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Advice To English And Comparative Literature Undergraduates: Best Tips


Months ago, I wrote a blog post about why I am no longer majoring in English.

Since then, I’ve talked to English and Comparative Literature students, looked at the courses from a variety of universities (particularly in the UK, Canada and USA) and thought critically about how students can major in English and Comparative Literature and be intellectually enriched.

Here are my tips. Personally, I’m not a fan of how English is taught, and I plan to articulate why in future blog posts. Some of these tips are about time management, whilst others are more political in nature.

Tip One: Get Used To Reading Fast

Literature courses cover many books in a short time period. In one of my English classes, we did a new book or play every week. This meant that over the span of 13 weeks, I had to read well over 10 books.

To be honest, I didn’t manage. Overwhelmed with the course content, I’d resort to SparkNotes. Looking back at it, I’m disappointed in myself. I wasn’t meeting the standards that I, and my lecturer, expected of me. Worse were the times when I pretended to have read the discussed work.

Don’t do that.

Read your texts, and don’t look for a short cut because there is none.

Some English courses will only discuss 2-5 books in a semester. That means for you are discussing a new text every 2nd or 3rd week, as opposed to every week. This may sound appealing, but your tutor will expect greater depth from your analysis.

To succeed in this regard, time management is key. What I recommend is get your hands on the reading list for the semester weeks in advance. That way, you are prepared.

Tip Two: Read Outside Of Your Literature Course

It’s a nice thought. That after a long afternoon of typing up an essay about postmodernism in Gravity’s Rainbow that you’ll curl up to and indulge in a romance.

Not going to happen.

Well, it might. But there will be times in your studies where reading will be the last thing you want to do. This is understandable, but it’s also bad. It’s not helpful to the soul to only read books that you are told to read.

Utilize semester breaks, holidays and weekends to get in some extra reading. I recommend reading books that are rapidly different to the ones you are studying. It’s also enjoyable, because you can compare the book you are studying with the one you chose to read.

I was studying a course on literary fiction, but on weekends, I read classics from the 19th century. Needless to say, it was a very educational experience!

If reading extra books is not an option, I recommend plays, short stories, poems, mangas and comics.

Tip Three: Think Critical… About Critical Theory And Marxism

English departments love critical theory. Like, alot.

You may think ‘what does Karl Marx have to do with literature?’

Turns out, alot. Alot- and I mean alot– of literary critics and professors cite Karl Marx, Jean Paul-Sarte and Michel Foucault as key influencers. A vast majority of literary theories that you hear will have overwhelming similarities with Marxist schools of thought.

They include deconstruction, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, posthumanism and postmodernism, to name a few. These theories are presented as valid and good ways to interpret a text.

Personally, I despise that. I find it deplorable to see great works of literature be reduced down to the author’s gender, race or sexuality. Critical theorists also have a knack for ‘outlining problematic aspects’ in texts. Yeah… not a fan.

My problem with English and Comparative Literature departments is that they see the history of fiction through the keyhole of the postmodern present.

As someone who studies history and religion, I would never study those two fields by using Marxist morality. Why it is so commonplace in English departments is actually rather sad. Rather, it’s better to encourage students to see literature from multiple viewpoints.

Literary criticism has existed way before Karl Marx, and there are various approaches. There’s psychoanalytical theory and archetypal criticism. I personally love reading Greek philosophers such as Aristotle on tragedy.

My point is this. Expose yourself to a variety of perspectives. Don’t let your interpretation of literature be limited by a single framework. Think critically!

Tip Four: Remember Your Love For Literature

Final tip! Alot of literature students, over the course of their studies, become more cynical. It’s easy to see why: the constant deconstruction, the heavy reading demands, all the essay writing, etc.

But still, that shouldn’t take the spark away. Literature is incredible. It represents human thought, emotion, abilities and history. Books can, and have, changed the world. There is power in a well constructed work of art.

From the people lining up near the ship’s docks to read the latest Dickens serial, to the countless lives touched by Harry Potter, it’s vital to remember the power of literature. But more importantly, we must appreciate it.

To preserve your love for literature, I recommend the following:

  • If you can, use your electives in ‘stimulating’ subjects such as history, science, economics, philosophy, etc. These subjects will teach you why people write.
  • Get life experience.
  • Engage in literary debates and discussions.

The future is bright when people not only read literature, but love it as well. To quote Dead Poet’s Society:


“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”


Loving and appreciating literature puts you on the right track in your studies- and in life.

Conclusion

Studying English and Comparative Literature is certainly intense. And I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me on critical theory and Marxism. That’s okay! But I fundamentally believe literature thrives when people are willing to discuss, learn and read.

So, good luck with your degree. Study hard. Read stories born out of pleasure and pain. Write with passion. But most of all, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.

What are your thoughts? Comment below!

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