While reviewing our Examiners’ Reports and Study Guides, and settling down to work I could not help comparing my initial impressions of the courses I studied last year with the texts on my desk for 2014. How do we choose the courses we want to study? What happens if the material is significantly different from what we expect it to be? It is a bit worrying, because last year the course I most looked forward to, Augustans and Romantics, turned out to be the most difficult for me and the one where my exam results were the lowest. Renaissance and Restoration, the course I thought would be the most challenging and uninteresting to read was the most stimulating. It was also the course with my best exam results. As my reading begins in earnest I find myself on the horns of a reading dilemma. I feel confident about my reading in three courses, but the fourth, Modern American Literature, just might be the most challenging to study.
What makes authors, genres, or literary periods challenging to study? What do you do if you just do not enjoy an author’s work or the entire literary period?
The advice our study guides give is just keep reading. It is excellent advice, because reading for English Studies is not the same as reading for pleasure. Here is my example from last term: for me, the historical period that includes the Augustan and Romantic writers is really fascinating and Greek and Latin ‘classics’ are what I read for fun. I expected to be highly engaged with the texts because of my interest in the historical period and the literature that so influenced the authors on the course. As the term progressed I found that the material was nearly impossible to engage with. Swift bored me rigid and, with two exceptions, Pope seemed unbelievably pompous and intolerable. I was disappointed because satire is something I enjoy in today’s media and texts but it did not appeal to me in the Augustan literature in any form. The ideas behind Romantic literature seemed incredibly complex, not necessarily as concepts, but in the intricacies of literary expression. It was very difficult to read more than one author because of this stunning complexity. As a result my study felt unorganized and shallow.
Despite all that I continued reading, marking my progress line by line, and word by word. Voila! My exam result in the course was 2:1. Today I have a much greater appreciation and understanding of the historical time that so interests me. On the other extreme, I enrolled in Renaissance and Restoration because I was studying in the Shakespeare course for the pleasure of the language. It seemed very handy to concentrate on the same period for two courses. My expectations were not high for these courses because our Foundation Unit, Renaissance Comedy, was my very first and most challenging course, and the one with my lowest ever exam results. The archaic language and density of concepts and language felt quite daunting as did the history and politics of the time.
What I came to admire and engage with in these courses is the ferocious intellect, and the razor-sharp argument and rhetoric the authors consistently present in their work. I can identify with the issues they grappled with as modern ones that society still struggles to resolve today. Their vigorous commitment to literacy and self-expression is impressive. I found myself more interested in how they were writing than in the ‘stories’ themselves. I started the 2013 term thinking that Shakespeare and Renaissance and Restoration would be the most challenging courses and that my exam results would be the lowest in these modules. Instead my results exceeded my expectations with first class marks and the highest grades I ever earned.
Today I am contemplating Modern American Literature. The course is interesting because I want to engage with modern American history and culture. I particularly enjoy some authors on the syllabus but I feel wary. I want to be sure to position my studies so that there is not another ‘Augustans and Romantics’ experience this term. What can I do now, as I plan my studies, to mitigate the effects of those little surprises that come with learning? Spending some time skimming primary texts and doing a little secondary reading seems a good start. If it gets sticky, I’ll just keep reading.
Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes.