etc. You need to see the good and the bad experiences in the classroom. I often have days when I love the students and we’re all engaged in a text together, and other days where I could bang all their heads together because they refuse to follow instructions.

2. A range of experience helps too.

Maybe try two different types of secondary school: an academy and a state school? A girls school and a mixed school? Every little helps when it comes to gaining an insight into the classroom. Every teacher’s classroom is different, and I love seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to engaging the pupils. Plus it can’t hurt to have something else to talk about on your personal statement!

3. Speaking of which: the personal statement.

The bane of your life during the month of October. Best advice my careers advisor gave to me? Make it concise. Make it relevant. And put what makes you stand out in the first paragraph. My job means I’ll have over 400 hours of classroom experience by the time my PGCE starts, but for some reason I left this rather impressive fact out until my concluding paragraph because ‘I didn’t want to seem bigheaded’. I swear the advisor has never looked more incredulous in her entire life. Trust me – put it at the beginning and grab that admissions officer’s attention.

4. Get in early. 

Places get allocated on a first come first served basis and it’s better to get that UCAS application completed and sent off before Christmas so you’re on one of the first interview assessment days. The less competition and the more places available when you’re being interviewed, the better hey?

5. Literacy and Numeracy skills tests.

According to the Department of Education “The professional skills tests for prospective teachers assess the core skills that teachers need to fulfil their professional role in schools, rather than the subject knowledge needed for teaching. This is to ensure all teachers are competent in numeracy and literacy, regardless of their specialism. All current and prospective trainee teachers must pass the skills tests in numeracy and literacy before they can be recommended for the award of qualified teacher status (QTS).” All very well and good but English degree holders? The idea of the numeracy test makes me want to cry. I practised it online and only got 50%, and as the pass mark is 63%, I definitely have some work to do. Make sure you practise your arse off, and book in advance. Most institutes set you a time limit when offering you a place in which to pass (mine’s 30th June 2015), so it’s best to get them out of the way sooner rather than later. It doesn’t help that if you fail one or the other three times, you can’t begin your PGCE until two years later. No pressure.

And Laugh We Did: ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’

As one of the Department’s resident medievalists, most of my teaching concerns heroes and monsters, knights and ladies, and magic and the supernatural. However, this year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of co-teaching (with Ruth Ahnert, Una McIlvenna, Anthony Ossa-Richardson, and Harriet Phillips) a new module on Renaissance drama.  Aimed at second year students, ESH280 Renaissance Drama explores four key themes in the plays of early modern England: London; metatheatricality; strangers and others; and law and justice. My research is in late medieval and early renaissance drama, so it’s been a real treat to learn more about the drama of a slightly later period, and even tease out parallels and points of contact with the material I work with more closely.

Of all the plays we have read this semester, one stands out as both uniquely modern, but also curiously indebted to medieval literature and culture:  The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont. First performed by a cast of schoolboys in 1607, it has recently been revived and is currently playing at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe. So, on a dark and rainy December evening, the ESH280 team left Queen Mary and travelled to the Southbank, ready to be transported to early-seventeenth-century London, where the play is set.

With its candlelit stage and galleried (for which read, uncomfortable) seating, its historically accurate costumes and carefully researched staging, ‘authentic’ is certainly one word that readily sticks to any account of Adele Thomas’s production. However, far more than a history lesson, this is a production that reminds us how formally daring, how generically subversive this play really is.

The premise is relatively straightforward: a grocer and his wife turn up at the theatre to watch a production of a play called The London Merchant, but unhappy with the way that play seems to be proceeding, they interrupt the action and demand their apprentice, Rafe, be given a role as the knight of the play’s title. Watching Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn as the grocer and his wife air their views while chewing noisily on popcorn and passing drinks to other members of the audience, I was struck by how modern – how post-modern, even – this play can feel. Centuries before Punchdrunk, before You Me Bum Bum Train, here’s a play exploring how we as audience members experience theatre and, in turn, how our experience as audience members can affect or even change the fabric of the play we are watching.

