Everything you are about to read has been written by current and recently graduated students at the University of Cambridge, to give you honest information about what it’s like to be a student at Cambridge.

English at Cambridge takes a chronological approach, spanning from c.1300 to the present day in different intervals. Exactly which of the papers you do are subject to your college, but there are some compulsory ones, such as the Shakespeare paper. Alongside these, you take a paper in Practical Criticism; this is essentially a theoretical and analytical approach to literature, based on close reading and ‘how texts work’. Teaching is split between the English Faculty (which is responsible for running lectures) and your college, where you’ll have most of your supervisions. Most Colleges take between 5-10 English students a year.

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How have you found the structure of the course?

Anna, English, Clare College, 3rd Year
Clare, 3rd year

Each term the majority of our work is on a period paper (e.g. 1500-1700), so we get a sense of a broad historical movement from lectures and the defining characteristics of its literature. The weekly essay and small-group teaches focuses in upon specific texts in much more detail, zooming in on specific facets of literary work. As such, the course is very broad, giving an overview of all major English literature 1300-Present but also highly specific, as you find yourself specialising in niche areas such as the object of the bed in Renaissance revenge tragedy. Practical Criticism teaching takes a different approach, in that discussion focuses upon very close readings of a somewhat random short text, leading to consideration of the abstract notions of what it means to read and what a text is, rather than a concern with context.

What is your faculty/department like?

Emmanuel College, 3rd year
Shameera, Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year
Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year

Dani: The English faculty is on the Sidgwick site (right next to Newnham/Selwyn colleges, about 15 minutes from the town centre) and contains the English library, where you’ll be able to access more books than will usually be available in your college library. It’s a lovely, warm place to work, with desks, bean bag chairs, and several computer rooms - plus it’s extremely useful to read something about a book, then be able to walk downstairs and get it! Actual lectures are usually not held in the faculty, but in several other buildings on the site, usually the primary Lecture building. However the library sometimes hosts workshops, which help with everything from the basics of taking out books to how to reference essays. Events are regularly held in the faculty, from guest lectures on specific topics to performances in the Judith E. Wilson writing studio (Rod Mengham and Drew Milne are performing there as of today).

Shameera: There are also a couple of cafe’s on the Sidgwick Site and plenty of places to work outside for when it’s a nice day. We have all of our lectures in Sidgwick Site too, so it’s quite convenient to have everything in one place.

What types of work do you have to do?

Sam, English, Churchill College ,3rd Year
Churchill, 3rd year
Types of work

As you might expect, studying English will largely mean reading. Finding the relevant texts and criticism is normally really easy: between the Faculty Library, the University Library and your College Library, there’s a huge variety of resources available. Even better, if there aren’t any physical copies of books free, the Faculty uploads lots of chapters and essays (e.g. Cambridge Companions - Google it!) onto a database, so you can access them online instead. Outside of this, you’ll generally have around 2 supervisions a week, as well as whichever lectures you’re advised to attend or that you think are relevant/interesting. Your supervision will normally constitute an individual or paired conversation with an academic about that week’s reading or essay, allowing you to talk through your ideas, concerns, and interests in greater depth.

Do you have career plans?

Shameera, Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year
Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year

I’m not completely sure yet but I’m thinking of either going into journalism or converting to law. The great thing about Cambridge is that there are a ton of extra-curricular activities that can help you decide what to do. I’ve gotten the chance to act, direct, be a pro-bono consultant, tutor, volunteer, take leadership positions in college, be on society committees and do student journalism. These opportunities really help to develop skills that will be helpful in the working world and most of all are really fun to get involved with.

What about your course would you change?

Shameera, Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year
Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year
What would you change

Shameera: It would be nice to have a bit more room for options in your first and second year, and the chance to study more diverse literature (not just white British). But the faculty is changing in this sense and a working group has been set up to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum to give students the chance to study a more diverse range of texts.

Typical timetable of a 1st year English student

Shameera, Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year
Lucy Cavendish, 1st Year

Your timetable when studying English can be hugely varied. Generally I’ll go to about 5-9 lectures a week, have 2 supervisions and 1 class. Then I’ll have to do a couple of essays a week and maybe some class preparation.

The rest of my time goes into extracurriculars; I’ll have a few hours of play rehearsals a week, I’ll spend a few hours writing and editing articles if I’ve chosen to do stuff for student papers that term, I’ll spend a couple of hours a week volunteering giving out food to the homeless and a couple of hours doing admin for society roles. In terms of social stuff I’ll usually do something social with friends every day; this can range from just grabbing a coffee together, just chilling in each others rooms or going clubbing.

Your timetable will never be boring- the lecture cycles change frequently and you’ll be doing different topics every week; varied extracurriculars are also a great way of keeping things exciting.

- Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
9am - - - - -
10am - - Lecture - -
11am Lecture Lecture Lecture Supervision -
12pm Lecture Lecture Lecture - -
1pm - - - - -
2pm - Seminar - - -
3pm - - - - Seminar
4pm Lecture - Seminar - -

What has been going on at English?

- Recent Events -

In Finite Variety Drama Series

A series of short dramatic performances followed by discussion in the English Faculty drama studio. Performances included ‘4D cinema’ and ‘unfolding King Lear a model’.

Tea at 3

Every Friday the English Faculty library hosts Tea at 3, where all English students are welcome to stop by for socialising and tea (and sometimes cake!).

Shakespeare in Performance

Theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins gave a talk about his production of Measure for Measure in the Young Vic. Followed by a practical workshop on directing Shakespeare.

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