Friday, 18 May 2012

Ambition, Adventure, and Achievement: The Makings and Markings of MA English

In one of his recent publications, Amazing Psychic Stories (2006), medium Derek Acorah expresses that "the more a spirit experiences during its physical lifetimes, then the more it grows and progresses" (p. xvii). With this idea in mind, I'm always looking to leap into new adventures. Although I'm an opportunist, I'm also a great planner, and have every intention of embarking upon the exciting path that is MA English in a few years' time. Ahead of this postgraduate study, I spoke with Dr Alison Younger, programme leader for MA English at University of Sunderland, to see what is in store for prospective students:

Other than a greater depth of knowledge of the topics studied, what does studying MA English provide that English at undergraduate level is unable to?
Dr Alison Younger
AY: Ahh, the interviewer’s chestnut: the obvious answer to which is that it equips students with a range of research skills so as to allow students successfully to complete a research led dissertation to be submitted at the end of the degree. This training in independent research also equips students with the necessary skills required to continue their studies at Doctoral level – an opportunity many take in the thriving research culture at theUniversity of Sunderland. That’s the official answer, but it’s so much more than that. Students have to make a significant conceptual leap from undergraduate to postgraduate. From learning to analyse they learn to philosophise and develop an independent critical voice in relation to text and theory. There is nothing more gratifying than an impassioned and informed debate wherein students are developing the confidence to challenge scholars in the field (MA staff included). The subject matter doesn’t only allow for this intellectual development; it positively encourages it. Far from the stereotypical (and if I might say jaundiced) view that studying literature is just ‘so much chatter about Shelley’, studying postgraduate English makes us think politically, it makes us philosophise; it changes us as people. Perhaps this would be as good a time as any for me to get off my soap box…

How flexible is the programme? Does it cater to a wide selection of interests within literature, or is it driven by a few specifics epochs/genres?
AY: It is entirely flexible. Its modular basis offers maximum flexibility in that it allows students to combine the study of Literature with those of Linguistics and Creative Writing – sometimes within one module. It’s also constantly evolving as our research does. The MA development group are singularly devoted to improving provision. It genuinely matters to us. Our degree is book-ended by research skills modules that are second-to-none. Other than that we offer a rolling portfolio of modules including a number of brand new ones. In the current academic year, for example all of our modules were newly written and ranged from ‘Early Humans in Fiction’ (where else could you study that?), to Creative Writing and Theory – a fantastic hybrid of critical thinking and creative thinking which students have adored. In September we press the regionalism button with ‘Writing of the Anglo-Scottish Borders. I’ll come to my own new module in due course, but the point I’d like to make is that we study ‘Literatures’ from Bombay to Berwick; from Ancient to Postmodern, and from the points of view of textual scholarship and High Theory. Where else could you do that?

What makes the MA programme at Sunderland stand out above other universities, specifically those in the North East?
AY: Ha! How many academics from other universities have you seen dressing up as ghouls to promote an MA programme? Seriously, I have the greatest respect for other programmes that are running in other local universities. I think we differ period, or specific subject focussed MAs can be summed up by what we’re aiming for: that is research led relevance. What I mean by this is that all postgraduate degrees should be research led; in other words you should be learning from the cutting edge research of those who teach you. That’s certainly the case at Sunderland. All of the people who teach on the course are experts in their respective fields, and have published work in them. Does that differ from other universities? I would hope not. I would certainly be using ‘dissemination of research’ as a yardstick when choosing an MA place. Where I think we do differ is in range and relevance. Academics, by nature are single-minded people, and we all think that our own research is fascinating to everyone. Let me give you an example (a hypothetical one, I should point out). I might have spent years studying the placement of commas in Byron’s Don Juan, and have come to the conclusion that the bold Lord was beating out a Satanic rhythm in morse code with the intention of world domination. It might be relevant to me. It might even be true (as it happens, I don’t think it is), but could I base a whole course on it? I don’t think so. It’s too esoteric. While we are aware that cutting edge research is the core of a good postgraduate degree, the MA English team have looked at what is relevant to prospective students and are tailoring our modules to address this. 
So, for example we work on special topic modules which are of relevance to prospective students which will give them the skills to develop their own ideas in the area. I think Alex Pheby put it best when he said that our MA is ‘edgy’. We’re not afraid to push boundaries, and we’ll develop modules which combine our research strengths in new and exciting ways, but ways that are aware of students’ career prospects. This is where our ‘Spectral Visions’ conference came from. We know that many students want to go into teaching; we have the research expertise in diverse areas relating to Gothic, and we saw that Gothic 
Necessary preparations for Spectral Visions...
was a central theme on A’ level syllabi. We realised that we could aid the continuing professional development of teachers, and give our prospective students some added value for teaching applications. The rest, as they say is history…