But strangely, this, the most curiously current of all the play’s many conceits, is also one of its most medieval. Long before the proscenium arch, before the fourth wall had been put up, separating actors from their audiences, medieval drama thrived on a dynamic that frequently placed spectators at the heart of the action. To take just one example, in the late medieval morality play Mankind, not only are audience members required to pay to make the chief devil appear – thus neatly paying the actors’ wages – but they are also duped into singing a dirty little ditty, a ‘Christmas song’ that has little to do with the birth of Christ, and rather more to do with lavatorial misadventure.

Mankind was probably performed at inns and other venues in and around East Anglia in the second half of the fifteenth century; quite some way then from the candlelit stage at Blackfriars where The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first staged. However, both plays share a kind of crazed exuberance, a recognition that active involvement is often the best way of making, playing with, and sometimes even disrupting meaning. They also thrive on comedy – by which I mean less the classical genre than the ability to make you bellyache with laughter. And laugh we did. Raucously, rambunctiously, and probably uncouthly. It’s a reaction that is somehow so central, but can often fail to come off in a classroom. And if that isn’t an advertisement for the current performance, I don’t know what is.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 11 January 2015.

Interdisciplinarity and why it matters for English studies

What does it mean to study English? It is obvious that the term English implies a lot, perhaps too much, for a single degree course. Necessarily, much is implicated in its reach. Among other things, on your degree you might encounter art history, politics, philosophy, film studies, psychology, linguistics, even science. A strong English course, though, should not shy away from the breadth of what lays before it, but should excitedly square up to the range of approaches, styles, and methods of study that are required to yield the most rewarding results.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword shares an anecdote demonstrating the benefits of learning from another field of work:

In 2006 surgeons from the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital invited a team of Ferrari Formula One pit stop mechanics to observe them at work. The mechanics noted a number of key changes, particularly in the areas of synchronization, communication, and patient relocation. The doctors consequently developed new surgical protocols forged new lines of communication with nurses and technicians, and even designed a new operating gurney to smooth their patients’ transition between the operating room and intensive care.

The moral of the story is this: whatever your discipline or area of study, be prepared and eager to develop and change from what others, with their experience and expertise, can teach you. Although there appears to be little in common between the work of paediatricians and that of mechanics, in this case the Ferrari team’s ability to carry out precise repairs quickly and harmoniously became useful for the doctors. These two disparate professions found a connection through a method of working. The doctors are still experts in medicine, they operate on children not cars, but their style of working has been improved. This is an example of interdisciplinary working. Medicine and mechanics really are in many ways incompatible fields, yet one was able to be improved by the other while remaining distinct.

Working in an interdisciplinary way is about maintaining a sense of the particulars of a subject, and at the same time being attentive to the common ground it shares with others. This is because in many cases the boundaries between subjects are not as clearly defined as we might think.

‘Knowledge is not created in a disciplinary vacuum’, says Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith in her Radio 3 essay ‘The Human Copying Machine’, where she explores the connections between 19th century theatre and psychology. Literature, too, does not exist in a bubble. Literature is about the world and the people who live in it, and to fully appreciate and engage with a literary text requires thinking beyond the narrow parameters of what some might presume English consists of, just as we know to look beyond the words on the page when analysing a poem or a novel. Along with Sword’s example of how interdisciplinary working can be practically useful, it allows for new ways of studying and looking at literature, which are intellectually stimulating.

 

marx_freud_nietzsche1

This cartoon shows Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (known as the Masters of Suspicion) sitting at a table, each with their uniquely characteristic facial hair, looking in different directions. If I may be allowed to crudely read a little too much into this image, I will explain how I see it as a metaphor for English as an interdisciplinary subject. We might see the table in its own right as the study of English literature, while each of the thinkers have a seat at the table, sharing the space, bringing something of their own to it – a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a cigar ( as well as those brilliant beards). If we say the table is Hamlet in this instance, Marx may be seeing the economic and political struggle at work in the Danish kingdom, as Freud points out the divided impulses and desires in the protagonists, while Nietzsche could recognise the characters’ will to power and/or nothingness leading to its deadly climax. Regarding English as an interdisciplinary subject means to share a space where unashamedly diverse views come together and sit alongside one another.

