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For the Department of English, The Old Vicarage is more than a place where lectures take place; it is the heart of our community. When the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we could no longer gather together there, we took to the internet to maintain our programme of extra-curricular events and activities, and to maintain the sense of community that our department values so much.

With staff and students quickly adapting to Microsoft Teams in March 2020, this became the obvious platform for hosting the department’s famous Open Mic Nights, when students and tutors get together in a relaxed atmosphere, perhaps with a glass of wine, read out their stories, poems and scripts, and take part in a few fun writing competitions. Each year at the summer Open Mic, Pandora’s Box is launched. Pandora’s Box is an annual magazine edited by three third-year students working alongside a tutor, featuring some of the best creative writing by the department’s students and staff. Alongside the launch, the Professor Derek Alsop Prize for Creative Writing is announced, and awarded for the standout poem or story in Pandora’s Box. This year’s prize went to Florence Dunington for her poem ‘He Didn’t Come Home That Day’. You can find out more about Pandora’s Box, her online sister magazine, Pandora’s Inbox, and the Professor Derek Alsop Prize for Creative Writing, by following this link

Conversations in the corridors of the Old Vicarage would often turn to the books we are reading. To keep these conversations going online, the department launched a Virtual Book Club Padlet where staff and students could post about their current reading habits. If you’re looking for suggestions of what to read next, here are some highlights: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, recently read by Dr Eileen Pollard; Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins, enjoyed by Dr Jo Close, Dr Melissa Fegan and Lucy Clough; and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, recommended by Dr Ashley Chantler. You will see some of these suggestions on our #WhatToReadWednesday posts if you follow us on Instagram (@uocenglish).

Although we do read a lot, English isn’t all about reading! A newly-found way of keeping in touch was promoted by Dr Alex Tankard, who hosted a weekly watch-along of the Great British Bake Off with staff and students from the department watching at home and chatting together via Teams. Such was its popularity that Alex hosted a number of film watch-alongs open to the whole School of Humanities, including Beetlejuice for Hallowe’en and Crimson Peak to make links with texts studied on the second-year module The Gothic. Students offered lots of positive feedback on these events, including:

  • “This watch along group has been an absolute Godsend for me - it's been an opportunity for me to meet new people from different departments, and generally kept me sane! This year would have been a lot less bearable without it” (Olivia Eltaki, third-year English Literature student).
  • “The watch-along chats have given me a sense of belonging to the English dept and therefore the university. Together with other video call events by the dept I really feel I'm starting to know people ... much slower than had we met in person but genuinely. I think there might still be a place for it even after lockdown for selected events” (Helen Craig, MA English Language and Linguistics student).

Alex even inspired two of our students to host weekly watch-along chats: Level 6 English Language student, Michael Turner, for RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and Jonathan Hay, PhD student analysing science fiction literature through the theoretical lens of critical posthumanism, for episodes of Dr Who. As you may have seen from the recent blog from third-year English Language student, Louise Wilson, our students are able to integrate their own interests into their assessments, and the watch-alongs have been a great way for students to share their interests with others.

Research seminars and reading groups have also continued online. For instance, Professor Emma Rees, Director of the Institute of Gender Studies, has hosted the 5th annual IGS Research Seminar Series via Teams. The monthly meeting, which is open to all, has attracted leading scholars and activists from around the world for five years now, and it played host in 2020-21 to audience members spread over three continents. The 2020-21 seminars included Alison Phipps (Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex), talking about her new book, Me Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism, as well as a joint IGS/Diversity Festival event with Laura Bates, on her new book, Men Who Hate Women. The Institute’s biennial international conference, Talking Bodies, returns in July in its first ever online incarnation.

You can find out more about the Department of English on the University of Chester's website


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