When the Year 10s met Denis Diderot


One of the best ways to encourage students from non-selective state schools to consider applying to university is to start early. This seems to be a guiding principle behind the Oxford Pathways Year 10 Taster Days. Earlier this year, I got a taste of these excellent outreach days for myself, and I’m going to try to give you a flavour of them in this post.

For those unfamiliar with the scheme, Pathways is coordinated by the colleges of the University of Oxford, with support from the Sutton Trust, and is spearheaded by a dedicated team of college outreach staff. The programme seeks to provide information about higher education (and Oxford, in particular) to academically able students, and staff, from non-selective state schools with little history of sending students to Oxford. To this end, Pathways organise numerous visits to Oxford and application information sessions throughout the year, aimed at students from Years 10 to 13. All sessions are free, and give pupils and teachers a taste of student life in Oxford, which many may never have even heard about – least of all experienced for themselves.

So where does a PhD student working on eighteenth-century French literature (that’s me), fit in? As part of the Year 10 Pathways Days, the students visiting Oxford get to experience a small taste of university academic life. This comes in the form of an hour long, interactive academic taster session, led by an academic or doctoral researcher. After attending one of the Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network’s training sessions, where the Pathways team introduced their scheme, I signed up to lead some of these academic taster sessions.

I was asked to deliver a session related to my research, but that would be accessible (yet challenging) for 15-16 year old students who may have no knowledge of (and perhaps no interest in) my discipline. The challenge for me, then, was to make eighteenth-century French accessible, relevant, and enjoyable for a group of Year 10s who have just had lunch and would quite like a nap. Moreover, I had to try to show them, in just an hour, that attending university could be something they might enjoy.

I decided to deliver a session centred on Denis Diderot – one of the most important French philosophers of the French Enlightenment (although not necessarily a name many in the UK know). I focused on a short, humorous text by Diderot, the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my old dressing gown). The work is, nominally, about Diderot’s distress at acquiring a new dressing gown (more of a house coat than a dressing gown, which he often wore when writing). Diderot regrets having thrown away his old dressing gown, and tells the reader about his similar regrets at having acquired new furniture and art for his home; these objects may be new and luxurious, but they are just not the same as the old ones. These new possessions make Diderot uncomfortable, and don’t say as much about him as the old ones did (or, rather, they don’t say the things he wants them to say).

With the aid of some props; a digital presentation; and with reference to Bono’s favourite black trilby hat, I encouraged the students to think more analytically about Diderot’s text. What exactly does he mean in certain passages? Could we call Diderot a ‘materialistic’ person, and what different senses might this word have? And, reciprocally, I asked them to think about their own relationship to their possessions. What is their most important possession and why? What makes something a ‘luxury’?

At the beginning of the hour, I had asked the students to raise their hand if they thought it was morally bad to be materialistic; most raised their hand. At the end of the hour, I asked the same question; this time, few hands were raised. And in one session, I was delighted to get a question back from a pupil: ‘do you mean Diderot’s materialism, or ours?’ By the end of the hour, the students had begun to re-examine their preconceptions, and to ask questions of their own. Even if they didn’t leave loving Diderot as much as I do, I hope my taster session allowed them all briefly to experience of the sort of work that goes on at a university, where ideas are challenged and questions are raised.

As a ex-pupil of a non-selective state school, I have experience of some of the many barriers to university that such pupils can face. I hope these Year 10s and their teachers left with a better knowledge of what studying at university involves, and with the confidence that they could all make it to university, should they wish to. And perhaps just one or two might even consider studying French!?

