Fifth year (or: how university should be)

Of all the years at university, the fifth year was the best. Why did I decide to do a Masters when I had found my undergraduate so difficult? And why in History, a subject I hadn’t even studied at A-level?

The summer after fourth year, I found out I had not got a first. I was absolutely crushed, but given the amount of time I had spent in work or in the newspaper office, I had no right to be. There was one thing I knew: I was done with English Literature. I had presented a possible PhD thesis to a tutor in my final year – a psychological study of Milton’s Satan entitled ‘What’s the problem, Satan?’ – only to be laughed out of the room (or actually, the opposite of laughing – ‘you can’t make a joke on your PhD proposal’).

I loved my job at the theatre. I’d been promoted, so I had more responsibilities and more money than I had ever had before. I ate proper meals and was genuinely happy.

I decided I wanted to really challenge myself. In my final year, I had chosen courses I knew I would do well at, but now I wanted to do something I was unsure of. Having spent four years in Ireland, blissfully ignorant of the country’s history, I would spend a year immersed in ‘Modern Irish history.’

To prepare, the summer before I began I read tome after tome on Irish history. I asked everyone I knew who had done a history degree for recommendations. I went from knowing nothing at all to having a very shaky grasp of the chronology on the first day of the course. But I loved learning something new. And I loved reading something different. I read not a single novel for two years after my final year of university. At the time I thought I might never read a novel again. I was done with literature, and literature was done with me. I had never seemed to understand it, and the less I succeeded, the more I grew to despise what I had once most loved.

The Masters was blissful. There might have been 12 or 15 of us taking it, so we all knew each other. We were all total geeks. For once, I totally fitted in. We went for lunch and talked about history. We went to optional seminars just because we wanted to. It was absolutely joyous. I was totally out of my depth, but almost no-one had studied Irish History before, even if they had studied history. I also came to the course without arrogance – I knew I knew nothing. Unlike literature, which I felt so confident about, only to have my ignorance painfully revealed, here I merrily accepted how much I had to learn. My undergraduate degree had knocked humility into me.

And History suited me. Instead of synthesising abstract theories, I was plugging away in the archives, reading documents and letters written hundreds of years before. In History, the long hours spent reading endlessly were rewarded with high marks. I seemed to be doing better at something I had never studied before than I had for my entire first degree.

I grew in confidence. In the second term, I was the only person who chose to take a course which was fiendishly challenging that had hundreds of pages of assigned reading every week, along with plenty of statistics. Now I had a degree, I was paid more to teach drama at the weekends, and I also marked essays for a correspondence course. I invigilated exams for undergraduates. I had worked at the theatre for so long I could choose shifts around archive times and seminars.

Instead of queuing for the library, I swiped into the 24-hour graduate reading room any time I wanted; a beautiful and old room where there was always a place to sit and where you could bring your coffee without anyone seeing you and telling you hot drinks were for outside the library. The 24-hour reading room was full of geeks just like me. I knew few of their names, but all of them to smile and nod at. There is a warm community in the geek world. Now, lecturers wanted to talk to me. I would turn up to their offices and we could talk about the essays I had written or the documents I had found in archives. They would share their research, and point me in the direction of a new cache of papers.

As the year drew to a close, I submitted my PhD thesis proposal again – on nineteenth century Irish history this time. It was well received, and although I didn’t get funding for it, there was the strong suggestion I would if I reapplied the following year.

It would have been lovely to do a PhD. I finally had a lovely, lovely life; super friends and the best part-time jobs ever. But university had made me tougher. I wanted to take the difficult route. I had heard that Teach First was tough, so I decided to do that instead.


Summing up

After five years of university, I had not had a full week off. I had barely had a full two-days off. I had counted every penny for five years. I had been genuinely hungry many times. I would not do those five years again for any money. They were difficult years.

But I did not hate university, and I do not hate university.

University killed my arrogance – eventually. It taught me humility would be a surer route to learning. It taught me that work can be the highlight of your day – and that is ok. When I had failed in seminars and failed in the library, I could still turn up and do a good shift at work. We should never despair, because we can always do some good.

And however disappointed I was to not achieve a first, I did not fail. I did not drop out. I finished, despite how difficult it was.

