Contributed by Jamie Harper:

For those of you who attended my lectures back in March, you might remember an exercise when I invited you to write questions or comments on pieces of paper, scrunch them up, then throw them at me. The rule was that if you hit me, I’d read out the question/comment and respond to it in some way. One of the questions asked whether I thought it fair that practical assessments for this course involve group, rather than individual, marks.

To my shame, I ducked the question, firing back with: ‘Do YOU think it’s fair?’

This was a poor response to a good question, so I’m writing now to offer an answer. My response is to say: ‘NO. IT’S NOT FAIR!’

But then, in the words of Mr Fletcher, my brilliant A-Level English teacher, ‘Life’s not fair’.

This might seem like a facile thing to write, so let me explain myself a bit more. Although it might seem ‘fairer’ to be marked as an INDIVIDUALS, this approach has problematic implications. In my view, you never learn as an INDIVIDUAL. The knowledge and capacities that you have gained over the course of your life have been determined by the people around you. If you grew up in a bubble, without the benefit of social communication with others, you would not know how to speak or think in abstract terms about things outside your immediate surroundings. The social nature of learning is fundamental to your capacity to think beyond the limited horizon of your lived experience – so it makes little sense to assess the quality of your learning by looking at you as an isolated individual. The success of learning is predicated on the success of the social networks that make it possible in the first place.


Living, working and studying alongside others is not easy. Sometimes we just want people to get the hell out of our way so that we can forge ahead in the pursuit of our own genius. This is the argument of Henry David Thoreau who decided, in 1845, to go off on his own into the woods by Walden pond to build a cabin and live in supreme isolation with his lofty thoughts. In his book, Walden, Thoreau argues that human excellence can best be pursued by stripping oneself out of burdensome social structures that weigh people down with possessions they don’t need and relationships that they don’t want. Some of his proposals are attractive. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of all of the junk that weighs us down and free ourselves of social obligations?

Maybe…but what Thoreau overlooks is that his ability to build a cabin, read books, write and think lofty thoughts are all consequences of social support structures that shaped his learning.


Many of you, like Thoreau, might want to slip out of the burdensome requirement to engage with ‘inconvenient’ study group partners in your work on SEL1031. Wouldn’t it be nice to just pursue your own genius?

Perhaps…but although it might result in a better mark for you, what about the others? The question of what happens to ‘inconvenient others’ has implications that go well beyond the focus of this course, but indulge me, dear reader, in some speculative thinking and writing which (hopefully) has some relevance to the studies that you’re engaged in.

The day before I came up to Newcastle to do my two lectures, I was walking from the tube in the Seven Sisters area of North London, where I live. Two teenage girls approached me in the street and asked if I had a spare cigarette. I replied: ‘Sorry, I don’t smoke’ (smoking is bad) and walked on. As I passed the girls, one of them muttered some pretty nasty words and I paused to say: ‘There’s no need to swear at me’. At this point, the two teenagers turned around, charged towards me, and got right up in my face with a barrage of ‘WHAT DID YOU SAY? OH MY GOD! WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU? WHAT DID YOU SAY?’

I was stunned, shocked, and although the girls were probably only 15 or so, I was scared. Eventually, they stood aside and let me go on my way, but one of them gave the parting gesture of a gob of spit in my face. Nice huh?

When I got home, I turned on Newsnight (watching the news is the best) and they were talking about massive increases in the number of children being excluded from schools. I thought quite a bit about the two girls I had encountered and wondered whether they might be on the exclusion list. In the immediate aftermath of the event I thought – yes, thugs like that should be excluded, but then I started thinking about what happens if we do stuff like this. Maybe nicer students get to do their thing in peace and quiet, but if the inconvenient others are refused access to social learning spaces the likely outcomes of life on the margins are bleak.

My argument is that learning success is never simply a measure of how good you are as an individual. It is a measure of how good our social networks are in supporting everyone’s development. That means rejecting the impulse to turn away from people who might be ‘inconvenient’ for us, because to do so is to undermine their potential (and ours) to participate in the social spaces that are fundamental to learning.

To participate is not an individual activity. It is to take ‘a part’, to claim a stake in the shared activities that make up the social world. So my invitation to you is to willingly embrace the inconvenience and difficulty of group collaboration as you approach these final assessments. It might seem fairer to be marked as an individual, but this approach separates us from our peers and affirms an individualistic political culture that corrodes the social structures that make all learning possible.

In sum: don’t be like Thoreau. Choose to be a participant, because you never have been, and never will be, ALONE.

