Saturday 27 June 2020

Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting an English Degree

Don't let the title of this post fool you. I love my degree, and I certainly know that I made the right decision to do English at Birmingham, but if I could go back and give past me some tips for starting out, then I definitely would.

I may as well start at the beginning. I remember being sat in my first ever 9 am lecture on a Monday morning off the back of a night out the Sunday before (and still planning to go out again that Monday night, as freshers continued into the first week of term!), having not read the text. Up until that point, I hadn't properly registered that I should have. Naturally, the lecturer was speaking to us in great detail about it, making references to lines I had never read and characters I had never met. I also had my first seminar later that afternoon in which we were actively discussing the text, so you can imagine that that was even worse. This is probably something that goes for all degrees, rather than being specifically English, but yes, you are just thrown straight into working. There is no 'introduction to the text and then as a group we will read a chapter a week up until we finish the book at Christmas'. NOPE. You are expected to be up to speed from the start, particularly as you may cover something in week 1 and not return to it until exam season or when writing an essay several more weeks into term.

It seems fairly obvious, but there is loads of reading on an English degree; way more than at English A-Level. Of course I knew that going into my degree, but it wasn't necessarily something that I took seriously until I found myself actually doing the reading. During sixth form, I covered 3 poems, 3 novels, 2 plays, and my coursework texts across 2 years. In year 1 of university, I was reading roughly 2 texts a week and 1 a fortnight, as well as secondary materials and essays. In year 2, I read 3-4 a week, and secondary reading doubled. So I wish I had known that as an upcoming English undergrad, you need to use your summer to exercise your reading habits and abilities. You can't go from reading nothing to then reading 2+ texts in a week, still managing to absorb all of what you are reading and keep on top of your seminar preparation, research, commitments to societies and sport, etc.

Purely to save disappointment, I wish I had known that there is actually less freedom with choosing your modules than you may initially think - and this won't just be with English or just be at Birmingham. Often when you attend university open days, you are handed a leaflet offering a huge variety of exciting modules. Great!, you think, and immediately start mentally listing your top 10 from this list of 50. BUT, the reality is that you may only be able to pick 4 modules from the list (or maybe not any in your first year), and that actually, you can't do all 4 of your choices anyway, because they all come from the same category from which you are only allowed to pick 1. It's like picking your GCSE options; you may have had to choose a subject from each box in order to have a well rounded combination, though it may not have been your ideal combination. 
   There has to be some structure to ensure you are getting a thorough degree, which I completely understand now. However, this isn't always understood when you are a prospective student, eyes gleaming with the thought of being able to tailor your degree exactly how you want to. You can't just trundle through three years at university doing whatever you want; you will do modules you don't necessarily love, and you will also end up studying topics you thought you would hate, but come to appreciate.  

None of these things make you a 'bad student' for not realising or not picking up quick enough; I really don't think there are many university students who couldn't say the same, whatever degree they are doing. The first couple of weeks of your first year of university are a huge learning curve for every fresher. It doesn't take long for you to be whipped into line, so it's really not to worry if your first week ends up being a bit more overwhelming than you had anticipated. 

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