Within our own department we have academics, to pick a few, who research the cultural history of science, continental philosophy, cartography, and fashion alongside and in conjunction with their literary studies. English is a malleable subject that allows – even demands – what Elizabeth Dzeng calls ‘methodological promiscuity’. Working in a closed subject can lead to confined thinking, and studying English should be about maintaining openness and curiosity. We know that the study of English takes us beyond England into a global context, but it should also take us beyond the study of the literary text on its own. The interdisciplinary scholar is not a jack of all trades, master of none. Often the trades themselves are revealed to be arbitrarily divided, and the mastery comes by way of working at the interface of those diverse materials and ideas.

REF2014: Response and Implications

The School of English and Drama is delighted by our success in the REF, which recognizes us as one of the leading research institutions in the country. The Department of Drama is ranked 1st in the UK for the quality of its research, while the Department of English is ranked 5th (and 1st in London).

The results testify to international quality of the dynamic interdisciplinary research done by our research staff. The REF measures quality in research outputs, in our research environment, and in the impact our research has on the wider world. In each measure we have performed exceptionally well. This is a testament to the hard work and collegiality with which colleagues across the School have approached the REF.

The REF results are vital in determining future research funding, and this result will ensure the School continues to prosper in the coming years. The research that REF measures also has an important influence on our teaching. The School has long adopted a philosophy of research-led teaching; this means that the modules we run at undergraduate and postgraduate level are taught by international experts in the field, and students are thus exposed to the latest and most exciting ideas. The impact result also reveals that academics in the School are committed to speaking to audiences beyond the university.

In the following two videos, I reflect on the importance of the REF, and some of the implications it was for us and for other institutions.

 

Student Media: writing, editing and lots of gin-based socials

I’m probably biased but the best thing you can possibly do during your three years at Queen Mary (or any uni for that matter) is to get involved with Student Media. Whether it be The Print newspaper, CUB magazine, QMTV or Quest Radio, it’s free, easy to get into work experience. And it looks cracking on your CV. I got involved with student media properly in my second year, after spending the majority of my first year arguing I ‘never have the time’ to contribute regularly. That’s understandable – you’re in a new city (probably), Freshers’ Fair has swallowed you whole and your email account is now full of emails from the vegan society/cheerleading squad (you swore you were interested at the time, but it was really for the free cake/chocolate/pens). But it’s also a lie. In first year, and you’ll realise this in your second/third, you have SO MUCH TIME. So use it wisely, and get writing.

If I could go back and do something differently, it would be that I got involved as early as possible and gained as much writing experience as I could. But I didn’t – instead I waited until May rolled around and editorial positions opened for all outlets. I applied to be a regular columnist, named aptly: The City and the Northern Girl (very Carrie Bradshaw, I know). Cut a long story short, I got the position and proceeded to impart my North vs. South wisdom on to the entire QM population – so much so that I once got recognised in Spoons, just the beginning of my celebrity career. Not. Now I am the editor-in-chief, and I genuinely feel that every student, especially HSS students, should join the media family. We’re a fab bunch.

I’m probably making no sense to those of you who have no clue what Student Media even is, let alone what it does. So here’s the lowdown:

558314_624001094289194_2064892024_nCUB MAGAZINE. Queen Mary’s oldest (and finest) Arts and Culture magazine, currently ran by me, god help them. Sections include: Film, Music, Style, Arts, Features, Columns, London, Photography & UniSex. Publishes four times a year in print (literally the most stunning magazine you will ever see in your life) as well as boosting an online presence @ www.cubmagazine.co.uk. Fresh content uploaded daily.

1512617_802382833134651_2420543857757590739_nTHE PRINT. Queen Mary’s student newspaper. Originally named QMessenger, then Davey Brett took over and changed it forever. And made it crazily better. Sections include: News (obviously), Comment, Features, Satire, Sport & Societies. Publishes eight times a year, usually every two-three weeks, in print and is currently in the process of designing a new website to accompany @ www.theprintnews.co.uk

432258_210917425673732_910636721_nQUEST RADIO: Queen Mary’s student radio. Has seen huge changes this year under it’s leader Lucy Furneaux. Now featuring a beautiful new website @ www.questradio.co.uk and at last count, has over 40 different radio shows/hosts. Currently battling against the Students Union to be moved over into the SU Hub, and to be played in all Union outlets on campus.

