Friday, 19 August 2016

Why Studying English Literature Changed Me

18th August 2016

I started studying English Literature at the University of Greenwich in September 2013 and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

That's not to say I didn't struggle. Trying to balance the assignments, a social life, and an intense reading list is an art that only English Lit students know how to do. By third year, we were able to read at least three novels a week and live to tell the tale. We were faced with novels, plays, poems of a mixed length and were reading work by authors that we wouldn't normally have chosen to read or genres that weren't to our usual taste. With only 8 hours of lectures and seminars a week it allowed for a lot of reading time, but even with a lot of free time, most of us were still cramming to finish assignments the day before (I'm sure the lecturers knew this, but it's easier to admit now I don't go there anymore - oops!).  It was an intense three years, but an amazing one and now I'd like to tell you why.

I'm going to do a bit of promoting here. I'm beyond proud to have gone to the University of Greenwich. I'm proud to have gone there because it is filled with some of the nicest people I've ever met and I've made the best friends I could have asked for. I was blessed with having incredibly supportive, kind, funny, and welcoming lecturers who always helped out no matter how silly, small or complicated the problem. I had a really wonderful personal tutor whom I wouldn't have survived the three years without. 
At our graduation everyone cheered and clapped loudly for each other, and we congratulated each other no matter how little we knew them. Everyone on our course supported each other and that's an incredible thing. 

The modules I did over the three years were interesting and challenging, and I really did enjoy them despite how much I moaned and cursed them when I was tackling an assignment. 
I'd say my favourite was School for Scandal 18th century literature; it was one of my option modules in third year. 18th century literature was really interesting and it surprised me how much of the literature from that era inspired modern literature. We looked at a lot of plays, which normally I am against as I believe plays are meant to be performed rather than studied in script form, but the plays we studied were highly entertaining and made for a wonderful read. 
I took a dive in the deep end during one of my last assignments. We were asked to do a creative response to one of the texts we looked at. I chose to finish Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon. That was a task and a half, but it was incredible to delve into the mind of a dearly beloved favourite author of mine. Still, I finished the book and in the back of my mind I am tempted to actually write it as a novel. But dare I add to the long list of people who have attempted just that? Eek. Maybe. 
Literature of the Gothic was another amazing module to do. I loved all the books we studied, which is a rarity! My eyes were opened to some truly weird but wonderful novels and I find myself frequently eyeing up the Gothic novels and throwing my money at Waterstones buying them (Andrew, this is your fault!). 

Anyway, one with the list. Reasons why studying English Literature changed me.

1) It extended my reading pallet.
This is probably a given especially from what I said earlier about reading different authors and genres but it needed to be the first reason. Before I started university (between the ages of 14-19), when I walked into a bookshop I would go straight to authors who I'd read frequently such as Jacqueline Wilson, Nicholas Sparks, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, D.H Lawrence, and John Green. The genres I tended to stick to were Young Adult and Romance. Now I spend hours and hours scanning the shelves and loading my arms up with novels of different genres and authors. The different books we had to read meant I was forced, for want of a different word, to open myself up to a change of regime and a new way of thinking. I was pleasantly surprised by how many novels I did actually enjoy reading! My bookshelves are filled with horror, thrillers, autobiographies, memoirs, fantasy, classics, and gothic novels. Below is a photo of all the novels I studied over the last three years that were my favourite to read:

If the photo is too small, here's the list:
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  • A Mercy by Toni Morrison
  • Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist 
  • The Monk by Matthew Lewis (not Neville Longbottom, for the Harry Potter minded ones!)
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstencraft 
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Diary of a Bad Year by J. M Coetzee
  • Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • Roxana by Daniel Defoe
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • She by H. Rider Haggard
  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • Sanditon by Jane Austen
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
  • All Shakespeare's work I studied (not pictured above).
Northern Lights, The Shining, and Frankenstein were ones I'd already read prior to the course and already favourites of mine. Authors that surprised me were Defoe, Atwood and Wilde. I really enjoyed Roxana, Surfacing, and Dorian Gray / Being Earnest. I saw Earnest performed in Bath starring David Suchet and it is probably my favourite play, aside from Much Ado About Nothing. 
I am a huge Jane Austen fan and I had tried to read Mansfield Park many times but couldn't get past the third chapter. But after I had to read it for an assignment, I realised that while it isn't my favourite Austen novel it's still quite enjoyable.
As you can tell I've studied a wide variety of genres and authors so trying to find a new book to read takes a significantly longer time. But I'm more open to trying new novels and taking a chance with a book I'm not quite sure about and I wouldn't be without having studied English Lit.

