Sharika Alam

Sharika Alam
2nd Year, BA English
I am a second year English Literature student at Queen Mary University of London. I enjoy studying postcolonial literature and medieval English literature. I am an ambassador for the School of English and Drama. I am also a Student Ambassador for the Widening Participation Department.

Writer’s Block

For an English student, there are few things scarier than a blank page. This hasn’t happened to me for a while, but last week I was struck by the dreaded writer’s block. No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t know how to begin my assignment. My ideas didn’t feel original. I hated how I was expressing myself. I just wanted to screw up the piece of paper and throw it in the bin with a dramatic flair – except I couldn’t even do that because I was working on my laptop. Chucking that in the bin would have been a rather expensive way to vent my frustration!

I am happy to report that I managed to complete my essay… eventually. It was a far more stressful event than it should have been. However, this process did allow me to identify a number of effective ways to overcome the writer’s block:

1. Free Writing

This is a technique that’s often used in creative writing but I think it also works for essays. In free writing you write continuously for a certain period of time. You don’t need to worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation. Take a look at your essay question and start writing the first thing that comes to your mind. Don’t think about whether what you are writing makes any sense, let your mind wander, let it jump from one idea to the next. It’s a great way to warm up and to stretch your writing muscles, while keeping a log of your thoughts. Later, you can organise these ideas in a coherent fashion or you may feel that the ideas you have come up with are not useful to your question, but that doesn’t matter because the point of free writing is to get you started and get over the initial block.

2. Mind map

Get a massive piece of paper and lots of coloured pens (you don’t need to use coloured pens but I just think it’s fun to use them and your notes look pretty). Jot down everything that you think will be relevant for the essay: evidence from your primary texts, possible line of arguments, critical thoughts. Seeing everything together is a great way of spotting the connections that will show you the way forward.

3. Talk through your ideas with a friend

Find a friend who is disciplined and motivated and discuss your ideas with them. I find that through the process of explaining your idea to someone, you actually end up gasping a better understanding yourself. They can also give you constructive feedback which will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your argument.

4. Change of scenery

If you are sick of your spot in the library where you have been sitting for what feels like hours, go for a walk and get some fresh air. Some light exercise often helps to clear your mind, and a change of scenery might give you a change in perspective.

A walk along Regent's Canal is always refreshing

A walk along Regent’s Canal is always refreshing

5. Get rid of distractions

I don’t know about you but I am easily distracted, especially by social media and the internet. I would sit down and promise myself that I will get my essay done by this afternoon but before you know it, 4 hours have passed and I’m on BuzzFeed figuring out which Harry Potter character I am (Hermione, if you must know). Force yourself to turn off your phone. I would also recommend installing apps such as ‘StayFocusd’ on your laptop which allows you to set a timer on time-wasting websites and once you have spent your allocated time, it blocks the sites for the rest of the day so you have no choice but to get on with your work. If the temptation to turn your phone back on is too much, try downloading ‘Freedom’ which can block your access to Internet for 8 hours at a time. As scary as it all sounds, it does increase your productivity!

I really hope you never have the misfortune to experience the writer’s block, but it is inevitable that you will at some stage of your academic career, whether it is during your GCSEs, A Levels or when you start your undergraduate degree. So when it happens, fear not, these simple steps will help you conquer it.

A few tricks of the trade

I find it so hard to believe that I am in my final year of university already. As clichéd as it sounds, it really does feel like yesterday I started my degree. Over the last two years, I picked up a few helpful tips that I like to believe have helped me become a better English Literature student. As I have mentioned before in this blog, at university you are in charge of your own education and of developing your academic skills. So this week I thought I would tell you about my top 3 suggestions that will help you achieve just that.

