Studying English literature can involve reading almost anything. Although you will usually be required to study at least some works from all periods between the Middle Ages and the present day, in all of the usual forms – novels, prose, poetry, and drama – you will also have a great deal of choice about what you read and study.
Some students choose to study children’s literature, science fiction, or Middle English romance poems. Others discover their abiding love for eighteenth-century drama, modernist novels, or contemporary women’s writing in India.
Whatever you’re reading, your English course will teach you how to read the work – or, in academic-speak, text – attentively and analyze its construction and effect. One student said it’s like learning to read in colour rather that black and white.
As well as studying how the text functions as a self-contained piece of writing, a thorough analysis usually involves:
- studying the historical background of the text, or its relationship to the society of the author
- placing it within a tradition, whether a formal tradition (eg. dramatic tragedy) or a historical or thematic tradition (eg. Victorian supernaturalism; women’s liberation)
- applying critical models, known as literary theory, to the text that you’re studying. Literary theory includes, for example, postcolonial and feminist models of how literature can reveal or conceal power relationships.
Alongside the text itself, you’ll read critical, historical, and theoretical works that place the text in context or provide new ways of looking at it.
The results of your analysis will often be presented in the form of an essay or an oral presentation.
A degree in English is so much more than what you study at school …..Within the degree there are so many sub-topics: history, religious studies, anthropology, philosophy, it’s not simply about crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s, it’s an amazingly versatile subject and with this comes extra work. Danni Mustarde, Northumbria University
Class discussions give you a chance to discuss your ideas and those of your classmates. In the process, you can form your early insights into a more complex understanding of the text. As you develop your reading skills and your knowledge of how texts work, you’ll be able to make critical discoveries about anything that you read.
Your lecturers and tutors will provide the background information required to get you started, both on reading the class texts and on your own research. They’ll also help you to present your ideas in a reasoned and articulate analysis.
Most of the time, your lecturers will be teaching on topics that they have a special interest in and have worked on extensively. Their research and analysis will be a starting point for your own work.
Putting it all together, it’s easy to see how an English course teaches you a great deal about life, history, and society, as well as about literature itself. In the process, you learn how to think critically, research your ideas and apply new analytical models, and, finally, communicate the result.
And best of all, you get to do all of this whilst studying the works that you love most.