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.
What about the English course at Cambridge appealed to you?
Anna: I love the way the course treats you very much as an individual. You’re given the freedom each week to write on whatever interests you, and all the small group teaching provides a great space for you to develop your own ideas.
Sam: I’d say my favourite thing is the sheer flexibility of the course. Within the time frame of the paper, you can read (and write) on effectively anything that takes your fancy! The emphasis is very much on your interests and thoughts, not your supervisor’s.
Dani: The breadth of material is easily my favourite thing about the course - you get exposed to so many beautiful and unusual texts, you’ll make links with topics you never thought were relevant (anything from glacier ecology to Bible stories) and the reading is very rarely a chore, because essay-writing means hunting for ideas and images that excite you.
How have you found the structure of the course?
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?
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).
What types of work do you have to do?
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.
What about your course would you change?
Anna: I think the freedom can be a bit overwhelming to start with! Being told to select the lectures you go to, the texts you write on and even to compose your own essay questions is fantastically intellectually-liberating, but can be a bit of a shock in first term.
Sam: I’d agree with Anna on this one. You have to be very self-disciplining to make the most of the freedom: it is wonderful, but moving from structured school/college days to taking control of your time can take some getting used to at first.
Dani: My friends doing science degrees all have at least 20 hours’ contact time a week, whereas even if I went to every single relevant lecture (which isn’t feasible) I’d have half that. I wish we had more individual or group discussion time within the week.
Typical timetable of a 1st year English student
I go to around five or six lectures a week, which are all in the morning, and some have titles as great as ‘Horcrux Studies: Distributed Personhood in Early Modern Texts’ or ‘God and Sex’. I then have three seminars a week, in which a group of seven students discuss a text in more detail - this term I have one seminar on Practical Criticism, another on contextual information for our Period Paper, and one on a Shakespeare Play, and all of these are about an hour and a half. I then also have my weekly supervision, in which I discuss my essay with an academic and my supervision partner. In terms of work, I’ll spend the two-three days before my essay deadline reading intensely and thinking around the subject, before spending one day frantically writing the 2500 words. The rest of the week is then largely spent on seminar preparation, reading the texts for seminars and developing ideas. In terms of extracurricular activities, the flexibility of my timetable means I can fit a lot in! This term I’ve been involved in a lot of theatre, as well as editing for Varsity and doing a Spanish course at the Language Centre.
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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