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The Disadvantages of ‘Short Work’


The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a little oasis for researchers and postgraduate students: though it’s affiliated with the University of Birmingham, it’s a long way from the main campus – and that makes it a quiet place to sit, read and research. Without a direct train from Cheltenham, it can be difficult to get to – but Stratford is well worth a day-trip anyway, so make a visit of it!

I’m an Honorary Research Fellow with the University of Birmingham, so spend what time I can at the Institute, which is home to a really excellent collection of early modern texts. I’ve recently been going through the volumes of the Parker Society – an editorial association of the 1840s which collected the works of the early English Reformation Protestant writers. I won’t write here about the intricacies of Edwardian liturgy – but I did find something of more general interest!

Tucked between the yellowed pages of one of the volumes was a letter dated 1971. I’ve obscured the names involved to protect the identities of the individual who once used this letter as a bookmark – and the student to which it refers. Here was a document, you see, evidencing that researchers have long also been teachers: the letter’s recipient is being asked to talk to a student about her poor exam results!

Headed “First Year Examinations”, the brief note states: “The examination scripts of XXX showed ‘short work’. Would you kindly advise her of the disadvantages of this.” Ominous stuff.

It was a fun moment, uncovering this primary source from our recent Higher Education past. Briefly distracting me from the theological wrangling of the English Reformation, it reminded me, too, that – despite the best efforts of staff and students to make sure exams are as plain-sailing as possible – it’s always worth learning from the examples of our forebears!

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