Last month, I read a letter in The Psychologist:
“Professor Alec Rodger . . . at Birkbeck, underlined that in developing a career there were at least two opposing strategies . . . to match an individual’s inclinations and abilities with external circumstances and opportunities. For some, a headlong target-oriented approach was appropriate in developing one’s career; while for others . . . . both external fortune and internal inclination better prescribed a procrastinatory (though agile at the right moment) strategy.” (Mallory Wober, May 2014)
The author, a social psychology researcher at my school some 45 years ago, encouraged my nascent interest in psychology, albeit with a formidable reading list.
In 1969, New Hall (now Murray Edwards) gave me a great escape from school.
The expected Oxbridge route was an extra term at school after A Levels, preparing for scholarship exams, in a conventional subject (English Literature, for me). This was not what I wanted. I discovered New Hall and its extraordinary entrance process: one paper, three essays “for which you could not possibly prepare”. I applied to read Moral Sciences (Philosophy), hoping to read Experimental Psychology for Part 2. I wrote my essays with exhilaration. The interview day was one of wonder: appreciating the architecture, having a wide-ranging and challenging conversation with Miss Murray, and then meeting two women who seemed to me almost magical, in their different ways. One began, “I’m Susan Haack. I’m a logician. If P hook Q . . .”.. The other, Jenny Teichman, began, “Ah! You’re the one who wrote that essay . . . . Now argue against it”. I was filled with amazement that this place and these people were real, and that I might be able to make good my early escape from school and join them.
In Part 1, I learnt more than logic and philosophy from the Fellows. Susan Haack recommended The Female Eunuch to me in a supervision. Jenny Teichman taught me how to recognise and address assertively subtle as well as blatant misogyny.
My tutor, Helen Clover, told me that the Fellows wanted undergraduates who would pass their exams and be “Interesting to have around for three years”. The College was full of people who were interesting in all sorts of ways. I felt part of something alternative, special and enormously encouraging. And I did get to read Psychology for Part 2.
My career has been neither a linear progression, nor “a headlong, target-oriented approach”. There have been periods of great determination. There have been times when I rejected warnings that my proposed directions – or lack of them – would cause me problems.
After graduating, I worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant. For the next decade I was passionately involved in developing community, person-centred services for people with learning disabilities, whilst doing postgraduate studies. After a career break with my small children (“You’ll never get back on the career ladder”), I began to develop a career in applied work psychology. For the past twenty years I have practised independently, doing organisational and management development, supervision and postgraduate teaching.
It has been rich, rewarding, sometimes tough, but never dull. Making sense retrospectively, I have realised that my enduring passion has been the nature of work and workplaces, and seeking to enable people and organisations to realise their potential, especially where their work is about meeting the needs of vulnerable people.
I am now delighted to be able to thank the College for the liberations it gave me, by contributing to the Murray Edwards Gateway programmes.
Sheila Damon (nee Kinghorn, NH 1969-72)