Thursday, December 06, 2007

A literary conundrum - making 5 out of 27

How do you decide between twenty seven interview candidates who, on paper, all appear to have the same level of academic attainment and potential, when you only have five vacancies to fill? That was the dilemma facing the tutors for English at the College that I visited.

The College concerned was making every effort to make sure that candidates were appropriately briefed and prepared. Upon arriving at the porters' lodge I was handed a pack telling me about the interview times, accommodation, meals, entertainments planned for the period, a list of all of the 29 student runners names and their subject disciplines, a map (showing all of the rooms in the colleges being used for interviews, as well as such key locations as the TV room, library, and laundry) and a set of guidelines, including the reminder that candidates under the age of 18 shouldn't purchase alcohol (illegality not being viewed as a positive characteristic), and those 18 and over also encouraged to refrain on the basis that it could affect interview performance.

This level of care and attention to detail followed through into the interviews. As well as a briefing that I had been sent in advance, I had also been sent a breakdown of the interview programme. The College interviewed all twenty 27 twice - the first interview was a general discussion to assess the candidates on their love of literature, commitment to the subject discipline, ability to think clearly about texts, and discuss new concepts and ideas. All of the candidates had been asked to provide the interviewers with a list of books and authors they wished to discuss. The second interview required the candidate to analyse and discuss a piece of poetry that they would receive an hour in advance - each candidate was given an individual text to assess, that had been selected in response to their comments on their personal statement and in their reference.

I was sitting in to observe the second interviews. The candidates had received a very broad range of poems, ranging from a Shakespearean sonnet, through a Thomas Hardy poem (which took me back to my A-level English course), AE Houseman, Louis MacNeice, GM Hopkins, to Craig Raine. In all cases the candidates were initially asked to read the poems aloud, so that the interviewers could make sure they had comprehended the sense of the piece - the high point for me was the applicant who threw themselves dramatically into the part of an Irish Navvy, accent and all. The candidate's then had the opportunity to confer with the interviewers on any vocabulary they were unfamiliar with - one or two obviously were concerned at demonstrating a lack of knowledge, but the interviewers were adept at making sure the candidate had fully understood the piece, asking them to explain particular words or phrases. Any lack of understanding at this point was not a mark against them, and one candidate had made the most of the preparatory hour by looking up any words he was not sure of in a dictionary!

The interviewers then took it in turns to go line by line through the piece with the candidate, focusing on the meaning, the form and grammatical structure. Those I observed were all confident in their ability to analyse the content and express their views, and were prepared to engage in debate with the interviewers over the sense and meaning of the texts. As someone who has studied English, it was a particularly stimulating and invigorating three hours - in all of the interviews I found myself looking at the poems in a new light from my initial reading, and it was clear that the candidates all felt at the end of the process that they had gained a new perspective on the work under discussion.

At the end of the interview the candidates all had a chance to ask any questions that they themselves had - two main themes emerged; the first focusing on the opportunity to study Course II (Old and Middle English language and literature) in years two and three of the degree, the second on how the interviewers had selected the poems that were under discussion.

The seven interviews I observed were the last of the 27 - as I left the College the four tutors were convening to discuss their assessments. I left them to what seemed to be an unenviable task, particularly if the previous 20 candidates had demonstrated the same engagement and interest in English that I had just observed. Even with the English test results, essays, personal statements, references and interview reports I suspect they were in for a long night before they had their final list of five.

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