English is one of the largest subjects at Oxford, and the English faculty is one of the largest in the UK. Because of the college system, you won't normally notice this, though. Probably the only time you'll actually see your entire year (around 250 people) will be when you're taking Finals - and chances are you'll have other things to worry about then. The size of the faculty actually means very little.
According to the faculty website, the English Faculty seeks:
- To provide challenging undergraduate courses that engage the critical intelligence, imagination and creativity of the students; that develop their independent thinking by drawing on technical skills in literary analysis; and that increase their sensitivity to the critical and linguistic issues that lie at the heart of English literature.
- To promote in all its students skills and aptitudes which are transferable to a wide range of employment contexts and life experiences.
(Which is rather woolly if you think about it.)
For what it's worth, the faculty are quite specific about what they're looking for:
- Enthusiasm for literature
- Sensitivity to the creative use of language
- Intellectual curiosity
- Conceptual clarity
- Accuracy and attention to detail
- Critical engagement
- Capacity for hard work
(You can find all of this information on the faculty website).
The first year is mainly for you to get started, i.e. for adapting to the pace and the amount of reading, getting used to writing weekly essays, get the hang of how to use libraries most efficiently, that sort of thing. Oh, and to prepare you for Prelims. You'll be having exams at the end of the year, but it's not quite as serious as it sounds: your Prelims results won't count towards your actual degree, you'll only need to pass them. Having said that, though, they're a good trial run for the real thing, so it's probably a good idea to do some revision anyway - just don't get too stressed over it.
The order in which you'll be doing the papers will vary depending on your college, but most colleges follow the same structure. In first year, it is all compulsory papers (this is the new course that came in from 2012). If you're really dying to do a particular topic that won't necessarily be covered within one of the papers, though, talk to your tutor about it. Many tutors will go out of their way to let you write on a topic you're really keen on. Not all of them, obviously, but it's definitely worth a try. Whilst periods are compulsory in First Year, you will be able to choose which authors you write about, which means there is no need to cover a writer you either despise or don't fully understand.
Papers taken during the first year
- Paper 1: Introduction to English Language and Literature
This paper is compulsory, as the others are. According to the faculty blurb, it is "intended to introduce you to English literature as a discipline, and to a variety of approaches to reading literary texts. It will introduce you to formal study of the English language, with particular reference to its historical development, its use as a literary medium, and the role of cultural and social factors on its development and use". In other words, it's a paper in which you're meant to get you grounded in the critical context, by looking at different sorts of critical approaches - like Marxism, Historicism, Structuralism, etc. - the sort of stuff you won't necessarily be using in all of your essays but which is nevertheless useful to know.
For the remaining papers, you take:
- English literature 1830-1910 (aka "Victorian Literature")
- English literature 1910-present day (aka "Modern Literature")
Both both options are taken during their first year.
Victorian literature is a good solid beginner's paper and is usually taken in the first term. As part of the paper, you'll be studying the obvious novels by Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës etc., but of course there's more to it than that. For example, you can look at poetry by Rossetti, Browning, Hopkins Tennyson and lots of others. Or you can study drama. Wilde is one of the most popular options here, but again, there are a lot of other options as well - like the early works of Shaw, for example. Or you can study themes like the sensation novel, social problem novel, dramatic monologue, women's writing, etc.
The "1910-present day" paper often puts a strong focus on Modernism, which is kind of useful if you did the Victorians first, because then you'll be able to see better where those writers were coming from. It needn't, though. The most common authors to pick and choose from for this paper are Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Beckett and Carter, but as with all the other papers, your tutor will often encourage you to do some slightly more unusual topic you're interested in.
- Early Medieval Literature, c. 650 - 1350 (aka "Old English")
The paper allows candidates to work solely on either Old or Early Middle English literature, or to work comparatively on both periods.
- Old English is a challenge, and unless you choose Old English as your Paper 6 special option in third year and unless you end up doing Course II, this will be your only chance of doing it. And later you might regret not having done it. It is, however, good groundwork for Middle English in FHS and for the rest of the course as a whole
- you'll be looking pretty much all of the "great" Anglo-Saxon texts ('The Wanderer', 'The Dream of the Rood', 'The Battle of Maldon', 'The Seafarer', Aelfric - and of course Beowulf, whereas all of the "great" Middle English texts will be saved up for second year. You will have to write a commentary on an extract from one of these poems.
- nearly all of Old English literature (except Beowulf, that is), is quite short, which means you won't have massive amounts of reading to do and will be able to concentrate on getting the hang of the language.
- Middle English will be a compulsory paper during second year, so why do it twice?
- after struggling through Old English, the vast majority of Middle English texts in second year will seem like a piece of cake (notable exception: anything written by the Gawain-poet).
The advantages of choosing Middle English are
- Old English can be tough; Beowulf in particular can be a bit tricky to understand. You'll need to study the grammar before you can read texts properly. Middle English is closer to modern English, so it's easier to understand.
- you'll be able to study Middle English in real depth, because you'll be doing different texts in second year. By that time you'll already be grounded in the period.
- you'll already be familiar with some of the set texts for second year (La Morte D'Arthur, for example, and some bits of Chaucer).
- if you're sure you'll want to do Course I, you won't really need Old English, so you can focus on doing Middle English properly instead.
You'll be getting your first reading list before you come up to Oxford, and chances are it'll look massive (two A4 pages are quite common) and extremely intimidating. Better get used to it straight away, because that's what all your reading lists at the beginning of a paper will look like.
Don't panic, though. Your tutor isn't seriously expecting you to have read every single text on the list at the beginning of term. It is extremely unlikely that anybody in your year will have managed to get through the entire list - and even if somebody did that won't necessarily give him/her any significant advantage, so relax. The main purpose of that reading list is to show you some of the directions you can take on the paper, so you can use it to find out which aspects of, say, Victorian literature you might like to study in more detail.
The best way to tackle a reading list like that is to pick a couple of options and to start reading around them, particularly by doing lots of primary reading. You can always brush up on your secondary reading at a later point, but you'll be expected to give your own response to texts in tutorials, and for that it helps if you've actually read them. Try to get a general sense of the main arguments if you can, but don't overdo it. There's no point in spending your entire vacation at the library, or you'll be exhausted already when the term starts. Not to mention that you'll probably be spending more than enough time in libraries once you're at Oxford.
Most tutors will also give you shorter and more specific reading lists. For those it'll probably be useful to try and get through as much as you can, but again, don't overdo it. Remember that you need to leave yourself enough time to write the essay as well.
The only English lectures which are actually compulsory are the ILS ones. They'll normally be held in the Exam schools, because none of the lecture rooms at the faculty building is large enough to hold the entire year. Normal lectures can vary in size from 50-60 people (popular topic directly relevant to the paper/lecture and lecturer were recommended by many college tutors) to 5-10 people (obscure poetry/very specific stuff/topics that are of more relevance to graduates than undergraduates). It'll never be as packed again as during the first session, though, so even if you have to fight for a seat in 1st week, there can be plenty of empty ones in 2nd week after people realised the lecture's not as essential as they thought and/or they can't be bothered to get out of bed in time for a 10am lecture on Mondays.
Just because lectures aren't compulsory that doesn't necessarily mean they're not worth going to, of course. As a matter of fact, at your first meeting with your tutor you'll probably be going through the lecture list for useful lectures that you'll be "strongly encouraged" to attend. But it's really up to you: lectures can be very interesting and helpful, but whereas in other subjects (like Maths), where the lectures will be about the themes you cover in your tutorials, English lectures can be quite specific. And often you'll just be faced with a choice between doing your reading for the tutorial and attending a lecture, in which case doing the reading is often a more sagacious choice of action.
Having said that, it's a good idea to attend a few lectures which interest you, if only to get an idea of what the different lecturers are like. When you're pressed for time, though, lectures can be much more easily dispensed with than anything else.
Tutorials - particularly single tutorials - are probably the scariest bit about the course. The level of intimidation will vary from college to college of course; some tutors will be strongly academic while others are very relaxed and are more likely to welcome you onto their sofa with coffee and chat first. The academic part of tutorials can seem daunting, however. They're not as intimidating as they seem at first, though. If you think about it, it's great, though: you'll be sitting opposite somebody who's usually an expert on the topic you're doing, and he or she is interested in what you think and will listen to you.
Don't let yourself be intimidated by the situation. Just try to be well prepared by having written your essay and done your reading. Have an opinion on the texts you've been reading during the week and give it. You'll already know your tutor's style of speaking, questioning and responding from meeting them at interview (if, of course, your memory hasn't blocked the horror of that meeting out!) so you'll know to some extent how argumentative or relaxed they are.
Your tutor may challenge your opinions, and you may end up changing your opinion several times during the tutorial, but that's absolutely fine. No-one's expecting you to turn up with perfectly drafted theories - tutorials are about learning from each other and getting thinking processes going through having a discussion. Tutorials are neither just about showing off how much you know or have read nor about getting as much out of it for yourself as you can. Think of it as more of a give and take situation: the better prepared you are, the more you'll benefit both others and yourself - and conversely, if you don't do any work, you'll indirectly harm the entire tutorial group. Remember too- EVERYONE has god-awful tutorials sometimes that make you leave the room biting your fist and wanting the quad to open up and devour you. It's totally normal. Everyone writes something ludicrously wrong in essays at some point. Yout tutor will have seen worse, I can guarantee you.
