Life as a Literature Student: Month 1

I mention quite often on here that I’m currently an English Literature masters student, and yet I’ve realised I’ve shared very little to do with my experience. I didn’t create this blog to be about my academic life, but it’s becoming more and more of a presence. I don’t really feel like I can keep referring to it in passing (and often using it as an excuse for inconsistent posting) without doing a bit more of a deep dive.

I’ve also been on a bit of a hiatus on this blog because of my studies, so returning with a post updating you all about them feels apt.

I think the best way for me to do this (at least in regards to my postgraduate experience) is through monthly updates. I’ll use these posts to talk about the books I’ve studied, what the highlights and lowlights have been, how my dissertation is progressing, and a brief projection of what the next month has in store. As this post is being published halfway through November, I won’t be giving a projection in this post.

I’m hoping this will be interesting for people who have been or want to be literature students at the very least.

Books I’ve Studied

October’s reading was pretty well varied, and in general I enjoyed what I was required to read. Before I start talking too much about them, here is a comprehensive list of everything I read:

  • Mythos by Stephen Fry
  • The Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett
  • Bisclavet by Marie de France
  • This is not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • A selection of poetry by Charles Baudelaire
  • A selection of Romantic poetry (Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley etc.)
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I enjoyed a lot of the books that I studied in October, and this was enhanced by studying them. Whilst the initial reading experience for some of the 19th century texts wasn’t the best, I always find that they retrospectively gain favour once I’ve thought about them more critically. Some books like Mythos and Wuthering Heights had been on my tbr for a while, so it was nice to finally get round to reading these.

I got to study a wide variety of texts, including poetry and children’s literature. I haven’t studied poetry for years, so whilst I had completely forgotten all terminology it was fun to get back into this!

I have to confess that I didn’t like all of the books I read last month though. My least favourite was probably Uncle Tom’s Cabin, mostly because it was a difficult read. Although considered revolutionary at the time, the language and characterisation used is now really unacceptable, and as such I struggled. I found it really interesting to consider the context of the novel though, and we had a really productive conversation about it in our seminar.

Highlight of the Month

Honestly, my highlight for this month is joining such a wonderful postgraduate community through my new course. Because I did a joint honours degree at undergrad, I sometimes felt like I was stuck in between two departments, and struggled to meet people because my time was split in half. Now, I’m on a course with only 30 people, so we’re a far more cohesive group.

I’ve had so many interesting and fun discussions in seminars, and it no longer feels like we’re entering classes to have a fixed discussion about a text. The tutors are taking a week each talking about their specialist interest, so our conversations are always infused with their passion. We get to tailor our sessions to our personal interests to the extent that I haven’t really felt bored at all.

Lowlight of the Month

My lowlight of the month is the workload, which was probably quite evident from my absence on this blog. I think that as much as it was hard being stuck inside during the lockdowns of last year it really forced me to have enough time to get everything done. Now, though, the need to find a good work/life balance is a big priority, but it feels very incongruous to my workload.

I don’t think the matter has been helped by the fact that it’s open season for graduate schemes, so I’ve had that on my plate as well. Honestly, it’s not so bad on a week-to-week basis, but I’ve felt the threat of burn out coming on a couple times already and we’re only just starting to approach deadline season.

Dissertation Progression

I was tempted to take this section out, purely because I think it could be embarrassing if I don’t make much progress between months. However, there’s no point in giving insight into my life and a literature student if I don’t include the bad with the good, so it’s here to stay.

At the moment, my dissertation is firmly in the initial research stage, and I’m currently just refining my topic idea. I’ve been finding it hard to fit work for it in on a weekly basis, and I really need to start deciding on some primary texts. I’m hoping that by the end of November things will have calmed down enough for me to really knuckle down with this, so hopefully in the next couple monthly updates we’ll see real advancement.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be sharing specifics about my dissertation yet (in the interest of anonymity and academic integrity), so for now I’m not going to get into the details. This could change in future monthly updates, I just need to think this through a bit more.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Please wish me luck for the next month of study!



Top 5 Surprising Books I’ve Studied at University

When a lot of people think about studying literature at university, they usually think of a very classics-dominated syllabus. Chaucer, Eliot and Dickens are probably among the names that spring to mind. I know this is partially what I was expecting, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Of course, these books are on the syllabus somewhere, however I’ve been lucky enough to go to a uni that allows a lot of flexibility in terms of modules you can take. As a result, there have been times when I’ve been genuinely surprised by the books on my reading list for a multitude of reasons.