2) Structure
This is one that can be linked to a few other reasons and it's a reason that can be applied to anyone who's undertaken a degree. The structure of the assignments I did has helped me with structuring every kind of writing I could possibly do. This could be as simple as writing an email to writing a draft chapter for a novel. It goes beyond the "Point, Evidence, Explain" structure we were taught at school because it helps you weave several explanations under one point. 
However, help with my structure also comes from reading several novels and a point my lecturer Andrew made. He said that chapter 12 of Northern Lights is set out like an essay. You have the thesis, then the evidence and explanation. The entire chapter is like a detective unraveling the tangled web that is an investigation. Having this explained to me has aided with my structure as it's a perfect example (have a read of the chapter with this in mind and let me know what you think!) Every chapter must have a point to it and having a keen sense of structure will greatly help you in writing your own.  

3) Writing

Structure links here, but it's more than just structure as to how English Lit has helped with my writing. I've developed a writing style, a voice if you like, and I've got editing techniques almost down to a fine art.
I'll talk about editing first. Call me a grammar Nazi or whatever, but I constantly judge people for how they write. It can be hypocritical as I know my work isn't 100% perfect, but as I've spent all my years in education editing and checking my work, it's a skill that has become a part of me. It's more relevant for uni work because at school, or especially my school, I had several chances to edit my work before I submitted. I also had a teacher for about an hour a day 5 days a week who would help with my work, mark it regularly and hand it back. At uni you don't get that. If you get a draft finished, you tend to only get one chance for your lecturer to read through it and check it due how busy the lecturers are. I was always quite glad about this because it made me feel independent but also like an adult. (If there's anyone here who actually submitted more than one draft before their essay deadline then I applaud you and want to know your secrets). Learning to check your own work for mistakes is a skill you'll develop over time and one you'll learn at lightning speed at uni. Like I said, I constantly judge people for how they write and it's something I wouldn't have done without being at university. I am that person whose face screws up whenever someone writes "your" instead of "you're" or "there" instead of "their". 
Through writing at least 50 assignments, you tend to get quite familiar with words you regularly use. It's like when your best friend starts using a word or a phrase you use and it's only then you notice how much you use it. For me, I overuse amazing, wonderful, incredible, that, and like. These are words I overuse in general conversation and I've only noticed how much I use them as I'm used to having to edit my work. but my writing voice is different. It depends on the style of writing, but for academic writing I use "that" a lot, but I also use words like aided, demonstrates, shown, etc. But studying English Lit has opened the door to other writing styles I can learn from and reinvent mine. This is quite a relaxed blog so I'm hoping no one is trying to mark me on it, but I'm hoping when (if) I finish writing a novel that I'll be able to see the difference in how I write creatively than I did at uni.

4) Appreciation of writing

This goes beyond my broadened reading pallet and rests on actually appreciating the beauty of the written word. I read something a while ago that put everything in perspective: every book you've ever read is just a combination of 26 letters. It's something we all know but it sits in the back of your mind without you actually thinking about it. Whenever I read now I actually take in the words that I'm reading. That may sound strange, but it's like I'm analysing the words without actually analysing them. For example, in Cider with Rosie she describes the long grass that surrounds her: "each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight". Rather than simply thinking "oh this is her description of the weird brown marks on the blade of grass", I now think "wow, that's a powerful description, how did she think of that?" It's a semi-analytical appreciation of how the author's brain works. I wouldn't describe the marks in that sense but now I've read it, I can see it. It's so interesting the way people's minds work and how they see the world differently to others. Appreciating the work of fiction rather than simply enjoying it is something I probably wouldn't do without studying English lit. 
It's also appreciating the fact each book I've read has changed me. Authors are a gift to this world and can change the way you think and see just by simply combining 26 letters. Isn't that amazing? These 26 carefully placed letters have the ability to make you cry, laugh, and fall in love. They make you fall for characters, have hope that they'll find what they're looking for, and sometimes they can make you empathise with the villain. Prime example: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I hated Voldemort from the beginning because I could never understand why he was so evil. As soon as I read the 6th book my whole perspective changed. Re-reading that book during my degree really helped me to appreciate the way in which Voldemort's story was told. 

