Oxford Outreach and the Undergraduate Admissions Interview: Spotlight on the Question Funnel

20161102_140125

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Before November’s Arctic front set in, Oxford’s Early Career Academic Outreach Network (OECAON) met on a warm October evening at Somerville College for the Michaelmas term training session. The afternoon saw the appearance of the Network’s newest co-coordinators, Jessica Boland and Sarah Jones. We kicked off with Dr Eleanor Parker’s insight-packed introductory lecture into outreach at Oxford. Topics ranged from the secondary education system in the UK and the state of Higher Education, to a summary of Oxford-wide outreach initiatives in addition to college- and department-led taster days. Whilst Eleanor gave a whistle-stop tour of Oxford outreach, Jessica Boland led a successful workshop on how experienced members can improve their schools-based taster sessions. As in every term, the OECAON training session aims to provide Oxford’s early career researchers with the most comprehensive and accessible overview of Oxford’s outreach initiatives, as well as practical information on how to get involved.

With week nine just around the corner, our final session concentrated on the Oxford undergraduate admissions interviews. We learned that the interviews are a central cause of great anxiety for schools, teachers, tutors, parents and – finally – the students themselves. Lecturers at Oxford often discover that their undergraduate cohort was wracked with nerves about the questions they were about to face at their interviews: the stereotype of an Oxford don turning to a nervous teenager and quizzing them on the nature of life couldn’t be further from the truth. OECAON members are often asked about the interview, and are always more than happy to demystify the process.

Oxford’s interviews to assess how suited a student might be to our tutorial system of teaching. We’re not looking for candidates who are already fully clued up on their subjects, but rather the students who have the potential to be challenged and pushed, to have their minds expanded by exploring topics of which they weren’t previously aware. The Oxford interview seeks out the candidates with the most potential, not those who have already fulfilled it. The first part of the interview is often subject-specific: the interviewer will present an object of study, such as a literary extract, a political theory, or a mathematical equation, and ask the student to interpret it. The student is not assessed purely on their knowledge, but rather on how they use the information the interviewer provides in order to better understand the object of study with which they have been presented.

In the Admissions Training for Oxford tutors, participants are encouraged to try and use a ‘question funnel’. The question funnel is a simple concept, allowing the interviewer to pose an open question before narrowing into more specific questions. Interview questions may begin very broadly, and then focus increasingly on more specific details so that the student teases out a problem for themselves. This model allows the interviewer to understand an interviewee’s broader understanding of a topic, as well as probing their ability to make sense of detail. I am a D.Phil student in French and have interviewed students applying for places for French and History (which was also my BA) and used the question funnel to structure my interview questions last year.

Opening questions

Interviewing on behalf of the French department, I would start with a broad, open question that sought to understand how a student viewed their degree choice. My personal favourite is ‘what is the link between literature and history?’. I’m never looking for a textbook definition of each term, but rather for the student to explore what we mean by each term, to contrast them, and, potentially, to find unexpected analogies between the two.

Getting deeper

Working from how the student answered their open questions, I would ask them a more specific question such as ‘does literature passively reflect history, or can it actively change the course of history?’ This question juxtaposes a commonplace idea about literature, that it merely reflects historical change, with a more radical idea that literature can change history. Examples on either side might be Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) which depicts the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) which Abraham Lincoln cited as one of the reasons for the American Civil War since it stirred up anti-slavery feeling in the northern states of America.

Defining and hypothesising

To wrap up the interview, I will often ask the student to re-articulate their ideas in a few sentences. These final questions are an essential way for students to learn how to reflect on the pathway that they’ve taken to reach a particular conclusion, and to work out how to summarise their thoughts according to a hierarchy of importance. I also like to ask a hypothetical question to really challenge the student: ‘would history be different if literature did not exist?’ Moments of reflection and/or hesitation are warmly welcomed at this point (as they are throughout the interview process) – an interviewer would never anticipate that a student had considered a question such as this before!

OECAON’s members are committed to demystifying the imposing façade of Oxford and to opening up higher education to all potential applicants. One barrier to entry is the myths surrounding the undergraduate admissions interview, but there is no longer any reason for these myths to persist. Oxford interviewers are looking to see whether the interviewee could become an Oxford student – and the only criterion for this is whether they have the potential to be taught and be pushed by their teachers, and classmates.

For more information on the University’s admissions interviews, including sample questions provided by tutors, please see www.ox.ac.uk/interviews. For more information on the Early Career Academic Outreach Network and getting involved with Oxford outreach projects, please email eleanor.parker@admin.ox.ac.uk.

