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A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to the read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

Three Tips for Uni:

There are lots of blogs, articles, and Youtube videos which offer some useful tips for going to university, yet it always appears as though students haven’t watched/read them or in the excitement of coming to university they have forgotten what they were. So in the hope that new and existing students might read this, here are my 3 tips for studying at university, and they apply to all levels:

1) READ!!!
At various stages throughout your degree you will be told that you are reading for a degree, and that is the truth. Now reading may not be everybody’s cup of tea, however it is vital to attaining a degree. Lecturers will provide reading lists for your modules, and readings for seminars, however it is vital you go beyond these lists. In first year everything is new, and the likelihood of you being experienced in reading academic journals and textbooks is pretty slim, and therefore there is a good chance you’ll be reading things that don’t appear to make much sense. That is how I remember most of my first year at undergrad! However, perseverance is key: if you didn’t understand it the first time round, take a break and read it again! Still not making sense, then read it again. Variety in source selection and reading is also key, do not feel like you have to read everything off the reading lists, or that those are the only sources you should be engaging with: get creative, mix it up! To change a phrase from a certain, loveable but forgetful blue fish: ‘Just keep reading, just keep reading, just keep reading reading reading, what do we do, we read, read…’.

2) TALK!!
University is a new experience and it is very different from school! There are no teachers who will give you the answers, but rather lecturers who will help you harness the tools in order to pursue answers. Even returning students who are familiar with the university format of being vocal in seminars still feel uncomfortable the first few weeks back as they find their rhythm. Reading is key to acquire knowledge, but so is talking. Share your ideas and understandings with your friends, colleagues and lecturers. Answer the questions put to you by others. Ask questions when you are unsure or curious. Challenge views. Seminars run much smoother for everyone when discussion takes place, and discussion cannot happen without first reading and second talking. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving, even at MSc level when you’ve had 3 years of undergrad experience of talking in front of others and sharing ideas. It is not easy, and there is always fear of being wrong or sounding silly, but that is how we learn. I’m not saying you should go around talking to everyone and anyone about anything and everything, because I most certainly would not do that. But in seminars and lectures where knowledge is the goal, talking is key.

3) ENGAGE WITH FEEDBACK!
Finally, part of university life is assessments. Now if you are successful with reading and talking, then the assessment part of university should be less scary and more positive than if you otherwise have not read or asked questions/shared ideas. A large part of assessment is writing style, and there are various resources provided by the university at your disposal to help improve your writing, and to tailor your writing depending on the assessment. But a really crucial and essential tool is the feedback given to you by your lecturers. Whilst the feedback given to you on a piece of assessment is specific to that assessment in terms of content covered, it can also be applied to future assignments and therefore should be engaged with. We spend a large amount of time constructing feedback for students, in order to help improve their work and ultimately to help them succeed but very few students engage with it. If we have said you need to engage with more sources, the likelihood is that this needs to be done for all your assessments, similarly if there is a referencing issue or writing style concern. Engaging with your feedback is one of the quickest ways to improve your work, and if you do not understand the feedback, TALK to your lecturer about it.

Studying any level at university is very different to A-levels and college: it is ultimately independent learning where the lecturers will guide you and help you attain the skills required to complete your degree. It is an exciting and challenging time regardless of which stage you are at in your academic journey, and ultimately when you look back it should be something you are proud of. So to new students, welcome, to returning students, welcome back, and to you all: GOOD LUCK! 😊

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