How to get the most out of a study group: Fae Horsley

For this week’s blog post, Fae Horsley, one of the Student Feedback and Evaluation Interns working on the module, has written some tips on how to get the most out of a study group. Fae is a third year student here in the School of English so she’s had lots of time to perfect this! Don’t forget to sign up for Fae and Hulian’s focus group, which is taking place this Friday, 12-1 in ARMB.G.13 — check your email for more information.

Groupwork is something that we are all familiar with. At some point in your education, you will have had to work with others. But it’s unlikely you will have had to work in anything like a university study group. Not only do you have to work with your study group regularly, but you have to organise it, and an assessment mark may depend on it. As a third year English Literature student, I have had some amazing study groups, and some study groups which have fallen apart within a manner of weeks. Therefore, I am here to impart a little wisdom to you all by providing you with my top tips to make a study group work.


The last minute scramble to get work done is something we are all familiar with. However, although this is a possible (if unadvised) work ethic for an individual, it is near impossible to get group work done if it is last minute. Trying to contact people who have different schedules/ timetables to you, and trying to get some sort of contribution/ work out of them, is more difficult than simply meeting up earlier on in the week. So make sure you meet up a few days before the work is due and then you don’t have to worry about it.


This is a personal favourite of mine (maybe because I love food so much). But I find that if everyone is snacking or drinking coffee then people are generally happier; making for a better group dynamic and better groupwork.


It can be very easy to feel frustrated if a study group member is consistently absent. If you consider this is a real cause of concern for your study group, then please tell your seminar leader. However, more often than not, absence is not malicious and a little empathy can go a long way. Remember that you may not be aware of what is happening in someone’s personal life. So, although it is important to try and contribute every week, don’t be too hard on your peers if they miss a week of study group.


You are going to be working with these people for the entire duration of a module; so get to know them! Being friends with your study group makes the whole study group process a lot more fun and relaxed.


One week, it might be impossible for everyone to meet up (though, let’s be honest, finding an hour spare between you should not be that difficult). Therefore, you all turn to your best friend – social media. Though this can be useful to share ideas and do study group work, you will actually find that more often than not you spend way more time waiting around for someone to reply than it would take to actually just meet. Meeting is not just better because it is easier, but also because it makes communication far more effective!


Having one member of your group stay silent the whole time because they haven’t done the reading is such a waste of valuable contribution. You are in groups precisely because of the value that is put upon EVERYONE’S idea, not just the individual’s. So make sure you do the reading, so you don’t sit there like a lost lemon for an hour.

I hope these tips help and that you all have great study groups this semester!

Lecturers – They’re just like us!


I heard a radio piece about a research study into the role that gender plays in the willingness of academics to speak up during seminars some weeks ago, and I thought it would make a great post for this blog. The thing that really drew me to this particular example, was the fact that the paper was about staff seminars rather than seminars for students — yes, we also attend seminars in order to learn more about one another’s research. And I think it’s important for all of you to know that the same anxieties and inhibitors are working on us, just as they sometimes do their work on you. I described this to my colleague Kirsten Macleod and she said, ‘oh, you want to write a “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” piece’.

I have probably already exposed myself as someone who loves a bit of celebrity by showing the David Oyelowo youtube video in my Wednesday lecture, so naturally I jumped on Kirsten’s idea. Lecturers – we’re just like you!

The piece of research that I’ve linked to in this post examines the role that gender plays in individual staff member’s willingness to ask questions, and it finds that men tend to ask more questions than women. This is no great surprise. But it’s interesting to learn that the order in which people ask their questions really makes a difference — so if a women asks the first question, other women are more likely to speak up as a result of this. Also, the longer the questioning lasted, the more likely women were to make a contribution. (I’ve recently discovered that ‘slow to warm up’ is a recognised form of shyness.) Here’s what the research paper has to say:

women audience members asked absolutely and proportionally fewer questions than male audience members. Men and women differed in the importance they attributed to different factors preventing them from asking questions, with women rating internal factors (e.g., not working up the nerve) as more important than men. Furthermore, our observations indicated that the gender of the first person to ask a question predicted the gender imbalance in subsequent questions, with proportionally fewer questions asked by women when a man was the first to ask a question. A longer time for questions was associated with less of an imbalance…

Of course gender is certainly not the only possible inhibiting factor, but it’s useful to remember that barriers to participation are very real and that they are not restricted only to the experience of being a student. We all need to be more aware of making room for one another, and perhaps the way to do that is for all of us to think a little less about ourselves and how we’re feeling in the moment. Maybe instead we can flip that on its head by trying to notice what everyone else in the room is doing and what we could do to support that.

