Uni Life Series Part 4: Academic

Part 4 of my uni life series is focused on the academic side of university. In the series, I’m also looking at living in halls, friendship, holidays and the top tenthings I’ve learnt.

Whoever said English Literature is a ‘doss’ subject at university clearly hasn’t studied our course. I obviously expected a degree to be difficult, but there have certainly been weeks throughout my degree where I’ve thrown my pen or book across the room and declared that I know nothing and will never accomplish anything in my life. It’s pretty intense. Who would have thought that preparing for 4-7 contact hours a week would be so stressful?

For the York degree course, the entry requirement is 3 As… In working so hard to get those grades, I didn’t think about the implications of this when I actually begun the course. Chances are, the majority of people doing our course are doing it because they like the subject, and because they have always been good at the subject. When we then arrived at university, we realised we’d gone from being some of the best in our school at that particular subject, and had become a distinctly average smaller fish in a sea of English geeks. Suddenly, you’re being measured against lots of people who received As and A*s at A Level, as opposed to the broader range of people in a school environment. Getting marks in the 50s (out of 100) in the first few terms is a bit of a wake-up call, and it’s easy to feel completely out of your depth. But whatever course you’re doing, you’re being compared to a whole group of people who achieved at exactly your level all through school, so there has to then be some way for universities to distinguish between students: scary marking systems.

A strange adjustment when embarking on an English degree is the dramatic reduction in contact hours in comparison to being at school or sixth form. Throughout the course of my degree, I had between 4 and 7 hours a week of timetabled seminars and lectures. That leaves a lot of hours to be filled. If any of us were under any illusion that that meant endless hours of free time, lecturers made sure we wouldn’t feel that for too long. When people question the low number of contact hours, my general answer is that we simply couldn’t do more and prepare for them all effectively. Our seminars are 2 hours long, and feature heavy discussion of the texts or periods we’re looking at that week. The reading can vary wildly. I’ve had some weeks where we are looking at an 800 page novel, and some where we have to read a couple of short novels, or a novel and a group of theoretical essays. Sometimes you have to prepare group presentations. We usually look at a text for only one seminar. So even just getting through the set texts alone is a time-consuming job.

It gets extra-fun when you add essays into the mix. Term-time essays need to be researched and written whilst still preparing an average of a few novels a week (across 2 modules) for the seminars themselves, which are unlikely to have anything at all to do with your essay topic. Similarly, holiday essays are due at the beginning of term, usually just a few days before seminars begin, so there’s then a mad rush to get hold of the books and begin seminar reading.

All I’m trying to say is: a degree is not easy. Whatever you’re studying, it will be demanding, there will be time pressures, and you will have to stay on top of your workload. The last few months have been hard work: essays, my dissertation, and on top of that you’re having to plan what to do when university ends. It’s hard, and it’s ok to admit it’s hard. At the end of the day, you’re being tested consistently for 3 years, but at the end we’re all leaving with something we can be proud of. Let’s just say I’m now enjoying having a bit of time to relax, and read the books I want to read, that don’t appear on any seminar list.


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