From Pemberley to the Classroom and Back Again

This week's post is brought to us by Amy Webster, an MPhil student with an Education background from Durham University.

 Growing up I always loved books or, having a mother who was an English co-ordinator in a primary school and an avid reader herself, I never had the chance not to! Books filled every part of my day, accompanying me on the journey to school, occupying me in the hours after school as I waited for my mother and entertaining me long after my bedtime. The books themselves changed, from The Jolly Postman to the Malory Towers school series to The Wind in the Willows, but my enthusiasm for them never did. My family were not surprised that English Literature was the first A-Level I chose and that it was the one I enjoyed the most. In those two years at A Level I journeyed beyond the Riverbanks, entering Pemberley, Mansfield Park and the Long Island mansion where a green light shines across the bay. However, I did not simply enter these literary worlds; for the first time in my life I had to analyse them. Passages were revisited again and again, words and literary devices were explored and approaches to interrogating the text were considered. 

Despite my enthusiasm for English Literature, I chose to pursue an education degree at Durham; I relished the chance to do an academic degree but one that also had a practical side. For three years I wrote essays and studied texts, but these were all very different to those that are part of literary degrees; the essays were explorations of real life educational contexts rather than literary worlds and the texts were pieces of educational research rather than works of adult, or children’s, fiction. In my final year my dissertation offered me the opportunity to return to the books of my childhood, but only if they were considered in an educational context. For a year I looked at Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and A Little Princess and yet I did not really ‘look’ at these books. I investigated children’s attitudes towards the books, explored how accessible they were to children and considered their place in the school curriculum, but the focus was on children’s interactions with the books and never the books themselves.

Coming to Cambridge to start the MPhil in children’s literature I was apprehensive, aware that whilst I had experience of the ‘children’ part, my knowledge of the ‘literature’ part was definitely lacking. “It’s okay” I reassured myself, “there’ll be lots of people with a similar background – we can navigate our way in this literary studies stuff together”. At the first meeting of the course, as the other MPhil students introduced themselves, my confidence diminished. Their backgrounds in literature and literary studies were very different from mine. So I had a momentary panic that involved lots of “I can’t do this” and “I won’t have a clue what I’m doing” thoughts, that were shared with my supervisor in a watered down and less dramatic way! And then I hit the books. I read the texts for my first essay again and again, choosing particular passages and then words from these, exploring them in more detail than I had ever done before with a text. I read books about my chosen texts and then books that were about these books. I got back essay drafts that needed to include more analysis about my primary texts and then went even further into these books. At times it felt a bit like I was on a treadmill, rapidly acquiring new knowledge and literary skills and, despite not being the most athletic person (I may be a ‘rower’ but my role in the boat involves exercising my vocal chords not the rest of my body), I enjoyed the run. However, I always had the sense of being just a few steps behind everyone else. No matter how hard I ran that gap still remained – it wasn’t something that could be closed instantly. The run continues, working with my supervisor on literary analysis and training myself to write, as well as to approach texts, in ways that are different from those I learnt on my undergraduate course and are more similar to those at A Level. My return to ‘Pemberley’ from the classroom continues to be a challenging but infinitely enjoyable one!

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