Posts Tagged ‘english’

Creative Assignments

I might have mentioned before that on my course we only have exams in first year, and then usually (there are modules that do have exams) it’s 100% coursework. Therefore, we end up with quite a lot of coursework to work through in the year, which might sound scary, but don’t worry, it’s not too bad! I’ve mentioned that one of the fun parts of my course was that we got to go on quite a few trips, but another fun part is the creative assignments we get to do.

In the past I’ve done scrapbooks, written a 3000 word creative article and even created my own Google Map. Recently I had an assignment due where I had to create a number of portfolio pieces, and there was the possibility for a creative element. Seeing as it was for my British Culture in the 1950s module, I decided the best way for me to do mine was by typing out each assignment on my typewriter. I wanted to make it look like a war file, like in the films, so I also bought a plain, brown cardboard folder.

My workspace

My workspace

I typed out all the pieces and also printed a few black-and-white photographs to stick in. It might sound like it took a while to create them all, but the assignment was actually fairly manageable. We had to do six pieces, around 400-600 words each, and one 1000 word essay piece. We were told at the start of the year though, so could do them one-by-one, each week. One of the weeks we also had to do a presentation, and we could use our notes and handouts as a piece. As each week was themed, we could divide up the pieces that way. I’d already typed them up on my laptop in advance, it was the physical typing on the typewriter that took up the majority of my time.

My pieces included a historical research piece, a personal story, a review, the obligatory 1000 word essay, a poem and my presentation notes. The variety was nice, and each piece involved a different element of challenge.

However, I have to say that I spent a lot longer on it than any other assignment I’ve done at uni. It took a very long time to individually type each one out, but really it was fairly enjoyable. It’s nice to get to do something different, especially when it’s an assignment that is worth a fairly large chunk of my final grade.

My typewriter, mid-assignment

My typewriter, mid-assignment

The chance to do a piece of creative writing is also fairly unusual in terms of university English courses. Not many universities offer a creative writing element, and it can be fairly encouraging when you’re assigned one. It breaks up the fairly standard, long essays and I tend to find I put a lot more thought into exactly what I’m writing, how it’s laid out, and what the idea behind it is.

The finished assignment

The finished assignment

Overall, it turned into a bit of a nightmare, I’ll admit. I ended up putting in so much effort, and spending so much time on it that I got very, very stressed. However, as soon as I realised that I was going to get it in on time, and everything was going to be fine, I was genuinely proud with what I’d produced. I had hand-typed every single piece, 16 A4 sheets, and put real effort into its presentation. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to do these creative pieces, they’ve been really fun but I wasn’t even aware they offered the opportunity when I came to Queen Mary.

One piece of advice I’d offer is that after first year, when you get to begin to choose your modules, ask at the module fair about whether there is the opportunity to do something creative. I wish I’d looked into it more, and it wasn’t until third year that I really began to check what sort of assignments each module offered.

Course Opportunities

I wrote a little before about some of the opportunities my course had offered me. Whether this was visiting The Globe or museums, there have been plenty of opportunities for a different learning experience.

Last week however, my Writing Modern London module offered a pretty unique and exciting opportunity to have our usual two hour seminar replaced with a one hour talk with the author of the reading for that week, where we would get the opportunity to ask her questions about the novel and our course.

At the start of the week I began reading the novel, and found that I could hardly put it down. It was ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo. It had a really interesting and different form as throughout the novel, the narrator is learning English. It starts off fairly broken, but as it goes on it gets more coherent. I really enjoyed it and finished it over the space of about twenty four hours, plus it was a bit different to a lot of the texts we had read.

Normally I don’t purchase a lot of the books on my course. They can be pretty expensive, particularly if we’re reading three novels a week, sometimes four in previous years. I have a lot of friends who get the reading on e-readers as a lot of the texts are free. Usually we get the reading lists far enough in advance to order any key texts, but the library usually stocks most of the reading too. We can also check Senate House library, as we have access to that because we’re part of the University of London. Plus, you can always check charity shops or contacts students selling their books online. In this case though, I wanted to buy the book in case I could get a chance to get it signed.

My signed copy!

My signed copy!

Overall, the talk was really enjoyable. Our seminar leader ran it and aimed most of the questions she asked at topics to do with our course. It was also a really helpful session because we also got to ask questions aimed at our final essays. Xiaolu Guo was so nice, and answered all of them really well. She gave us some really helpful insight and we learned a lot more than we might have done just from our own readings. After the lecture I told her how much I had enjoyed reading the book and how it had made me cry at the end. She was incredibly lovely and signed my copy. Then in the seminar we used some of the things she had talked about to frame our discussions.

It was a really different way of learning and we got to discuss the module in a whole new way. My course has allowed so many of these interesting and unique opportunities and I’m upset the whole thing is nearly over!

Writing a Dissertation

Writing a dissertation can be a pretty daunting process. Like I’ve said in the past, I’m a third year English student, which means that by the end of this year I have to hand in an epic 10,000 word essay, on a topic of my choice (as long as it’s English Literature related!). The longest essay I’ve written so far for university ended up at just over 3000 words, so this is a lot longer. Plus I’ve got to work on it entirely on my own time, which is kind of hard when the deadline is so far away.

Luckily it’s not all as daunting as it seems, and the English department have given us plenty of help along the way. They started this year with six lectures, each covering a different section of the dissertation (question, introduction, bibliography etc.) to help us get started and also show us some examples of successful work. These helped us get ready to submit our proposals, which ran through what question we were doing and what we were going to write about. They helped the department assign us a relevant supervisor – someone who knows about the subject you’re writing on. Since then there have also been optional writing workshops for anyone who wants some motivation to get writing, with the addition of having someone there to ask questions.

I’ve decided to write about literature of the East End, as I have the added bonus of living here, which helps put everything in perspective. It’s a topic that really interests me, and a lot of the history of the area can still be seen. As I’m writing about it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it also means I get to do a lot of historical research, something I enjoyed but mainly left behind at A Level. It’s difficult, but I’m enjoying it so far. Picking a topic I love and am genuinely interested in researching has definitely helped though, so it’s always best to choose your topic really carefully.

My rather precariously stacked dissertation reading!

My rather precariously stacked dissertation reading!

Although I’m still a bit worried about the whole thing, I’ve been very lucky with how everything has worked out. My supervisor, who also teaches me for my module, Writing Modern London, has been very helpful and has set me a timetable to stick to. At first I freaked out when she told me the aim was to have an entire draft done by the end of this semester, but I’ve realised that this will actually be very helpful. I’ve already done a draft of the introduction and now have a week until a draft of my first chapter is due in. This means I’ll have plenty of time to edit the whole thing later, plus I’ll have final assignments due then too, so this takes a lot of the pressure off.

In any case, doing a dissertation is a great opportunity, especially if, like me, you want to be a writer in the future. For many (also like me), this will be the biggest piece of work they’ve ever had to do, and possibly ever will do. It hasn’t put me off though, because I’m applying to do a masters next year where the dissertation is 15,000 words, so it can’t be that bad! You’ve just got to stay motivated with it. I meet up with a small group of friends every Friday in the library, where we dedicate most of the day to shaming each other into doing our dissertation work. It’s good to have people there to motivate you, and for me it really helps. No matter how much work I have to do, Friday is always reserved for the dissertation.

Although it’s hard going now, I know that when it comes to handing it in, I’m going to wish I could do it all over again. It will be the last piece of work I have to do for my English degree, and I can’t believe it’s almost all over!

Back to reality

Over Christmas I had a really nice break, did a bit of reading, went on holiday and also had a couple assignments too. However, when I came back from Christmas, just like any time when you’re away from work for a while, things got a little bit crazy.

For my course, I had a module pack to pick up, which I needed to complete the first week of reading. I had already done a bit of pre-reading for the first week back – I had read two novels over Christmas, one for my Writing Modern London module and a brand new module for this semester, British Culture in the 1950s. In my blog about self study, I spoke a bit about how it’s wise to read ahead, especially if you know you’re going to have a lot of work to do or you have a lot of reading for that week.

Film Society’s 2 Co-Presidents. Myself (left) and Gemma (right)

I mentioned in another previous blog that I’m co-president of Film Society with my housemate and fellow film loving friend, Gemma. We also had a lot of work to do for film society, as we had the second round of welcome week for all the new students joining Queen Mary coming up. That was pretty hectic too, as we had leaflets to print out, and the fair ran from 2-6, on the day of our first screening. This involved a lot of dashing about and last minute changes, but we pulled it off okay in the end!

The somewhat chaotic Welcome Back Fair

The somewhat chaotic Welcome Back Fair

I also had to begin writing my dissertation, a scary prospect for most. In case you don’t know, a dissertation is a large piece of writing (mine has to be 10,000 words) on pretty much any topic (as long as it’s to do with English!) of my choice. My supervisor, who is someone who helps me through the process, is trying to get me to write it as soon as possible, so I have plenty of time to edit it and look it over. I had to write a first draft of my introduction over the Christmas break too, to hand in when I got back. Although it took me a week longer than I said, I also got that done and now have the next chapter to begin. I’m feeling more confident about the project as a whole now, and am not freaking out too much about the fact it’s due in May!

On top of all of this, there was also the next issue of The Print due, and trying to settle back into a life where my mum doesn’t cook all of my meals and wash all my clothes.

Overall, although there was a lot to do, the work is manageable. I like to make lists of all the things I have to do so I have things to tick off. I feel more productive and this helps me complete all of my other tasks. Other things I’ve found that work are breaking up larger tasks with smaller ones or doing something fun in between, like organising my notes whilst watching a TV show I enjoy. Sometimes things can feel overwhelming but everyone else is in the same boat, and all my housemates have as much work to do as I do. Luckily we own a VHS player and about thirty classic Disney movies so we can all unwind together.

I’m getting back into the swing of university now, so I’m getting back into a regular work schedule again. Plus, even though sometimes work can be hard, I’m really going to miss it. I’m seriously considering the masters degree I wrote about in my previous post. I’ve been doing a bit more research, which shows you that work is never too overwhelming. My best advice is to stay motivated, and if this all sounds a little scary, trust me – these are all skills you develop during school and university. Time management and balancing your work becomes the norm, they’re talents that you can never stop getting better at.

Studying English

I spoke a little before about the best bits of studying English at university – the trips and all the choice, but in this post I wanted to talk a little about what an average teaching session is like. Over my university years they have changed a little bit – in first year the lectures were all really big, because everyone takes the same modules (specific topics for teaching). So, for example, everyone studied Shakespeare and so we had huge lectures that everyone attended, where a lecturer (like a teacher) stood at the front and told us all about the topic, play or book for that week. After that we had an hour seminar where everyone discussed the points brought up in the lecture and any other points you might have thought of yourself whilst reading. In seminars your seminar leader might also assign you a mini task, like reading through a bit of the play and talking about it in groups. This all changes again in second year as everyone gets to pick their modules, and there are so many options that the lectures become a lot smaller. The seminar groups however tend to stay the same size – roughly between 10 and 20 to a class. Then in third year it all changes again! Most of the time you don’t get any lectures at all, and instead you get a two hour seminar. It means that lots more of the work is down to you, so when you read the texts you have to think about possible points you could raise in the seminar and any questions you might have.

I’m going to describe what my ‘Writing Modern London’ teaching session on Monday was like, as it gives a sort of example as to what all this really means!

The reading for the week, image courtesy of:

The reading for the week, image courtesy of:

Above is an image of the reading for the week. We normally have a week to read the texts for the following week, however if you have a lot to do or are really prepared, it’s advised to read ahead so you don’t get behind. As it was a fairly short novel, only about 150 pages, we were also advised to start our reading for next week – a novel called ‘Absolute Beginners’ as that is about 350 pages. The lecturer and seminar leader expects you to do the reading so you can understand the content but also contribute in the seminar afterwards. Also in our coursework, we are usually expected to write on quite a number of the books, so it’s best to be prepared.

For ‘Writing Modern London’, we usually have a double seminar, and sometimes we have a lecture and seminar, however this week it was a lecture followed by a seminar. We sat in a fairly large room, as there is about 30-40 of us on this module, and our lecturer delivered her presentation. Normally this a combination of them talking, powerpoint slides and sometimes small video clips. This lecture opened with us watching a clip of some of the people who emigrated to Britain from Trinidad in the 1940s and ’50s. It served as a good opener as the book ‘The Lonely Londoners’ is all about people from Jamaica and Trinidad who came over to Britain. It was really interesting and we looked at a lot of history, and then the lecturer linked that back to the book. The lecturer also linked all of her presentation back to the overall theme of the module – London, and during this we all made notes. She then also told us a bit about the book for next week as the two books are quite similar.

The notes I took during the lecture.

The notes I took during the lecture.

Sometimes you’ll need to write down quite a lot all at once, so it’s quite demanding and you always have to be listening. Afterwards we had a seminar where we began by discussing a few of the themes from the lecture and then were given a task. We have an assignment coming up where we have to relate some critical literature to a few of the novels we have read, so our seminar leader gave us a task to prepare us for this. We were given an extract and then we split into pairs and talked about how it related to a section of the book. Everyone then gave feedback and we made notes about it and talked as a group through all of these.

Our seminar handout, with my annotated notes.

Our seminar handout, with my annotated notes.

After this, we are left to go through our notes at home as it’s always best to read them again to make sure you remember as much as possible.

This kind of learning is very different from school. Quite often you have to get involved and contribute a lot more and a lot of what you get out of the module is down to you. As a said in my previous post, this is all about organisation and as you go through university this is something you get used to – don’t worry, they won’t throw you in the deep end!


When looking at universities to apply to, the course content was absolutely key in my decision making process. I looked at a lot of universities but I found that many of them were only offering traditional courses for English and didn’t study anything more modern than the eighteenth century. Many other courses had no option for choice, and you had to study prescribed texts and modules throughout the whole three year course.

I found a few universities with more modern course content, and also the option to pick modules (specific topics for teaching), and this, in combination with a number of other factors is why I picked Queen Mary. The way the English course works here is that in first year everyone studies the same modules, and second and third year is when you get to pick your own modules, with the option for more modern content.

Starting with first year, we all study ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Literatures in Time’ (Medieval texts) and ‘Reading Theory and Interpretation’ (reading books “through the lens” of theories such as Marxism and Feminism). We also study two other modules, for half a year each: ‘Poetry’ and ‘Narrative’ (reading books that demonstrate different elements of books). These modules cover most of the key elements that come into English studies later on and prepare us for the course.

When I saw the list of first year modules for the first time, I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed. I’d never got on well with Shakespeare at school and I’d only heard rumours of how ghastly Chaucer (for the Literatures in Time module) could be. When the Shakespeare book we needed for the course arrived (pictured below), needless to say, I was still worried.

The Shakespeare textbook, complete with pound coin for sizing reference

The Shakespeare textbook, complete with pound coin for sizing reference

But studying topics at university is very different from school. Like I said in my last post, a lot of it is self-study and the way you’re taught is different. For Shakespeare, we had a film screening of the chosen play every week, so that if we were struggling to understand what was happening in a certain scene, we could see it performed. We also had lectures (where a lecturer – like a teacher – talks to the whole group) that linked the plays to modern film, television shows and art and then in the seminars (a group discussion on the texts and the lecture) we could discuss anything we didn’t understand or wanted to focus on more. We even got to go on a few trips to the Globe – a replica of the theatre many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at, to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then back again to perform a scene from it on the stage!

The view from on stage at the Globe

The view from on stage at the Globe

This was an incredible experience and it totally changed the way I thought about Shakespeare. Chaucer turned out to be not that bad either. We even studied The Summoners Tale which is all about farts (no seriously, it really is) which had everyone giggling all the way through the lecture. We got to do another trip for that module (English gets quite a few trips) to the V&A where we looked at all the artefacts that tied into what we had read in the texts. It even involved some dressing up…

My two friends trying on some of the costumes available.

My two friends trying on some of the costumes available.

Another feature of first year that came as a surprise to me, as I hadn’t seen this when I was researching my course were exams. We only had to do two exams in first year: one on Shakespeare and one on Literatures in Time. However after that, in second and third year (except for a few modules) the assessment is all coursework – so no more exams! As someone who struggles to revise and would much rather do things in my own time, this is really helpful and takes a lot of stress and pressure off.

Second year was when I got to pick my modules for the first time. When looking through the modules before I came to university, the ones focused on London really stood out for me, so top of my list was a module called ‘Representing London: The Eighteenth Century’. I also took ‘Renaissance Literary Culture’ which looked at how arts and literature really came about in that time and ‘Modernism’ – a module that included a lot more modern texts. I then took ‘Writing Now’ for half a year, all about texts published in the last few years and ‘Satire, Scandal and Society’ for the other half of the year which linked very well with the London module and studied satire in the eighteenth century.  I found that overall I had more motivation because I was getting to study topics that I had picked for myself. We also got to go on more trips. Pictured below are a couple of the pictures I took on a walking tour we did for Representing London: The Eighteenth Century, where we walked along and thought about how the London landscape has changed.

The first part of the walking tour, up the Monument

The first part of the walking tour, up the Monument

A very attractive selfie of me and my walking tour group

A very attractive selfie of me and my walking tour group

Finally in third year, the modules I’ve picked are my favourites yet and I’m really enjoying them! I have to do a dissertation this year which counts for one of my modules. This is a 10,000 word final essay about a topic of my choice. I’m also doing a module called ‘Writing Modern London’ which was another module that excited me when I was doing my university research, and ‘Feminism(s)’, a module exploring feminist theory. Then for half a year I’m doing ‘In and Ideal World: Utopias from Plato to the Present’ which looks at utopian fiction (stories about ideal societies) and in the next half of the year I will be doing ‘British Culture in the 1950s’. I feel more motivated than ever approaching these modules and find that I am enjoying third year study the most. And the good news is that I still get to go on trips! This week I’m going to be going to the Tate Britain for my Feminism(s) course, looking at Tracey Emin’s famous bed and a photography exhibition, among all the other art. The fact that I get all this choice continues to excite me in my learning, I love getting taught about subjects I am really passionate about, and feel that I’m personally shaping my degree into what I want it to be.

Self Study

As I mentioned last week, university classes started up again after all the fun of Welcome Week. I remember in my first year that this came as a relief, as preparing for classes was something I had become used to at school, and I particularly enjoyed preparation for English class as that meant a lot of reading – something I enjoy. What took the most adjusting to however was exactly how much university relies on this form of ‘self study’. I have a lot less help than I got in school and instead of having my days full of lessons, I now spend most of my time doing my own work.

Of course, English is a subject that relies a lot more on me doing my own reading than a lot of other subjects, as that’s what our teaching mainly relies on. So if you were to do a science-based subject you would be likely to do less reading, but a lot more practical work or research instead. For English this reading is not only essential for our own understanding, but also our participation. We will either have a lecture, which is where a lecturer (like a teacher) will stand at the front of a large class and talk to us, teaching us key concepts about the reading. If we don’t do the reading then these key concepts won’t mean anything to us and are likely to be very confusing. Alternatively if we don’t do the reading and we have a seminar (this is a group learning session where we discuss what we learnt from the lecture or what we learnt from the reading ourselves) then we won’t be able to participate, wasting this learning opportunity.

Seeing as this is my third year (final year), the reading has been a lot heavier than in previous years and this has taken a lot of adjusting to. This isn’t something to be worried about though! First year tends to ease you into this new form of learning so it’s not too much to take in at once and the following years tend to build up the work as you go on. Over the three years (or more, depending on your degree) you learn and build on new skills that help you deal with the increasing workload.

To give you all an example of the amount and kind of reading I have to do, I’ve taken some pictures of my reading from the first three weeks:

Module Pack and Plato's Republic - my reading for Week 1

Module Pack and Plato’s Republic – my reading for Week 1

In the first week I had a lot of Module Pack reading, and one novel. Module Packs are given to us by the university with a collection of shorter extracts or articles inside and generally we are given a few of these a week instead of novels. We are also sometimes given some online reading to do, and this is also a similar length to the shorter Module Pack extracts or essays.

More Module Pack reading, finishing The Republic and another novel

More Module Pack reading, finishing The Republic and another novel

My second week of reading had some more Module Pack reading and a new novel. However, seeing as the novel from last week – The Republic by Plato, was quite dense, we were given two weeks to complete this reading. As you can see, the reading isn’t that unmanageable, it’s just a question of dedicating sufficient time to complete all of it. It also relies on a lot of pre-planning – looking up the reading lists in advance, making sure I have access to the texts and maybe starting some of the reading early so I don’t leave myself with too much to do. A good example of this is in my third week reading, pictured below:

3 Novels - a very heavy reading week

3 Novels – a very heavy reading week

This was over double the reading of the previous week, so I had to make sure I managed my time well enough to finish the previous week’s reading early so I could start this week’s reading early.

This is the key skill I think university teaches you, no matter what subject you end up studying – self study; two of the main parts of this being time management and organisation. For me, this revolves almost entirely around my reading. I have to make sure I’ve completed it in time, but also give myself time to do other things like assignments and also to have some time off, maybe participating in one of the society activities I talked about last week. But like I said before, this isn’t anything to worry about too much. You start to pick up skills like organisation and time management at school, and university simply provides the perfect environment for improving these skills. It’s made me a more independent person and I know that after university these skills will prove to be invaluable.

Mastering a Masters (or trying to)

RJC_1616-700x412Graduation 2014 at Queen Mary University of London.

My three years at Queen Mary is flying by, and for me and my friends it’s time to start thinking about the Future. Grim. For me, it’s the pursuit of a postgraduate degree, and since I’ve begun researching and applying for masters study I thought I’d offer some advice.

What follows is not the wisdom of someone who has completed postgraduate study, but a selection of tips and bits of information that I’ve found useful, crucially as a final year student still in the process of mastering the search for a masters.

 The personal statement

‘This is far too meek and please-sir-can-I-have-some-more. The idea should be to bust down the doors, jump on the table and shout “I am something very special indeed”.’

These are the words of a very trusted friend of mine, a doctor, who read a shoddy draft of my personal statement over Christmas. For many of us, such a task has not been undertaken since our UCAS application, which I wrote three years ago. As much as it was then, it’s a tricky business trying to score the perfect balance between professional modesty and proving your worth. And there’s little assistance to be sought from reading over your old statement; I cringe to think back to my opening line (how proud I was of it at the time!): ‘In the words of Virginia Woolf…’

Oxford’s advice guide states that ‘A statement which indicates the likely dissertation research area the candidate wishes to pursue is more useful than one which presents personal interests, achievements and aspirations.’ At graduate level it doesn’t matter whether you’ve achieved Duke of Edinburgh Awards or play polo – what matters is that you like studying English and, more importantly, that you’re good at it.

Leave out the hobbies, but don’t leave out the showing off. On the contrary, says my reviewer, ‘Bring out intellectual fireworks and do some serious boasting about all the stuff you’ve done’. Your dissertation should be the non plus ultra of your degree, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about how great an independent researcher and thinker you are through a discussion of your project.

Finally, do not be embarrassed about getting people – clever people – to read it. Ask lecturers, PhD students, good undergraduates for help, and don’t worry if they say, as mine did, to rewrite it – your application will be better for it.

Be clear on funding

After undergraduate loans and grants the world of postgraduate study can seem a very scary place. As it stands there is no state funding for masters students, and very little funding from the universities, especially for arts and humanities students. There is, of course, the odd bursary here and there, as well as fee discounts for continuing students (at Queen Mary, for instance, we get a grand off if we stay).

Last year, however, I woke up to news on my phone that the chancellor had announced the introduction of postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 set to start in 2016. And in that moment it seemed all of my worries had gone away. Considering that I’d become so disillusioned at the reality of current postgraduate funding (the lack of it), the prospect of ten grand certainly cheered my spirits.

This is a very important development in higher education, but don’t give up hope on 2015. For those of us who are graduating this year, and who pay the nine grand tuition fees, universities are offering some incentives in the form of bursaries to encourage students to come along in September.

Maybe there is some hope.

Cast your net wide

When I began looking at postgraduate courses I had pretty definite ideas about the kind of places I wanted to study, and even firmer ideas about where I didn’t want to go. I knew I was at an up-and-coming institution, with a vibrant forward-thinking English department, and in east London, not a traditional setting for a Russell Group university. I wanted to avoid universities I perceived as being stuffy or boring (the kind that don’t teach loads of critical theory), and where loads of posh people go.

What I was guilty of, however, was being too closed-minded about many of these institutions. Consequently, I forced myself to look up courses in, make enquiries at, and research as many different universities and departments as possible. At this point, I made the courses and the departments my point of interest, not the preconceptions I had about the institutions.

As I look at all these English departments, north and south, British and international, old and young, I find each offering something particular and unique that makes me want to study there. Many of them are different, even opposing, in outlook and style. We should be excited by different options, though, and investigate these places as a way of trying to figure out what it is we actually want when we apply to study somewhere.

Do you want to learn there?

If we’re not going to base our choice of programme on what is familiar to us or what we thought about the university, what can we look out for? Ask if you want to learn at this institution, in that department, with these people.

It might work to begin by looking up the academics that work in the department, whether you know them or admire their work, and if they seem to offer the kind of ethos you want to work with. In my applications, I have noticed that some critics I have referenced in essays pop up here and there, and this was a good way for me to judge what kind of work gets produced in these places, and whether I want to be part of that. There are also, of course, those celebrity academics we’d all jump at the chance to work with. A word of warning, though, there is of course no guarantee that you would be taught by any particular academic, and, as I learned, they do tend to move around. Having written why I wanted to study under a lecturer at one university, she subsequently (and very inconveniently) moved to another.

Another way to gauge the character of the department in question, without looking to individuals, is to check out their research environment. All departments will list their current projects, and their research strengths and interests. Does their research look helpful to you and does yours look complementary to theirs? Look out for graduate seminars, whether they host conferences, and if they explicitly favour an interdisciplinary or comparative research culture. Do these fit into that you want to study?

More than ever before postgraduate study is about what you want, so investigate how each English department works as well as what it works on. Have you preferred being taught in lectures or in seminars? Queen Mary, for instance, teaches only in seminars, whereas Birkbeck incorporates both.

Do they want you there?

Are they too busy pouring water to have a proper conversation with you? This is a question I had to ask myself when I attended a postgraduate fair at Senate House last year. A member of a university admissions team really didn’t seem bothered in having to sell their institution and wasn’t very helpful. It is so important to think about whether that university wants you there, whether they value you as a contributor to their intellectual life, or if they regard you merely as someone privileged to be studying with them.

