Megan Henesy

FWSA Book with tree

 “This AHRC-funded Contemporary Women’s Writing Skills Development Programme (CWWSkills) is a series of six workshops, to be held between August 2013 and July 2014. The programme is designed to enable UK-based postgraduate research students and early-career researchers who work in the field of contemporary women’s writing to develop an entrepreneurial approach to their research.”

My name is Megan Henesy and I am in the second year of my Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Southampton. I recently attended the second of six CWW Skills workshops due to run this year, funded by the AHRC and organised by specialists in the field of contemporary women’s writing, and I was fortunate enough to gain a place as a researcher on the development series.  The theme for this workshop, ‘Communicating More Effectively Within & Beyond the Classroom’, aimed to face two challenges: how to engage audiences positively on the subject of feminism, and how be more creative in communicating contemporary women’s poetry to wider constituent groups (for more details, see  

The aim of this blog entry is to provide an overview of the sessions (I’ll be doing the same for the following four workshops).  In truth, each of the sessions within this workshop really deserves its own blog to fully discuss the information and ideas presented and debated; but hopefully the brief synopses provided here will at least give you an idea of what we discussed in order to aid you in generating your own thoughts and ideas on both teaching and researching feminism through literature and poetry.  With any luck this, along with the links I have provided throughout the piece, will generate comments and ideas from you all.  Please feel free to contribute any of your own teaching points, experiences and links that you may feel will be useful to the research and teaching community in the comments section at the end.

The workshop began with a talk by Prof. Gina Wisker (University of Brighton) on ‘Teaching Feminism through Contemporary Women’s Writing’.  This provided advice and prompted discussions on how to use literature as a tool to establish a feminist history which would engage students.  Issues raised included how to present a history through first and second-wave feminism up to the present day without distancing (or boring!) students who do not necessarily see themselves as feminist.  We discussed how certain aspects of feminist history, such as radical and militant feminism, can be more difficult to approach than others; some felt that discussing contemporary feminist protest (the Femen topless protests, Pussy Riot, and the international Slut Walks to name a few) can alienate certain students, while others felt that it is an important part of the discussion of feminism in the 21st century (for example, debates surrounding Femen’s protests last year raise many issues including cultural concerns about white European women ‘speaking out’ for Islamic women from non-European communities).

It was agreed that discussing a range of topical stories alongside first and second wave literature can help students put modern feminism into context; useful sources can range from The Everyday Sexism Project and comments about the actions of celebrities like Miley Cyrus to more serious matters, such as the news stories about increasingly prevalent and public sexual violence in India.  Ideas were shared on how to engage students with topical issues and how to prompt discussions about feminism; these included asking students to use post-it notes to answer questions like ‘are you a feminist?’ and ‘what does a feminist look like?’, and getting students to bring in stories that they’ve seen in the media which they feel contain feminist issues.

Literature that was suggested by Professor Wisker in an example lecture plan included Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Nalo Hopkinson’s The Glass Bottle Trick, both of which rework the traditional tale of Bluebeard with a modern twist. Liz Lochhead’s poem The Complete Alternative History of the World, Part One was also put forward as a somewhat non-threatening, funny and yet poignant poem that can help to engage students in the discussion of women’s history and historical female stereotypes.  The session concluded with the advice to avoid polemic, offer challenges, and respect differences in the classroom; students should feel able to discuss and work out their own stance on feminism in a safe environment where debate is encouraged, but where they are allowed to voice their own opinion without fear of censure.

The second session of the day, ‘Using Digital Technologies in the Classroom’, was led by Dr Nadine Muller (LJMU).  The workshop presented ideas of how social media can be used both as a learning tool, and as a way to communicate between students and tutors.

It was generally agreed that increased use of social media can have both positive and negative consequences.  Blogging helps students develop presentation and writing skills, it makes them aware of up-to-date ways of communicating ideas, and can encourage skills that will be useful in the future such as how to design and manage a website or blog through WordPress, Blogger or Blog (and others).  Concerns that were raised included how hard social media can be to control and regulate; Facebook pages can cross private/professional boundaries between staff and students if the participants aren’t careful, and sometimes there can be too many avenues of communication (Facebook, Twitter, Blackboard etc.) which can lead to students being confused and overwhelmed with where to go for official information.  Those who do not want a Facebook page may feel excluded, while those who want one for social reasons only may feel that tutors are invading their personal space.

The main advice that stemmed from the session was that if you want students to use social media, whether it is as a tool for a project or as a means to communicate with their tutors, you need to set clear ground rules.  Email, messaging and commenting etiquette needs to be discussed and negotiated; one real life example given was that messages sent to tutors shouldn’t end with a kiss!  Examples were debated where students had regulated each other over unsuitable public comments, but if the students hadn’t done that then would it have been appropriate for the tutor to publicly condemn the comments and delete them?  Clear guidelines need to be established so that everyone is aware of what is expected of them; after all publicly made offensive comments can reflect not only on the student in question, but on the tutor and the institution also.

