How Do You Even English?

My new-found status as a ‘second-year English student’ really baffles me. I often ask myself – usually in the middle of my Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism lecture – how did I get here? How did I juggle the bewilderment of being a fresher with thinking about reading a bookcase overflowing with confusing and strange titles? The encouraging thing is, despite struggling valiantly to work a washing machine when I first arrived, that I and my peers did actually survive our first year of reading English, and that even despite some hungover lectures, there were many enjoyable and worthwhile moments. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so I really hope my experiences of first year can help to at least reassure you that we can all achieve our best from this course (even if that ominously full book case on the other side of the room gives you heart palpitations).

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Now: anyone who has purchased even a small number of the books on that very extensive reading list will know that there are a lot of books. These books all have a lot of pages: therefore, we all feel a lot of stress. I spent many a waking hour wondering if it was even possible to read them all – or would my fingers be rubbed raw from all that page turning? It is my duty, I think, to admit to you that I didn’t make it through an impressive amount of the list. My fingers are still in-tact, and fortunately, so are my grades. All hope is not lost if you can’t get through as much as you thought you would, I promise. I wish that I had had the forethought to venture onto the mysterious realm that is DUO to find out what reading my exams actually required of me. If I had done this, I wouldn’t have had nightmares about staying up, wide eyed, frantically poring through a pile of books that never seemed to diminish. Pick the books on the reading list that look a bit different, pick the ones that interest you and make you want to turn the pages. If you enjoy reading them, you might actually develop a greater understanding and drive to pursue further analysis. You might even find your new favourite book! Just make sure you develop a detailed knowledge of the texts you need to write about in the exam by the time Easter comes around (it’s doable!).

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Leading on from this, I also made the habit of, for lack of a better phrase, judging books by their covers. I found it really tempting to study books that were shorter – by about one thousand pages – than one particular novel that rhymes with ‘fleek mouse’. If you don’t get it, wait until Intro to Novel heats up a bit. While I was sadly not one of the revered few to read this particular work of art, I did venture to study some of the books on the Myth and Epic of the North course that I had never heard of before. Despite fears of language and cultural barriers, these Old English stories enthralled me as much as any post 20th century thriller could have when I plucked up the courage to delve beyond their covers. I encourage everyone on this course to push the boat out a little, and to just try to read something that’s out of your comfort zone. You might just find some hidden treasure (though try to avoid those pesky dragons).

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I can’t use the phrase ‘push the boat out’ without mentioning the scary circles of truth and knowledge (hopefully) that are tutorials. If you have been to a couple of these elusive meetings you will probably be familiar with the intensely awkward silences that happen when the poor tutor asks for actual discussion. While you might feel physically sick at those words, I encourage you to speak up. You say that point, even if you feel it’s the most basic, or outlandish, or irrelevant point you could make. A Marxist criticism of Emma? Go for it! Think that Moll Flanders is more of a list than a novel? Justify why with confidence! Even if your tutor looks less than convinced by your argument, I can guarantee that they will engage with you and help to develop your points; as will the other scared-looking freshers in your group. If you’re the one to take the leap into breaking the all-too-familiar uncomfortable silence, you might find that you put your peers at ease. You’ll all be able to reap the rewards of an intellectual, constructive discussion: but only if you’re brave enough to put your thoughts out there.  As Hannah Montana correctly says, ‘everybody makes mistakes’. After all, we’re all here to learn from them and to develop our love for literature. Even if said literature is long, wacky or right-out ridiculous.

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