I think it would be really interesting to talk about five books that I’ve had to study on my literature course, and I also think it would help to reduce the misconception that all literature courses are narrow and restrictive. I’m sure I have been lucky with my university’s willingness to give us lots of freedom to choose modules that suit our research goals and personal taste, but it might be interesting for you to see the variety of books it’s possible to study at university.

Intellectual snobbery is something I’m very passionate about reducing, so I hope this helps to show that literature is worth reading even if it isn’t a classic!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

We studied this on a module called ‘Law and Literature’, and we focused on the theme of surveillance and control for this novel. Anyone who has read The Hunger Games will know that this book perfectly exemplifies these themes, but for some reason I didn’t think YA would be included on a reading list unless we were specifically looking at YA literature.

I know a couple of my friends on other courses were very surprised when I told them I was reading this in my final year of university, but I honestly think that just shows how far spread intellectual snobbery has gotten. Some of these people barely read themselves, yet they felt comfortable enough to judge the value of a book based on its target audience.

Honestly, as well as the fact I already owned and had read this book, I really liked studying this. It was really interesting to see how the serious messages that Collins included were tailored for a YA audience, and how scarily accurate its take on surveillance and state control compared to things in the real world. It showed how the dystopian genre can be used to highlight problems in our society without directly criticising current governments, and I think that really valuable research could arise from analysing this novel in this area of study.

This is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans

In a similar vein to the last book, this was surprising to me because it’s written for children. At a masters level, you wouldn’t necessarily expect an academic to choose this for one of the main weekly readings, but it is!

I read this for a module called ‘Evolutions of Popular Literature’ which looks at how popular themes and myths are passed down through the literature of different eras. When you think about that specific research goal, using a children’s book that focuses on a werewolf makes complete sense, and is really valuable in its own right. We are comparing this to stories about werewolves from centuries earlier and looking at how certain elements are dropped or adapted to create a story that is engaging for a modern reader.

Considering children’s literature is a really important part of popular literature, it seems silly that some people would overlook it just because it’s not considered ‘high’ academic work. If you really like figures from myths and legends, looking at children’s literature and its presentations of those figures is a really interesting perspective that not many people have probably taken!

Cloud Nine by Carol Churchill

Okay, so not technically a book, but I studied this play in one of my first year core modules. I’ve included it because, firstly, it shows the different types of literature I got to study, even when I didn’t have the chance to pick my modules.

I also think the content of this play is different to what I’d expect from a literature degree. It’s split into two acts, with the first focusing on racist violence and power in colonial times, and the second on homophobia and familial power in modern times.

It’s quite an explicit play, that shows people getting shot, having gay sex and one particularly crude moment where a man receives oral sex on the London Underground. Although talking about this was awkward at first in seminars, it was really great to tackle serious and adult topics after being at school where everything seems a little bit watered down and sheltered.

If you think that classics are the main texts studied on a literature course, it might shock you to hear that a play so explicit and modern would be included!

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

This book surprised me less because of its content as it’s context. This is a book that was originally written in French by Comoran author Zamir, and was subsequently translated and published in English.

Before I came to university, I had heard that you really had to seek out modules that contained books written by non-White non-British authors. The module I chose wasn’t specifically aimed at this, but instead looked at ‘Literature at Sea’.

We did read the classic Moby Dick, but we also looked at several writings by other authors less well-known. What made me even more surprised about this book was that it was translated, adding even more interesting areas of analysis. We were considering the role of a translator and how important their choices were in terms of shaping the narrative and making comment about certain themes, as well as the original author’s choices.

I think this is probably an area that my university is quite good as, as there are often multiple books on the reading list by authors outside Britain and America.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

This is a little bit of a cheat because I technically didn’t study this, but my housemate did so I think it can just about count towards this list.

In final year, there was an optional module that looked at regency and modern romances, and the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the readings for it. Now, I don’t think it was necessarily picked because of the quality of the book, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to contribute to research in the field!

I think this surprised me for a lot of reasons. Firstly, reading something very sexually explicit with a seminar tutor sounds like an awkward experience, but also that the novel wasn’t just dismissed as smut and cast aside. There are academics who look at modern hits like Fifty Shades to see how a range of trends and conventions have adapted in today’s world.

What I learnt from this is just because the book you’re reading might be about something that doesn’t seem very academic, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading or it can’t have academic value.

I would love to hear from any fellow literature students about your experience of the range of literature you’ve gotten to study! I hope everyone has been as lucky as me, but I know that isn’t always the case, so I’d love to start a discussion about it in the comments!

I’m thinking of making a little university series of blog posts where I talk about other aspects of my degree, so if you’d like that let me know in the comments and give me suggestions for what you’d like to hear!