Sarah Jones is a second-year D.Phil student in French, and college lecturer in French at Oriel College. She is co-coordinator of the Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network.

When the Year 10s met Denis Diderot

Diderot.png

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

 

Oxford Teachers’ Conferences

toby-young-bp

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

Soap Box Science: Cosmology on the South Bank!

L%27Oreal%20Soapbox%20Science-142On 30th May, I spoke as part of Soap Box Science in London. This event showcases female scientists on soap boxes on the South Bank. My slot was an hour long, and the focus was on discussion with the public rather than a one-way lecture. This format was incredibly effective – many people chose to stay for the full hour and the discussion spanned topics ranging from the expansion of the universe to Higgs portal dark matter – issues at the cutting edge of research. I had prepared an hour’s worth of material, but this turned out to be unnecessary – the time flew by with questions and ideas from the audience. One aim of Soap Box Science is to facilitate these kinds of conversations – by putting scientists in public places with no microphones or PowerPoint presentations, where anyone can drop by and say hello.

As a theoretical physicist, I am not used to wearing a lab coat (which we wore on the day to draw attention) or doing practical demonstrations. For Soap Box Science, I had great fun with a model of the expanding universe, complete with tinfoil galaxies. As well as helping to visualise a tricky concept in cosmology, this toy proved a great draw, particularly for children. Most of the session, however, was spent discussing some fairly in-depth particle physics without props or demos, dispelling the myth that the public are only interested in science if it has explosions or is directly relevant to their everyday lives.

Soap Box Science’s other mission is to increase the visibility of women in science. This extends beyond the event itself. In the lead-up to the event, I took part in several local radio interviews discussing Soap Box Science and women in physics. This is particularly relevant to my own field of theoretical physics. My department is overwhelmingly male dominated. I am perpetually frustrated by the media portrayal of science as “for boys”, and by the (usually) unconscious bias that still exists against female and BAME scientists. We need to seriously engage with issues of gender and racial equality to have an impact, and initiatives like Soap Box Science are part of that process.

Francesca Day

Early Career Academic Outreach Network Member and University of Oxford D.Phil. Candidate in Physics

Promoting careers in/with languages

jonathan patterson profileMy name is Jonathan Patterson and I am a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow in French at Oxford. In March 2015 I took part in a careers event for Year 11 and Sixth Formers jointly organized by two local schools in Oxford. I was asked to stand in for a colleague manning the ‘careers with modern languages’ stall. Armed with a stack of brochures from our Faculty office, and with a winsome smile, I set off to try and convince teenagers that studying modern languages at university opens a wide array of interesting careers. It was a thoroughly positive experience. I was paired with a graduate student in Spanish and together we fielded a range of questions. This made us remember what it was like to be a Year 11 student trying to figure out what A-levels to take, and what it would be like at university and beyond. I found that the students were on the whole very thoughtful. Many had already thought quite carefully about their options, but appreciated the opportunity to discuss these further with us in order to get an ‘inside view’.

I think that as early career academics we have much to offer in promoting our subject to teenagers. I found the careers fair particularly useful for affirming students who were already thinking of studying modern languages — although, as I’m all too well aware, there is much more work to be done in winning over others. Events like this are a good opportunity to learn how to dispel some of the hang-ups surrounding arts and humanities degrees, and to suggest a range of careers that might follow.

 

Reflections on this term’s training event…

Guest Blogger: Network Member, Dr Michael Subialka (Junior Research Fellow, Modern Languages)

“The Early Career Academic Outreach Network Training event for Hilary Term was excellent in both theoretical and practical terms. I was impressed that the session spanned from presentations on new data and ideas informing widening participation to a practical workshop showcasing a new method of combatting the disadvantages that sometimes face non-selective state school pupils.

Anne-Marie Canning, Head of Widening Participation at King’s College London, presented a trove of information. She pressed beyond the well-known facts and put new focus on issues that get less press. Chief among them is growing awareness that bursary schemes alone do not overcome disadvantages and that geo-demographics and gender are among the largest hurdles facing universities’ wider participation efforts today. I was especially shocked to learn that up to 42% of state school teachers report that they never or rarely encourage their highest-achieving students to consider applying to Oxbridge. Canning suggested this shows the importance of coupling outreach to students with outreach to other figures who influence their educational decisions, especially teachers and parents.

She also highlighted the need for going beyond ‘aspiration’ (an old buzzword) to look at the practical steps that will enable students to proceed with confidence toward higher education. It was thus ideal that Canning’s presentation was followed by a workshop with Rachel Curzons and Tom Wilks of The Brilliant Club, a non-profit education organisation dedicated to ‘ensuring students leave school with the skills, confidence and ambition to secure places at highly selective universities’. A quick immersion into their method of ‘concept mapping’ revealed the pragmatic way they train researchers to make their work accessible and inspirational for young students. I’m now very eager to learn more, and I would definitely recommend their model (and them – they’re recruiting) to my colleagues who are interested in helping to build a fair and accessible future for higher education.”

Performance of the Bacchae at the East Oxford Community Classics Centre

Guest Blogger: Network Member Lucy Rayfield (DPhil, Modern Languages)

2G1A0796As Director of the upcoming production ‘Sparagmos’, a musical double-bill of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ and Poliziano’s ‘Orpheus’, I was keen to reach out to a wider community and use this play as a means of promoting the appreciation and enjoyment of classical tragedy. In my mind, ancient theatre such as that by Euripides is too often regarded as inaccessible or irrelevant, especially by younger audiences. In a bid to take a small step towards changing this, we decided to take the ‘Bacchae’ to the East Oxford Community Classics Centre at Cheney School in Oxford on 11th February, where fifty students from a range of year groups witnessed a special premiere of the production.

All involved found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. Lorna Robinson, the Centre’s Director, remarked that the performance was ‘exceptional’, adding that ‘students were able to witness the humour and terror of the play through some stunning performances, including a very arrogant King Pentheus and the fearsome god Dionysus!’ The students proved to be a strikingly attentive and receptive audience; Year 11 Ruchika Ganesh commented: “That was really amazing! The acting was so professional. I loved the singing!”, whilst Year 9 student Barnaby Evans reflected: “that was so much fun! I really enjoyed it”.

I was delighted to see that the students were so entertained by the production. Pentheus’ cross-dressing scene was particularly well-received, as was the music sung by the Chorus of Bacchants. I was also pleased to learn that several planned to attend the main performance in Exeter Chapel, for which we have introduced a special student rate of £3 (£1.50 per play). This initiative was certainly worthwhile, and I hope that some- if not all who attended- will have discovered that classical tragedy can hold the same fascination today it did 2500 years ago.

‘Sparagmos’ will take place on 18th-19th February at 7:30PM in Exeter College Chapel in Oxford. Tickets for the two performances can be bought here: http://www.wegottickets.com/sparagmos

10 tips for researchers contemplating careers outside academia: forming and realising your Alternative Plan A!

Re-posted from Oxford University Careers Service Blog: http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/10-tips-for-researchers-contemplating-careers-outside-academia/

Author: Network Co-Coordinator, Dr Eleanor David

1. Start early!
Doing your thesis or Postdoc alone won’t get you a job inside or outside of academia. Striking a balance between academic commitments and other activities can be a real challenge, especially if you are self-funded. Try and seek out experiences that can be pitched as relevant to a variety of audiences as you never know if/when you might want to consider a transition: teaching, public engagement and/or schools outreach, running events/conferences are good examples of activities that can be marketed to a variety of different employers. Remember to be reflective about each experience and identify skills and training gaps through a log. Look at Vitae’s resources or contact your Divisional or DTC Training Officer for templates that you can use.

2. Don’t be apologetic about your academic experience
‘I have limited administrative experience as I have been studying for ten years’ can be turned into ‘My experience as a researcher has given me invaluable skills in time and project management and the ability to balance a variety of competing demands.’ ‘I have yet to progress to a management role’ can easily morph into ‘The skills I have gained in teaching undergraduates are very similar to those required of a manager…’

3. Think beyond the academic/non-academic binary division
There are lots of academic-related positions that require an academic background or for which an academic background can be made relevant: museums work, knowledge exchange or technology transfer, press, admissions, alumni relations, consulting, charity work or government roles. There are many employers who are now actively looking for researchers and value the skills they bring to the workplace. It is also possible to balance a role in part-time teaching or research with something rather different.

4. Consider developing a ‘portfolio’ career (but be careful!)
Combining freelance and part-time roles can allow you to consider your options. However, as someone who had 5 different jobs at once following the D.Phil. (creating HMRC a tax coding and self-assessment nightmare!) remember that you are your only manager and the only one really in charge of your career and professional development. As you would in an academic environment, be selective about the positions you take on and try not to repeat experiences, unless they can bring you a new challenge or skill.

5. Have multiple versions of your CV
Take the same care when writing an application for a role outside pure academia as you would for any UK/non-UK academic audience. Some excellent D.Phil. and Postdoc candidates can be dismissed in the early stages of an application for entry-level jobs outside of pure academia without a thoughtfully edited CV that highlights for the employer how and why the research experience is relevant, not just your academic achievements.

