Why I study English Literature
I was fortunate in that I knew what I wanted to study at university long before I applied. All throughout school my teachers encouraged my love of writing and reading, and I just knew that I was meant to study English. Yet the question when it came to researching my future was where I wanted to study. From an outside perspective it was hard to determine what was different between the English Literature courses at all the universities I was interested in. It ultimately came down to visiting multiple universities and finding which felt right for me. Now having been at Warwick for a term and a half, I’ve been able to better pinpoint what makes the course here stand out to me, as well as what differentiates the study of literature at A level to that of degree level. So here are some points about why I love studying English here at Warwick:
1. Perhaps the most important point of all is that English degrees help you to discover and understand the problems, questions and injustices of past societies, as well as societies in the present day. The texts studied on the course reveal something about the time in which they were written. To this end there is a large emphasis on historical events as well as literary history, which is an aspect that I am grateful for due to my strong interest in history. It can reveal how a text is both a product of and response to the historical conditions from which it arose, for literature itself can be a protest against the injustices of society, and the lens through which we can understand our own society. Are we better now than we were at that time? How can we be better? To ask such questions in a time such as now, where the world is arguably in a period of great change, is essential to keeping hold of the fundamental morals of our society, and to not lose sight of the lessons of the past. One quote that has stuck with me for a long time sums this point up quite nicely. From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
We can’t remain passive, and have to consciously pay attention and react. The study of literature teaches us how to do that.
2. The course is diverse. Although it’s named English Literature, you read a range of texts from all across the world that have been translated, as well as natively English texts. Even some of those written in English represent minority populations, such as Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.
But also the modules explore different aspects of literature. In first year I currently study 4 modules:
– , which explores the growth of the English language throughout Britain’s early history.
– , which focuses on literary criticism and theory.
– , where you study some of the foundational texts of the literary canon, including The Iliad, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost and Middlemarch.
– , exploring a large variety of texts from the late 18 century to the present, bringing into question their modernity (my favourite module).
3. The essays you write are designed to make you think. They’re designed to be challenging, which is important to helping you learn and grow as an intellectual. You are given a variety of potential questions to choose from when writing an assignment, and at times are given no question at all, encouraging you to design your own focus for the essay. All of this means that you have the freedom to explore the aspects of the course that interest you the most. They’re not easy, but seeing an argument pull together on paper can be enjoyable. Even if it doesn’t go as well as you wanted to, first year is the time to make those mistakes and learn from the feedback given. There’s no such thing as a perfect academic, and if you were one, you wouldn’t be at university because you would have nothing to learn from it.
4. At its very simplest, my degree is fun because reading is fun, and the course has challenged me to read beyond what I would normally pick off the shelves. That doesn’t mean I enjoy every text I read. This point was raised by Professor Michael Meeuwis in a lecture at the start of term 1, where he explained that we don’t have to like particular characters or books in order to appreciate them, for they can help us appreciate what is unlike our own experience. The cultures depicted in certain texts may be completely alien to us, but stories allow us to imagine them and thus connect. For the most part however, I do find things to enjoy in every text I read, and naturally they’re chosen by the professors because they can teach us something. Not only that, but the course is filled with people who feel the same as you do. Everyone around you is there because they share the same interest, and there will always be someone nearby with whom you can discuss books all day long.
In short, English degrees push you to ask the big questions about the world and challenge you to think for yourself. You’re taught to equate and differentiate the present with the past and understand the societal problems that literate articulates, all in a department that is encouraging, friendly and supportive.