1)In Our Time (Radio 4)

Podcast on Plato's Republic

Podcast on Plato’s Republic

In Our Time podcasts are a life saver! It’s a Radio 4 programme where the presenter, Melvyn Bragg, invite academics and experts to talk about a plethora of different ideas. The topics range from discussions on Beowulf to the history of Penicillin, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality to the works of Rabindranath Tagore! Each programme lasts around 45 minutes and they are a great way to gain an overview of the literary criticism, author background and context of a text. I usually listen to them on my way to uni. I would also recommend Oxford’s ‘Approaching Shakespeare’ podcasts. I found them very useful during my first year Shakespeare module.

 

2) Documentaries

BBC Two Documentary

BBC Two Documentary

Obviously there is no substitute for hitting the library and consulting different sources to develop your knowledge but sometimes you may not have time to research the context behind every single literary text you study. Documentaries are a great way to learn about historical and political background of different texts.  I would recommend watching BBC Documentaries – they are often reliable, engaging, and there are a lot of them! So it is highly likely that there is a documentary on the period that your text is situated in. Last year, for example, I watched the BBC Two Documentary, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, to prepare for my first assignment on the Renaissance Literary Culture module.

3) Public Lectures

I think it is vital that you think beyond your syllabus in order develop as an undergraduate. I would strongly advise that you attend public lectures in order to improve your lateral thinking. London is an amazing cultural city, and there are often free lectures taking place at various institutions, like the V&A, the British Library, and Senate House Library. These lectures are usually delivered by renowned experts in their field, and it is an incredible resource that you’ll have, should you come to a London university. Moreover, wherever you go, your university will also host lectures which engage with contemporary issues. For example, during my time at Queen Mary, I’ve attended lectures such as Grenfell Tower: The Avoidable Tragedy, Seeking Refuge: Voices from Syria, and Brexit and Its Consequences for UK and EU Citizenship. So be sure to take advantage of them!

I hope you found this helpful!

 

Academic Support at University

It’s a common misconception that at university you are completely left to your own devices and you have to figure out everything by yourself. While it is true that you have to be far more independent than you would at school, there are a lot of academic support available as you navigate your way through university. I am going to tell you about some of the support systems that are in place at Queen Mary. If you decide to come here for your undergraduate degree, I really hope you take advantage of them.

Drop-in hours

Our Academics have weekly drop-in hours, where students can pop by their offices and have 1-2-1 chats. It is a great idea to go and speak to your lecturers about things that you found difficult or interesting in your reading or in their lecture or seminar. You can discuss your essay plans, talk about things that you want to learn more about or things that you completely disagreed with! They are experts in their field and you gain so much out of these meetings. It also allows you to network and form good relationships with your lecturers, which is especially helpful when you need references for further studies and job applications.

 PASS

PASS (Peer Assisted Study Support) is a mentoring scheme that is run for students by students. In my first year I went to PASS sessions and I found them really useful. Now I am in my final year and I volunteer as a PASS mentor. We run weekly drop-in sessions, and the aim of these sessions is to help first-year students settle into their new academic environment. If you are finding something difficult or you are nervous about writing your very first university essay, I would really recommend attending PASS sessions. PASS sessions are friendly and informal, and I think it is a great idea to speak to students who have already done what you are doing, and they can teach you the tricks of the trade!

 

Royal Literary Fund Fellows

You can also make an appointment to see the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. They are professional writers based at the Queen Mary Mile End library and they will provide writing support to students from all disciplines and help you develop your writing skills through one-two-one tutorials. To find out more, click on this link: http://www.learningdevelopment.qmul.ac.uk/royal-literary-fund-fellows

 

Summer Internship

“So what are you planning to do after you graduate?” Ah, the dreaded question that makes undergraduates break into a cold sweat. There are many people who come to university knowing exactly what career field they want to pursue afterwards, however, there are also people who have no idea. If you do know, then great, good for you! However, if you belong to the latter category, fear not, because trust me when I say this, you don’t need to have your dream career figured out by your early 20s. In today’s world, the average person changes jobs around 12 times. Chances are that you will not spend all of your life at the same job and your dream career will constantly change. For me, that is an exciting prospect because it means that you would develop your career organically – continuously learning different skills from various working environments and applying them wherever you go.

It is nearly impossible to know if a job is perfect for you unless you get a feel of that particular field, and I think your time at university is the perfect opportunity to experiment with different job sectors. The summer holidays are incredibly long (too long!), so I would suggest you use some of this time to gain as much experience as possible. At Queen Mary, we have a fantastic Careers and Enterprise Centre, through which you can find part-time jobs, work experience and internships. This summer I took part in QProjects, which is an internship scheme that is organised by the Careers team every year. QProjects places QM students as Project Leaders on challenging projects within local charities.

I did my internship with the East End Community Foundation (EECF). EECF is a philanthropy advisor and grant maker. This means they fund grass-root organisations, issuing nearly £1 million annually to charities in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. My job was to help EECF with their Vital Signs 2017 Report. A Vital Sign Report uses a combination of existing research and surveys with local residents to identify key issues affecting local communities across the UK. I collated data from the surveys, and then analysed the data to find trends and patterns. I also worked as a researcher to find out more about the problems that affect the East End of London. My internship was originally meant to be for six weeks but EECF invited me to stay with them longer to work on their social media strategy. Here, I got to write case studies to promote the brilliant job that EECF has been doing, as well as working on their Facebook, Twitter and their website to raise their profile.

The EECF team at Sky Gardens

The EECF team at Sky Gardens

I had the best time working there! This was my first proper office-based job, and I got so much out of it: I honed my research and evaluation skills, got to go and network at a business breakfast at the Sky Gardens in Canary Wharf, learned about collaborating in a team and working within deadlines. I also got a full experience of a professional working life: I attended meetings with CEOs, contributed to strategy meetings within my department, and enjoyed being treated to staff lunches after big events.

My colleagues were incredibly supportive and welcoming, and to be honest, they have set my expectations for future employers impeccably high. I got to have 1-2-1 meetings with each member of staff and learn about their roles, which provided me with an invaluable insight into the charity sector. In terms of making the most out of your internship, my advice would be to be enthusiastic and to really take a keen interest in the work that you company is involved in. For example, I wanted to find out more about the charities that EECF supported so they generously arranged for me to go and visit some of the projects.

This was my desk at work. Check out my QM water bottle - I'm all about the branding and the environment of course!

This was my desk at work. Check out my QM water bottle – I’m all about the branding and the environment of course!

The process of getting this internship was enlightening in itself. I had to write an application outlining why I was suitable for this role and then I had to attend a Graduate-style interview, which was very beneficial because now I know what to expect after I leave university.

This internship was eye-opening because I got to learn about a sector I hadn’t considered working in before, and now this will go on my list as one of my potential career pathways. On top of that, this term, I am doing QInsight, which is a programme designed to provide students with a better understanding of the civil service. I’ll let you know how it goes, and if you are interested in finding out more about career opportunities at QM, follow the link below:

QM Careers and Enterprise: http://careers.qmul.ac.uk/

Summer Schools

Recently, I had the pleasure of working at the Experience University Week: Creating a Language summer school at Queen Mary. The absolutely brilliant David Adger and Coppe Van Urk from the Department of Linguistics invited a group of Year 10 students to learn all about the ‘science of language’. They learned about syntax (word order in a sentence, and its agreement), phonology (study of syllables), and phonetics (how speech sounds) – to name just a few things. They also got to study the construction of invented languages, such as Dothraki from Game of Thrones, Elvish from The Lord of the Rings, and had the very exciting opportunity to meet Francis Nolan – the maker of Parseltongue from Harry Potter! The aim of this week was for the students to create their own language and then write poems, spells or chants in it. It was a lot of fun for me to work at this summer school because, as you know, I study English Literature, and therefore know very few things about Linguistics, so like the Year 10 students, I also got to learn something new!

