Beowulf to Virginia Woolf

Recently, I was corresponding with a friend about doing some guest lectures, and I was asked about what topics I could cover. I said, jokingly, “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf.” I wasn’t claiming expertise over a thousand years of literature, merely a kind of Jack-of-all-trades competence. It stems initially, I think, from teaching A level English Literature forty and more years ago, where you just had to teach what was on the syllabus: Chaucer, Milton, Jane Austen, say, or Shakespeare, Dryden and Ted Hughes. Later, when I worked in higher education, teaching undergraduate and post-graduate Eng Lit, I specialised in modernist and contemporary literature, simply because I replaced someone with that specialism. But I also convened big survey courses, and introductory courses, so the breadth of literature I covered was maintained. Hence my jokey response to my friend’s request. But that phrase was actually borrowed from another source, an academic whom I encountered in that brutalist lecture theatre fifty years ago.

Thinking about my experience back then, it struck me that we didn’t really know who our lecturers were. The system at Leeds, as mentioned previously,  was to have free-standing lecture series, with tutorials in which any of the material from any of the courses might be examined, at the whim of the tutor. So, unless your tutor was one of the lecturers on a course you followed, you wouldn’t encounter him/her. When I was putting together module handbooks as a lecturer, the first thing which would go in would be my details (email, office hours etc) so all the students knew who and where I was. Back then, we usually got a single sheet with the set texts, and a bare list of lectures, usually with no name attached.  Which means that, looking back, I really struggled to identify who did what. So I consulted Dr Google, with some interesting results.

I still have some of my lecture notes from back then (I know…) and I found I’d written “MacDonald” on my first year Renaissance drama notes. This turns out to be an interesting character, Alasdair MacDonald, whose post-Leeds career was mainly in universities in the Netherlands, and who has a long list of publications, including one published quite recently. He even qualified for a Festschrift in his honour, “Airy Nothings”, published in 2013, the scope of which gives some indication of his broad interests.


The introduction to that volume gives a potted history of his career, and contains that Beowulf / Virginia Woolf quip as an expression of the varied nature of his academic experience.

At Leeds, the first year drama course focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama excluding Shakespeare. So we read Marlowe, Kyd, Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Tourneur. I remember using the Penguin English Library versions for some texts, because you got three or four plays for the price of one.


That led me to write about plays that weren’t on the syllabus, which may have got me some bonus points in the eyes of my tutor. How we were assessed is a theme for a future post.

Next time, I’ll look at our poetry course, given by another interesting figure. 

CC BY-SA 4.0 Beowulf to Virginia Woolf by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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