Your OSP seminars give you the chance to explore your chosen subject in depth with an expert member of faculty and a small group of committed students. On this page you will find detailed syllabuses and reading lists so that, once your seminar allocation has been confirmed, you will be able to start some preparatory reading.
Each student takes two seminars. Each seminar course consists of five classes and two tutorials. Classes are meetings of 1.5 hours with the seminar leader and a small but varying number of participants. For each class students read all or parts of assigned texts and then discuss them. No written work is required for the classes. Tutorials are individual meetings of one hour between the seminar leader and each of the seminar participants. In preparation for each tutorial the student reads assigned texts and writes an essay of 2,000 words (3,000 words in the case of graduate students) in response to a question set by the seminar leader.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oxford’s creator of other worlds
Dr Emma Plaskitt
In this course we will examine Tolkien’s life, his literary influences and source materials, the major works of fantasy, and selected critical responses, both positive and negative. For example, though Middle-earth was his attempt to create an authentic mythology for England, it has been criticized for its seeming lack of ethnic and gender diversity. Tolkien was shaped by his education, his traumatic experiences in the First World War, and a life spent in what was then the predominantly white, upper-class, male environment of Oxford. Sessions will therefore include discussion of the biographical, historical, and cultural contexts of his writings and their effect on the racial, gendered, regional, and socio-economic elements in his characterization and created world. Students will also have the opportunity to explore Tolkien’s invented languages and to visit the many places in Oxford associated with him, such as his colleges, Pembroke and Merton, and the Eagle and Child, where he and fellow Inklings members read their work to one another.
Intellect and imagination: the rational religion and theological stories of C.S. Lewis
Dr Meriel Patrick
C.S. Lewis remains one of the most popular religious thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. His work has received much praise — and much criticism. The purpose of this seminar is a close examination of a number of key strands of his theological works, both imaginative and apologetic. Themes that will be explored include: Lewis’s trilemma, the argument from desire, Christianity and myth, theodicy (the problem of suffering), and heaven and hell. There will also be the opportunity to look at some responses to Lewis’s writings, and to consider the works in the context of other philosophers and theologians writing on similar themes.
Faith and reason in the British Enlightenment
Dr Meriel Patrick
The Enlightenment saw the rise and triumph of reason as the supreme power in many spheres. Focusing on the works of the British empiricists, this course examines the application of reason to matters of faith during this period, and in particular to the question of whether God’s existence can be proved. The relationship between faith and reason, Locke’s cosmological argument, Berkeley’s idealism, and Hume’s criticisms of the argument for design will all be considered. While our main interest will be in the primary texts themselves, there will also be the opportunity to look at a selection of contemporary and modern responses.
Jane Austen in context
Dr Emma Plaskitt
This course will examine the enduringly popular novels of Jane Austen, looking at her novelistic technique and development, and her place among women writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to studying the major novels, we will look at Austen’s juvenilia and place each text in its literary and historical context. This will involve, for example, an examination of the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility when we discuss Sense and sensibility and the contemporary vogue for gothic novels when we study Austen’s burlesque of the gothic genre, Northanger Abbey. Other themes that will be discussed include Austen’s treatment of class, economics, education, female friendship, courtship, and politics.
Science and the Christian tradition
Dr Megan Loumagne
Once lauded as the queen of the sciences, theology is now often painted in popular culture as an enemy of the natural sciences. This course will draw on historical and theological disciplines to investigate key issues in science and religion scholarship. Students will first engage with four key historical figures in science and religion (Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Scopes), and then proceed with contemporary questions in biblical studies, biology, and physics. Oxford has long been at the centre of such thought, and today is one of the world’s leading centres for research in science and religion.
Psychology and literature: from Margery Kemp to Sylvia Plath
Dr Richard Lawes
It has often been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and the relationship between literature and mental health has been of intense interest to both literary scholars and psychologists. This seminar will explore mental illness and instability in several major authors, focusing on Margery Kempe, a medieval housewife and mystic who became the first autobiographer in English; John Bunyan, the seventeenth-century author of Pilgrim’s Progress; John Clare, a nineteenth century nature poet who became incarcerated in an asylum; and two key twentieth-century female authors, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Both iconic figures in the history of women’s writing, Woolf and Plath each struggled with extremes of mood and ultimately committed suicide. We will read their writings in the light of psychological theory and of cultural and feminist contexts. Complex questions will emerge as we study these authors; what is the true nature of ‘mental illness’? To what extent is it valid or helpful to apply modern psychology to writers from a very different age? How is emotional disorder expressed within the texts themselves? To what extent can other modern theories, especially feminism, help us in encountering these key authors, their lives and their legacies? Led by a literary scholar who is also a psychologist and psychiatrist, this seminar will bring unusual insights to the study of these distinctive texts.
C.S. Lewis and the Classics
Dr Jonathan Kirkpatrick
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both came up to Oxford to read classics—that is, the literature, history, and thought of ancient Greece and Rome. Tolkien quit half way through, with second-class grades, while Lewis completed the course and won a prestigious ‘double first’, before embarking on a career as a student of English literature. So Lewis was trained as a classicist, and that training pervades his work, from the adapted myth of Psyche in Till we have faces, and the erudite Greek and Latin quips and quotations which ornament The pilgrim’s regress as well as his voluminous correspondence, to the exuberant irruption of the wine god Bacchus into Narnia, depicted in Prince Caspian. The myths of Rome and Greece played a role in Lewis’s spiritual transformation too, in both his boyhood adoption of atheism and his return to Christianity. This seminar will examine the role of the classics in Lewis’s life and work, focusing on his own published writings but also considering the context of British society at the time, when a classical training was considered central to a good education.
Prohibition and transgression: the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic novel
Dr Alince Stainer
The eighteenth-century gothic movement was a reaction to the dominance of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and rationalism and was seen by some as the natural literary result of the violence and terror of the French revolution. Its conventions included aristocratic villains and persecuted maidens, the supernatural, the victory of nature over man’s creations and of chaos over order, and the theme of imprisonment with consciousness forced back upon itself. As a transgressive sub-genre of the novel, it was anti-Catholic, anti-nostalgic, and anti-aristocratic. It evolved in the Victorian age to reflect nineteenth-century concerns about race, gender, imperialism, and cultural degeneration. This course will trace its development from the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The castle of Otranto (1764), to Bram Stoker’s presentation of fin-de-siècle anxiety in Dracula (1897). Other novels to be discussed include Ann Radcliffe’s highly influential novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), Jane Austen’s witty and complex parody of the genre, Northanger Abbey (1818), and Charlotte Brontë’s domestic re-imagining of the gothic romance in Jane Eyre (1847). Students will also have the opportunity to read gothic fiction by Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde and will be able to take advantage of world class art galleries in Oxford and London to see for themselves how gothic themes caught the imagination of contemporary artists and architects and how they translated them into paintings and drawings, many of which acted as inspiration for the writers themselves.
Dr Kieron Winn
The aim of this course is to sharpen the students’ awareness of writing as a craft through close readings of exemplary texts across a variety of genres. Principles studied in seminars will then be applied practically in the students’ own writing for the tutorials. In the field of prose we shall read short stories and novel openings with an eye to adaptable techniques. In poetry we shall look at a ballad, at how meaning is partly created by sound and rhythm, and at how random sound elements, such as rhyme, generate sense in a way that allows the writer to say things that are both surprising and true.