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The languages that the students created

The languages that the students created

I really hope all of you are entertaining the idea of pursuing further education, and I think summer schools are a great way to get a taste of university life. Most universities in the UK hold summer schools for secondary school students, and I would encourage you all to apply to them. When I was in Year 10 (not that long ago, I promise!), I went to a residential summer school at Durham University to study English. I got to experience what it was like to study at university level, to be away from home, met wonderful people from all over the country (just like you do at university) and the students and lecturers at Durham gave me valuable insight and great advice about academia and university life. It was also where I knew for certain that I wanted my degree to be in English Literature. In addition, going to summer schools are not only a great way of finding out about what you want out of university, but also it helps you figure out what isn’t your cup of tea.

If you haven’t thought about applying to summer schools already, I hope all the exciting events at the Linguistic Department’s summer school is tempting you. To find out more about the summer schools organised by Queen Mary, please visit this webpage: www.qmul.ac.uk/wp 

My fellow student ambassador and I translated a Haiku poem from English to the language we created

My fellow student ambassador and I translated a Haiku poem from English to the language we created

A Day in the life of an English Student

This week I thought I would blog about what I get up to on a typical day so you could gain an insight into the everyday life of an English student. My schedule varies day-to-day: my Tuesdays are hectic as I have two lectures, each of which are followed by a seminar. However, on Mondays and Thursdays, I only have one lectures and a seminar. I have eight contact-hours per week. This means I have four lectures and four seminars per week. This may not sound like a lot, but the nature of an English degree means that I have to spend a lot of time preparing for these lectures and seminars: doing the set reading, researching historical and political contexts, and exploring the critical framework of the texts. I also have to do assignments throughout the year for each of my modules, so I have to plan and write essays nearly every week. On top of this, I have to balance part-time work and other social commitments. So here is a summary of what I got up to last Tuesday:

6:30 -8:00 am:   I am afraid I am one of those incredibly annoying morning people! I woke up, had a shower, got ready for the day. Then I had breakfast as I caught up with the news. As a Humanities student, it’s always important to be up-to-date with current affairs – you may never know when you will need a topical reference!

8:00-11:00 am:  I read Oroonoko by Aphra Benn for Renaissance Literary Culture – my favourite module!

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

11:15-12:00 am: It takes me approximately 20 minutes on the tube to get to Mile End from my house. But I have to walk to the station from my house and then walk from the station at Mile End to my lecture theatre, so it actually ends up being a 45-minutes journey altogether.

12:00-1:00 pm: I had my lecture for Renaissance Literary Culture.

1:00-2:00 pm: My lecture was followed by a seminar

2:00-3:00 pm: Lunch!

3:00-4:00 pm: Romantics and Revolutionaries Lecture.

4:00-5:00 pm: Romantics and Revolutionaries Seminar

5:00-6:00 pm: A very quick catch up with my friends, Kendra and Xenia

6:00-7:00 pm: I met with my Romantics group to discuss our presentation. We brainstormed some ideas, and allocated tasks, and topics for each of us to research.

7:00-7:45 pm: Journey home

8:00- 8:30 pm: I had dinner and watched a bit of Made in Chelsea (I know it’s reality TV, but it was a very long day!)

8:30 – 11:30 pm: I started on my Postcolonial and Global Literatures reading.

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Incredible book. I would definitely recommend it!

11:30 – Bed time.

This is my typical Tuesday but some days are much more relaxed. But I just used Tuesday so you think I am super productive, and also to give you an insight into my most busy day!

 

Mile End Campus

 

This is ArtsOne. This is the home of the School of English and Drama. We are located all the way up in the third floor! It’s where my persona adviser, lecturers and tutors have their offices.

