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Studying English at Cambridge enables you to study a wide range of texts from several time periods, spanning from Medieval poetry right up to modern novels. You’ll often be faced with texts you’ve never encountered before and that is arguably the brilliance of the Cambridge English course – it’s not about what you have or haven’t read in school, but is instead about developing key skills which will enable you to think critically when you read, rather than passively absorbing texts. Rather than being spoon-fed the ‘right’ reading of a text like in school, your supervisors at Cambridge will engage you in (often heated) debate over a particular theme you’ve drawn out of a text and critically explored in your weekly essay and, rather than trying to find the right answer, it is often left to you (with the guidance of your lecturers) to negotiate and develop your own reading of a text.
English, 3rd year
The course is divided into Part I (first and second year) and Part II (third year). During your first two years, you’ll study several core modules: Medieval, Renaissance (1300-1550), 18th Century (1688-1847), Modern (1830 to the present) and Shakespeare. You also choose a paper from a wide variety of options, such as English Language, or papers in Latin, German and French (from A level), and Old English and Italian (from beginners’ level, the latter of which enables you to study Dante and Primo Levi). There is also the opportunity to replace up to two period papers with a dissertation (5000 words) and a portfolio of 3 shorter essays (totalling 6000 words), so whilst most modules in part I are compulsory, they give you a good grounding in key periods of English literature and you are still able to choose how you shape your degree (and how many exams you substitute with coursework!). Alongside this, you’ll take the compulsory Practical Criticism paper, which enables you to develop the skills necessary to be a critically aware reader and will give you a much greater appreciation of the way in which texts are constructed (long gone will be the thought that a poet just ‘threw together’ a jumble of words – there will instead undoubtedly be method in the madness).
“ You’ll often be faced with texts you’ve never encountered before and that is arguably the brilliance of the Cambridge English course ”
In your final year, you’ll have the ability to specialise in topics that you most enjoy and areas you may have passed over briefly during part I but didn’t have the time to focus on; optional modules can range from Old English right up to Contemporary (literature published in the last 15 years). There really is a huge range of choice and this freedom reflects the brilliant teaching staff at the faculty who are leading experts in their field. You could study American or Post-colonial literature, or specialise in lyric poetry or even borrow a paper from another tripos (such as a foreign language). And, if performance or art is something that interests you, you can take the ‘Shakespeare in Performance’ or ‘Visual Culture’ papers. You also continue to develop critical skills with two core compulsory modules; you’ll continue to study Practical Criticism and begin to tackle the Tragedy paper, which allows you to study the development of tragedy as a genre and artform from the Greeks to Shakespeare and the modern day. You will also write a compulsory 7500 word dissertation, which might sound like a scary undertaking at first, but in reality enables you to focus on a topic of your own choosing which really interests you but which you might not have been able to study in great detail during the first two years. It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in a central topic, text or theme and show off all those critical skills you’ve developed during part I.
So that’s the course outline over with – phew! As you can see, English at Cambridge really offers you the opportunity to become a well-read individual and your supervisors will encourage you to read around areas that interest you, rather than asking you to stick to the set texts – these texts are more a platform for you to leap from as you discover where your interests lie. But what is life like as an English student? The short answer is ‘variable’. Lectures are optional (a blessing when it’s pouring with rain and you just want to curl up at 9am with some coffee rather than face the weather) and your time really is your own; this can be really great or really difficult, depending on your methodology. The reality is that you will become well-acquainted with the Faculty library and will spend many hours sunk into a beanbag as you tackle your weekly reading. But being in control of how you spend your time can be brilliant too, as you explore the hidden treasures of Cambridge, such as heading to the corner coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon or venturing down to the river to feel terribly Cambridge-esque as you read on the riverbank whilst punts pass you by. But you can also escape the English bubble by getting involved in a huge range of societies and activities, from the theatre to sport, student journalism to local volunteering. There’s such a huge range of things to get involved with that you’ll never be short of exciting new activities to try in between trips to the library.
Best thing? Being taught by leading academics
Each week, you can expect to juggle your time between a period paper essay, a short practical criticism essay and the work for your optional paper. You’ll have two supervisions each week in which you’ll discuss your work in detail and be given advice on how to develop your argument further. And of course, there’ll be several lectures to try to crawl out of bed for, but the lectures are often so engaging, you'll somehow manage to make it. Ultimately, studying English at Cambridge gives you the chance to be taught by leading academics, engage critically with texts and theories and, most excitingly, it offers you the chance to discover hidden gems in the form of texts that will change the way you read and appreciate literature.
Worst thing? Negotiating the shift from reading one book a term at school, to several books a week at Cambridge