Welcome to the Learning Quarter of the Inspiring Minds website. Dr Alexander Samson welcomes new and returning students to UCL's Faculty of Arts & Humanities, and introduces the Learning Quarter.
Learning Quarter: Top Tips
Dr Alexander Samson shares his top tips so that you can throw yourself into university study.
UCL Writing Lab
The Writing Lab is a free service offered through the UCL Academic Communication Centre which runs workshops, tutorials and support sessions to enhance academic writing and research skills.
The Writing Lab's services are available for undergraduate and postgraduate students in the Facutly of Arts & Humanities. Get started by booking a workshop or tutorial.
IT for Arts & Humanities students
UCL's Information Services Division (ISD) have put together a guide to IT services for new students across UCL.
- IT Essentials for New Students
- DigiLearn (online video library covering UCL IT Essentials)
- Digital Skills Awareness
- Plagiarism and Academic Writing for Students
There will be sessions especially for Arts & Humanities students (and related disciplines), and the details will be posted here soon.
Our lecturers share texts which were transformative to their learning.
Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers, Helena Wulff
Dr Hélène Neveu Kringelbach
I read Helena Wulff's 1998 ethnography of the transnational world of ballet, 'Ballet Across Borders', during my MSC in Social Anthropology. I came from a Business Studies background and Anthropology was new to me, but I had always had a passion for dance. Reading the book and meeting Helena in person opened my mind to the fact that anthropology could make one see the world from a completely new perspective, and this blew my mind away. There is something very profound in reading a brilliant text and getting to know the person behind it.
History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault
Professor Tim Jordan
Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality Volume 1 somehow got through to me about the intersections of power, knowledge and subjectivity.
I was uncertain about most reading I was doing and what was being taught, and somehow Foucault's book got through to me about how to think about relations of power, about bodies, sexualities, subjectivities and how all these related to knowledge.
El mismo mar de todos los veranos, Esther Tusquets
Dr Natasha Tanna
I was very touched by a novel on one of my Spanish literature courses that depicted desire between two women in beautiful prose — Esther Tusquets’s El mismo mar de todos los veranos (The Same Sea as Every Summer) . I remember being moved to tears by some of the passages while reading the novel in the dusty old University Library and trying to gather myself to write an essay on it.
I work on queer literature now and often think back to that moment when I’m trying not to let the emotional connection with words that drew me to studying literature to get too lost amidst scholarly conventions and norms that sometimes lead critics to sideline such passionate engagements with texts.
Orientalism, Edward Said
Professor Lee Grieveson
I appear to be getting older and it is hard to remember back to university. I remember it being an escape from industrial decline in the north of England. I remember the Berlin Wall fell.
I did not read enough (do not make the same mistake) but I remember that Edward Said’s Orientalism made an impression on me because it showed simply how culture was a form of power. Of imperial domination.
I read other scholars on Shakespeare at the time who were similarly invested in thinking about power and cultural materials (scholars like Jonathan Dollimore and Stephen Greenblatt, who were sometimes called cultural materialists).
I do not recall the books in detail now but my thinking was shaped in formative ways by these encounters. Most of them led also to a historian and philosopher of power called Michel Foucault.
It was only after university that I realised that needed to be leavened with the lineage of thought inspired by Karl Marx thinking about political economy. (It takes time to read, think, learn, and re-think: be patient.) Culture is hegemony (as Said demonstrated) – state violence kicks in when that fails, as it regularly did during the history of European imperialism. And continues to do in our world formatively shaped by that imperialism.
During my graduate studies (MA Fine Art UAL, 2007) I was greatly influenced by Robert Flaherty’s fictional documentary (1934). The film depicts characters living on the Isle of Aran, on the west coast of Ireland, in a premodern setting. I was especially drawn to the currach (boat) scene. I recognise that the origins of my interest in this film linked back to an exhibition I visited on my undergraduate studies at the Frith Street Gallery where I saw a sculptural artwork work by Dorothy Cross, Storm in a Tea Cup (1997). For this piece, a small screen is back projected into a tea cup, looping the currach scene from the Flaherty film.
Flaherty’s depiction of a politicised and idealistic existence linked my research back to my own heritage in Northern Ireland and to the signing of the Belfast Agreement which brought a structured peace agreement. During that summer I visited Belfast and photographed and documented the changes to the city.
From this I was drawn to considering socially engaged and participation practices. The texts that grounded my thinking at the time included One Place After Another, Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity by Miwon Kwon and Conversation Pieces Community + Communication in Modern Art, by Grant H. Kester and the exhibition Common Wealth at Tate Modern 2003.
During this same period of time I was researching small boats at the National Maritime Museum archive and library in Greenwich. I came across the journal Society for Nautical Research and an article by James Hornell British Coracles and Irish Currachs with a note on the Guffah of Iraq.
Whilst on my MA degree I was invited to create a solo exhibition at a public gallery on the Isle of Wight. For this exhibition I worked with local groups to design and build a boat (currach) in the gallery space. On the last day of the exhibition it was launched for the first time and I navigated down the River Medina to the sea at Cowes.
The ways of working and the methodologies I learnt and developed during this time on my graduate studies remain and are still central to my teaching and research at UCL.
Professor Jo Evans
It’s really hard to pick one text that inspired me at university. I wrote on a series of amazing playwrights and poets (Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Octavio Paz, Jorge Guillén, Federico García Lorca, Juan Ramón Jiménez…). There were almost no women writers, although in my final year I did study the French-Canadian writer Marie Claire Blais and a new course called French Literature and the Visual Arts. That definitely inspired me: the fact that you could write on women and study words and images at the same time.
If I had to pick one text, it might be Apollinaire's Calligrammes (1918), because they are poems that depend on words and image, and they are both funny and moving (Apollinaire was wounded in World War 1). Apollinaire also coined the term ‘surrealism’, which has been one aspect of the work of almost every writer or director I’ve studied.
Image above used under Creative Commnons License (original photo)
The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner
The book that had the biggest influence on me as a first year undergraduate was The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a critical biography of poet Ezra Pound which is really an account of modernism (or at least Kenner’s version of modernism) as an entire cultural movement.
The book was thirty years old already by the time I discovered it in the English Faculty library, and to anybody with an acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, its approach would have seemed rather old-fashioned. But it struck me with the force of revelation that criticism could be as exciting as this, as intellectually daring and wide-ranging – it draws on history, biographical anecdote, close reading, philology, visual art, science, and much else – and written with as much verve and style.
If Not, Winter, Fragments of Sappho, Anne Carson
Dr. Christine Xine Yao
Don’t let reading for your studies overtake reading for pleasure! One of the most transformative texts I read in undergrad came recommended by a friend: Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho entitled If Not, Winter. Most of the writings by the great lyric poet from Lesbos are lost. Other than a handful of poems most only survive in fragments. Carson, a significant poet in her own right, translates Sappho’s surviving words and marks the gaps on the page itself rather than trying to invent lexical sutures or to pretend those omissions don’t exist. Much of the queer writing I encountered was not on my syllabus but instead was passed around in social circles. Consider the role reading plays not only in your own development, but in community building.
What is the name of this book?, Raymond Smullyan
Dr Thomas Oléron-Evans
OK, so as a mathematician who happens to teach in Arts & Humanities , I feel like I'm crashing the party here, but hey; scientists are allowed to read too. To be honest, they were not big on reading lists in my undergraduate degree, and I didn't actually visit the university library until my fourth year (I do not recommend this strategy).
However, there was a small library in the maths department, where I found "What is the name of this book?". This is essentially a book of logic puzzles, but it goes far far beyond the old one-of-them-is-lying-and-one-of-them-is-telling-the-truth business, voyaging into increasingly complex and mind-stretching complications.
Across 270 entries, this book guides you from trivial trickery to profound insights into the nature of truth, with nods to Lewis Carroll, William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker along the way. Although it didn’t change my life on its own, this was one of a number of books that opened my mind to the power and beauty of mathematics, ultimately leading me to my current role as a lecturer and researcher at UCL.
Combray, Marcel Proust
Dr Jennifer Rushworth
Marcel Proust, 'Combray' (the first part of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time). This was a set text for an obligatory module offering an overview of French narratives from different periods.
Many years later, I'm still re-reading Proust and writing about him in my research. Proust's long sentences are infamous, but I guess I fell in love with their rhythm. Proust is a great writer for celebrating the pleasures of reading and the transformative power of different art forms, not only literature but also painting and especially music. One critic, Malcolm Bowie, has written of Proust’s ‘will-to-include’, and this is such a perfect notion for Proust’s novel. It’s all-engrossing.
It was through Proust that I also encountered literary theory, especially the narratology of Genette, and gained a taste for technical, conceptual terminologies.
Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes
Dr Florian Mussgnug
In week two, we were asked to answer the following question: "What is Descartes' method of radical doubt and, in your opinion, does it work?".
The second part of the question terrified me. At school, we had learned about the history of philosophy. But why would my opinion matter?
It seemed grotesque to me that I, a first-year undergraduate, should prove Descartes wrong. I still suspect that René would not have been amused.
Dr Lucy Bollington
In my first year at university I came across the work of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, who I then went onto study formally during my second year. Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, a poignant novella penned as the author was dying, had an especially profound influence on me. The novella was more experimental than any text I’d encountered previously—it begins, for instance, by listing thirteen alternative titles, each poised to offer different pathways into the text—and this created a dynamism and unpredictability in the reading encounter that felt freeing to me. The novella is also deeply influenced by philosophical questions related to existentialism and feminism, and following the trail of its ideas led me to discover theorists—Sartre, de Beauvoir, Cixous—whose works similarly confronted me with fascinating new ways of thinking about existence. The Hour of the Star instilled in me a love for experimental and philosophically engaged cultural texts that has remained with me to this day.
Image credit: Clarice Lispector derived from an image available under the Creative Commons License (original photo)
Theory of Prose, Viktor Shklovsky
When I was at school, we were generally led to believe that one reads literature to find out what it says about serious things: love, death, beauty and so on. Viktor Shklovsky was a maverick Russian theorist and writer who, as a twenty-year old student in the tumultuous years of the Russian revolution, revolutionised the way that we have come to think about literature.
In essays like ‘Art as Technique’ and ‘How Don Quixote was Made’, Shklovksy suggested that what is important about art is not what it says, but how it works: how, through its unusual use of language, plot devices, tricks of perspectives, and so on – literature makes familiar things strange again and renews our experience of life.
Reading him in my first year, nearly ninety years on, Shlovsky’s ideas were a source of liberation: more than just serious content, literature could also be about renewal, trickiness and the playfulness of form.
Germanic Philology – University of Antwerp, Belgium
My first year at the University of Antwerp provided an overall introduction into the study of Dutch and English literature, linguistics, history and philosophy. Even though the course was already rather broad, we had a compulsory module on what was called ‘World Literature’. As it happens, it was taught by a colleague from the Romance Studies department, so what we got was a fascinating bird’s eye view of literature in French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. For our assessment, we had to select a number of works to read in more detail.
If I remember correctly, I read La Route des Flandres, something by Stendhal, Il Gattopardo, and my favourite at the time and the book I wanted to introduce here: Rayuela (Hopscotch) by the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar. I read all these books in Dutch translations; the translation of Cortázar’s novel astonished me, and it was probably the first time I seriously reflected upon the nature of translation. For example, it included a sex scene that was written in a sort of nonsense language resembling poetry, and yet, as a reader, the sensuality, emotion and excitement were palpable (remember, I was 19 so that would have drawn my attention!). Also, the novel has an intricate hopscotch narrative structure that allows for multiple ways of moving through the book. I continued to read Cortázar’s many stories in translation and when I travelled to Nicaragua a year later, got my hands on a political text by him, and attempted to read that in Spanish; I like to believe I got the gist!
That first year swung between large survey courses like the one describe above, and more in depth modules, and I was also very much enamoured by the work of Dutch author Gerard Reve, and particularly his novel De Avonden (The Evenings), which was given a new lease for an English audience only a few years ago, when Pushkin Press published a new and very successful English translation. This novel has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye and L’Etranger and is set in a monotonous post-war setting that is described in minute detail, the tedium of which either has you laughing aloud or in despair; at the time at least I thought it was hilarious! If you go on our Dutch walk in Bloomsbury (see podcasts in the London quarter), you can walk past the house Reve lived in when he unsuccessfully attempted to become famous in 1950’s London.
Argonautica, Valerius Flaccus
Professor Gesine Manuwald
Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica is a Latin epic from the end of the first century CE that tells the story of Jason travelling to Colchis to gain the Golden Fleece, when he meets Medea (with the well-known consequences of the love affair).
I first came across this text in a module on this epic when I was an advanced undergraduate. At that time epics from the late first century CE were still not read very much, and there was little secondary scholarship on them.
I found this text engagingly written, having a rather intellectual quality and interacting with the literary tradition and the contemporary context in a sophisticated way. I then wrote an essay on a scene from this epic for this module, and I later came back to the Argonautica to work on it for my final-year BA dissertation and then my PhD thesis.
After a gap, during which I engaged with other Latin texts, I returned to this text again and produced a commentary on a book of this epic, including the scene on which I had written an undergraduate essay many years previously. I have encountered a large number of other exciting ancient Greek and Latin texts since I started reading material in these languages, but none of them has shaped my academic development in the same way as this one.
The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, Tirso de Molina
Dr Alexander Samson
For my undergraduate dissertation, I wrote about the Don Juan myth in European culture, looking at versions of the story by Tirso de Molina, Molière, Shadwell, Mozart, Kierkegaard, George Bernard-Shaw and Camus (El burlador de Sevilla y el convidado de piedra, Dom Juan, The Libertine, Don Giovanni, Either/Or, Man and Superman, The Absurd Man: Don Juanism respectively).
Although, in fairness not from my first year, encountering the parallel text of the original play The Trickster of Seville, set me on a path that has led me from my degree in English and Philosophy to an academic post in Spanish at UCL.
The persistent hold of the story on the literary imagination and its confrontation of Western Christianity’s construction of sexuality fascinated me and I fell in love with the austere, unsentimental original’s exploration of sex and power as well as the haunting poetry that came into focus as I alternated between Spanish and English on its facing pages. I have been moving between the two ever since.
Undercommons, The: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Stefano Harney & Fred Moten
Dr Hans Demeyer
I have only recently read Undercommons, The: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) by Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, but I wish I’d read it in my first year of university. It’s a complex text – up to two hours for 15 pages! – but it’s worth laboring on their ideas.
One of their concepts is study, which they understand differently from the sort of study the university requires of you. Instead of learning for a grade, Harney & Moten are “committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.”
It’s important to not restrict learning to the exclusive spaces of the classroom, the library or the university, but to recognize the common intellectual practice all around you. Study is collective and collaborative, not individual. It is a constant conversation in which you both teach others and learn from them, in which you for instance share your knowledge in the classroom and then circulate what you’ve studied outside its walls. Study does not end with graduation but continues without end: there’s always a chance for another dance.