About Grace @ Cultural Life

Hey there, I'm Grace. I blog at culturallife.wordpress.com, about things that I love. Culture, books, music, movies, food, cooking....

Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

How do you relax?

The past few weeks were strenuous in terms of my workload, enjoyable but strenuous! Regular readers of Cultural Life might remember that I hit a low point for a week or so when I started the final year of my BA in October, but I think that was simply due to adjusting back into the pace of the academic year. I was also feeling somewhat daunted by the first piece of fieldwork that I had to do for one of my modules. As I wrote in that October post, the class assignment was “the most advanced and demanding project I have done so far”.

However, flash forward a few months later: the project is finished, I turned it in last Monday and I feel happy with my work. When I printed out the project, MS Word told me the total editing time was 1906 minutes — 31.8 hours! That doesn’t include the time I spent finding people to interview, which entailed making lots of phone calls and utilizing social media, making several 2-hour round trips to interview people, transcribing the interviews and reading background literature on my subject. Overall, I estimate that I spent at least 60 hours on the project, but it was worth it! Whereas I felt somewhat downcast initially, the experience I had of carrying out this project has made me even more sure that the academic life is the life for me. I am intent on pursuing my goal of becoming a university lecturer. While I know there will be low points along the way, it’s good to reflect on the high points too because sometimes, when there are setbacks, it can be difficult to remember how the highs feel.

Public domain image source

This weekend is a brief respite before the Spring/Summer semester begins and I am making the most of doing nothing study-related! As Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog tweeted recently, “We all run ourselves at an industrial pace”, which is so true!

It does feel good being unproductive. I am taking this weekend out to relax; last night I went out for dinner with friends and today I went for a 3 mile walk, followed by too much time on my laptop, catching up on blogs and browsing online newspapers. This evening, I’m going to curl up in front of the fire with Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary of State. It feels deliciously unproductive and yes, I could be doing preliminary reading for the new classes which I start this week, but sometimes it’s good to just give ourselves a break.

How do you relax?

My kitty says "take a nap!"

My kitty says “take a nap!”

Books and movies to look out for in 2015

There are numerous book and movie releases which I am looking forward to in 2015. Here are some of them, which you may like as well.

MOVIES

An adaptation of Suite Française, the novel by Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky’s novel has an extraordinary story behind it: the author was killed in Auschwitz, but her two daughters survived the war and her elder daughter, Denise, kept the Suite Française manuscript for fifty years: it was too painful to read and they assumed it was their mother’s journal. Eventually, Denise examined the notebook and discovered the novel: in 2004, it was finally published. Although it is unfinished (Némirovsky had planned a series of five novels), it is a powerful and compelling read. I look forward to seeing the movie version.

Another 2015 movie is a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which will be released at the beginning of May. The last big-screen adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd was in 1967, starring Julie Christie. I checked it out on Wikipedia and the 1967 film poster is cringe-worthy, from a feminist standpoint: “A willful passionate girl and…the three men who want her!” This outdated tagline reveals attitudes towards women at the time: the tagline and illustrations portray Bathsheba Everdene, the protagonist of Far From the Madding Crowd, as a nonsensical, wayward girl.

However, she is a wealthy, independent woman, prone to remarks such as “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet” (ch. 4). While she does eventually marry, her life isn’t defined by men: she is unusual in a Victorian novel in that she runs her own farm and makes decisions about who she hires. This 2015 version stars Carey Mulligan as the heroine, which is a good casting choice in my opinion. The trailer shows striking cinematography, but Bathsheba surprisingly has no lines in it. It is difficult to judge from a short trailer, but I hope the movie does portray her independent spirit.

BOOKS

Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, has written a new novel. Set in the 1940s, At the Water’s Edge is a love story with an unusual backdrop: Maddie and Ellis Hyde are high society siblings who are disowned by their father. They then travel from Philadelphia to Scotland, where Ellis decides to try to do what his father failed to do and find the Loch Ness Monster, and “Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants” (quote from Goodreads). I read Water for Elephants and enjoyed it, so I look forward to reading more of Gruen’s writing.

At the Water's Edge (image source

At the Water’s Edge (image source

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: this collection of short stories gives fictional portrayals of the lives of “almost famous” historical women, from Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister. It sounds like an interesting read!

Almost Famous Women (image source

Almost Famous Women (image source

What new book and movie releases are you looking forward to this year?

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all my readers!

Ring out wild bells to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Even though it’s the New Year, the twelve days of Christmas don’t finish until Twelfth Night on January 6, so I thought I’d share some Christmassy photos.

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It’s the time of year for winter walks, when the morning dawns clear, bright and frosty:

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A treat after a bracing walk: lebkuchen and a cappuccino, made using the milk frother that was a Christmas gift from my mother. If you’re a coffee drinker, I recommend that you treat yourself to a milk frother. It adds a special touch to a cup of coffee and I love being able to make cappuccinos at home now!

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Happy 2015 everyone!

“Brown paper packages…” — Sound of Music-inspired gift wrapping

Instead of just buying a couple of rolls of gift-wrap this year, I decided to be a little more creative and turned to The Sound of Music for inspiration.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things!