Dr Muller recommended that a seminar on how to blog needs to include a discussion on the trouble relating to the public state of social media; students need to be made aware of how to deal emotionally with trolls and negative comments made by members of the public.  They also need to be aware of how their comments can come across in a professional capacity; if they are discussing personal or controversial issues and employers become aware, would it affect their chances of future promotion?  While dangers and pitfalls are always a possibility in the use of social media, and while many academics still see blogging as an un-respected, unregulated medium,  there can be no doubt that it is a communication tool of the future which we would be fools to ignore.

The third session of the day, presented by Dr Jane Dowson (De Montfort University), was  titled ‘Teaching & Reading Contemporary Women’s Poetry’.  Dr Dowson presented a comprehensive modern history of women’s poetry, introducing us to anthologies which helped to re-establish forgotten poets and rare works of the twentieth century as well as showcasing important contemporary female poets alongside critical essays on their work.  Examples included The Bloodaxe Book Of Contemporary Women Poets: Eleven British Writers edited by Jeni Couzyn, Kicking Daffodils: Twentieth-century Women Poets edited by Vicki Bertram, and Making for Planet Alice edited by Maura Dooley among others.

Dr Dowson noted how all of our national poets are currently women, an unprecedented and exciting recognition for contemporary women’s poetry ( Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the UK, Liz Lochhead the National Poet of Scotland, and Gillian Clarke the National Poet of Wales).  This achievement was put into context through the discussion of negative criticism of women’s poetry over the years, from the accusation of them only writing ‘light verse’ to them not being very inventive in their style.  Other issues were raised including the struggle women have, and still do, face when trying to publish, as well as the lack of female role models in poetry.  We discussed ways that female poets overcome elements in style that they have been criticised for in the past; devices such as using gender neutral pronouns to avoid the feminine stereotype, or using diverse formal structures to rework the traditional.  Contemporary poets that we looked at included Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Gwyneth Lewis and Julia Darling.

Once the context of women’s poetry over the past century had been established, we began some closer reading of Maura Dooley’s brilliant poem ‘What Every Woman Should Carry’.  We discussed difficulties found in teaching poetry; one issue that some have experienced is the students’ desire to be told if their opinion or observation is correct.  As analysis of poetry is often so subjective it was agreed that it is important to establish from the outset that there is no ‘correct’ or ‘right’ reading of a poem, it can have many interpretations.  Dr Dawson demonstrated this by putting us into pairs to consider the poems and then asking us to comment to the group on aspects we found interesting. This exercise created a great opportunity to generate a group discussion of different observations, demonstrating that there was no one true answer and that this needs to be conveyed to the students in some fashion to generate some in depth debate.  Another observation that came up was ensuring that students understand the difference between the terms female/feminist/feminine; is the poet writing feminist poetry, or is it poetry that can be analysed using feminist criticism?  One does not have to be female to be feminine, and vice versa, but how do we describe the difference between the two terms?

The two final workshops of the day occurred concurrently; Dr Susan Watkins (Leeds Metropolitan University) led workshop A on ‘How to Prepare and Perform for a Successful Ph.D. Viva’ and Prof. Lucie Armitt (University of Lincoln) led workshop B on ‘Maximising the Research-Effectiveness of Your Teaching’.  I attended workshop A, which began with us discussing advice taken from on how to prepare for a Ph.D. viva, and ended with a question and answer session that helped many of us to establish a plan for how we will approach our vivas.

We discussed how different institutions can have different rules (dress codes, time limit guidelines and so on), but that many aspects of the viva are universal.  Some information was new, for example some of us were not aware that you can have a choice in who your external examiners are or that you can arrange a mock viva in the weeks before your official viva.  Other information most of us were aware of, but it was still discussed in a helpful fashion, such as the importance of preparing by reading through your thesis a few times, and making notes on your copy through post-its and tabs for easy access to information that might come up.  Advice from those who have already completed their Ph.D. and have been involved in examining students was incredibly useful; such as writing your own list of corrections to take into the viva with you so that you are not surprised when they provide you with their advised corrections.  This helps to limit nervousness and can make you feel more in control of the situation.

A popular analogy used was that your viva is very much like a driving test; it is nerve-wracking and high pressure but it is not the end of your career, it is the beginning.  Just as you will go on to drive for many years after you have passed your driving test, the viva should be used as a learning experience and an opportunity to take on advice and comments from your examiners which can be applied to future projects including monographs and job applications.

Overall the day was an enjoyable and positive experience, promoting new ideas on how to teach what can sometimes be difficult topics in an innovative way.  One theme that I felt ran throughout the day was how valuable digital technologies can be; we can use online stories, websites, social media and online archives as sources, prompts for conversations, ways to communicate and platforms for debate.  Feminism has, over the last few years, had resurgence in the public arena, and we should take advantage of topical stories alongside contemporary literature, poetry and criticism to create a broad and enticing platform for the study of feminism in the 21st century.

Megan Henesy

Megan Henesy  is a PhD student at the University of Southampton studying English Literature, and she has previously completed a BA degree in Fine Art at The Arts Institute Bournemouth, and a Masters in Classical Studies through The Open University.  Her main area of research is contemporary women’s writing, in particular the work of Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith.