When I read other degree reviews, I’m usually struck by how intelligent and organised they sound. In those cases, it appears that the writer put a lot of thought and planning into their university career. As a precursor to this article, I was a little bit more chaotic. It might be best to start from the bottom (and beginning) and say that I applied for English because I liked reading, but mostly because someone told me that – contrary to what you might expect – it had relatively little reading involved. To set the record straight: the reading is exactly what you should expect of an Oxford English degree… a lot.
Personally, the tutorial system at Oxford is the best way to learn English at degree level as it facilitates an incredibly broad range of books and topics from the first week of the degree. While I definitely found it a hard adjustment at the beginning of the year, the ‘just retrospective criticism’ that was so frustrating has definitely proven itself to be a productive method of self-improvement – the difference between my first essay and my last is huge. But from A-Level to Oxford undergraduate, you go from looking at six texts in two years, knowing them inside out, to looking at multiple texts in a week – unable to reach anything near the depth of knowledge that you’re used to. It is frustrating and unsettling to begin with, and then both rewarding and hugely stressful when it comes to exams.
When I looked at English at Oxford, to begin with (read: until 6th week of my second term) I didn’t look at the course structure at all. I knew my modules for first year when we got our reading lists (Victorian, Modern, Old English and a language paper), and didn’t look further. What would have been useful is to have looked at the course structure in advance – because of how Oxford sets out its teaching structure, anything later than 1910 is covered in one term in the first year, and then only revisited if you choose to pursue it in a special options paper or dissertation. As someone whose favourite literature lies almost exclusively in that area, it’s a shame that I can’t spend more time on it.
Yet once again, the breadth of an English degree here comes to the rescue. Within a period module, you can explore any publication from within that time frame, and the literature that surrounds it. Within my first two terms, I’ve looked at the grammatical presentation of prostitutes in Victorian Britain, modern interpretations of prophesy and early forms of queer fanfiction/satire. When the limits of what you can learn about in a particular time are almost boundless, it’s hard to come up empty handed.
Due to the huge amount of potential content, our course structure is hugely flexible: last term on average I had just under four contact hours a week, with one compulsory lecture. But before you write English students off completely, cut us a bit of slack: while our course has a lack of formal structure in comparison to others, the overwhelming volume of material means that you could spend every waking second between the library and a lecture, and still not be finished. The volume of lectures that the faculty provides is enormous, and the standard of them is usually incredibly high – as with all other Oxford faculties, we are so lucky to be taught by the top academics in their field.
If you wanted, you could work almost every hour the day sends – lectures, library, the works. Equally, and perhaps more realistically, it’s also possible to work like a maniac through multiple essay crises for an intense period of time (I don’t believe there are people that don’t have them, sorry) and then be able to take some time off to do other things which make an Oxford degree as interesting and as varied as it has the potential to be.
Reading through this, it seems to sum up my rather complicated working relationship with my degree quite well – it’s highly confusing and full of contrasts. The breadth of subject matter means that you can’t spend enough/too much time on anything, but this also means that even if you’re not studying your favourite area of literature you are bound to find something that interests you. While the workload can be overwhelming, the quality of an English degree at Oxford means that being passionate about what you find yourself exploring that week is almost a given. When I’m sleep deprived and on my second essay crisis of the week it’s quite easy to forget that – but between the academic freedom allowed by my degree and the flexibility it gives me outside of my work, I wouldn’t choose any other subject.