This is ArtsOne. This is the home of the School of English and Drama. We are located all the way up in the third floor! It’s where my personal adviser, lecturers and tutors have their offices.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, Queen Mary is a campus-based university. This means the teaching facilities and the student accommodation are very close to each other. Queen Mary has 5 campuses: Whitechapel, Charter House square, West Smithfield, Lincoln Inn Fields & Mile End. I am based on the Mile End campus. This week, I thought I would write all about the places on campus where I spend a lot of my time.

 

 This is Ground. It’s a café that’s run by our Student Union. It’s a great place to grab a coffee and hang out with friends between or after lectures. I would really recommend their Mediterranean veggie wrap!


This is Ground. It’s a café that’s run by our Student Union. It’s a great place to grab a coffee and hang out with friends between or after lectures. I would really recommend their Mediterranean veggie wrap!

 

library-square

Here is the Library Square, and you guessed it… it’s where the Library is. The Library Square is used for events, stalls, and socialising. It’s always busy and with lots of people milling around. The sculpture that you can see in the picture is called ‘knowledge’. The sphere is the globe, and the arms represent the open-handed sharing and communication of experience and knowledge. Behind the statue is the Bancroft Building. This is where I have most of my seminars.

This is People’s Palace. I have my Arthurian Literature and my Postcolonial and Global Literatures lectures here. The original People’s Palace was opened in 1887 by Queen Victoria. It provided a library, reading rooms, a swimming pool and winter gardens for the local people of East London.

This is People’s Palace. I have my Arthurian Literature and my Postcolonial and Global Literatures lectures here. The original People’s Palace was opened in 1887 by Queen Victoria. It provided a library, reading rooms, a swimming pool and winter gardens for the local people of East London

 

The Regent’s Canal is right next to our campus. It passes through Mile End, Bethnal Green, all the way to Camden, right through the middle of London Zoo. The area surrounding the canal is beautiful, especially during the summer. On the left hand side, you can see some of our student accommodation. I have shown you a few places in Mile End Campus, but there are so much more to see!! I would strongly encourage you to come and visit us and have a look for yourself. We run campus tours throughout the year. You can book your tour via this link: http://www.qmul.ac.uk/undergraduate/openday/cant-make-it/campustours/index.html 

 

 

canal 

 

 

 

 

Lectures? Seminars?

Hello everyone! Hope you all have had a brilliant start to the new year. The new term has begun on a positive note, and I feel rested and rejuvenated after the Christmas break. It feels very surreal that I am already at my second term in my second year at university – how time flies!!

It’s been fun getting back into the swing of things: catching up with friends, and going to my lectures and seminars.  I have realised that I have talked about attending lectures and seminars in this blog before, but I have never gone into full details. So today, I thought we would discuss the teaching format at university.

The teaching style at university is very different from school and college. For a lot of degrees, the teaching format consists of a combination of lectures and seminars. For some degrees, there is also the additional lab hours and field work.

Modules

A module is a topic you will cover for either one or two terms. For both this terms and last term, I have been studying Arthurian Literature, which explores the representation of King Arthur and his knights throughout the ages; Postcolonial Literature; Romanticism, including poets such as Wordsworth and Keats; and Renaissance literature.

Lectures

A lecture is a like a presentation where your professor or your lecturer talks about a certain topic. For example, last year during my Shakespeare module, one lecture was about a particular interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s plays. A lecture takes place in a lecture theatre where you sit in seats like in a cinema. There could be up to 200 students in one lecture. Usually, in lectures, only the lecturer talks and you sit quietly and listen to them, and make notes (although this is not always the case). Sometimes, lectures are interactive with lots of Q&As. My lectures last for one hour and they are then followed by a seminar.

Example of my notes from Postcolonial Literatures

Example of my notes from Postcolonial Literatures

Seminars

A seminar is when the students from the lecture are split into smaller groups, and these groups go to seminar rooms to discuss what has been learnt from the lecture. Like my lectures, my seminar lasts an hour. Seminar rooms are very much like classrooms in school, but the number of students is smaller. However, seminars have a different structure to school lessons. In school, the teacher decides on what you learn. In seminars, it is very much about what you want to discuss, what you found interesting, what you agreed with or disagreed with in the lecture. Seminars are great because you get to find out a lot of different opinions on the same topic, which generates fascinating conversations. Sometimes, your peers can really challenge the way you think, and help you adapt your views and consider arguments from a different perspective – this is essentially what university is all about.

