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Celebrating our award-winning volunteers

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Congratulations to the winners of this year’s Durham University Volunteering and Outreach Awards, celebrated at the annual dinner at Trevelyan College in June. The event highlighted the significant contributions of over 300 staff and student volunteers to individuals, our Durham community, and partner organisations.

Event attendees included nominees, volunteers, community partners, and VIP guests, with Vice-Chancellor Professor Karen O’Brien opening the evening and presenting several awards.

Professor O’Brien praised the shortlisted nominees and the students who achieved various levels of volunteer status, as well as 15 staff members who earned the staff volunteering award.

Dialogue spoke to Professor Simon James from our Department of English Studies, who won the award for Best Educational Effort which recognises a volunteering effort that has increased education opportunities and academic enrichment.

For many years now Simon has used his passion for reading and English Literature to enrich the lives of inmates at a high security prison. He engages actively with offenders to discuss a wide range of literature, including novels and poetry.

Professor Simon James with Professor Simon Hackett
Professor Simon James with Professor Simon Hackett

Congratulations Simon! Tell us about your volunteering in a high security prison…

It all started in 2016 because of Durham Book Festival, a Durham County Council event produced by New Writing North with support from Durham University and Arts Council England. The festival’s Big Read in 2016 was Booker Prize winner Pat Barker’s First World War novel Regeneration. 3,000 free copies of the book were distributed throughout County Durham including the prisons in the county.

I’d written a foreword for a special Durham Big Read edition of the novel. The librarian of one of County Durham’s prisons picked this up and got in touch to see if I’d be interested in coming into the prison to teach English literature to their new reading group and, Covid, aside, I’ve been going back ever since.

How often do you go into the prison and what do you teach?

The book group, which consists of the 12 keenest readers at the prison, meets once a month. I join them every other meeting and the texts we’re reading are based on the syllabus taught in the English Department. Some of the inmates are really interested in science fiction so for one of our texts we picked H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, a science fiction novella about a Victorian scientist who creates a machine for propelling himself through time. We’ve also looked at Shakespeare, Homer and Dickens.

Each meeting lasts two hours and for those two hours, the men are not offenders but English students. My role is not to rehabilitate them - I don’t have any expertise in this -  but to help them use literature to see the world through a different pair of eyes.

Do you pick all the texts?

No, we decide them between us. We discuss book options within the group and have so far read a variety of literature including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling.

How does your work at the University help your volunteering at the prison and how different is the teaching?

I base my teaching at the prison on the syllabus taught at Durham. The texts, although negotiable, are largely drawn from texts we cover in undergraduate teaching at the University. The men in the group have a desire to read and learn more and in the time I am there I see them as my students. The range of questions asked based on the texts can differ from those I’m asked at Durham, as their expectations of a class are not the same as those of students here at Durham.

I’ve been told by the librarian that anticipation is always high, and the mood is buoyant in the library days after the group meets.

Do you do any other volunteering?

Yes, I also go into schools to give talks about English literature. I’ve recently attended Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington to talk to their students about studying English at university.

I am Vice Chair on the Board of Trustees for Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington. This is an organisation that puts young people at the heart of the creative process and promotes theatre for young audiences. We believe that going to the theatre should be part of everyone’s childhood.

Finally, what would you say to colleagues who don’t regularly volunteer?

Give it a go! Some academic colleagues might feel their workload is so full, that their timetable wouldn’t allow for volunteering. However, I find that this volunteering gives me energy for my subject, rather than drains it. It is so fulfilling and rewarding to give something back to the community.

Colleagues at Volunteering and Outreach Awards
Colleagues at Volunteering and Outreach Awards

More about volunteering

This year’s volunteering awards event was especially significant as it marked 34 years of volunteering at the University. A new exhibition showcasing the history of volunteering at Durham over the past 35 years, premiered at the event with a series of ten display panels. The exhibition will be displayed at various locations across campus throughout the year and is also available online as a virtual exhibition.

Investing in volunteers

This year, Durham University Volunteering and Outreach successfully re-accredited the Investing in Volunteers kitemark. This is a quality standard for volunteer management first awarded in 2012, highlighting the high standards of Durham’s volunteer programme. The University offers a diverse range of volunteering opportunities for its community. Colleagues are encouraged to take part in the DU Staff Volunteering scheme, allowing up to five days of volunteer work per year during work hours, including team and individual challenges, one-off sessions, or crediting their own volunteering activities.



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