In the amazing musical In the Heights, one of the characters struggles to find her place at university, far from her multicultural home, and wonders what her life would have been like ‘if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico.’ University is such an immense culture shock, it is tempting during the experience to imagine: what might have been if I had stayed where I was ‘meant’ to stay? If I lived the life my background wanted me to live, instead of living this alien life, this life of literature and theatre and Waitrose?

I have so much to be grateful for: university taught me the value of a good day’s work; it taught me that I was strong enough to withstand slurs and smears and stay standing; it taught me that I could choose the tougher option and succeed in that option. A quote I read recently in The Count of Monte Cristo really resonated with me on this: ‘those who are born with a silver spoon, those who have never needed anything, do not understand what happiness is.’

University was not like I imagined it would be when I read those 1920s novels. Nor was it anything like the experience of some of my closest friends, who describe it as three years of fun and parties. University was a struggle, but the struggle was brilliant.


You can also read about my first, second, third and fourth years at university.


Top reads of 2015


Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

This book is a scathing attack on the messages the media sends to women about how they should look and act. It made me really angry, in a good way.

Matthew Syed – Black Box Thinking

Syed explains how we learn from failure, and if we don’t, we are idiots. This is great for getting a new perspective on the ‘gift’ of feedback.

Susan Scott – Fierce Conversations

Sarah Donachy, the smartest person I’ve met this year, told me to read this. It really challenged my tendency to be a bit too cuddly rather than having the difficult conversation that is needed, and I’ve revisited it lots.

Irvin Yalom – Love’s Executioner

Joe Kirby told me to read this when I was feeling a bit stewed up. It’s great for giving perspective, and making you realise your emotions are in your control.

Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down

Since Research Ed 2015, I haven’t stopped hearing about this book, and it lived up to the hype. A great exploration of why education is set up to make disadvantaged students fail, and what we can do about it.

Anna Funder – Stasiland

I read this in Berlin, and it really brought to life the reality of living in the German Democratic Republic. The injustices suffered in East Berlin and East Germany in general astonished me.

Daniel Willingham – Raising Kids Who Read

Having listened to Katie Ashford, the guru on reading, for 2 full years, this was the year I finally began to grasp the reality of how children read, and this book really helped.

Daniel Koretz – Measuring Up

Daisy Christodoulou recommended this book at Research Ed in 2014, and it explained excellently the flaws in our current assessment model, and a better way forward.

Doug Lemov – TLAC 2.0

The first ‘Teach Like a Champion’ changed my life, and yet Lemov has improved even on this. The only guide a teacher needs for improving their classroom practice.


John Steinbeck – The Red Pony

I read this and wept. A wonderful exploration of growing up, told beautifully in Steinbeck’s ever-complex simplicity.

Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage

This novel has stayed with me more than any other I’ve read this year. The horribly flawed characters and their ghastly choices felt so real and so close as I read it.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Unbelievably, even better than ‘The Secret History.’ An astonishing tome of a novel, feeling epic in its scope.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

This book has one idea, and it explores it in great depth. A searing look at love and relationships.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

My last line-manager recommended this book to me. I adored the narrator’s innocence which was gradually eroded throughout, and the ideas of class and community.


The hierarchy of literature

I’m at the start of a dawning realisation: that what I thought was my subject is not my subject; and where I thought my subject, which is not my subject, sat in the hierarchy of subjects is also incorrect.

This may sound garbled, but that’s because this realisation is only beginning to take shape in my misinformed mind.

As a teacher of English at GCSE, I have been complacently used to being at the top of the pecking order when it comes to subjects at GCSE: no, English boosters are that night – sorry other subjects, bow down to the mighty English. That enrichment activity supports English? Here are plentiful funds to ensure it takes place. Let’s give year 11 a massive weekend of revision, and let it be only English (and some Maths).

All of this assured me that children reading books was at the very heart of what our schools are all about (tied only with Maths).

But that’s not it at all.

Reading books, studying great literature, isn’t in fact anywhere on the pecking order. It’s a sideshow; an optional extra. We pretend English is at the core of the curriculum, but what we really mean is being able to read and write. These are the necessary gateway tools to accessing all written material ever – with the exception of troublesome novels, plays and poetry – and this basic literacy is of the utmost importance until students are 16.

It’s not that I disagree with the above at all. I just feel that the reading of fiction is the crucial way in which we make sense of the world, and that the above can in fact be taught most effectively with books, and not Guardian articles.