The rules of the game


Playground games (from

My son started primary school this year. Watching him walking into the classroom on his own for the first time was terrifying because I really didn’t know how he was going to manage somewhere which requires so much conformity and where there are so many rules. As it turns out it was playtime, the only bit of unscheduled time in the whole school day, that he had most difficulty with in those first few weeks. And this was precisely because it’s the time of the day when there seem to be fewest ‘rules’ in place. This is the part of the day when children are not required to do their lessons, be quiet, or sit down with their arms crossed and their fingers on their lips. Instead they’re left to manage themselves and their friendships on their own. It’s the part of the day where all the pushing and the teasing and the raspberry-blowing and the chasing and the wee-your-pants social anxiety happens. I’m sure that if we reach back into our own memories we can all remember at least one terrifying moment in a huge, dangerous playground without a best friend beside us. It’s the kind of memory that your body holds on to in spite of you and so even if you can’t recall the details I’m willing to bet you can still feel it in your stomach. It’s a deep-seated fear because what we’re really scared of is ourselves: we don’t trust ourselves to be able to communicate with other people and to make ourselves understood without losing something — an eye, a friend, our dignity — in the process. I heard another parent describe playtime at my son’s school as being ‘like the Wild West’, because of its lawlessness: who will protect our children from the rustlers, outlaws, and gunslingers that they become when left to their own devices? The playground is scary, because play is scary. And who wants to play a game when they don’t know the rules? But one of the best things my son’s school does to help new children settle in is to set them up with ‘play buddies’ (usually children from some of the older years) who will teach them the rules of playground games — things like ‘grandmother’s footsteps’, ‘what’s the time Mr Wolf?’ and the unpromisingly-named ‘toilet tag’. My son loves playing these structured games, and I am so relieved that they all have rules to help the children to play without injuring one another. Rules, it seems, can help lots of situations seem less scary for everybody involved. Rules are not only for telling us what not to do, they can also help us to work out what we should be doing, where, when, how and with whom. Rules can help us to learn how to relax, have fun, enjoy ourselves. And, once we understand how they work, rules can be stretched, manipulated and embellished in all sorts of exciting ways.

Starting school for the first time is for many people the first really big change they experience in their lives, and in certain respects it’s not so very different to starting as a first year undergraduate. I can remember how I felt when I registered at university, when I sat in my first lecture and when I joined my first seminar group — it gives me the same sort of visceral feeling as those stomach-churning playground memories. And I think I can imagine how it must feel to be a parent whose child is leaving home to go off and study. But I’ve been teaching in universities for over a decade now and so it can sometimes be difficult to remember that what seems so obvious and natural to me — the shape and structure of lectures, seminars, workshops —  might be unfamiliar to all of you. Seminars and workshops, in particular, rely upon student participation and it can be frustrating for staff when a class don’t seem to want to take part. But it’s difficult to get involved, isn’t it, when you don’t know the rules of the game? Part of what we’re hoping to do in this module, is to help you to think about what is required of you as a participant on a humanities degree, and how you can make the most of all the resources that are available to you. Yes, you can learn a lot from attending lectures and making good use of the library, but perhaps the most important resource available to you is one another — there’s so much that you can learn by asking questions of your peers, talking to one another about what’ve been reading, and finding ways to test out your ideas as a group. So I hope you’ll think of all the staff teaching on this module as ‘play buddies’ like those in my son’s school — we’re here to show you how you can participate and to help you work out what the rules are, all the rest of it is up to you.  


Participation: 3 different ways

Participation is at the heart of what we’re doing on this module. This is not only because it’s a central idea in drama/ theatre/ performance studies, but also because a large portion of your assessment will require you to demonstrate how effectively you have participated on the module. For this reason, I wanted to take a minute to outline what we mean by this term, and to ask you to think a bit more about what it might mean to you. But there are a lot of big ideas contained within this, so (for now) I’ve decided to break it down into 3 different aspects of participation which are particularly relevant to this module.

  1. Participation and performance. Participation is central concern for contemporary theatre-makers because it opens up the possibility of rethinking the performer/audience relationship and invites activated spectatorship. It is a term which is also often used to describe the work that theatres do to try and find new audiences — for example, by working with schools or community groups — in Newcastle, Northern Stage has a Participation team devoted to doing just this.
  2. Participation in higher education. Similar to theatre and performance, participation in the university is often linked to widening participation agendas, like our own Partners initiative. But here in the School of English we also think about it in terms of how students are taking part in their own learning processes. You may have come across the ‘university is like a gym’ metaphor which is often used to describe undergraduate studies (i.e. you can pay for your membership, but you won’t get fitter unless you actually go along and use the equipment). The logic behind this metaphor may indeed be flawed. Still, taking part in an academic community seems to me to be a small but powerful way of resisting the individualist, consumerist forces working on higher education.
  3. Participation and society. In democracy, participation is understood to be a fundamental principle. And yet this also presents a paradox because participation is often low — i.e. many people don’t use their vote — and so it is also a major challenge to democracy (Chilambo, 2007). This is a very real concern for all of us. As I’m writing this post, the question of Brexit is thoroughly unresolved and the whole event has raised questions about what has happened to our democracy, and whether a people’s vote or final say referendum would give the people of the UK more or less of a say in what happens next. These are issues concerned with what constitutes participation, and whether or not it is essential to democratic process.

