So You Want To Study: English Literature!

Afternoon everyone! It’s Friday, which means it’s time for another post in the So You Want To Study series! This week’s post comes from the lovely Lilith, who is here to share her experience of studying English Literature at university. I hope any of you who are considering studying English Lit find this helpful!

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When I joined first year English Literature at the University of Glasgow in September 2010, my course had well over a hundred students. So many, lectures were given twice in succession to accommodate us all. There’s no doubt about it —English Literature is one of the most popular of the arts and humanities courses.

But, it’s not a subject choice to be taken lightly. It’s not an easy option and certainly not one to take if you “can’t think of what else I’d do.” What the study of English Literature is, however, is mentally challenging and rewarding. It’s a discipline that will make you see yourself, others and the world around you in a whole new way. No, seriously.

What made you want to study English Literature?

I’m one of those incredibly annoying people who always knew what they wanted to study. As soon as I learned what university was and what English Literature was I put the two together and I knew that was the path for me. By my sixth year, I had no other plan B in mind. I loved writing, reading, books, thinking critically, argumentation, research and analysis. Sound like you? Read on. Chances are you’ll make a fab English Literature student.

Expectations vs. Reality

I had many many fears before leaving home to go to university (they would be a whole other blog post). A key one was that I really wasn’t qualified to be there. I was terrified everyone would be streaks ahead of me and I’d never catch up. Everyone would have read Camus in the original French and be quoting from Ulysses. Why did I feel this way? It was totally irrational.

Let’s be honest, there will always be people who have read more than you, this is true. There are people who will have read less. And people who have read the same. And also, of course, there are people who will just have read, written, experienced different things. The study of English Literature isn’t really about quantity. Don’t think of others as your competition. Engage with each other, Learn from each other, teach each other. You will develop confidence in your own abilities and you’ll find your footing very quickly.

What is the workload/assessment process like?

English Literature at university is not like English at school. The main difference is quantity of work and the pace at which you’re expect to work. Remember at Higher when you spent six months studying Sunset Song and knew more about Chris Guthrie than you did your own best friend? Not so at university.

You study a text (novel, poet, a play) a week. You are expected to have read it (shock), understand its key themes and be able to talk about it in a tutorial. You may return to it later for an essay, a short verbal presentation or an exam or you may not.

In first and second year you’re given primary texts to read and won’t need to deviate much from this list. A lot of first year is learning the basic skills required for your degree: Close reading, understanding literary themes and contexts and having an overview of literary periods.

Later on, you’ll be encouraged to think more widely, engage with texts more critically and they’ll be much more of an emphasis on original essay ideas. Thinking outside the box and approaching things just that little bit differently (as long as you can evidence your claims) will always serve you well.

You’ll still probably have a core reading list but as long as a text falls within the general time period you’re studying, it’s probably okay to study. Just always check with your tutor.

On average I had one or two essays per semester per module. The first usually around 2000- 2500 words and then a final one of up to 4000 words. Although in the first couple of years the word count was a bit less. At the end of the semester (either December or May) I had a two-three hour exam where usually I had to write two essays in that time.

What’s my advice for handling the pressure?

The work load is fast paced and it can be tough. For that reason forward planning is essential. Get ahead, try and be at least a week ahead with your reading – a necessity particularly if you have a Monday tutorial. That said, there will be times where you might need to skip a week and you just don’t have time or the inclination to read the novel for that module’s weekly tutorial. This is okay. Just don’t let yourself fall behind massively. Also, go to the tutorial that covers that text anyway. You might pick up something useful for another text, essay or even module. Also, never underestimate the power of the to do list.

What was my favourite bit?

I absolutely loved my degree so it’s actually very hard for me to choose this. I would say it was research and writing essays. I loved finding original ways to look at texts, feeling ideas click into place to form my argument, saying the unsaid, finding new territory. This all came to a head in my fourth year when I did my dissertation. I felt I’d finally found my niche and it was so so good.

What was tough?

I faced a strong feeling of impostor syndrome. There were simply weeks where I would sit in tutorials and not feel clever enough to be at university. Everyone else’s ideas seemed more mature, more fully formed, more exciting, more original. Most of the time these feelings are completely in your head. Secure yourself with the feeling that almost everybody gets them.

What am I doing now?

I graduated from Glasgow University with a First Class Degree (proudest moment ever, not going to lie). I applied for a Masters in Modern Scottish Writing at the University of Stirling in July and deferred for the year.

I’ve spent the first part of this year out September-January working in an art gallery and theatre which had been my student job. In January, I was lucky enough to land myself a role as junior copywriter for a small content agency here in Glasgow which has turned out to be the perfect job for me in so many ways.

After my Masters I’d like to do a pHD and I’m passionate about pursuing academia as a career. It combines my two passions – teaching and writing. So here’s for the next chapter…

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Thank you so much to Lilith for a brilliant post! English Literature is a subject I know a lot of people are interested in, so I’m sure this post will be a great help to a lot of readers! If you have any other questions for Lilith about her experience, you can tweet her over at @lisforlilith

As for The Student Switchboard, I’ll be back again on Monday with another video, and there will be another “So you want to study…” post this time next week!

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend!

Lynsey x

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