Tutorials can generally be organised around you (though this may vary from college to college, so be sure to check how flexible your own tutors are. You'll probably be able to give a preference for morning or afternoon, and some tutors, i.e the lovely ones, will let you choose a day too so you can always opt for the later one and claim it's for extra reading (i.e the last-minute library panic the day before). You know when you work best, whether it's late-ish afternoon or early morning after an all-nighter. Speak to your tutors about this when tutes are being arranged and they should be accomodating. Be warned though; certain tutors seem to have no concept of IT'S LUNCHTIME and will happily arrange two hour tutes or classes between 11 and 1 o clock. These are torturous. Try to get out of them. But if you can't, don't argue. They won't like that.
Relying entirely on your blagging skills can be risky, as most tutors will see right through it, because they've been there too many times. If you have a tutorial partner, you can sometimes hope for him/her to get you out of a tight spot, but firstly, you can't rely on every tute partner to be willing (or able) to help you out and secondly, if your tute partner saves your neck, make sure you return the favour at a later point. It's a bad idea to alienate tutorial partners unnecessarily, because you'll see them again, and might have to depend on their help. So if you lead everyone to think you're a lazy bastard, make sure they at least think you're a nice lazy bastard.;)
Classes are focused on discussion, like tutorials, but there usually are more people in them (groups can be anything between 5 and 15 people in size) and they last longer.
For classes you often need to prepare a short presentation to introduce a topic or a text - and that means short. The presentation is only to get a discussion started, really, so ten minutes are usually more than enough.
Since topics are distributed and the group is larger, that means you might get away with not having done all the reading for a class. The downside of this is, though that everybody knows it and consequently everybody tends to prepare less well for a class than they would have for a tutorial. So in a worst-case scenarion, it might actually happen that the person giving the presentation is the only one who has in fact read the text. Which is a) embarassing and b) makes the class a bit pointless, really. It's a good idea to try and have at least a rough sense of other people's presentation topics in a class, just so you can keep a discussion going.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of classes is that you don't have to write essays for them - you'll learn to be grateful for this soon enough...
You'll be expected to write at least one essay per week - during first year it's usually just one, but as soon as you've got used to that, you'll have to do two or three. It's not quite as bad as it sounds, though; it's mainly about time management, really, and you'll get the hang of that as you go along.
Start by having a good look at the reading list and getting hold of the books and articles that sound like they'll be most relevant to your essay topic. Taking detailed notes and writing down quotations and page numbers will save you the trouble of having to get out a book more than once (or having to make up page numbers, which is a bit of a desperate thing to do). Check the bibliographies of the texts for additional stuff that might be relevant and, if you have the time, search library catalogues and MLA (for journal articles) by keywords.
Try to organise your trips to the library efficiently, i.e. don't go to the Bod or the faculty library for a single book unless you're sure it's actually the only book you'll want to look at. Also keep in mind that while it's great to take out books because it allows you to work on your own desk at your own leisure and with a cup of tea, you could end up just leaving those books on your desk without bothering to look at them until the last minute. Reading books at a library has the advantage of forcing you to read them there and then and leaving you no time for procrastination. For journals, try to find out straight away through the database of electronic journals (on OxLIP) which articles you'll be able to access in electronic form. Electronic texts aren't everybody's cup of tea, but firstly you can just print them out, and secondly they have one definite advantage: as long as you've got internet access, you can get those texts anytime - even at 3am on a Sunday, when neither the Bodleian nor the faculty library will be open. So it's more efficient to start with the journals at the faculty library or the Bod and look at electronic journals at times when both libraries are closed, because chances are that you'll end up working outside library opening hours sooner or later.
Once you've got most of the reading done, start writing an essay plan. This doesn't have to be very detailed; something you can scribble up in ten minutes will do fine. It's just to help you get your own argument sorted out, because you need one of those if you want to write a good essay. If your original argument doesn't seem to work in an essay plan, try changing it round until it sounds convincing. Do the last bits of reading to fill in the gaps, and then start writing.