For me, this was one of the most difficult parts of transitioning to a role outside of academia; it is painful when you have to delete many of those conference papers or articles you have worked so hard on. Instead of listing lofty journal titles that only mean something to those in your field of research, consider reordering your conference papers and publications by intended audience, or summarise by category, rather than including full titles and page numbers as you would in an academic CV.

6. Be flexible!
Career progressions are rarely linear; be prepared to go in to a role outside academia at potentially a more junior level than you expected, but if you can, do so in a department that might offer flexibility for developing skills. Starting as a librarian and admin assistant in a small and dynamic department at Oxford straight after my D.Phil. allowed me to help shape the role and take it outside of its original remit, giving me vital skills to make my next transition. A wise colleague at a training event during my first schools outreach job said: ‘As a D.Phil. graduate trying to make a transition, you might start lower than you want, but you will be surprised at how quickly you can climb, with the right attitude.’

7. Ask for feedback on interviews
In my experience, employers outside of academia are much more likely to give you clearer and more constructive feedback than your average rejection letter for a Junior Research Fellowship with over 500 candidates. If you are feeling brave, ask for a ‘To do list’ detailing how to be more competitive in a future application.

8. Find a mentor who is in a position you admire outside academia
Use Oxford’s alumni networks and Careers Service to gain contacts in a field in which you are interested and ask them for five things they could tell their younger selves.

9. Be creative in strategies to raise your profile inside and outside academia
Connect with others through Twitter or blogging (this may well also fulfil that ‘digital engagement’ criterion on your next application!). #altac and #ecrchat will field some interesting feeds for starters!

10. Be honest with yourself about what you enjoy doing
Only after well over 100 academic job applications and an encouraging welcome to the world of schools liaison did I realise that I loved working as part of a team, thrived on running events, and that teaching and the motivating of others, rather than pure research, were what I had most enjoyed about my D.Phil. experience. I had been socially conditioned to see options other than pure full-time academia as ‘failure’, but I remain hugely grateful to those colleagues in my early work in schools outreach for valuing me as a member of the team with a different set of skills and experience.

And finally….

Having a D.Phil. or postdoc is not, as it was once considered, merely an apprenticeship for an academic career. It absolutely can be for those who pursue this and for whom it is best suited. However, researchers are not trained for one finite career and, in a more challenging but flexible marketplace, it might just be time to consider other routes that are not a negation of all that you have achieved as a researcher (something the term ‘non-academic’ actually suggests!), but rather a genuine and (hopefully) fulfilling Alternative Plan A.

Oxford University’s Sikh Society opens its doors

Guest Blogger: Network Member, Priya Atwal, DPhil student in History, Lady Margaret Hall

On 8th November this year, Oxford’s Sikh Society hosted its third annual Discovering Sikhism event at St Antony’s College. The programme was drawn up in the style of an academic conference: exploring the history of the Sikhs and the British Raj during the nineteenth and twentieth century, and featuring guest speakers presenting on their own research on topics related to the overall theme. However, the audience members showering questions on the speakers were very different to those usually attending your average conference. Instead of seasoned academics and keen research students, the room was filled with parents with their teenage children, young professionals recently graduated from university, local elderly residents from Oxford, and a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students from universities up and down the country. Perhaps unexpectedly, this combination sparked an incredibly lively, warm and insightful discussion!

I first set up the event series with a friend and fellow Oxford student, Dilraj Kalsi, back in July 2012. We felt that that the Sikh Society could become a great forum with which to start a more inclusive conversation with the wider public, about what can be learned from the intellectual debates of Sikh and Punjab Studies. Our hope was that we could thus promote a more nuanced understanding of Sikh history, religion and politics, but also go further and engage with wider, popular discussions that cut across lines of faith and reach outside of purely academic concerns. We really wanted young people of British Asian backgrounds to get involved too, as it has been our aim to encourage them to consider Oxford as a welcoming and captivating environment to study in, whether as undergraduate or graduate students.

With these ideas in mind, the new SikhSoc Open Day was brought to life. We decided to make it a free annual event held at Oxford and organized by students themselves. A friendly invitation has since then been permanently extended to academics, graduate students and independent researchers from all backgrounds to come and share their insights with us, in a style that should be accessible to non-specialist audiences. The organization of a typical open day programme is simple: it consists of three or four talks, where presenters speak for roughly 45 minutes each, followed by a 15-minute open Q&A period with the audience at the end of their individual session.

To attract potential guests, we have used a mixed bag of promotional techniques, ranging from distributing posters to schools and community centres, setting up a dedicated Facebook page, and using our existing SikhSoc Facebook and Twitter accounts more actively by adding new, relevant content; plus, working with community TV and radio broadcasters to spread the word widely. We have also held a lot of help from like-minded friends at university societies both in Oxford and across the country, which has opened up some amazing collaborative opportunities for the future.