Let me be clear: it is the first two aspects of participation that we’re going to be most concerned with on this module — I’m not suggesting we can resolve the many, complex problems thrown up by Brexit with the work that we do on SEL1031! But it is useful to consider how some of the issues we think about in relation to drama, theatre, and performance can model or lend insight into real world scenarios. After all, much like the socio-political world, theatre is a public forum: it is an event, in which real people and objects are presented to other people in a shared space.


What is SEL1031 Drama, Theatre and Performance?

When I first started working for Newcastle University, I taught on a module called ‘What is a Play?’ which had been designed by Prof. Peter Reynolds (who, sadly for us, because we miss him, is now retired). It was a beautiful little module designed to introduce students to reading plays by trying to catch a glimpse of what the performance they implied might have looked like. This then became ‘Reading in Action’, so-called 1) because we were trying to encourage students to put those plays on their feet and give them voice and movement, but also 2) because we wanted to be clear that we were not assessing acting ability, but instead critical engagement through creative practice. It turns out that the title ‘Reading in Action’ was about as clear as mud. Some of the students who took this module even thought they were going to be studying literary texts about soldiers and war (a different kind of ‘action’ entirely!) perhaps because we were, at that time, studying some plays that touched on conflict and the military, e.g. Black Watch by Gregory Burke. So about six years ago we re-wrote the module again and this time gave it a really straightforward title: Drama, Theatre and Performance.

The module in 2018/19

What is Drama, Theatre and Performance? Well, this is a module which looks closely at three contemporary plays and thinks about them in terms of three concepts which are central to all theatre performance: space, bodies and objects. The whole module is based upon an understanding that theatre performance is a creative act, in which real people and objects are presented to other people in a shared space. These are the plays we’re looking at this year: John Donnelly, The Seagull, adapted from Chekov (2013), Duncan Macmillan, People, Places and Things (2015), and Sarah Ruhl, Stage Kiss (2014).

The plays we’ll be working on in 2018/19, having a rest in my office.

They’re all plays which contain a play-within-a-play, and which ask us to think about what it means to perform — in our lives, as well as the theatre. The module is taught by two separate one hour lectures and a one and a half hour workshop each week. Students will be assessed on a proposal for a performance, which will be delivered in class (25%), a demonstration in which you lead a workshop activity related to one of the texts, again this will happen in class (25%), and a written reflective portfolio which will be submitted online (50%). This year Jamie Harper, a theatre director who is undertaking doctoral research at Newcastle University, has also designed some games for us to play in workshops — some of these you will recognise, some will involve building with objects, some will even involve paper and pens, and all of them should help you to gain further insight into the play texts.

What’s new?

There’s a rule of thumb that most academic staff follow with regards to their teaching, which is that it takes about three years to iron out the kinks of a new module — year three is the sweet spot when everything seems to fall into place for both staff and students — and then it gets progressively more stale every year you run it after that.  But I’m not sure I agree with this logic. I really, really love the first year of a new module because although wondering if the content and the assessment I’ve designed will actually work in the way that I imagine it will can be nerve-wracking, it’s also always exciting. I find that the first year a new module runs is the year that I learn most from my students, maybe because I’m working everything out alongside them and so we’re on a more equal footing. And then there’s this module, which has been running for six years… six years?!… and so surely ought to be well past that sweet spot. But it really doesn’t feel like a six-year-old module, because it still has the feeling of being new. Partly that is because we’re changing little details all the time. And partly it is because, by it’s very nature, this is a module which leaves lots of room for student intervention. I’m always learning from the students who take this module, and it is covered in the fingerprints of everyone who has ever touched it — from the very irreverent and very flamboyant Prof. Reynolds, to the student who was visibly terrified at the fear I might make him ‘act’ in 2013/14 — this module is the product of ongoing collective effort.

This year, to shake things up for 2019, we’re embracing student intervention even more than usual and we’ve completely re-jigged the whole module to focus further on participation and even to give you, as students, an opportunity to influence how you are going to be assessed. But there will be more on that in the next post…