An International Student of Literature in England.
What is studying English Literature at university like? This is the question I kept asking myself from the day I first registered on UCAS to the day I finally started my degree! To be honest, it took me a few weeks to understand what my studies were really going to be like. Was I going to have a lot of free time? If so, would I be bored? Would I like my modules? Would my tutors be interesting? Did I pick the right subject? Am I really made for literature? What if it’s too hard?
Some of you might be wondering the same things now that you’ve got firm offers from universities. Or perhaps you’re still in college and aren’t sure which subject to apply for and where.
These are questions we all asked ourselves more than once and it’s okay to worry that much and not to be sure of what you’d like to spend the next three years of your life doing. If, like most first years, you’re only 18, don’t put too much pressure on yourself! Your university experience should be stimulating and fun — no matter how much work you’ll have! And this is why I’m writing this article now: I’d like to share my experience of my first year so that you can know what to expect.
In a nutshell, it’s going to be tough — unless you decide to waste £9k a year just to relax and have fun. There is a lot of reading, and you probably won’t love all the books you’ll be assigned. But at the same time, you’ll discover amazing novels, plays, authors or revisit things you already liked. At the end of your degree, some modules will probably have made you passionate about some genres or have opened your eyes about your future career, since you can take modules in translation, publishing, writing etc. So no matter how much work you’ll have, how hard writing your essays will be, it’s not all bad! Don’t get me wrong.
But let’s start with the start: the first year!
Although you’ll get to choose one module in first year, and all of them in second and third years, you still have to study some eras wherever you’re doing your degree in the UK. The reason for this is pretty simple: it’s a way for everyone to make sure that all literature students share a common knowledge of the main periods of literature and the basics.
At UEA, during the first semester, I took the compulsory module Literature in History 1. As the name indicates, you basically study the evolution of literature throughout history, what literature is, how writing “literary” started etc. I really enjoyed this module because it gave a really good overview of England from the Middle Ages to the 17th or 18th century. I found it especially interesting because I never studied these things in France. However, middle English was extremely scary and the first half of this module was super challenging! I don’t want to be like “Oh look at me, a poor French girl” but can you imagine studying and writing about the old form of a language that you’re still learning? Anyway, I survived! 😛
So yeah, before the first week we were given booklets for this module. I remember having a look at the first page in the corridor of the Arts Building, in front of the LDC Office and thinking “What the hell is that? Is this English Literature or Icelandic?!”. I couldn’t recognise ANY word. This was Chaucer. He haunted my dreams for a couple of weeks but in the end, the amazing lecturer Will Rossiter (he’s so good and fun) explained it really well and I realised that some words sounded a lot like French! All this to say that at first, I didn’t think it would be interesting and I ended up enjoying it a lot thanks to the lectures and seminars (two hours per week).
Each week, we studied a different extract from that booklet, each excerpt coming from a different century so that you get to cover a lot of ground. I had two other modules. Reading Texts was alright and I only had a two-hour long seminar for it (no lecture). With this one, we studied literature from another perspective: that of the readers, and the relationship between writers and their audience. We asked questions such as how to engage the readers, are they present in the texts? We read a few poems, some extracts, an awful play (The History Boys) and another great novel that I reviewed a few months ago, The Hiding Place. Each tutor chooses the texts they want to study but this is just to give you an idea.
My third module was awesome and perfect for me: Reading Translations! I was allowed to choose this one. We were a very small group of European students and we compared translations for an hour with the very nice and interesting tutor Jo Catling! What I found very interesting is that we didn’t all come from the same country so we’d compare English translations, but we couldn’t all understand the source language. At first I found it weird but it means you only focus on the different English versions. For one of the essays however, I got to study translations of a French poem by Baudelaire so I was quite happy. And for another one I was free to compare the translations I wanted (only an extract) so I chose a novel I know well and like, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (The Stranger/The Outsider). It was a really cool and different module and another great thing about it is that we didn’t have much preparation or reading to do.
So this was the first semester and it went quite well although I didn’t expect to start the year with middle English and so much reading. After the first semester, I realised that starting from the first year had been a wise idea (I could have asked to start from second year thanks to my years of uni in France). I learnt lots of important things (such as essay writing conventions!) during the first year and tutors helped more at the start. I’d have been completely lost in second year.
So basically, I only had a six contact hours each week (yep, that’s all and I still paid the full price) but I had all of the reading and preparation to do at home. It took me most of my free time, even though we were mainly given long extracts and poems.
The first semester seemed tough, but the second one was much harder from day 1. With hindsight, I realised I could and should have done things different. But hey, I still got good grades!
My main module was Literature in History 2, the “sequel” to Literature in History 1. So we basically did the same thing, except this time we studied one NOVEL per week, and that was just for one module. On top of that, we were sometimes given essays or further reading about the books we were studying. It was absolutely crazy and super hard. I did struggle a lot for this module. I also stressed a lot and didn’t really have any more free time to relax or go out so I spent most of my days in my room, at my desk, trying to read as fast as I could (but I’m a very slow reader).
The thing is, when I do work, I have to do all of it and force myself to do it, even though I know it’s too much. Tons of students (if not most of them) didn’t read the books or only read a few chapters and I really should have done that. It bothers me to pay that much money and go to class if I haven’t read the entire novel as well as all the additional stuff, but if you can’t do it, you just can’t! And that’s something I wish I’d understood earlier. I’ll remember it next year. My amazing and passionate tutor for this module kept telling us this:
“If you haven’t read the whole book, read summaries and analyses online. But you should also pick a few pages that you read several times and know really well. That will give you a much better grasp and understanding of the novel and of the style.”
Whenever he said this, I’d think “But I want to read everything!” although he’s actually right!
Because we didn’t only have one novel per week to read. That would be manageable! I had two other modules that required a lot of reading too. So I’d sometimes end up having to read two novels for the same week + critical and theoretical essays and stuff that was almost like philosophy to me (I’m talking about the Writing Texts module and also about Gender Trouble).
So if I had to give you (or myself) only one tip, it would be that you probably can’t do all the work and that you’ll have to skip some books or only read part of them. It’s fine and it works as long as you also read summaries online and listen very carefully in your lectures and seminars (at least in my experience).
To be a literature student, you should be very organised and disciplined too because you’ll be on your own!
Another useful thing to know is that for essays, you’re usually given different subjects so you can choose to work on the book(s) you prefered! And if you don’t have the choice, they’re more likely ask about things you’ve studied later in the semester.
One last thing: for some modules, you get two essays per semester (usually worth 40 and 60%) but for others it’s only one longer essay worth 100%. So more stress and no chance to compensate your grades in case you fail.
Despite all this, my first year was amazing (as I’ve said multiple times), I’ve grown so much intellectually and feel proud of myself for going above and beyond what I thought I could do! It’s also a necessary step to get to second year where you can actually shape your degree and study the things that interest you the most. 🙂