Tips for English Literature Students
Studying Literature at degree level is a lot different from what was expected of me at school. There are fewer teaching hours than I was used to, and therefore it was more my responsibility to make sure that I was doing the work and doing well. So here are some of my tips and experiences that can help give some insight into how to handle your studies.
Adapting to a different studying style:
Making the transition from studying multiple subjects in sixth-form/college is one of the things I did, and still do find most challenging about adapting to degree life. The way Literature is studied is a little bit different from the way other subjects expect their students to study. I think this mainly stems from the fact that there are no incorrect answers or interpretations in a Literature essay. We spend most of our time reading primary texts, aka, books, which to me doesn’t really feel like studying. Studying to me is taking notes from a textbook or making flashcards etc. And so at times it really feels like I’m not actually working. I spend less time in the library than I expected to, and will only go there when I have an essay to work on or secondary sources to take notes on. Instead, you are encouraged to pay attention to the primary text so that you can accurately understand it and form your own opinion on it.
Keeping up with your reading:
I know this is kind of obvious, but please do your reading. Falling behind would the main cause of your degree becoming stressful. I often spend my weekends reading and preparing material for the week ahead, and make good use of reading weeks and holidays to get ahead. It’s true that there is a lot of reading and not all of it is interesting or to our individual tastes. That’s fine. Try and read as much of it as you can so at least you’re not clueless in a seminar. Your teachers won’t hate you for saying that you didn’t finish a book or didn’t find it interesting. At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy a text enough to want to study it, don’t write an essay on it. Just don’t consistently fall behind in the long run because then it becomes overwhelming.
What to do if you’re struggling to understand something:
Texts are not always the easiest to understand, particularly older ones. Often there are so many characters involved that it’s so hard to wrap your head around what’s happening, especially if the language is difficult too. In these situations, I find having a quick browse on the internet or study guide websites for plot and chapter summaries is useful, and there are often helpful videos on YouTube. Just don’t consider this a substitute for reading the text itself, because summaries often miss out on or simplify details. If you’re seriously stuck, or simply want to discuss the text, professors hold weekly office hours where you can go along and have a one-on-one conversation. I am guilty of not making use of this time because I was scared, but going to more office hours is one of my goals for this academic year. Every professor I’ve met is incredibly friendly and if you show interest in their subject, they will go out of their way to help you with it.
Using critical sources:
There are a lot of great resources in the library, both in physical format and digitally, mostly critical commentaries. These will be necessary for when it comes to writing essays, for you can use commentators’ viewpoints to support or contrast your own arguments, and are necessary for higher grades to demonstrate that you are engaging with Literature as an academic subject. However, I’d advise not leaving engagement with academic material until the time comes for writing essays. Make time in your schedule to read an academic source for texts you would be interested in writing an essay about, and make notes and copy down or highlight phrases you could quote. This will ease the workload for the research you have to do later on. Just be sure to jot down the details of the book according to the citation system you are using and page references so that you can go back to the source later on and cite it easily in an essay.
Telling people what you’re studying:
People are bound to ask what you study when you first meet. However this proved to be a little bit of a challenge for me. I simply said that I study ‘English’, which was how my school referred to the subject. Some people mistook for me studying it as a language, as if it were French or Spanish, which confused them because I am quite obviously very English, and others thought first of English Linguistics, which are entirely separate courses. So I learnt instead to just say that I study ‘English Literature’ or ‘Literature’. It’s funny really, and made me realise that not everyone uses the same terminology as I did at school.
Another struggle is dealing with how people sometimes react when I tell them what I study. There’s an unfortunate perception that some have about humanities students. People assume that I’ll just end up being a teacher or transfer to a law course, which irritates me because I have no desire to teach or do law. Instead, while a humanities degree is not technical in the same way as a maths or science degree, it teaches entirely different skill sets which are just as valuable in different ways. We are taught critical thinking, a trait all kinds of companies desire. Never forget that your degree is valuable.