Oration by Dr Owen Robinson, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies
It is my pleasure to present an oration for a great teacher, who I have also known as a great student, Elizabeth Bailey. It is one of the most genuinely enjoyable highlights of my job to see a student progress from being a promising first-year undergraduate, developing their skills and abilities as their studies proceed, and gaining an excellent degree. In some cases, such excellent students go on to postgraduate study, completing a Masters and eventually a PhD. In the seven or eight years that someone like me is then working with them, one can find that ultimately one learns at least as much from them as they do from you. For me, literature is a continuous, neverending process of dialogue, between authors, texts, characters, narrators, contexts of various kinds and, crucially, readers and the world. The academic study of literature is an important and dynamic element of that dialogue, and it is all the richer when one's fellow readers are sensitive, informed, and ever enthusiastic. I consider myself fortunate to partake in this dialogue with my colleagues here at Essex and in the wider academic world, and, most meaningfully of all, with those students who read and write and speak so powerfully about literature that my views and approaches are challenged, enlivened, and sometimes changed. It really is an amazing buzz, professionally and personally, when this happens.
Liz Bailey was one of the brightest of those brightest of students. A long time ago, it now seems, Liz took my first year introductory US literature module, and took classes with me through the rest of her studies. As an undergraduate, she was a superbly committed and enthusiastic student, combining fine scholarly ability with diligence and unfailingly hard work to earn a first-class BA. As an MA and then PhD student, she developed this tremendous skill and aptitude even further, producing an outstanding PhD thesis on the work of Toni Morrison that is at least the equal of anything I have read on that complex writer. Throughout her studies, at every stage, she was always a lively, friendly, funny, and at times splendidly irreverent member of the University community.
It was during her PhD years that Liz's exceptional promise as a teacher also became clear. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, she did quite phenomenal work. Teaching on some of the same modules that she had taken with me several years earlier, as well as others, Liz was an extraordinarily committed and effective university teacher. Hugely and rightly popular with her students, much valued by her postgraduate peers, and very highly thought of by the Department, she brought to teaching all those qualities of superb reading, diligent research, and clear, eloquent and, yes, irreverent communication that I had seen in her as a student. Several cohorts of our students were fortunate to gain incalculably from her teaching. From individual testimony and from my own knowledge of her work, Liz did quite genuinely change the lives of some students, as only a great teacher can, and all her students should consider themselves fortunate to have been taught by her.
And now, in the wider world that I'm told exists outside academia, Liz is continuing to change the lives of young people, to help them realise their potential, to express themselves, to have belief in their abilities and their scope for making the most of their lives and for making real, tangible differences to the world around them and at large. Since completing her doctoral studies, Liz has gone on to work at Clacton County High School, and is already proving to be one of the outstanding secondary school teachers of her generation. And this is no mere idle claim by her former PhD supervisor: earlier this year, Liz won the award for Outstanding New Teacher of the Year for the eastern region, then going on to win the national finals of the award—a rich testament to her already phenomenal achievements in her career, as recognised by her colleagues and her students. Recently, Liz very kindly invited me to give a guest lecture on The Great Gatsby to her A-level students, and it was clear to me just from that brief couple of hours just how good a school teacher she really is. All those qualities I had seen when she taught here at the University were very much in evidence, now complemented by the particular skills needed to bring out the best in teenagers. The rapport she had with her students was a joy to see, and those students were clearly aware of what a good teacher they have.
These are challenging times for everyone involved in education. As the UK education system undergoes profound changes at every level, it is of the utmost importance that the interests of the most important people in the equation—students—continue to be looked out for, that their interests are put above the pressures of agendas and trends and, not least, massive workload. Liz Bailey is looking out for the young people she teaches. I have seen numerous deserving people from a great range of walks of life receiving the Alumnus of the Year award. Some of them are famous, some of them have achieved success of one kind or another on a global stage. Today, we celebrate somebody working in an ordinary state school in one of the more economically challenged towns in this region. As a very hard-working member of one of the most important but undervalued professions in society, Liz is making incalculable contributions to the lives of those students lucky enough to be taught by her, and as such is very genuinely contributing to the very fabric of the local community in Clacton, in Essex, and indeed the wider nation and world. Now perhaps more than ever, it is vital to recognise the achievements of those teachers who work so tirelessly for our children's futures, and as such it is wonderfully appropriate for this educational establishment to honour a former student who believes so strongly in the positive power of education and puts this into practice every day. Though she may be less famous than some other recipients of this award, she is just as much of a star as each of them. As both an educator and a parent, it brings me great hope and solace that Liz is out there doing her very considerable best for the young people of Essex. She is an example to us all, and I am privileged to have worked with her.
It is my pleasure to present to you the 2013 Alumnus of the Year, Dr Elizabeth Bailey.