The actual writing of an essay takes up the least time, and that's the time you need to set aside at the end. Don't panic if you're already close to the deadline; one day is more than enough to write an essay and two is plenty. As long as you've done your reading and you roughly know what you want to argue, you'll be fine. Try not to leave everything to the very last minute (because at such times the college printer will refuse to work), but there's no point in finishing three days before the deadline either. Make sure the presentation is OK and your essay isn't too short (first-year essays usually have to be about 2,000 words - that's roughly four 1.5-spaced pages - while second- and third-year essays will be expected to be closer to 3,000). It can be useful to ask friends to read over your drafts and offer to read over theirs in return - particularly if you're writing on different topics.
Finally, try not to panic. Practically everyone experiences so-called essay crises at one point, but it helps if you learn to accept them as part of the creative process and don't allow yourself to be paralysed by them. The more you fear essay crises, the worse they will hit you.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS- seek help from your college parents and/or TSR people. We can't write the essay for you, but if you know people who were in your exact position only one short year ago, there's nothing wrong with asking advice. :o)
<p>For English you'll need to work in libraries quite a bit, so it's good to know how to use them straight away. The library inductions at the beginning of your very first term will be incredibly boring and repetitive, but try to resist the temptation to skip them. A lot of people hardly set foot in the Bod during their first year, not so much because there aren't any useful books there but because they don't quite know how to use it. Which is a bit of a waste, really.
When you're looking for a particular book, always check your college library first. College libraries offer you the best lending conditions and the best opening hours of the lot (some college libraries are even open 24 hours a day, which can be very useful for last-minute essay writing). Most college libraries have a decent English section, so take advantage of that. Primary texts, for example can often be got most easily from your own college library.
The majority of college library catalogues are incorporated into the university library catalogue OLIS, but a few, like St Hilda's  have their own system and don't have all books listed on OLIS. That can be a bit annoying when you're at the faculty library and have to decide which books you really need to take out and which ones you can get through the college library.
The English Faculty Library (EFL) allows undergraduates to take out up to ten books for a week. That isn't very long, but you can renew them online (unless someone else wants the book or you've renewed it too many times. )
The EFL also has a pretty good collection of English journals (all of the most important ones are there) and two ancient and extremely noisy photocopiers of which only one seems to be working at any given time. Photocopies are cheaper here than they are at the Bod.
The Bodleian is good for the more specific stuff on your reading list (or for the standard texts that have already been taken out at your college library or the EFL). The shelves of the Upper Camera hold most of the stuff relevant to English undergraduates. For everything else you'll need to place stack orders through OLIS. If you decide to order those books to the Radcliffe Camera as well so you'll have all the books you need in one place, keep in mind that the Radcliffe Camera tends to fill up very quickly and there are times during which you won't actually be able to find a seat. If you can be bothered to get up early, the best time to go to the Radcliffe Camera is just after it opens at 9am - if you're lucky, you might even be able to snatch one of the window seats at which you can get real sunlight, which is a bit scarce at the Lower Camera...
Collections are the mock exams you'll be having at the beginning of most terms. Collections take place during 0th week and will usually be on the papers you did during the previous term. They're organised by your college (i.e. not actual exams), supposed to take place under "exam conditions" and they basically don't count at all, so don't worry about them. Obviously there won't be much point in sitting them completely unprepared, but they're not worth fussing about either. Truth is, even tutors don't consider them terribly important. The purpose of collections is really just to get you used to revising papers and to having to churn out three essays within three hours.
To prepare, read over the essays you've written, maybe do a bit of extra reading on the topic to fill in gaps, and if you're really keen, take a look at one of the past papers and do a practice essay or two. But don't go overboard and don't waste your time panicking over collections - they're seriously not worth it.
Once you've passed Prelims (well, before that, actually), you'll have to decide which course you want to take. Course I, the option chosen by most people, aims to give you an overview of pretty much all of English literary history.
Advantages of choosing Course I
- doing Course I allows you to get a sense of English literature from the medieval period to the late 20th century (depending on which options you pick, of course)
- it still leaves you room to focus on particular interests of yours through the Paper 7 (Special Author) and Paper 8 (Special Topic) options.
- if you know you're not a full-blooded medievalist, Course I is the only available option to you, really.
Disadvantages of choosing Course I
- you'll miss out on the finer details of medieval literature.
- you may regard Course I as a little-bit-of-everything kind of option, which may not be your cup of tea.
- nearly everybody does it - choosing Course II will make you become part of a much more exclusive crowd (medievalists, that is).
Once you have decided for Course I, that means most of the papers you'll be taking over the following two years will be fixed. The only times when you'll get to choose will be in third year for Paper 7 and 8.
The compulsory paper for second-years is
- Paper 1 ("The English Language")
It's basically linguistics for non-linguists and is meant to get you in the habit of analysing the language as well as the contents of literary texts.