Gemma Tidman
D.Phil candidate in French at Wolfson College, Oxford

Image credit: Louis-Michel Van Loo, Portrait of Denis Diderot (1767).
Oil on canvas. Diderot Collection. Gift of M. de Vandeul to the French State in 1911.
(c) Louvre Museum


Michaelmas Term Training

Early Career Academic Outreach Network Training Session: Michaelmas Term
Wednesday 26 October (Week 3), 4.30-6.30pm
Venue: Margaret Thatcher Centre, Somerville College
The Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network aims to connect interested D.Phil. students, fixed-term teaching and research staff from any discipline with opportunities to engage with schools outreach projects run across the collegiate University. 
 As you will be aware, we run termly tailored training sessions and manage a database of interested researchers and teaching staff to which professional outreach staff from across the University have access.
4.30-5pm – Coffee, registration and networking time

5-5.10pm – Welcome 

5.10pm-5.40pm (Parallel sessions)
Introduction to schools outreach at Oxford (for new members of the Network or relative beginners to outreach with schools)
Speaker: Dr Eleanor Parker, Student Recruitment Officer, Undergraduate Admissions & Outreach Office; College Lecturer in Italian, St Anne’s College
Sharing best practice: how to deliver an engaging taster session (for experienced practitioners)
Chaired by a member of the Network, attendees will be able to explore what constitutes effective engagement when working with different audiences in schools outreach and will be able to share ideas on how to improve their taster sessions
Oxford Admissions Interviews from both sides of the desk
Whether you are an experienced admissions interviewer, or brand new to Oxford and its admissions processes, come along to discuss the admissions interview training offered to Oxford academics (and how useful you find it in admissions) and discuss how we talk about interviews when working with students and teachers in schools and colleges. Interactive activities from both ‘sides of the desk’ will feature.
Speakers: Dr Eleanor Parker, Student Recruitment Officer, Undergraduate Admissions & Outreach Office; College Lecturer in Italian, St Anne’s College
Alice Parrott, Student Recruitment Officer, Undergraduate Admissions & Outreach Office
6.45pm-8pm Networking drinks at The Victoria Pub, Jericho
To book a place for the training session, please fill in the form here: https://goo.gl/forms/HlUtcoOOLT5em0Fu2
After the session, participants are warmly invited to The Victoria, Jericho from 6.45-8pm to network with each other and outreach staff from around the collegiate University. Whether or not you are able to come to the training session, please do come along and share your outreach and public engagement experience and find out more about how you can connect with schools outreach work across the University.
Further enquiries about the scheme can be directed to the coordinators via eleanor.parker@admin.ox.ac.uk.  

Oxford Teachers’ Conferences


This summer I had the joy of travelling around the UK and Ireland with our amazing outreach team as part of the annual teachers’ conferences. These one-day workshops are designed to offer support and advice to teachers in helping their students make a competitive application to the University, and are generally designed to make the process less opaque (a much needed activity!)

The team consisted of two University admissions staff, a college outreach officer (each area of the UK we went to is affiliated with a particularly college), two current students, a maths admission tutor representing sciences, and me, representing humanities. During the sessions we introduced the attending teachers to the slightly unconventional structure of Oxford, before discussing the various array of tests and interviews that make up the undergraduate application process.

As part of the University I inevitably took for granted not only how complicated this process can seem, as well as how many frankly bizarre myths surround the process! (things like the importance of sitting in a specific chair, or what to do if a tutorial fellow throws a piece of fruit at you!) It was clear that for all the hard work Oxford puts into elucidating the entrance procedure, it still carries a lot of stigma confusion. By far the hardest task of the conference was persuading some of the attendees that – contrary to belief – Oxford admissions doesn’t actually use a magic sorting hat to make its decisions . . .

In all seriousness, being part of such an incredible team, and seeing how inspired the attendees were at the end of the day was hugely rewarding. Talking to the teachers informally after the sessions were over, it was clear how much the events had meant to them too. Without exception, each attending teacher talked about their students with such pride, and it was incredibly moving to hear them describe the newfound confidence they now had to help support these students with a possible Oxford application: something which, for many, was something they had never imagined doing!

Dr Toby Young
Gianturco Junior Research Fellow (Linacre College), Knowledge Exchange Fellow (TORCH) and proud Early Career Academic Outreach Network Member