Spectrum Postgraduate Conference

Spectrum 1

On Wednesday the 20th July 2016, a cohort of MA Literature and Culture students hosted the first postgraduate conference to celebrate the interdisciplinary research being undertaken within the department. ‘Spectrum’ brought together students studying across a huge variety of research fields and time periods, ranging from Old Norse romance all the way to contemporary cinematic novels. ‘Spectrum’ took place at the historic Winterbourne House and Gardens, allowing for a very comfy and relaxing atmosphere looking out onto the beautiful vistas of the house’s impeccable gardens.

IMG_4814Winterbourne House

For many of the speakers, ‘Spectrum’ was the first conference they had taken part in – but was an extremely useful platform for developing ideas which will be central to dissertations and other future research. The day was a great success, and allowed students to share and communicate ideas with one another.

Spectrum 2

During initial discussions for the conference, the ‘Spectrum’ committee had originally intended to formulate an event based upon one central theme. However, it became clear when reviewing the eclectic set of abstracts which were submitted, that there really could be no one uniting theme. The committee thus felt that the aspect to be most celebrated was the absolute diversity of research being undertaken; that under the umbrella of one postgraduate literature course, not one person’s research topic was by any means similar to another’s. The central aspect of the conference thus became ‘interdisciplinarity’. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is central to humanities research, making for a very rich, exciting and ever evolving set of academic disciplines – although the term caused a few hiccups during papers (in numerous attempts to say it without blunder, which proved to be difficult…).

‘Spectrum’ were honoured to welcome Professor Catherine Belsey as the guest speaker for the day. Professor Catherine Belsey is a hugely influential scholar and inspirational speaker. She is a Fellow of the English Association and a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales and has published a number of significant texts on the nature of literary criticism. Her writings encompass interests from cereal packets to Shakespeare and she examines obscure theoretical positions with lucidity and humour. Belsey has consistently promoted innovation in literary criticism; her publications include Critical Practice (1980), The Subject of Tragedy (1985), Culture and the Real (2005) as well as four books on Shakespeare and one on Milton.

Spectrum 3Professor Catherine Belsey

Belsey’s talk outlined the vast trajectory of approaches to literature over the years, considering the ways in which literary scholars are able to provide and apply a unique set of skills both within and outside academia. Catherine’s inspirational talk placed ‘interdisciplinarity’ at the forefront of literary enquiry and innovation in wider cultural studies.

The day was organised around four central panels: ‘Drama and its Critics’, ‘Literature & Science’, ‘Modernism’ and ‘Contemporary Media’, each containing 2-5 papers followed by audience questions and discussion. The papers included a huge range of topics, including power and reciprocation in Shakespeare’s plays, new Russian drama, seventeenth-century biography, narratives of mental illness, modernism and the popular press, film studies and virtual reality – to name but a few!

However, after judging both abstracts and presentations collectively, MA convenor Dr Matt Hayler announced Kit Richards’ paper ‘“Size Matters”: Reading Disability in Old Norse romance’ to be the winner of a £50 amazon voucher. As well as illustrating a range of nuanced readings of medieval works, Kit also demonstrated an immense ability to speak in Old Norse dialect, too!

IMG_4807Kit Richards

Not only was the day a great success, but it allowed students based at both the Birmingham campus and Shakespeare institute to broaden ideas and gain invaluable experience of writing papers and partaking in an academic conference. The committee were hugely proud of the day – and hope that ‘Spectrum’ will encourage future conferences for both undergraduate and postgraduate students in the department.

You can find out more about the day on the Spectrum twitter account: @SpectrumPGConf.


Learning New Tricks: Postgraduate Study as a Mature Student

Last year, at the age of 34, I decided to take a break in my career to return to university for a master’s degree—thirteen years after I graduated the first time.

I was excited to be back in the world of academia, but apprehensive too. Although I was a teacher and working in an educational field, I wondered how I would cope with the academic demands of a master’s degree so long after my undergraduate degree. I was also worried about the social side of things on a full-time course. A lot of the advice out there seemed to assume that mature students were part time, or already living with their own families. I was going to be living in a shared student house again and two of my housemates were twenty-three years old! I didn’t know anyone in Birmingham and I was concerned about the lack of a support system while I was taking on an intensive year of study.

When I started my course I was one of the oldest students; there were a good number of students who had come straight from an undergraduate course or a gap year. But there were also quite a lot of people who had been working and had returned to study, so luckily there was a mix of different ages and situations. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as I had feared.

I knew that making new friends would be a big part of creating a positive experience at the university. So although I’m not a social butterfly by any measure, I made the effort to meet people in the first couple of weeks before study really started. During welcome week I joined the Art Society, and the Postgraduate and Mature Student Association (PGMSA). The PGMSA introduced me to people in a similar situation to the one I was in, but it was in Art Society, where I met people who shared my interests, that I really made some great friends. Our common interests make it easier to forget the age difference—although I do get teased about it sometimes. I was told by one friend that I was his ‘favourite middle-aged person’, but it was all in fun … I think!

I’ve found that rather than being weird, my situation is interesting to some people, and I had a really long conversation with some of the ArtSoc members about what it was like going to university before everyone had their own laptop and before Social Media existed (the general consensus was that it was less complicated but also less convenient).

I’ve found the best way to handle the insecurity of the situation is to know how to laugh at yourself. Usually I’m the one starting age jokes about how things were back in ‘my day’ and all those damn kids on my lawn. But age really is just a number; one of my friends turned twenty recently and she’s one of the most responsible and mature people I know, and one of my younger housemates is wiser at twenty-four than I think I will ever be!

Having the same interests goes a huge way towards getting on with people of any age, and societies or sports teams are a great way to find people who have similar interests. Once you have something to talk about other than what A-Levels you did, you forget about the age difference and just see people as they are. This also applies to people doing the same course as you. We were all studying the same thing for a reason and that gives you a great common ground from which to build friendships.

As for the academic side of things, the university is very aware that many students are returning to academia after time away. There’s advice accessible online, a personal tutor who was available for academic support, and resources like the Academic Writing Advisory Service. At AWAS you can get individual appointments to get style advice for specific assignments. The advice I received there was so helpful in raising my writing to postgraduate level. After worrying so much I have gained Merits and Distinctions in all my assignments and am currently enjoying (yes, really!) writing my dissertation.

So my final advice would be to find the support you need, get involved, and remember to tell these millennials that back in your day you had to walk fifteen miles in the snow to Starbucks. Uphill. Both ways. 😉