I love songs from old musicals! When I was about 8 or 9, I had a singing teacher used to play the music on the piano and we sang most of The Sound of Music repertoire: My Favorite Things, The Lonely Goatherd, Do-Re-Mi

Brown paper packages tied up with ribbon (or string!) look pretty and vintage. It is also more economical than buying expensive gift-wrap and gift bags: I bought a large roll of brown parcel paper from Amazon. Any craft store should carry it, but it’s probably cheaper to get it online.

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What you need:
Brown paper
Ribbon — I chose fabric ribbon with a Merry Christmas snowflake motif
Sticky tape
Optional:
Christmas themed rubber stamps — I used a gift stamp that labels gifts ‘To…. From….’ and a Christmas star
Gold and silver pigment ink pads

I wrapped up my gifts in brown paper, stamped them with a gift label and a star, and tied them up with ribbon. It’s a fun Christmas craft that is simple, but will makes gifts look wonderfully festive!

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What creative things are you doing for Christmas this year? Do share!

Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

Serena by Ron Rash, a novel which has recently been made into a film adaptation, begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his new wife set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees the logging empire of the Pemberton Lumber Company and this provides the backdrop to the story. But the title of the novel is the key to its plot: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice: she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story is interwoven with the young woman’s, Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth, in that she works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor with her. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth, act 1, scene VII)

In the novel, neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it difficult to empathize with them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the logging camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic and Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made in the movie adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet. I expect Serena and Pemberton will be softened somewhat, as audiences tend to dislike movies where they cannot relate at all to the principal characters. It is certainly unusual for protagonists to be entirely unsympathetic or unlikable.

The trailer for Serena:

Although the craziness of the two protagonists is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds dryly:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed […] You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened in the end. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility, such as the character of the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecies.

By the time I finished reading Serena, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top, with little character development. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives. For me, this is a major weakness in the plot. Again, it will be interesting to see how/whether this is elaborated on by the scriptwriter in the movie adaptation.

Have you read any of Ron Rash’s novels? His new short story collection, Something Rich and Strange, is getting good reviews.

Weekend link love

Here’s a selection of links to things I’ve read and watched during the past few days, in between my hectic study schedule. Winter break starts in a week; it’s the first Sunday of Advent today and December starts tomorrow….where has the year gone?! Although I will still be busy working on my sociolinguistic project that is due at the beginning of January, it will be great to have a break from driving to campus every day!

Homes of the River Gods: The History of American Mansions: a short piece from JSTOR Daily. As I have an interest in country homes, à la Jane Austen, I was intrigued to learn a little about the history of mansions in America. On a side note, I use JSTOR a lot for sourcing academic papers and the JSTOR Daily section is a pleasant place to browse during a study break, with lots of fascinating short articles!

Tenure, She Wrote: this post, The strange duality of being a pregnant professor, was featured on Freshly Pressed a couple of days ago. As I am an aspiring academic, I’m always interested to hear about women’s experiences in academia.

A Bad Lip Reading of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This is very silly, but rather clever, and it made me giggle this weekend! Bad Lip Reading is a YouTube channel that produces spoof videos of popular movies and TV shows with dubbed speech that ‘matches’ the vocal movements of the actors; hence, a bad lip reading. The videos are addictive and entertaining! They just released the Catching Fire video and I hope they do a Mockingjay one soon.

NPR – How Dogs Understand What We Say: we already know that canines are incredibly intelligent and can do many amazing things, such as sniffing out drugs and explosives and assisting people who are hearing-impaired or disabled. But a new study suggests that dogs understand more of human language than we think. Research conducted at the University of Sussex shows that dogs process both meaning and emotion in human speech and that “dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences”. As a student linguist, this kind of study is fascinating, but I imagine there are many difficulties in designing experiments for canine subjects and probably as many complexities in interpreting the results.

Pretty Stella

Roasted Fennel & Butternut Squash Soup: this soup is so tasty and quick to make. I changed the recipe slightly (I used vegetable stock and omitted the half and half) and it is an excellent winter meal!

What have you been reading, watching and listening to on the internet this weekend? Share some link love in the comments!

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – part 1

I took some time out of my busy schedule this weekend to go and see the latest installment in The Hunger Games movies: Mockingjay (part 1). Before you read this post, there’s a spoiler warning: I discuss scenes from the book and the movie, so if you want to be completely surprised, stop reading now! But if you’ve read the book and don’t mind a few spoilers, read on….

Firstly, I think that Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence has become one of my favourite actresses, thanks to her powerful performances on screen. In The Hunger Games series, she portrays the many facets of Katniss’s character with great expressiveness: her devotion to her mother and sister, her courage and the way she becomes a reluctant heroine, warily playing along with the story of the star-crossed lovers to please Capitol audiences, before realizing that she is in love with Peeta for real.

One of the reasons why I like The Hunger Games is because of the strong female protagonist. Although Katniss values the friendship of Gale, she is fiercely independent and doesn’t need a male sidekick to help her out. Mockingjay: Part 1 does play on the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle, but then so does the book. Katniss is less independent and less of her own person: she is being molded to be the poster-girl of the rebellion. There are a few moments of comic relief, notably when she is instructed to act for the propos: Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job of acting as though she is a person who cannot act!

