Getting to know the people of Suffolk who share a passion for books
Books are an important part of so many people’s lives. But what or who inspired their love of books? And which books have influenced their lives, their careers or perhaps have shaped the person themselves. In the first in the series BookEast met with Gill Lowe, Course Leader of English BA (Hons) at the University of Suffolk.
Tell me about yourself
I lead the English Degree at the University of Suffolk and I’ve worked here since 1991. We started to develop the English Degree in the 90’s and it grew organically and became more sophisticated in its aims. The Degree began as a joint offer with other subjects but now it is a single Honours Degree, though it has literature, linguistic and writing strands. My specialisms are modernism and Bloomsbury. I write a lot about Virginia Woolf, I’m interested in narrative and also teach a short story course on the degree.
And who is the person outside the University?
Well, the University job takes quite a lot of my time. So you go home and you’re marking and prepping and all of that, but I do read for pleasure. My mother always used to say that she wished to see me without a pencil in my hand when I was reading a book. I do read books without the pencil in my hand, so, for example, last night at my house I hosted my book group and we were talking about a book called The Outrun.
So, tell me more about your book club.
I like the book club. We were reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot and I really enjoyed that. I enjoy the book club because I don’t take a lead on that. You know, the others in the group have loads of ideas and I don’t have to be in control of the class. It is really nice to be part of a book club where you don’t have to be in the leadership role.
What else do you enjoy in your spare time?
I really enjoy films (thrillers, dramas, independent cinema, foreign language films – but am not especially interested in rom-coms or soft-centred movies) and theatre. I go to the theatre in London quite a lot.
Which was your last play in London?
Actually, I haven’t been since this summer when we took some students to see a Shakespeare play at The Globe theatre. The last thing I went to see in London would have been The Taming of the Shrew. I hope to go again soon. The winters tend to be better, as the productions are more interesting. We’re planning to do more theatre trips with students. What else do I like? Cooking. I like socializing, I like having people around for a meal, for a drink. And we do go to London quite a lot for very different reasons. I like art, I like to go to the galleries at the weekend and often go up for music on Saturdays.
Did you do anything before becoming a teacher?
Not really. I had lots of jobs when I was a student though. In the summer holidays, I taught Italian children English and I worked in London at the summers sales at Harrods’ and Harvey Nichols’.
Why did you choose to teach English as a subjct for teaching?
I think it was my passion really when I was at school. That was the subject that I really loved. I wasn’t absolutely sure that I wanted to go into teaching to start off with. I did my degree and in the last year of my degree I did not have a lot of time to apply for jobs so I applied for teacher training. I started off teaching in a very academic high school. I moved to a college where I was teaching adults. And then I moved to Suffolk College to teach A level and I led an Access course for adults returning to education. I then started to teach on the Degree Programme. I completed more Post-Graduate qualifications and became a Higher Education lecturer.
Do you ever think about other career options?
I think that once you are into a career it’s difficult not to continue with that and you get better at doing it so that becomes an encouragement to continue on that path. I think more people have more various ‘portfolio’ careers now. They may do several different things in their working life.
Were you thinking about other jobs before teaching?
I always thought that I would like to be the person who chooses the covers for Penguin Books. *starts laughing*
It would be a lovely job to choose what you’d like to have on the front cover of a book so I supposed that job would have been in publishing. But in those days those jobs tended to go to somebody’s niece or somebody’s nephew or someone who knew the person who was in charge. So I did not really pursue that idea.
How would you say that you inspire your students?
Well, I hope that my general interest in the subject will inspire them. I really enjoy the subject that I’m teaching. Usually, the feedback that I get is that people see that there is a passion there. That’s the way I try to do it. I don’t think that you can teach a subject well unless you care about it.
Why do you think it is important to have an English course in the University?
It is such an important course because it teaches all sort of skills, not only reading skills. We are talking about writing skills, getting people to be critical thinkers, getting them to consider lots of possibilities, asking them to consider what is true about something, what can be seen as not true. It is philosophy as well as English, it has to do with thinking critically and I think that is an important thing. It is a good generic subject and that is useful for lots of careers after the degree. It can lead to lots of possibilities and it is a really exciting subject to be doing. You can study English with a little bit of film or you can study linguistics, you can look at the ways in which the English language changed over the centuries.
What options are available to students do after finishing this course?
A lot of people go on to do further education, postgraduate teaching courses, masters, Ph.D. Those students might wish to get into academic teaching. We’ve got previous students doing business and marketing, arts administration. People have gone on to run organisations to do with the arts, charities, fundraising, blogs, publishing online, journalism, media, editing, publishing. It’s quite competitive for students. Some of our students applied for speech and language development, those people have been interested in linguistics.
What do you think this University offers to the English students?
I think as a team we have a variety of teachers, with different specialisms. We are a really tight small team, and all of us are very committed to the area that we are teaching. We try really hard to get extra opportunities to the students. There are internships to help employability; opportunities like you are taking up now by doing this interview or reviewing arts events. We let people create their own anthologies of short stories and poems. So we are not always thinking about the Degree. We are always thinking of what other opportunities can we give our students. We know that doing other, often voluntary, activities pays off when it comes to interviews for jobs.
What is your passion?
First of all, my family and then literature.
How do you pass on the love for books?
It’d be pretty silly to do an English degree if you didn’t already have an interest in books, but you are trying to show people what’s special about an individual book. I think students, even if they start off not liking a book, by the time you have taught the book, whichever way you teach a book, students come to appreciate its strengths, even if they don’t like it in the end. A book or poem or play has taken the author hours of work and we are trying to help students understand the complexity of a text and how we might interpret it using critical ideas and theories.
How do you personally choose a book?
In terms of my own reading, sometimes is something from the book group where people have just voted on a book. I may not particularly want to read the chosen book but if it has been chosen we will read it and I often admire the books I haven’t myself chosen to read. I often read reviews of books, and will try prize-winning books. Sometimes things my friends have recommended, sometimes I will try best-sellers. Sometimes I take suggestions from a book from people that I really like. I go to a lot of festivals so I hear authors read their books and that gets me excited about reading those books.
Has your choice of books changed over the years?
Probably. But I enjoy a wide range of books of things that I enjoy. There are still things that I read when I was young that I still love.
What is your favourite book?
Actually I haven’t got a favourite book. I thought that I would choose a book that is really important to me, rather than a book that is a favourite.
When I think about favourite books, I think about things that I read as a child. Things that I got a real deep emotional attachment such as The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.
I also remember fondly the interactive books, such as Peepo by Allan and Janet Ahlberg and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I do re-read books but prefer to read new books.
Of those I teach on the degree I admire the following books:
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
The one that I chose it is not a literary book, it is Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
I remembered the book being in colour but when I looked at it again it is not in colour. It’s a book about art and culture. It had a terrific effect on the way that I looked at art. I’m interested in art but didn’t do any qualifications in art and I think it really helped me.
What is of most interest in this art book?
Most interesting is that it is about versions of the truth. It analyses how we might see a picture and depending on who we are, our education, our race, our nationality, our gender, we would read a picture in different ways.
I remember Gustave Flaubert saying ‘There is no truth; only ways of seeing’. You know, there is no true way of reading something, and you can say that for literature as well as for art. When the author is talking about seeing, he is not talking about looking. He is talking about really looking into something and interpreting it your own way.
Looking inside the book
It has a chapter on women, particularly nudes and the way that women look at nudes being different than the way men look at female nudes. It got a chapter on the way that advertising uses ways of presenting the body. And it’s an old book published in 1972, but the things he is saying are really interesting.
Is there a picture you like the most?
Berger uses this picture of Van Gogh named Wheatfield with crows. You have to look at it for a moment. You look at it and you think it’s wonderful, it’s about the harvest, it’s fantastic. And then you turn the page: “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.”
The contextual note beneath the painting changes the whole way you were looking at it. I think this is such a fascinating book because it makes you look at paintings in a totally different way. The black crows become symbols of death after you know the context. As soon as we are told the detail about Van Gogh’s death it changes our perception. It had a huge effect on me. I think I read it first when I was at university and I remembered thinking “I might do History of Art and not Literature. But I think the things he is saying are about the impossibility of truth. I’ve always been interested in that idea that there are lots of different versions of truth and not only a single one.
There is a section in this book that is just paintings, I think it’s chapter six, without any text. Some of them are Victorians, some of them go back to year 1500. Doesn’t matter, who you are, you are going to get some kind of interpretation from it, your own way.
Would you recommend it to students?
Yes, this book was recommended to me by a friend a long time ago, and I would recommend to anybody, I think it’s a really interesting book.
What advice would you give a person searching for a good book but not knowing what to search for?
That’s an interesting question. There are lots of websites that talk about best books, best-sellers and that is a start. I don’t like Amazon recommending books. For me, it’s when a friend recommends something that I get really interested in it. That’s probably the best way of finding a great book, but there are quite a lot of sites to help people.
I heard you went last year to BooksEast festival. What did you think about it?
I did, yes. I really enjoyed it. There are lots of people who are interested in books and reading attend. Students would enjoy it too. I hope that next year it will be before the students leave. I will definitely be going.
Interview by Diana-Alina-Yolanda Diaconescu, undergraduate at University of Suffolk