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The Department of English at the University of Chester is very special. Recently I was talking to a colleague in the corridor and had to say – ‘can you believe we actually get to work together? Can you believe we’re doing the job we’ve always wanted? Are we dreaming?’ Not many jobs enable you to do things you genuinely care about, and to support other people to achieve their potential, too.

What is a typical day at work for you?

Riding my bike through rush-hour traffic is pretty stressful, so I’m always glad to get to my office and make a cup of tea. I check emails, drop into the admin office to see what’s going on this week (we have amazing administrators!), then get ready to teach a seminar or lecture. My classes tend to be pretty… lively: colleagues haven’t exactly complained – but they’ve definitely commented on the noise…

After seminars, I usually have (quieter, one-to-one) meetings with students who want to discuss whatever they’re working on at the moment. I am also Personal Academic Tutor (PAT) to several students, who visit me if they are having any problems, and I help them to find the right support services at the University.

In addition to the time spent with students, lecturers spend a lot of time on administrative tasks, preparing seminars, marking essays, and answering emails. Most of us are active researchers, writing for publication in academic books and journals, because it’s vital that we’re involved in research and writing projects just as our students are. We are all part of the same scholarly community.

Academia generally isn’t a regular nine-to-five job: most of us carry on working at home and, when I’m immersed in writing, I sometimes lose track of time and see the sun coming up…

What is your favourite part of your job?

My colleagues are always there to support me so, in turn, I want to be there to support my students. I see my job not as ‘teacher’, but as fellow scholar sharing my passion for English: I’m training students to use the same academic skills I practice myself. When my students are able to disagree with me and tell me why my ideas are wrong, it proves that we’re all doing something right!

Another big highlight of working at Chester is the biennial Talking Bodies conference. I look forward to it for the whole two years! It’s so much more than an academic conference: I’ve met brilliant people there and made real friends.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects?

Once my book on disability and tuberculosis in nineteenth-century literature finally came out last year (it has a really psychedelic cover!), I felt ready for a new challenge. I started researching disability and queer representation in superhero movies. However, I soon found that superhero fan fiction is even more exciting, so my new project will investigate how fans reimagine disability and sexuality in their stories. My students have a lot of opinions on this!

I am also part of a new Schools Liaison Working Group. When I was growing up, I was afraid that I might not be posh enough for academia, but my family and teachers encouraged me to carry on studying no matter what. Now, one of my biggest passions is welcoming young people from different backgrounds to our university and showing them what we do. My students often volunteer to help out when schools come to visit, and it’s a lot of fun to run these sessions together.

What do you enjoy most about teaching your subject?

I first read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in 2001, and I’ve been studying or teaching it ever since. This year my students explained something in the text I’d never understood before, and it blew my mind. This happens constantly in English Literature: every seminar discussion leads to new revelations, no matter how many times I’ve read the text before.

How does the course prepare students for ‘real life’?

Employers expect English graduates to have excellent communication skills, critical and analytical skills, and research skills. Opportunities to develop these skills should be embedded in any English degree. However, I think what makes our students special is that the friendly, supportive atmosphere in our classrooms seems to build amazing confidence in seminar discussion, developing an exceptional ability to explain complex ideas to each other: by the time my students give their formal presentations on their projects in class, I honestly think most of them are superior to some professional academics I’ve seen at conferences.

What has been your proudest moment while working at the University of Chester?

I attend graduation every year in Chester Cathedral to see my students graduate: it’s a real thrill to see them walk across that stage in their robes! However, my proudest moment was when I came out of the cathedral after graduation last year and bumped into my Year 9 English teacher from comprehensive school. I was in full ceremonial Doctoral regalia (velvet-trimmed supervillain robes and mortarboard) and I was able to tell her not only that I remember the exact moment she encouraged me to take up writing seriously, but also that I was here watching my own students graduate, and that I now do outreach work to encourage other young people to study English at university, just as she encouraged me. Becoming a lecturer took many, many years of striving and setbacks, but this was one of those moments I was able to say to myself ‘I’ve finally arrived.’

What’s the most memorable lesson you’ve ever taught?

I can think of several over the years – involving butterfly attacks, false moustaches, students who had probably had a bit too much fun the night before, a cactus, and a student turning up in a full Dracula costume, including cloak and fangs. Most evenings, though, I’m smiling to myself on the way home about what my students got up to that day.

How would you describe the learning experience at Chester? 

The Department of English at Chester is in an old Victorian vicar’s house, so it’s far more homely than a conventional office building. Many of my classes are held in what used to be the dining room, or in the little chapel. My office is in the attic, near to a mysterious hidden staircase…

At school, students are told ‘when you go to university, you’ll be totally on your own!’ That’s true in the sense that, in English in particular, tutors won’t stand over you making sure you’re doing as you’re told. For example, I give my students some instructions to prepare for seminar discussions, but I expect them to choose for themselves how they approach that preparation, and they often turn up with some bizarre piece of research I never thought of! Most of my seminar groups have between 10 and 20 students this year: my job is to keep the discussion moving and make sure everyone has a chance to share their ideas.

In the most important sense, though, you’re not ‘on your own’ at university. You’re joining a community of adults who support each other. When studying English at Chester, you enter that old Victorian house and you’re surrounded by lecturers (including your PAT), administrators, and students who care about each other and know who to turn to when they need help. In my opinion, that’s what makes our department so special.

If you could have a superpower what would it be?

I already have two superpowers. Unlike Helen Webster in the Careers team, I actually can communicate with cats. I am also unbeatable at the Six Steps to Kevin Bacon game. However, I already have a Magneto costume, so I think that acquiring his power to control metal (rather than just floating spoons on invisible thread) would enable me to win the costume competition at Comicon next time instead of coming second to a baby dressed as Harry Potter.

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