This final point relates to all of the previous. You are paying a lot of money to be at your chosen university, you are beginning to work as a mature and independent learner, and you want to choose somewhere you want be a part of. You have to sell yourself in the application, but a good university will try to sell itself to you, too. Think about whether they seem to value their students – do they offer you as much as you offer them?

Little Circles of Dancing Light: On Poetry

Poetry, poetry, poetry. I love poetry. I like putting on a silly voice to impersonate T. S. Eliot whilst reciting ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and deepening my voice to imitate Dylan Thomas’ melodic reading of ‘Fern Hill’. That’s just how I spend my Friday nights. I particularly enjoy spoken word poetry and I remember the first time that I encountered it. I was in my A-Level English Literature class and, in preparation for the practical criticism section of our exam, my teacher asked us all to teach a lesson on a poem of our choice. A guy in my class called Ben brought in an intriguing poem called ‘A Letter from God to Man’ by the spoken word artist Scroobius Pip. Fireworks erupted in my head, creating little circles of dancing light and all my nerves were fizzling. I liked it a lot. I proceeded to search for this mysterious Pip figure on YouTube, watching his videos to much more crackling and sizzling throughout my body. From this, I found Kate Tempest. Watching her perform makes every hair stand on end, her passion, her masterful command of rhythm and the raw, gutsy subject matter of her poems makes me want to scream ‘YES!!!’ Poetry is beautiful. And this intense love was only to grow more and more passionate during my first year at Queen Mary.

One lecture that particularly stood out was that entitled ‘The Line’. This was one of the first lectures on the module and it was memorable because Katy Price made us rip up a poem and rearrange it to see how line structure and length can affect a reading of a poem, its meaning or its overall effect. It made me realise just how creative you can get when analysing poetry and the extent to which you can deconstruct it: nothing should be taken for granted. I found this particularly interesting, especially the emphasis on sound within poetry and how it should be read aloud in order to gain a better understanding of it. This, of course, had been taught at A-Level, but the teaching at Queen Mary made poetry seem much more accessible and dynamic. The use of videos and music to illustrate points about rhythm and sound were particularly useful (Peter Howarth also used the music video for ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by The Smiths to assist his explanation of irony, which was another highlight). The enthusiasm with which the lectures were delivered and the fresh and innovative way in which poetry was presented helped to nurture my passion for it and confirmed my undying love for it.

My personal highlight from the entire first year was the Poetry Performance week. When I first heard that in Week 8 we would have to do a ‘performance’ I was bricking it. I hate doing presentations and speaking in front of lots of people, so the thought of having to actually perform made my blood pressure sky high. Week 7 came. It was time to plan my performance. It had been explained that we didn’t actually have to do a performance in which we stood up in front of people and recited a poem, we could do anything creative that showed our interpretation of the poem, such as make a video or a voice recording of the poem. However, in a sleep-deprived moment of panic and utter madness I decided to perform ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath. But I came to the conclusion that a simple performance was not enough. I decided to make awful collages which were supposed to represent certain key phrases or ideas within the poem and I intended them to look child-like to link with the poem’s theme (and to disguise the fact that I am really not artistic). Once I arrived at the seminar, most of my fear had disappeared. Everyone was really supportive of each other and there was such a fun, friendly atmosphere in the class that I actually really enjoyed it! It was interesting to see people’s interpretations of the poems we’d studied and I loved that it really helped to bring poetry to life. People have so many misconceptions about poetry: that it’s boring, pretentious and you’re forced to read it in stuffy classrooms whilst people talk at you and tell you what it’s about and how you’re supposed to interpret it. I found the course at Queen Mary very liberating. It was great to discuss ideas with like-minded people in seminars and the performance week was particularly freeing, allowing us to own our ideas and interpretations in a creative and fun way.

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