All of this has enabled us to attract growing numbers of guests year on year. We started off with about 40 attendees in 2012, a figure which we doubled this year. Some people like to drop in for particular talks that pique their interest, whilst with others prefer to come for the whole day and use it as an opportunity to explore Oxford and its colleges – especially families bringing along children or teenagers.

As mentioned above, at this year’s event we looked at how research on Sikh experiences of British imperial rule can open up new perspectives on broader historical themes and contexts. The content of the talks showcased was extremely insightful and varied. On the one hand for example, we had an Oxford student, Amar Sohal, breaking down ideas from his Masters’ thesis to unravel the nature of Sikh identity politics during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. On the other hand, we featured the journalist and author, Christy Campbell, who shared with us the incredible life story of one of Oxford’s first ever Sikh students, Hardit Singh Malik – a young man who took on a tremendous struggle against racial prejudice to become the first Indian fighter pilot in the RAF, during the First World War.

We have been particularly keen to engage graduate students, who can gain valuable experience by speaking at our events. I myself saw the benefits of presenting in such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere at the 2013 open day – for a start, the audience was less intimidating for a first-time presenter than at a formal academic conference. In putting forward my ideas to those who don’t have much prior knowledge of my subject, I was forced to be as clear and concise as possible about the points I wanted to get across. I also had a couple of “curve-ball” questions from attendees who came from different backgrounds and perspectives, which challenged me to think about my topic in new ways and gave me food for thought for a few days after the event itself.

This is definitely just the beginning for the Society’s open day series, and I for one have hugely enjoyed this experience, where I have got to learn so much about working in outreach. It would be great to hear from any other DPhil students or early career academics who would like to get involved and help to develop this project further – feel free get in touch via email at oxford.sikhsoc@gmail.com. We were always looking for new research perspectives to discuss and would be particularly keen to do some interfaith work, but we also are facing an increasing demand for our talks to be put online, so we would equally love to be contacted by anyone with the technical know-how to help us record and digitize our content.

About me

I’m a second-year History DPhil student at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford and also studied for a History undergraduate and Masters degree at Oriel, Oxford between 2008 and 2012. My research project deals with the way in which new ideas of female sovereignty and a “royal family” were shaped in the nineteenth-century Indian Empire. I am focusing in particular on the links between Queen Victoria and the last Sikh rulers of the Punjab, Maharani Jind Kaur and her son, Maharajah Duleep Singh.

“Investigating Options”; or, a demonstration of the relevance of all disciplines

Guest Blogger: Network Member Danielle Yardy (Keble College)

On 4 November, Year 11 pupils from around the country came to Oxford as part of the Pathways Programme. The day involved talks, tours, and take-home pamphlets. At Keble, 95 students and their teachers gathered to take taster sessions in the humanities, and the physical, life, and social sciences. D.Phil.s in English, Statistics, Ecology, and International Relations took to the floor to show what their subjects had to offer.

In honour of Halloween—and to put forward the case for both English and History—my talk investigated Elizabeth Sawyer, historical ‘witch’ and protagonist of the 1621 tragicomedy The Witch of Edmonton. I asked students to reflect on the nuance that literary analysis can bring to historical study, and how it opens up the subtleties of a past we might want to homogenize.

blog post 1

Statistician and schools liaison officer Mareli Augustyn discussed chance and randomness. She warning against the lottery, and showed how it really is quite likely that an iPod set to shuffle will play songs by the same artist back-to-back. Harriet Downey then wooed pupils to Ecology with her research into tropical rainforests before James Shires discussed issues of ‘security’. International politics is performative, he argued, and school lunches could easily be ‘a security issue’, if only someone instated the sandwich police to prevent the rioting of hungry pupils.

As a presenter, it was the Q&A that proved most rewarding by offering a great insight into what the next generation is looking for in a degree. One topic dominated discussion, posed by both pupils and their teachers: relevance. What exactly are you going to do with that degree? What comes next? [The theatre scholar in me wishes to note: it started to rain.]

Sitting in the humanities corner, I was a little nervous—but, as it turned out, without cause. We discussed the broad career options for the different degrees as well as the relationships between disciplines. Presenters had come from different undergraduate courses and institutions, with time out of education and a variety of career experiences, demonstrating that all degrees open doors. Uniformly, the panel presented a successful degree as one undertaken with genuine interest.

Verdict: if you’re having a crisis of relevance, try telling Y11s why your subject is great (rather than your parents).