Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Judging the James Tait Black Prizes - our students' perspective

English Literature PhD students, Olivia and Joanna, talk to us about what it's like to be student co-ordinators on Britain's oldest literary awards.

The James Tait Black Prizes were established in 1919 and are awarded annually.

The Book Prizes, for fiction and biography, are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to be judged by scholars and students; senior staff in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, assisted by a reading panel of postgraduate students. There is also a Drama Prize.

Following the announcement of this year’s Book Prizes' shortlists, we spoke to Olivia Ferguson and Joanna Wilson, student co-ordinators for the biography and fiction Prizes respectively, to find out why they got involved and what they’ve gained from the experience.



Working together to get something done

“The kind of people who do PhDs in English Literature are the kind of people who decide to take a break from reading with more reading”, says Olivia Ferguson, the student co-ordinator for biography. “That was my main reason to get outside my PhD reading list and read more widely.”

“In the three years I’ve been a reader for the Prize, I think I’ve read and reviewed 38 books; a few more last year, because I was invited to participate in the judges’ meeting for cutting down the shortlist for the biography prize.”

“The Prize has added many things to my experience, but I would say the best thing has been the opportunity to be part of a team of staff and students working together to get something done.”

“It’s really quite a rigorous process. To divide the work up between the students means we can read the entries more widely and thoroughly than a small panel of judges. It is a lot of work, so to have a team come together on it has been a great experience.”

Photo of Olivia reading
Olivia, student co-ordinator for biography

Stepping out of your comfort zone to try something new

Joanna Wilson also got involved with the James Tait Black Prizes in 2016 as a student reader, before becoming a student co-ordinator for the fiction prize.

She says: “I just felt in love with the whole process. I thought it was fantastic that the students get so much input into what is such a prestigious and important literature prize.”

“James Tait Black has added a lot to my experience of studying literature here. As a PhD student, you’re very much in your own ‘zone’, which for me is 1960s literature. I don’t get to read much from today, so this is a really nice opportunity to see what’s up and coming in contemporary fiction, step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It opens your eyes to a whole array of different texts and authors that you otherwise wouldn’t have chosen.”

“Being a literature student and being given a box of books to open is a little bit like Christmas. On average, [student readers] will read between 12-15 books each. As student co-ordinators, myself and Olivia sometimes end up reading a few more.”

Are you interested in a PhD in English Literature?

The James Tait Black Prizes are just one of many opportunities available to our students, who also benefit from a wide range of reading and discussion groups (a number of which are student led), papers by visiting speakers, ‘work-in-progress’ seminars and conferences. Our doctoral candidates also contribute to, and edit, the journal Forum.

Find out more about doing a PhD with us

Related links

Find out who's on the shortlist for this year's James Tait Black Prizes for fiction and biography