About the project

Madeleine Davies

In 2016, I researched diversified assessment formats for a Teaching and Learning project I was co-leading; this resulted in my adoption of a Blackboard Learning Journal assessment on my Part 3 modules, ‘Margaret Atwood’ and ‘Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury’ in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading.

Reading the journal entries, I was immediately impressed by the level of students’ engagement in the texts and by the ideas that I was seeing week after week. On my ‘Margaret Atwood’ module, I felt that this quality of work was too good to lose to a digital black hole so I sought advice about publishing the material in some form. Working with design and literature students, our first book, Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals, was published in June 2018 after only 8 weeks for editing and design. It was a huge success; I sent a copy to Margaret Atwood and was delighted to receive a warm note in response and a request for more copies. The book won an internal teaching & learning collaborative award, was the basis of a Times Higher Education Award shortlisting, and won a ‘Special Commendation’ from ‘The Margaret Atwood Society’.

In 2019, I decided to create a second ‘Learning Journal’ book using the excellent work on my ‘Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury’ module. Much had been learned from the first project; this time, we left ourselves more time and a group of editors spread the work between them. A gifted designer, Katy Smith, managed design and typography and an art competition produced artwork from the Department of Fine Art (see The Editing Process).

A Room of Our Own is so titled because we regard this as a collaborative enterprise in every respect. The book is ‘our’ collective project and we are extremely proud of the result and proud of everyone’s commitment to their work. The writing within the pages is compassionate, imaginative, and inventive. This is a unique collection of voices, all responding to Woolf’s writing in direct, individual and life-affirming prose.

About the ‘Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury’ module

The ‘Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury’ module has been running very successfully in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading for many years. The popular module is initiated, designed and led by Dr Madeleine Davies.

Virginia Woolf was a leading modernist writer and the mother of modern literary feminism. The module explores her work and her milieu and it opens out ideas around women’s writing, literary modernism, inter-war culture and society, and the Bloomsbury circle. Selected texts change a little from year to year but the module generally involves the study of:

  • The Voyage Out
  • Selected Essays: ‘Character in Fiction’, ‘Modern Novels’, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, ‘Professions for Women’, ‘Memories of a Working Women’s Guild’ and ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’
  • Jacob’s Room
  • Mrs Dalloway
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Three Guineas

The teaching method involves weekly 3-hour seminars. In the Department of English Literature at The University of Reading, we favour small-group teaching and groups are mainly taught in colleagues’ rooms which are large enough to accommodate the students. Seminars and debate are discussion-led and this is perfect for Woolf whose ideas and positions can be controversial, complex and contradictory.

Towards the beginning of the module, the group is invited on a day-trip to London. Madeleine Davies usually organises and leads this herself but, in 2019, we were lucky enough to have a professional tour guide specialising in Woolf. Nan Mousley traced with the group Mrs Dalloway’s walk and then traced the Street Haunter’s path to the Embankment. We moved through Whitehall, Dean’s Yard, St James’s Park, Old Bond Street, and then back through the tangled streets on the way to the Embankment (where a pencil is bought). The visit to London provides an opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom and to understand the psycho-geography of Woolf’s writing. Seeing the sites of the novels, imagining London in the 1920s and 1930s, gives students imaginative access to Woolf’s world, deepens knowledge, and encourages three-dimensional understanding.

Assessment for the module involves the Blackboard Learning Journal (which replaced an exam in 2017) and a formal assessed essay where students can demonstrate their critical skills. The assessments are weighted equally.

The Learning Journal requires students to upload 500 words every week to their online journal.  ‘Real time’ submission is important because this provides a record of the development of knowledge and thought. Students can submit pieces in any form they choose and variety is encouraged; the format can accommodate mini-essays, poems, recipes, letters, pieces of art (with commentaries), and reflection on associated contemporary ideas. Critical connection is encouraged in some pieces but students are rewarded for ‘reflection’, ‘engagement’ and ‘development’, and this can be registered in whatever form they choose. Feedback is provided on the early pieces in the first half of the term because, writing in an unfamiliar format, students often need the reassurance that their entries are appropriate. The removal of conventional hand-rails can prove discombobulating at first but students gain confidence quickly (aided by the formative feedback) and soon begin to take risks, flex creative muscles, and engage with the texts at a deeper and more personal level than critical essays usually allow.

One huge benefit of the Learning Journal format is its inclusivity. The journal tends to reward those students whose skills may not lie in formal writing but whose ideas and level of engagement are first class. By providing an opportunity to showcase their skills, the journal provides a level playing field for students with diverse skills.

Teaching this module is very rewarding indeed. As students increase their knowledge, their sensitivity to Woolf’s writing and their ideas develop; conversation flows and readings, interpretations, and challenges begin to open up new ways of reading Woolf. By the time we reach Week 7, the quality of the thinking is truly excellent. A Room of Our Own captures our students’ engagement with the module and with the texts which have as much relevance today as they did 100 years ago.

‘Real Jobs’

The collaborative book project would not have been possible without the expertise of staff and students in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. Though the material for our books was produced by students in the Department of English Literature, we needed the skills of expert student designers with advanced IT abilities, supervised by experienced colleagues, to produce Second Sight and A Room of Our Own.

Our student designers have been drawn from the ‘Real Jobs’ scheme coordinated from the Department of Typography. ‘Real Jobs’ students apply to work on commissions from within the university and from clients external to the university, and they manage every aspect of the brief. Staff members supervise the ‘Real Jobs’ students and build their knowledge by working with them on the commissions. James Lloyd comments: ‘Our scheme aims to empower students, offering them more responsibility than they experience on a traditional taught project, but without letting them feel completely out of their depth. They are supervised by at least three members of staff (focused on design, project management and print production), but we make sure that the real stakeholders are their client, their end users, and themselves.’

The ‘Real Jobs’ scheme was perfect for the collaborative book project, as James notes:
‘Typography & Graphic Communication at Reading has specialised in publications design for over 50 years. Most of our staff have designed their share of books, and enjoy the practice. It’s a pleasure to be able to pass on many of the deeper skills that only rear their head on live briefs, and simply can’t be taught in a classroom environment. We get the chance to share knowledge with our students at moments of maximum receptivity, as the clock ticks and they start to piece together the logic underpinning what they have learned about design up to that point. We’re very focused on achieving solutions that work for readers, and we try to give students the knowledge and confidence to make designs based on that primary principle.

Our scheme aims to empower students, offering them more responsibility than they experience on a traditional taught project, but without letting them feel completely out of their depth. They are supervised by at least three members of staff (focused on design, project management and print production), but we make sure that the real stakeholders are their client, their end users, and themselves.

The feeling of being ‘published’ has special significance for an author, but this shine rubs off on designers too, especially in their early career. We make sure that students know that bringing a complete book to a job interview carries weight. Employers in the publishing industry recognise the importance of gaining ‘real life’ experience in design and publishing during university study.’

John Anderson, a graduate of the University and a veteran of ‘Real Jobs’, now Executive Creator Director of ‘Comprend – Digital Corporate Communications’, notes: ‘Knowing a candidate has gone through a real project makes them more employable (less time onboarding and getting match fit, more trust).’

Of her work on Second Sight, and its benefits in terms of her employment after graduation, June Lin adds: ‘Second Sight was a significant project in my portfolio because it showcased my attention to typographic details. This was important because my current employer appreciates typographic detailing and was looking for someone who shares the same values’ (January 2020).

For further information about ‘Real Jobs’ and the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, visit the Real Jobs site

To read the blogpost written about the A Room of Our Own project, click here.