The topics include stuff like dialects, semantic change, literary language, language and gender, English as a world language, dictionaries and standardisation. Few people manage to be enthusiastic about all of those topics (and frankly, some of them are pretty dull), so unless your tutor forces you to cover more, just pick three topics you think you'll be comfortable with. Thanks to the changed examination system, three topics will be more than enough:
Paper 1 used to be taken as a written exam in third year as part of Finals, but that was changed in Trinity 06. Now you do Paper 1 at the end of your second year - the good news is that you'll have one less paper to prepare for Finals and you no longer have to learn silly stuff like dictionary definitions by heart, the bad news is you'll be having exams at the end of every year.
For the new Paper 1, you'll have to do a so-called "portfolio", which is rather a big name for two essays. The first of those is an essay on one of several set topics (this is where it pays off to prepare more than one topic, just in case the question on your favourite topic turns out to be rubbish), the second is a commentary on a passage or passages of text you select yourself. The question only tells you what your commentary should be looking at. Picking your own passages can be a little difficult, but it can also be fun because you get to write on what you like, basically. If you always wanted to compare Jilly Cooper to Shakespeare, this is your chance to do so and get away with it. Try to have a few possible commentary passages in mind before the questions come out in 6th week, to save youself a last-minute panic.
Once you have got the paper, you have approximately two weeks to finish the two essays before you hand them in at the exam schools. Two weeks sound like a lot, but you still need to plan your time carefully if you don't want to end up rushing to the exam schools at 11.55.
All other papers you take in second year are regular period papers (note: the exact order in which you take those papers varies, depending on your college; some colleges do Shakespeare in second year):
- Paper 3 (English Literature from 1509, aka "Middle English")
Watch a series of short videos of students talking about some aspect of their time at Oxford.
'The real value of Oxford’s English course is its sheer scope, stretching from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Being guided through all the different ages of English literature means you explore periods and styles you may otherwise have rejected out of hand, discover brand new tastes, and even more levels to your love of literature!
The ability to sit and read some of the greatest works of prose, poetry and performance in a city steeped in its own near-mythological wealth of history and beautiful architecture gives you a sense of being lost in your own fantasy, your own realm of turrets, tutors and texts.'
The most unexpected thing about my course:
'The freedom I had to direct my own studies, from choosing the books I wanted to write on to developing my own specific area of focus within them. The course was a completely different learning experience from school because I was given the freedom to really work out what I thought about texts without having to worry about meeting assessment objectives or covering key themes. I've left Oxford knowing that I've really explored why I love literature so much and that I've contributed something individual to the study of literature, even if it ends up being just read by me.'
I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...
'That you should pick a university (or college within one) that you feel at home and comfortable in, rather than on a purely academic basis. Whilst it's great to go to a top university, this is also somewhere you have to live and work for three years and it needs to feel like a place where you could do that. I chose a college at Oxford, St. Anne's, that is a bit more informal and modern than some other more historic colleges because I enjoyed the open day and had an intuitive feeling that I could live there. From my experience here, I think it is really important to pick a place to study where you think you will be happy, not just a place which will impress other people.
The best thing that Oxford did for me:
'Gave me courage. To trust my own opinions, to learn where I could push them further, to take risks in academics, social situations, societies, friendships and to feel like if I tried hard enough I could really achieve something of note. Oxford has been the best experience of my entire life. I never really felt school spirit, but at my college I feel like I am part of one big team where people really cared about me as a person, not just as a statistic on a piece of paper. Oxford gave me the confidence to believe in myself and the tools to understand my own biases and failings.'
My favourite Oxford memory is...
'Long lunches in Hall, laughing with friends, making obscure in-jokes and occasionally having conversations about books and the world that have completely changed my outlook for the better.'
I'd just like to add:
'If you love your subject or think that you could learn to with more time to focus on it then there really is no more exciting place to study it than at Oxford. You are given so much freedom to develop your own ideas and you are able to discuss them in one-on-one sessions with leading academics who take you seriously and care about you as a person and a thinker. You're surrounded by interesting people who will constantly challenge you: be it by their different backgrounds or different skills. If this sounds like an environment you would enjoy, no matter what school you come from or how good you think you are, then I urge you to give it a go and apply.'
The most unexpected thing about my course:
'How much I love it. It is totally legitimate to spend a day in bed reading a novel.'
I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...
'Not everybody likes clubbing! I was terrified that it was going to be like Ibiza, only colder. Also, buy a printer before you arrive.'
The best thing that Oxford did for me:
'Playing ice hockey at midnight is legitimate.'
My favourite Oxford memory is...
'Going outside for a fire alarm at 3am and discovering that only about 2% of the college had been asleep.'