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

The majority of the movie takes place in District 13, with occasional forays to District 12 (Katniss returns to see the devastation wrought by the Capitol bombs), other districts and the Capitol. The claustrophobia of living underground in District 13 is vividly portrayed; as a viewer, I found myself searching for greenery and fresh air, the same way Katniss does. Unlike the first two movies, there are hardly any scenes outside in nature, apart from a peaceful scene where Katniss and Gale go hunting above ground and another scene when Katniss sings The Hanging Tree.

Mockingjay – Part 1 has attracted criticism for being low on action and high on talking and strategizing. Many people, including myself, feel that Mockingjay is the weakest book in the series. Even if it means being more faithful to the books, I do think it was unnecessary to break it into two movies. This has become a habit of major movie franchises habit: breaking the last book in a series into two movies, e.g., Harry Potter and The Hobbit, which has split one book into not one, not two, but three separate movies. It is such a blatant way of bringing in more money to the box office. That being said, I enjoyed the movie and it was suspenseful enough for me; I’m not a huge fan of action-packed movies. Part 1 ends shortly after the captured tributes, Peeta, Johanna and Annie, have been rescued from the Capitol. There’s a jolting moment when Peeta and Katniss are reunited that makes viewers jump, even though I knew what was coming. It made me jump when I read the scene in the book!

I’m light-headed with giddiness […] Peeta’s awake already, sitting on the other side of the bed,looking bewildered as a trio of doctors reassure him, flash lights in his eyes, check his pulse. I’m disappointed that mine was not the first face he saw when he woke, but he sees it now. His features register disbelief and something more intense that I can’t quite place. Desire? Desperation? Surely both, for he sweeps the doctors aside, leaps to his feet and moves towards me […] My lips are just forming his name when his fingers lock around my throat (Mockingjay, 2010, p. 206)

Despite a few criticisms, I’m looking forward to the finale of Mockingjay in November 2015. I read the last few pages of the book in feverish anticipation and the ending in the Capitol truly shocked me. You’d better take a packet of Kleenex to the movies next year!

Did you go to see Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (to give it its full title!) this weekend? What do you think of it?

I Got the (Final Year) Blues

 I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am — Jane Austen

Created using Wordle

Created using Wordle

Recently I began the final year of my undergraduate degree. It should be an exciting time: graduation is within sight and the modules are challenging and intellectually stimulating. Now that the groundwork has been laid during the first two years of study, final year offers an opportunity to deepen into my subject. I have posted before about my love of linguistics and fascination with language, but during the past week or so I have questioned what it’s all for: what is the point, for instance, of analyzing the distribution of phonological variable X, correlated with age, sex or social class in a geographic locality?

I felt that acutely yesterday, when I sat down in the morning to plan a project which requires me to choose my own area of research, collect data for it, quantitatively analyze the data and write a 3000 word paper about it (the most advanced and demanding project I have done so far). I started out with good intentions but spent nearly all day wrestling with it without anything to show for my time. By the end of the day, I was feeling daunted, despondent and disheartened, questioning myself about whether aspiring to an academic career is really what I am cut out for. Today, after a more productive morning, I do feel slightly more positive and I’m not ready to give up on my chosen field yet!

I don’t know why I am currently walking through this mire of self-doubt and second-guessing my abilities, but I suppose I have to take heart that everyone has bad days (or bad weeks, in my case!) and trust that it will not last. Even though “I am not at all in a humor for writing [and researching], I must write on till I am” and turn these problems into challenges to be overcome.

Spiced Fruit Scones

October is upon us and with it, the colder air of autumn. It’s a great time of the year to bake things with apples and cinnamon, such as these spiced fruit scones. I made two batches of them this week: they are very moreish!

I adapted the recipe to make the scones without refined sugar and decided to use spelt flour as a change from regular wheat flour. If you don’t have coconut sugar and spelt flour to hand, you can simply use all-purpose flour and brown sugar.

Recipe adapted from p. 39 of The Vegetarian Cookbook (1985) by Doreen Keighley

This quantity of mixture makes 8 scones.

Ingredients:

1 lb (3 1/3 cups) wholegrain spelt flour

4 oz (1/2 cup) margarine

4 oz (1/2 cup) sultanas

4 oz (1/2 cup) unrefined coconut sugar

1 dessert apple

2 eggs

4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). If you have a convection oven, lower the temperature to 390 F (200 C).

2. Mix the flour together with the baking powder, mixed spice and cinnamon; then rub the margarine into the flour.

3. Beat the eggs and whisk the sugar into the eggs.

4. Grate the apple and add it to the flour mixture, along with the eggs and sugar.

5. Mix together to form a dough, adding the sultanas.

6. On a floured board, roll out the dough and divide it into eight pieces.  Shape the pieces into scones.

7. Place the scones on a greased baking tray, brush the tops with a little milk or beaten egg, then bake for 15 minutes until they are golden brown and your kitchen smells delicious!