QMTVLogo
QMTV: Sort of died a death this year with management difficulties. In the process of being revived. However to give you some sort of context, last year it had these ‘Bloody Mary’ episodes which reported news from campus and encouraged debate inc. the ISoc protest over prayer spaces (can be viewed @ http://youtu.be/dCuNgYZAqhM)

They’re the ‘big four’ if you like, but we also have four other outlets, so I’ll give you a brief overview of those:

1458496_201774926673144_2027577175_nPOLITICS MADE PUBLIC (PMP): A politics magazine, with an aim to make politics more approachable and understandable by people who basically don’t have a clue (aka me). Set up and managed by Matt Mahmoud and Jasper Tautorus. Published 2-3 times a year in print, also has an online presence @ www.politicsmadepublic.com

qmrQUEEN MARY REVIEW (QMR): Queen Mary’s outlet specifically for creative writing. Write poetry, short stories or other fiction-related things? Then this is the magazine for you. Headed by Bruno Cooke, it publishes bi-annually. Has a cute blog @ www.qm-r.tumblr.com

qmsciQMSCI: Queen Mary’s science magazine, Physics I think (I’m an English student, don’t judge). Mostly academic stuff, plus really clever discoveries/articles by Science students and staff. Oh, according to their description: “[it] aims to provide the brightest and the best, the coolest and kookiest of science to our readers – both on and off campus.” Well there you go then. Publishes bi-annually. Also has a cool blog @ www.qmsci.wordpress.com

941803_318967564907897_885630000_nTHE VULTURE: Barts’ own magazine. Editors remain anonymous. Don’t actually know what its content is.

 

 

So there you go. The full eight. Take your pick, get involved, boost your CV and attend our socials while you’re at it. We’re hilarious after a few gins.

Positions include: 

  • Editor-in-Chief (the big boss of the outlet, makes key decisions, is blamed when things go wrong, far too passionate about their publication)
  • Deputy Editor (helps the Editor-in-Chief keep everything running smoothly, ensures they don’t have a breakdown)
  • Section Editors (in charge of gathering and editing articles for each section e.g. Features)
  • Sub Editors (they design and layout the print issues, makes it look pretty, disguises any horrendous submissions)
  • Photography Editors (source images both online and in print to accompany articles)
  • Online Editors (in charge of the website, ensure things are copied and pasted over correctly, bombards social media with links to online articles)
  • Columnists (kinda speaks for itself)
  • Contributors (the most important position in the team, providing us with actual articles to edit and publish)

Trust me, you should get involved. You definitely won’t regret it.

Reading Literature: A Wild Exorcism of Ourselves

When you buy a book, what exactly do you own? Do you own the words on the page? No, these are the author’s, or, in the event of the author’s death, the publisher’s. What about the actual book in your hand? Great, you own some paper, a load of squiggly lines, and a Waterstones receipt. Do you own the right to read it? Yeah, as much as when you walk the corridors of the Louvre and delight yourself with the right to look at its paintings. You don’t own the Mona Lisa, you borrow it from the institution that houses it; like a Blockbusters for clever people. What’s the difference between the walls of the Louvre that house these works of art, and the covers and bindings of books? You can’t festoon the paper of a book with your ownership any more than you can carve your infinitesimal etchings into a work of art; it seems almost arrogant to try. Why then do we continue with this vainglorious delusion? If literature is art, why don’t we afford Robinson Crusoe, that brave Ikea manual that believed it could make a name for itself, with the same amount of respectful distance we afford to Guernica?

The act of purchasing and owning a book seems to be pure aporia. Regardless, we view our books with a slaveowner’s eyes, they sit in our cabinets (or strewn across the floors of our room, with our chunkier tomes tripping us on our way to the toilet) undoubtedly and rightly ours.

