When the Year 10s met Denis Diderot

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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
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louis-Michel_van_Loo_001.jpg

 

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