Professor Tom Sperlinger

B.A.(Liv.), M.St.(Oxon.), PGCHE (Bristol)

  • BS8 1TH

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Personal profile

Research interests

I write creative non-fiction, literary criticism, and about universities and adult education.

I was promoted to Professor in 2017 and gave my inaugural lecture, Reading Seamus Heaney in Barton Hill: Literature, communities, universities, in 2019.

Civic engagement

I am academic lead for engagement for the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus in Bristol, where I am leading a major programme that resets the University's relationships with local communities and its civic mission. Key initiatives include developing a micro-campus with partners at the Wellspring Settlement in Barton Hill (which opened in 2020); JOIN US!, a new initiative to recruit staff to the University, working with community organisations; a new flexible undergraduate degree in innovation; devising a programme of evening activities, Twilight Temple Quarter; working with colleagues in Engineering and Management on engaged research projects; and inputting on key spaces in the new campus, including the Bristol Rooms (a hub for civic partners) and the Story Exchange (a round space for conversations between people with different kinds of expertise and experience).


I am the co-author of Who are universities for?, with Josie McLellan and Richard Pettigrew. It rethinks higher education as a space for the whole of society. It's been reviewed in the LSE Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement and the Social Review.

My first book, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, is a memoir about a semester I spent teaching at Al-Quds University in 2013. It was reviewed in The Observer, the Electronic IntifadaThe Times Literary Supplement and SCTIW Review. It is being published in an Arabic translation by the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah and Al-Raqamiya in 2021; the translation is by students at An-Najah University.

I am completing a book based on a year I spent running reading groups and skills sessions with IDEAL Community Action, a charity in Barton Hill that provided education and training to individuals and communities affected by addiction, offending and long-term poverty. My work there was the subject of my inaugural lecture in 2019.

I also write long reads, features, books reviews and comment pieces for The Guardian, The Times Higher, The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement and Electronic Intifada, among others; see my personal website.

Other research projects

I've written about George Eliot, Ghassan Kanafani and Doris Lessing. Most recently, I've contributed a book chapter on education in a novel by Selma Dabbagh, in light of theories by Paulo Freire and Khalil al-Sakakini. I was a Visiting Fellow at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in April 2014, working on Lessing's typescripts. I have published an article on correspondence held in the archive about The Grass is Singing, which shows that Lessing refused publication by Knopf in part because she was asked to add a rape scene to the novel. An early poem of Lessing's, which I found in the archive, has been published in PN Review. I've published two pieces on Lessing which draw on her typescripts: a chapter on 'interruptions' in Doris Lessing and the Forming of History, which I co-edited with Kevin Brazil and David Sergeant, and an article on radical pedagogy in Mara and Dann (open access), drawing on the work of Paulo Freire and Idries Shah. 

I was Bristol's academic lead in 2016/17 on a project led by the Open University, and funded by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), looking at outreach for adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Curriculum design

I have extensive experience of designing curricula that include people who do not have conventional prior qualifications and who may have spent a long time out of education. I also have experience of building community engagement into programmes.

I designed the part-time BA in English Literature and Community Engagement (ELCE), which has been running since 2008 and, with Richard Pettigrew, the Foundation in Arts and Social Sciences (CertHE), which launched in Arts in 2013 and in Social Sciences in 2019. This film, made by students on the Foundation Year, gives a great introduction to the course.

I have a particular interest in developing short courses with community groups that facilitate progression to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level, including with organisations such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Bristol Best Tuition and the Single Parent Action Network (SPAN).

I worked on secondment with the Widening Participation and Student Recruitment team from 2016 to 2018 on the recruitment and participation of adult learners across the university, collaborating with colleagues in Policy Studies and Educaton on two new short courses, Understanding Society and Changing Education.

Teaching interests

I have taught fiction, poetry, non-fiction, creative writing, interdisciplinary humanities courses and study skills units, especially for those returning to study after a gap. I have taught a unit on 19th Century Prose Writing (for the BA ELCE) and I teach a unit on Dangerous Books (for the BA English). I give lectures on the BA English on topics including: Shakespeare's sonnets, Hamlet and Hannah Arendt, passion and curiosity in Jane Austen, revisions in poetry, Paulo Freire and decolonising literature, and Virginia Woolf and the responsibilities of the 'non-academic' reader. I was course director for the part-time Diploma in Creative Writing from 2004 to 2010, and I remain very interested in creative writing and pedagogy.

In 2014, I was awarded a University Award for Education and a Vice Chancellor's Award for my contributions to teaching.

Other interests and external roles

I am chair of the academic advisory board for Black Mountains College, a new college in Talgarth that is dedicated to reimagining education at a time of ecological crisis. I have been an external examiner for programmes at Birkbeck (2016 to 2020) and Gloucestershire (2015 to 2019).

I am a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts. I was co-editor of The Brodie Press from 2002 to 2015; our books included two poetry collections by Julie-ann Rowell, recognised by the Poetry Book Society and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Prize respectively. I was previously a member of the advisory board for the Bristol Palestine Film Festival. I've worked as a mentor for the We Are Not Numbers project with young writers in Gaza, including Nada Hammad who wrote this love letter to Gaza.

Contact details

Office: G.3, 36 Tyndalls Park Road (entrance through 3/5 Woodland Road)
Phone: +44 (0)117 954 6969