Interpreting literature seems to operate in the darker realm of culture because of this. We fumble messily through books, stripping them of their glory, trivialising their grandeur. We do a great violence to books that we spare the rest of culture from: to read, it appears, is to rape. That’s enough mystification and trite metaphors for one blog I think, and it’s all getting a bit morbid so I’ll get to the answer to this, and it comes from the previous owner of one of my anthologies. I brought my poetry anthology second hand from a third year, and I brought it back to my pristine (honest) Maynard House room and leafed through to read my favourite poem, a Yeats poem called Among School Children. I was surprised to see that, above the title, with a neatness that seemed to suggest that no explanation was needed for it, was an underlined cri de coeur “this poem is wanky”. I disagree with this evaluation of Yeats’ poem, but in disagreeing with it, I affirmed it. He read the same poem, in the same book, but he, like me, owned something that saves us from this terrible fate: an opinion. It’s this understanding that allows us to say that we don’t own the book, but instead own the text. The text is the humanity we bring to the book that the book can’t have, by virtue of being a book, and not a person. We all read the same book, but not the same text.

If you are familiar with the works of Jacques Derrida (if you’re not, get familiar, the guy’s amazing) you might have come across this pearl of wisdom, which has been pounded into the realm of platitude by pseudo-intellectuals (guilty as charged) “there is nothing outside the text”. He’s right guys. Among School Children will never change; it’s a cultural artefact, physical, unchanging, immutable, everything a human mind is not. Why then, do we study English? What is our profit from this endeavour? Because, when you read, you create just as much as when you write. The mind itself is like a palace and not every room is brightly lit and beautiful; there are holes in the floor of the mind. Most people who don’t read never explore these structural flaws and tumble along, leading a life unexamined. Your experience with the text, which is your own, and your own only gives you the light to make these holes magnificently, or grossly incandescent and the ladder to climb down into these holes, holes that you might never really climb out of. A common misconception about reading is that we in some way sit as high priests, with this book in front of us that we “own” finding “meaning” that lives in the text like a daemon, but reading literature is like a wild exorcism of ourselves; the literature in fact owns us far more than we own it.

And that is what makes it so much fun, and is the reason to study English at university. English at Queen Mary is not a stuffy traipse through the canon, that’d be easy, but instead it’s discourse, innovation, challenge. I sometimes listen to my seminar leader, or another student say something, and I feel the new ground crackle and break beneath my feet (or that could be the central line, sometimes I’m not sure). It is sometimes perilous and difficult, but why do the flying wallendas walk the quivering highwire? Because it’s walk that line, or plunge into the deep unmeaning below. Academic life at Queen Mary doesn’t shy away from this difficulty but embraces it, they’re with you every tentative step of the way. You will occasionally stumble, but Queen Mary cultivates an attitude that we do what we do not because it is easy but because it is hard.

But what Queen Mary does best is give you the tools to create your own texts, to actually own a fragment of the books that you buy in a way that passive reading cannot. They teach you to respect books as works of art, and to respect your relationship with them. My favourite line from Among School Children is “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” because it’s a beautiful illustration of the process of the endeavour of English students, which is that the book is the dance, we, in creating texts, are dancers. I’m proud of Queen Mary for letting us dance.

Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Katie Beswick, Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, on her research into race, racism and Theatre of the Ghetto.

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.

 

With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.

Welcome to the QMULsed Blogs

Welcome to All Things SED, the new blogging platform for the School of English and Drama (SED) at Queen Mary University of London.

The School brings together two of Queen Mary’s outstanding departments: the Department of English and the Department of Drama. The School has an international reputation for its high-quality research and its excellence in teaching. The latest REF (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), ranked Drama as first in the country and English as fifth in the country (and first in London) for the quality of their research. The latest National Student Survey revealed high levels of student satisfaction: 100% of Drama students and 94% of English students were satisfied with their programmes.

All Things SED is a platform for our students and academics to blog on cultural developments and reflect on their work and practice. The site will host regular bloggers and one-off writers. We will also host SEDcasts: video and audio interviews with members of the School.

If you are interested in contributing on a regular or one-off basis, please get in touch with the All Things SED Webmaster.