A typical seminar room

A typical seminar room

How to get the most out of your lectures and seminars

Preparation is key. Each week, in each of my four modules, I have a list of texts that I have to read. The lectures are based on these texts. It is vital that you do the reading because otherwise you will have no idea about what the lecturer is talking about. I like making notes as I do my reading, marking areas that I don’t understand, so I can bring them to my seminars, and discuss it further with my peers and my lecturer.

In your seminars, take part in all the discussions. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong – there would be no point in coming to university if you already knew all the answers! Sometimes, you will agree with other people in your seminar, and sometimes you will have a completely different stance to everyone else. And that’s ok because it’s the differences in opinions that generate the most interesting debates, and you never know, you might change someone else’s mind or they can end up changing the way you think.

I think it’s beneficial to regularly review the notes that you have made during your lectures and your seminars to consolidate what you have learnt. Moreover, I think it is crucial that you follow up on any ideas that you found interesting in your lecture or from your discussions in seminars. Be curious and proactive. If there is something that stimulates you academically, do further research; read an article about it, watch a documentary, listen to a podcast or hit the library to see what other academics think about your topic of interest.

I hope you found this useful, and if you have any further questions about the teaching format of your degree, go to university open days and speak to members of staff and students about it. Alternatively, most universities should provide details about their teaching formats on their websites.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It’s Christmaaaaaaaaaaaaas! Judging by the excessive ‘a’s, I think you can tell I am a tiny bit excited.  I just love Christmas: spending time with family and friends, the presents, the decorations, and even the sickly sweet festive coffees that make you want to vomit after the third sip but you drink it anyway because, hey ho, it’s Christmas! I especially like how the streets of London have a happy and cheerful glow, it gets you in the Christmas mood.

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Oxford Street Christmas lights

Last few weeks have been extremely busy with deadlines and assignments, and so I am really looking forward to the holidays. Having said that, I still have to do three essays over Christmas! But I think it will be OK, because I plan on balancing my work with fun, festive activities. I have put together a list of things that I want to do. I thought I would share them with you so that, if you are in London, you can also check them out.

1)      Christmas Markets

There are so many of them around, and they all sound fabulous. I am finding it very hard to decide which ones to go to. The Christmas market at Tate Modern has wooden chalet-style stalls that sells all sorts of wonderful festive items. There is the Christmas market in Leicester Square, which also has a grotto, and Christmas shows. The Camden Christmas market, however, seems to be the most interesting and quirky. They have a different Christmas theme every week. For instance, ‘Stocking Fillers for kids and pets’ and ‘Deck the walls for art and design lovers’. There is live music, and a selfie tree!

2)      Christmas at Kew

This sounds absolutely amazing! Kew Gardens has a Christmas trail with over 60,000 lights! I can’t even begin to imagine how beautiful that would look. For more details, check out their website: http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/whats-on/christmas-at-kew-2016

3)      Ice Skating

I am awful at ice skating, and more often than not, I fall over but it’s still a lot of fun. I think one of the best places to skate is at the ice rink at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.      

4)      Christmas Carols

This year Trafalgar Square is hosting over 40 singing groups who will sing Christmas Carols near the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. I think this would be a really fun thing to do with your family and friends: https://www.london.gov.uk/about-us/our-building-and-squares/christmas-trafalgar-square

Our Christmas Tree at the Student Union

Our Christmas Tree at the Student Union

I am really looking forward to visiting all these places on my list. I don’t know if I will be able to go to all of them but I will try my very best! I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a fabulous start to 2017. Till next year!

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