The 10 Most Surprising Things I Found Studying English Literature

When I decided at 15 years old that I wanted to study English Literature at degree level, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. In fact, even right up to the month before I went to university I had no idea what studying English Lit at a high level would look like. 

As a whole, my experience has been a largely positive one. I have found new love for literature, new passions, and as a whole have not regretted it one bit. But these are some things that I didn’t anticipate I would face while studying it as a degree. 

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  1. I sometimes feel like I’m studying a whole other discipline. 

50% of my lectures are usually filled with history, politics, sometimes even philosophy. While the general attitude to literature at school is focused on close analysis with a tiny smidge of context thrown in, at university the close analysis is all down for you to decide. Instead, situating yourself in the period and the moment the book was written in is just as vital. I’ve found myself reading declarations of independence, history books, and even human rights reports.

  1. The pace!

At A Level you cover about 5-6 texts over the course of two years and even that sometimes felt too quick. At degree you’re covering 2 texts minimum a week on top of critical essays, theory reading etc. This freaked me out when I joined university, and I just didn’t think I would be able to keep up. But with time and organisation skills (largely actually doing the reading over my holidays) this pace was something I grew to love. It forces you to find what is interesting to you from the get go.

  1. The variety/whiplash 

Following on from the last point, the variety of texts I have studied is enough to give anyone whiplash. My view of an English literature course has always been very traditional but having studied it now I barely feel like I’ve touched a book I had heard of previously. It opened my eyes to a world of literature I didn’t know existed, but sometimes it does feel like you’re doing 180s each week. 

  1. The variety of people and their interests.

This again sounds rather naive of me, but I wasn’t really aware that people could like such niche things. The amount of people I’ve met and spoken to who like things I am completely at odds with (*cough* the eighteenth century *cough*) did take me aback at first. I’ve lived in my own very small bubble for so long it’s nice to interact with people who genuinely care and are passionate about the things they love. 

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  1. Perpetual fear of the job market. 

Maybe this is just the worrier in me, but I am always thinking about career prospects. It’s a long-standing joke that an English degree will lead to the least-paying graduate jobs, but what they don’t tell you is the level of competition you are also up against. There are thousands of other like-minded people also looking at the same small pool of jobs as you. This isn’t something to scare people off by, but just important to consider if there’s a specific route you want to go down.

  1. Theory, so much theory!

My degree in English soon turned into a degree of all other disciplines. And critical theory is partially one of the main factors. Every week I have been introduced to new ways of thought, philosophers, even science. While these readings can be quite hit or miss, its meant that I can engage with most people on a much broader range of subjects. Marxism, colonialism, even anthropological ideas. 

  1. Simpler is better 

It was always my belief that the best English students wrote with ridiculous long words and phrases in their essays. But after a few failed essays where I had tried to mimic this, I started to realise that sometimes less is more. That a clear idea that is well-evidenced is way better than a bunch of empty statements. 

  1. It’s okay to hate well established authors…with reason 

It’s one of the introductory questions the seminar leader always asks at the beginning of a seminar – what did you think of this week’s reading? At the start I was always very meek and mild, gritting my teeth on certain occasions because I had in fact hated the reading. But when asked about Shelley I couldn’t really hide my dislike. That’s when I learnt that it is equally valuable to not like a text as it is to like it. A range of opinions is what you come to uni for, and your negative opinion is just as interesting as someone’s positive one. As long as you can explain your opinion with reason, your ideas are just as vital to discussion (if not sometimes more vital) than an avid lover of the book.

  1. You don’t need to love a book to write about it 

I’m quite a picky reader. I know that. And while it is such a cliche, it is abundantly true – it is better to write essays on books you don’t like. I’ve found that most of the essays I’ve done best have been on texts I didn’t even like in the first place. Instead of being blinded by my general liking for something, I’ve been able to pick up on ideas that have made for interesting topics. 

  1. You are a critic yourself!

It took me a long time to stomach the fact that I could disagree with well-established critics. Who am I to disagree with someone who has years more experience than me? But as time has passed, I’ve learnt that I am a critic in my own right. I look for things that others might not, and the beauty of literature is that it is up to interpretation.

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