Do you have to delve deeply into every novel you read for an English degree?

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Report Thread starter 5 years ago
My sister is about to enrol in an English course and is a bit curious. These are some of her queries:

- While I'm fully aware that novels aren't the only form of literature studied at degree level English, I imagine they form a substantial bulk of the reading material. When you read a novel/novels in preparation for a seminar, in how much detail do you need to analyse it? Is it a case where you simply need to understand and memorise some of the important quotes and themes, or should you really be delving in to analyse every clause and phrase? In preparation for a seminar discussion, should you be prepared to present your interpretations of sentences that can be taken from anywhere throughout the text, or are they more about discussing general themes and linguistic techniques that consistently appear throughout the text (with quotes for evidence, of course)?

- How many books are you expected to read (and complete) every week?

- Are lectures and seminars more about discussing themes and linguistic techniques, or are they more about discussing specific works of literature?

- Can you draw comparisons of class texts with your own independent reading?

- Would you liken English seminars to book club discussions? Or are they much more formal?
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Report 5 years ago
1. Depending on their teaching style, your tutor might give you a reading list for each individual seminar which will usually include that week's text (one of the books from the semester reading list) plus some secondary reading, probably some critical theory and maybe some historical or contextual pieces. They might specify an area of the text or a theme to think about, or they might allow the discussion to go where the seminar group wants. No one is expecting you to memorize anything since you will have the text with you, and as long as you have a few general ideas to contribute you'll be fine. Thinking on your feet is not only alright but encouraged - putting forward ideas that come to you as other people talk, arguing, whatever. Hell, I've shown up to my fair share of tutorials not having finished or occasionally even started the text. Don't worry too much.

2. this semester I have eight books on my reading list - six novels, one play, and a political piece. Usually you will focus on one text per week at tutorials thought if you are studying poetry mainly it could be a few poems and you'll discuss each and compare. I'd suggest trying to read as much as possible in advance but don't worry too much if you're struggling! You'll only have to actually write on a few of the texts so try to stay ahead of the game but its not worth stressing yourself out like crazy - everyone bluffs their way through a few tutorials.

3. Lectures will be very varied but in literature, unlike other subjects, lectures are mostly a jumping off point for your own ideas and reading. You'll get some lectures which might be, say, a feminist criticism of a specific text, and another lecture which could be about avant garde poetry in a specific time period, and another about queer theory and the queer canon (I'm just listing a few of my fave lectures here). At first I panicked in lectures because I didn't know what to take notes on, what was being examined, what I was supposed to do. Try to enjoy and engage with the lectures and think critically about what you do and do not agree with.

In seminars you will probably focus on one text at a time and maybe a specific theme or idea within that text, as well as maybe a secondary text along with it. So if you get assigned, like, frankenstein and simone de beauvoir, you should be prepared to discuss frankenstein in terms of de beauvoir's ideas.

4. in seminars, anything goes provided its relevant. In exams, if you're talking about reading theory independently, absolutely. If you're talking about reading fiction or poetry or whatever, you can do it, but do it sparingly. Try to focus on the set texts, obviously.

5. Seminar discussions are quite informal but don't expect them to be like book clubs. They tend to be more, for lack of a better word, scholarly. Texts are discussed in terms of ideas and theory usually rather than just on their own. Then again I've never been in a book club.

Listen in terms of general advice: don't worry too much ahead of time, just wait and see. It's not what you're expecting, I promise. It wasn't what I was expecting - it's much much better. Of course, I had a friend with the opposite experience. Just be prepared to read and think - don't stay in your comfort zone and don't go into it with a closed mind. Go into it with a love of literature and critical thought. Good luck and I hope you love it!!

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