Speaking of which, my world came crushing down with this Orwellian vision of a literature-less future from Polly Toynbee here. With the new KS4 curriculum, about which I had been so optimistic, Toynbee points out that, as literature has been removed from the language component, while not being made a compulsory second GCSE, children all over the country will be deprived of reading great books.

In my own North London bubble, I know my children will always do literature. Our lucky year 10 and 11 students have 6 lessons of English a week, and are split into tiny classes (7 sets where there could easily be 5) specifically to enable them to study both GCSEs.

But what of those thousands of other children in other schools?

Similarly, having all my life assumed English Literature A-level is top dog in the A-level pecking order, in a natural inheritance from GCSE, my assumptions were cruelly crushed by an esteemed colleague (of Science background) who assured students that, in fact, the number one Arts subject they could study was History.

Where’s History coming from? Why all of a sudden does History get a look in? And if it is the most impressive Arts A-level and most respected by universities, why don’t all students have to take History GCSE with the same fervour we ascribe to English and Maths?

So I’m getting used to my new position in the world of education. Not as imparter of great literature, but as teacher of grammar and spelling, as well as decoding words to make sense of those words.

This new Literature GCSE, wide-spanning and demanding as it is, can and should be taught to all students. Yes, some will need more time and more resources to succeed. But would you send your child to a school that didn’t teach it?

The importance of history

I’m beginning this blog with a very self-indulgent story. If you’re not interested, do feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.

From 2008-9, I embarked on my final “learning for fun” quest, in undertaking, for no particular reason, a Masters in History. I suppose I had loved History at GCSE, and had found few Literature Masters I liked the look of. Truthfully, after four years of stamina reading, I had almost forgotten what reading for enjoyment felt like, and rather wanted to recapture this by fasting from fiction for a short while.

In the long summer between my degree ending and this beginning, I took advantage of my enviably jammy job (theatre box office clerk; the quiet days meant luxurious hours of sneaky reading – sorry to all my managers who told me not to) to read all about a section of history I had never studied before.

I had lived in Ireland for four years, choosing to study in a country lacking in tuition fees (yay!) and student loans (at least for foreigners like me). In my studies and in the many, many jobs I had (such multi-tasking certainly pulled me through my Teach First interview) I had noticed that Irish people (warning: massive generalization coming up) seemed to be much more invested in their history than my English contemporaries. I wondered if this might be partly due to our lack of focus on the history of our own country; or perhaps that history is not compulsory after year 9. I was continually struck in Ireland by the omnipresence of history, and woefully underinformed about the country I had started to call my home.

In my pursuit of an understanding of Irish history, I mostly have the staff of Hodges Figgis to thank. I mean, I was on first-name terms with most of the booksellers in that store; something my new Amazon addiction makes me mournful of. I fumbled blindly in pursuit of even a basic knowledge of that country’s history, and with the help of Hodges Figgis (Dawson Street, Dublin 2) began the course with a more than cursory understanding of it.

What this laborious exercise taught me was the power of self-learning, something I advocate from time to time in my own classroom. The amount we can learn simply by reading, once we have acquired higher levels of literacy, is astonishing. I sought to contextualise my new historical fascination, and even managed to branch out from my country of specialism.

 The mighty Hodges Figgis

Yet history isn’t just about places and names and acts. It is also about culture. One of my favourite books is a history book; Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance explores the highlights of Russian culture (including literature, but also music, dance and drama) in the context of its social and political history. Coupled with an exquisite writing style, I would highly recommend this book for anyone even faintly interested in anything to do with Russia.

In my English degree, my most loved lecturer, Dr. Amanda Piesse (Renaissance drama – and no, that didn’t mean very much Shakespeare) talked about New Historicism: the influence of history on a text, but also of a text on history. This pervasive idea in literary criticism strikes me as one very crucial reason that we should all be readers of history.

Far be it for me to expostulate on what a National Curriculum should and should not contain, but should someone more qualified than I suggest a compulsory study of History from the beginning of primary to the end of secondary, I would very much be in favour of this for our budding literary critics.

The purpose of literature is not only decorative; it is also educative. We read not for pure escapism; we read to inhabit other minds, other places and other times. If we are interested and delighted by fiction, we may also find interest and delight in history. We find story-telling not only in fiction.

Our children deserve a broad and balanced curriculum. Can you study literature without history? Can you study literature without Classics? Well, of course you can. But is it as good?