Studying English Literature at University

English Literature

If you’re a mega bookworm, if books are your life and soul, if you eat books for breakfast then you’re going to love English Literature. Well, it depends. You also need to be okay with reading books you hate, you need to be patient to get through modules on time periods you couldn’t care less about, and you need to understand Lit is less about reading for enjoyment and more about being able to quickly read craploads of material, process it, and analyse the daylights out of it.

What do you study in English Literature?

The first thing you’re going to learn on the course is that studying Lit is never just about the book. In Lit, books are used as a means of exploring society and vice-versa, so Jane Eyre can be used to examine and critique nineteenth-century attitudes to colonialism, gender, social classes, and morality (to name a few). To do that, you have to have a good understanding of history. What was happening in Britain in the nineteenth century? What was the economy like? What was going on with the politics? Who was the king/queen? What was going on in the world? How do real life events feed into the novel and what can we learn from Charlotte Brontë’s book?

You’re not expected to be a history wiz when you start your course, but you will become pretty comfortable with your knowledge of certain time periods depending on which modules you go on to take. It’s safe to assume you will cover the Renaissance and Enlightenment period (around 1550-1740) during the first or second year of your course, and you will look at anything and everything that’s classified as ‘literature’.

It’s worth looking at the core and optional modules offered by the universities you’re considering. Some universities have a heavier focus on pre-twentieth century literature. My university offered the Studies in Twentieth Century Literature module, where I studied writers such as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. I later went on to study Edwardian Literature too, but my focus was predominantly on the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Optional modules let you tailor your course to fit your taste and interests, which helps avoid having to read too many books you’re not interested in but you will still come across books you hate (especially on core modules). But one of the best things about that is it makes it a whole lot easier to critique those books! You might come to find you actually love studying a certain period you didn’t even think you’d like. I hadn’t looked at any eighteenth-century literature before starting uni, I thought it would be boring, but I ended up enjoying it the most and being fascinated by the time period. 

Note: you have to read the set texts for all of your modules. You’re a university student, walking into a seminar without having read the text for that seminar is a massive NOPE. A lot of lecturers take this seriously and won’t let you join the seminar unless you have a damn good reason for not having read the text (e.g. illness).

What are seminars like?

Seminars are like book clubs! (really). While lecturers use the lecture slot to give you as much background info about the author and book as possible, the seminars are where you’re expected to do most of the talking – which is why you have to read the book beforehand. I can’t stress how important it is that you do talk. You will gain so much more from your degree if you speak up in seminars, these are safe and open spaces where you’re welcome to discuss anything you like about the book. One of the biggest differences between Lit at an undergraduate level and Lit as a GCSE/A Level is that your input will never be shut down and you won’t be told you’re wrong. At this stage, your views and interpretations are just as valid as anyone’s, lecturers and peers will respect that.

You may find your ideas challenged by your peers, the lecturer might go on to ask you some questions about a certain point you’ve brought up, but this is a good thing, that’s how you learn, that’s how you broaden your perspective and that stuff is essential for producing high standard essays too. Challenging your own thoughts and perceptions as well as your peers’ is important because that’s going to help you do the same when you look at secondary sources like journals for your assignments.

For coursework and exams, the questions will usually request a specific type of critical reading. The following questions are from one of my module handouts, it lists discussion topics for us to think about before the seminar (we would then go on to discuss them during the actual seminar):

  1. How does Behn’s description of the slave trade shape the historical and economic context of Oroonoko?
  2. How do issues of gender co-exist with those of romance and race?
  3. Is Behn’s attack on the institution of slavery rendered ambiguous by these romance motifs?
  4. Can we draw any parallels between Behn’s description of the death of the royal slave and Royalist accounts of the execution of Charles I in England?

I mentioned talking being important, but listening can be just as useful. There was a student in one of my seminars who had a background in studying Greek mythology, she often picked up references to Greek myths that some of us had otherwise missed. There were a few students studying History or Philosophy too and they also noticed things that other Lit students might not have known about. Listening to your peers can widen your understanding of texts and can help you come up with those out-of-the-box ideas that get you high marks. I miss my seminars the most because I learnt so much from my peers and it was fun ranting/raving over books together! 

How much will I have to read each week?

Now, about the reading load… there’s a LOT to read. An average full-time undergraduate course is made up of two semesters per year and four modules per semester. You have a lecture and a seminar per module per week (some courses may have workshops). You’re expected to read at least one primary text for each module every week, so that amounts to 1-4 books or a collection of poems, plays and extracts a week, and you’re also expected to do secondary reading. Secondary reading is usually provided by the lecturers – these are things like journal articles. If you want a first, you need to go out of your way and do intense research for journal articles and books your lecturer hasn’t mentioned.

So yeah, all you do is read, because you need to get through a lot of books and secondary material every week. Which is why I suggest you get in contact with the English department at the university to request reading lists for the core modules in your first year. In your second and third year, you will usually be told what the reading lists for your selected modules are, or you can just ask your lecturers. I used to read a large chunk (90%) of my books each year during the summer. That way, I freed up some time to really dig into reading the extra material, and it was less stressful. Don’t leave reading last minute! And don’t think you can get away with not reading books because, even if your lecturer lets you get away with it, you will still have to read them when you’re doing your coursework/sitting exams. (More often than not, you can’t write about the same books in your exam if you already wrote about them in the coursework.)

You can use Project Gutenberg and the library for a lot of course material, your lecturers might give you handouts and extracts too so you don’t have to buy everything!

What if I struggle with the workload/reading?

Remember, you’re not a machine. If the workload does end up feeling like it’s too much for you, and if you’re stressed out, talk to your lecturers. If your lecturers aren’t helpful, or if you don’t feel comfortable confiding in them, you can see the department head. Alternatively, universities in the UK do have some sort of support in place for students, your Students’ Union can direct you to a mentor or counselling services if you feel they might help. For students going into uni with mental illnesses/those who develop them while already there, ask your university for information on the DSA and how they can help too. You can receive support and deadline extensions if you need them, so don’t worry too much! Also, I think it’s worth pointing out two of my friends on my Lit course found out they were dyslexic whilst studying at uni. They were given extra time and support to complete their reading, assignments and exams, and both did really well. Universities tend to offer assessments if you think you may be dyslexic, again, ask about it!

Recommended reading:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Victorian Age and The Twentieth Century and After), and The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. I used these books throughout my studies, the Victorian Age volume was actually the primary text for the Renaissance and Enlightenment module. You can use iTunes U to listen to more Lit lectures from universities like Oxford (for free).

It won’t hurt to read some classics as you will have to study them (but which ones you study will vary!). From the top of my head, I studied: Dickens, James Joyce, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Milton, Defoe, Aphra Behn, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, and H.G. Wells.

It would help to do some wider reading and get to grips with Freud’s theories, feminism, Britain’s colonial past, the slave trade, industrialism, the British monarchy, and the printing press. Have a look at the King James Bible and Darwin’s The Origin of Species too! You don’t need to be an expert, a look through an encyclopaedia or even Wikipedia for an overview is fine. You obviously can’t use Wiki as a source in your assignments, but this is just to get you comfortable with facing these topics in discussions without having a big question mark over your head the whole time.

This post is specifically about studying Lit in England.