5) Confidence
I've gained this huge confidence boost since finishing my degree. I feel like now I've dedicated 3 years to studying and I've graduated with a 2:1 I can take on anything. It's more of an achievement than finishing my GCSE & A levels because it's more independent than secondary school and that makes me proud. There were a lot of times when I wanted to give up but I perserved and now I'm more confident than I ever thought I would be. I'm already looking into doing my Masters because I cannot wait to continue studying. This confidence I've gained makes me know that I can do it. 
I don't think people always understand just how difficult studying English Literature can be. Someone once told me "how hard can it be? It's just reading books". I haven't been that offended since someone tried to convince me Twilight was better than Harry Potter (I mean, seriously?). It's more than just reading a book. It's reading about 3 books a week, understanding various theories, applying those theories to the text, and then writing all the assignments. Undertaking all of that over three years makes so proud of myself and everyone else who has completed this degree because it is pretty damn though. 

6) Career guidance

I've also gained confidence in knowing what I want to do as a career. Education has always been in my future but my degree has helped me in securing that plan because I've gained a lot of experience in education. It's not just about being a student that's helped, although that's helped me understand the different learning needs a person may have and listening to ways in which teaching can be adapted to that. 
It's also about different teaching styles. Every teacher and lecturer has their own teaching style. Some like to use all of the space to move around while they talk, some prefer to stand still, and others like to read off the powerpoint. Everyone has their own way of teaching and through my degree I've seen different styles of how I do and don't want to teach. 
Another way is knowing how to treat students outside of the classroom. A student in a secondary school will see various teachers throughout their day and it can be hard to find a teacher to confide in. I've had lots of help from my lecturers but I've also had lecturers who weren't particularly helpful and that's helped me identify the way I want to be as a teacher. 
I want to teach English and getting students to enjoy reading is something that's going to be a mammoth task. In our age of iPads and iPhones the amount of people who use their time reading a book is declining. But through studying I've seen the different ways of teaching and how lecturers tackle novels they know some students didn't enjoy reading, something I will most definitely need when I start teaching. I think the hardest one will be trying to get students to enjoy Shakespeare. I speak from experience when I say many students in schools nowadays really do not like Shakespeare and that breaks my heart.

7) Knowledge

One of the highlights about studying English Literature is reading novels from different cultures and time periods. The theories and texts I've learnt and studied have made me realise the problems that are occurring across the globe, both past and present. It's made me more aware of the world around me and I'm more determined to do something about it. I want to encourage and inspire people with my knowledge of the world. One book that completely changed my perspective was The God of Small Things. I wasn't completely naive about the problems in the world but I was naive to the extent of them and reading this novel helped me realise them. Theories such as postcolonialism, orientalism, and otherness has also opened my eyes to the extent of problems in other cultures, and without studying the theories I wouldn't have an awareness of these problems.

So there's 7 reasons why studying English Literature changed me. Some of them are generic and applicable for most degrees, but a fair few only come from studying English Literature. 

I had an amazing time at university and I'm so proud of how far I've come. Since graduating I've landed myself a full time job at a SEN school to start in September and I've started to plan my novel. I'm also looking at doing my Master's degree to further my education. 
Greenwich is a fantastic university and I'm glad I went there because it was exactly what I needed. Walking around the campus filled me with so much inspiration. There's so much history surrounding Greenwich that it's hard not to get inspired. 
I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who supported me throughout my time there and for the friends I've made who I know I'll have for life. It takes a lot of courage to decide to go to university and you'll never be alone. If you struggle, there will always be someone who will help you, all you have to do is ask.

Good luck to everyone who's starting university in a few weeks time and for those starting studying either English Lit or at Greenwich, congratulations because you've made a fantastic choice. 

Get ready for the best three years of your life.


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