Anthony, the Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts
I’d never before studied any literature older than Shakespeare and I loved discovering early English language and literature…
I came up to Exeter in 1994 to read for a BA in English and ended staying for a long time, graduating with a DPhil in Medieval Literature in 2002. I applied to Exeter almost accidentally – I went to an open day at a nearby college which felt stuffy and formal and grand, and felt very uncomfortable there. I wandered into Exeter at the end of the open day and liked its smallness, its unassuming character, and the mix of ancient and modern.
I did my A-levels at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth-Form College and, like many state school students, didn’t receive much support about my university choices. In fact, one teacher told me not to waste one of my choices on Oxford as students from my background so rarely got in. However, I discovered that one of the English teachers (Peter Dutton, English 1953) had been to Exeter, and he encouraged and supported my application. Academically, my time at Exeter was a revelation. I’d never before studied any literature older than Shakespeare and I loved discovering early English language and literature, as well as critical theory, manuscript studies, and world literatures. I had some brilliant tutors, and was very lucky to be in a year group with people who enjoyed their studies and were both supportive friends and drinking partners.
I graduated with a First in 1997 and wasn’t sure what to do. At that time, the University Careers Service directed people towards City careers, but I still had plenty of curiosity about medieval literature. So I did an MA in Medieval Studies at York, before returning to Exeter for my doctorate. Exeter remained a very supportive place to be a student – including in practical ways like providing accommodation for graduate students and travel grants to visit archives. My doctorate was on the representation of Jews in medieval England. I loved the processes of research that I learnt, as well as the teaching opportunities across the University.
One of the first medieval texts I studied at Oxford, The Book of Margery Kempe, is actually the focus of my current research. It’s often called the first English language autobiography, and I published a translation and edition of it in the Oxford World’s Classics series in 2015. It tells Kempe’s story: she had fourteen children, travelled to Jerusalem and Rome, and dedicated her life to mystical conversation with God. I’m now working on a biography of Kempe and her (for me) endlessly fascinating Book.
After my doctorate I taught in Tel Aviv and lectured at St Anne’s College, and in 2002 got a job as Lecturer in Medieval Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. I’ve been there ever since and am now Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts – one of the most diverse, exciting, and accomplished places in the UK for teaching and research in the Arts. The School is a beacon for everything from Old Norse to contemporary Japanese, from manuscript studies to experimental film-making. I’m really proud to be at Birkbeck, where we combine outstanding research with a strong and sustained dedication to widening participation and access.