One final thing: our students are encouraged to engage in the symposia and conferences we hold at 
Sunderland. This means that they are engaging with eminent experts in the field on a regular basis. Let me give you an example: we are home to NEICN (North East Irish Culture Network) which is about to hold its tenth international conference. In past years we’ve had speakers such as: Terry Eagleton, Robert Welch, Luke Gibbons, Ailbhe Smith, Kevin Barry, Siobhan Kilfeather, Shaun Richards, and Lord David Puttnam, to name but a few with readings from Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Bernard O’Donoghue and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. Students have had the opportunity to be exposed to these massively eminent academics, and writers. Added to this, look at the academic juggernaut that is your Visiting Professor: Willy Maley. His list of publications reads like the Book of Kells. So, within and outwith the University students are offered a constant stream of intellectual brilliance and cutting edge research. This extends to our newly developing network, ‘SIN’ Scottish Irish Network which we hope will do the same with Scotland that we’ve done with Ireland. Watch this space…

What will obtaining a Masters in English do beneficially for employability?
AY: Of course ‘English’ doesn't have a clear ‘vocational’ label but the skills you will obtain from it such as writing and thinking clearly and creatively will equip you for many professions. It has been said that English will help you to: ‘develop the insight of an artist, the analytical precision of a scientist and the persuasiveness of a lawyer.' In other words it offers you transferable skills. This may seem very much the register of the sector, but the fact is that our students do develop many skills they wouldn't think about putting on a CV. Take exams, for example: these make students expend time and effort on developing skills and knowledge which they would otherwise not have taken the trouble to master. If I were going to put down the transferable skills I’d learned from exams in a job application I’d probably include: the ability to operate under controlled pressure; to think very efficiently in a controlled crisis; to formulate difficult issues much more simply; to draw conclusions which I would never have reached under other circumstances; the ability to prioritise and perform; the ability to think on my feet… All of these things are potentially very creative forces and engender the types of skills that employers look for. The same can be said for assignments. I’d employ a graduate from our programme in a heartbeat!

Beyond this, I think it’s important to say that we encourage our students to take ownership of their programme, and to be involved in the promotion, and organisation of events, symposia and conferences. In doing this students are gaining skills in events management, organisation, liaising with outside bodies, promotions. I could go on and on…

What do you find most enjoyable about being programme leader for MA?
AY: Watching the programme, and the students evolve and develop. We learn from students as they learn from us. I stick by the old adage, often attributed to W.B Yeats: ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire’. I’d like to think that my role as programme leader is the fire-starter, ably assisted by the rest of the development team who develop the incendiary devices (aka modules) to inflame our students.

Which modules taught at postgraduate level do you personally prefer? Are there any topics not covered on the programme that you'd like to be able to teach?
AY: Goodness! I teach a number of Irish Studies modules which range from Ancient Gaelic ‘fabliau’ (in translation), to contemporary political drama and poetry. That said, I ran my ‘Late Victorian Gothic’ module for the first time this year (based on some work I’ve been doing for SIN on Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde), and I’ve loved it. So have the students. I’ve published on Melodrama and Music Hall, so popular cultural forms spring to mind also. I’m currently working on a collection entitled ‘Celtic Connections’ with Willy Maley, and I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘Archipelagic Literatures’; in particular Scottish and Irish Gothic. I’d love to develop something in that area. I’m also developing a module on ‘the Fantastic’ with Alex Pheby which will cover critical and creative writing. It’s a reasonably extensive wish list, but our MA is big enough, and bold enough to accommodate it.

Do you find that many students choose do study MA English at University of Sunderland, having done an undergraduate degree at a different university prior?
AY: More and more do. What we find at Sunderland is that we get numerous students who come to the university as undergraduates thinking it is perhaps less ‘prestigious’ than our Russell Group neighbours, but not wanting to leave at the end because of the excellent provision they’ve received. That message is starting to get out to students of other universities, not only in the region, and the country but internationally. I’d match our MA against any other, anywhere. That’s the message we need to get out to people, and I think it is getting there. We’ve had a massive surge in applications this year; many of them from other universities. If I were me, I’d certainly apply for it…

What do you look for in a student of MA English?
AY: I feel I have to rise to the challenge of the fantastic blog you did with Willy Maley, and follow the alliterative antics of the Professorial punster, so I’ll say intelligent, innovative and inspired by the subject – or perhaps erudite, engaged and with enquiring minds. In short I’d say people who are creative minded and willing to think beyond the box.

What advice would you give to somebody considering applying to study MA English at Sunderland?
AY: The graduate job market is so competitive right now, an MA can give you the edge to land that perfect job, or to pursue research. It’s an investment in your future. With that in mind, (and bearing in mind how fantastic our MA is) I’d say, work hard, read lots and follow your dreams.

Thanks, Alison!

I think it's fair to say that we will all be rushing to apply for MA English at University of Sunderland as soon as we can! As much as I'm looking forward to the next two years of BA English, I cannot wait to sink into the MA waters. I do hope you'll all be joining me on what is quite clearly to be the unmissable adventure of a lifetime. 

Amy x

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