As the demand for STEM subjects seemingly increases in our society, often students who are interested in pursuing a more artistic (and certainly less scientific!) route may feel neglected in terms of discovering what ‘arts’ degrees are like. One of these degrees is English Literature, which I am currently studying as a single-honours degree, although I will change to a joint-honours course with French (another ‘arts’ subject) from September. And what better way is there to discover what studying English is like than by hearing the thoughts of a current English student?
Be prepared for a lot of reading
Yes, it goes without saying that every degree requires a significant amount of reading – especially independent research which extends beyond what is covered in lectures and seminars – but English is definitely one of the most reading-heavy (if such a term exists!) subjects that you can study at university!
Of course, reading books is less of a chore if you enjoy reading novels and plays (for example, reading Votes for Women! on my bus journey to work was a pleasurable way of preparing for next week’s seminar!), but it is burdensome if you have to force yourself to read. In other words, I’d only recommend English as a degree if you have a roaring passion for reading which, by the time that you have started at university, you probably would have realised.
And, when faced with plenty of books and texts to read, you will need to learn how to be savvy in terms of finding time to read, absorb and write about everything ahead of attending lectures and seminars. So how do I do it? I always read something – whether it is poetry for one module or a novel for another – while I am travelling on the bus to and from university, which not only passes the time and stops me from getting bored by the familiar sight of the countryside, but it ensures that I am productive at all times of the day, irrespective of my commute.
A good way of fitting in ‘reading time’ is swapping the habit of watching TV or browsing through social media for reading books – an activity which, unlike binge-watching a somewhat mediocre show on Netflix, is guilt-free!
Despite my previous point, English is not just about reading, absorbing and regurgitating texts, but it is the one of the best degrees for expressing your critical views. For example, you don’t have to necessarily enjoy a text because the whole point of English is that you actively engage with it.
This is among the reasons why I enjoy English because, unlike more objective subjects such as science, there is not a distinct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to anything. As you have done your research, you criticise – either positively or negatively – a text to your heart’s content!
A bit too heavy?
At times, I have felt overwhelmed by the extortionate amount of reading and research which I have needed – and also wanted to do – for an English degree, which is not always fun, despite my love for literature. This is one of the reasons why I have decided to switch to a joint-honours degree with French because I always found that studying French provided me with a ‘release’ and a welcome break from English, a subject which demands a lot of heavy thinking (sometimes bordering onto philosophy, or so it seems!).
I think that my feelings of being overwhelmed would have been significantly less if my current university allowed English students to study optional modules in another subject area. If this was the case, I would have definitely opted for a French module (the only provisions made by my university for the teaching of languages) because, naturally, I sometimes crave a change from my main subject!
Therefore, I would advise prospective English students to check whether their university offers optional modules in different subjects, which would give them the freedom to study something different and not tire of English. And yes, I am gradually reaching my limit with heavily historical texts!
History, history, history!
If you have studied English Literature at A-level, you will inevitably be familiar with contextual factors (aka history) which, to be honest, I usually attributed to ‘patriarchy’ (no feminist bias here!). However, the amount of history that you are expected to know for an English degree is unreal at times – particularly for a module that I am currently taking on American literature (which seems more focused on American history than actual literary texts!) – which, if you are not at all interested in history, it is not always the most motivating subject to study!
As I never studied History at either GCSE or A-level, I have no natural passion towards this subject, a frostiness which has not melted away since conducting deeper research in the historical backgrounds of the texts that I have been studying over the past few months. Of course, knowing a bit of history helps with my comprehension and interpretation of novels, etc. but am I enjoying the seemingly endless quest to discover nuggets of historical knowledge? Not always – but it seems inevitable that, regardless of which degree that you study, there are themes which you cannot avoid encountering! Just don’t mention the ‘manifest destiny’ within my earshot for the time being!
Overall, there are so many ways of perceiving an English degree. Yes, it is sometimes challenging and writing essays is time-consuming (not the least because you spend half your time figuring out how to articulate ideas about ‘goblin men’!) but, like all things hard fought for, it is rewarding!