Reading ‘the right stuff’

Hello All!

Goodness, August has been a busy month. I’ve been the literal length and breadth of the country over the last two weeks and am now quite exhausted.

However, during that time I have received a few interesting emails from readers (all soon to be Literature students) asking about how best to prepare for uni. One question that particularly struck me was from a UEA fresher who was worried that they hadn’t read ‘the right sorts of books’ before coming to uni.

This question particularly stayed with me because it made me realise that before coming to university I was one of those people who might be perceived to have not read, ‘the right sorts of books’. It had never really occurred to me before that that was something I could have been potentially worried about when I arrived as a fresher.

It’s probably worth outlining now what people usually think of as the right kind of books for literature students to be reading; Classics such as those of Dickens, Eliot, the Bronte sisters… you get the gist.

Now, I have always been a book worm. As a child my teachers used to complain to my parents that I read too much and wasn’t playing with other children enough. I used to get in trouble for staying up past my bed time reading, and right up until sixth form I was happily getting through at least one book a week (then A-Levels and being able to go out at weekends began to take up my time a lot more). But at no point during that did I worry I was reading the right stuff.

Since I was very little I knew that I wanted to study English Literature at uni and so I always supposed that I would get around to reading the classics then, when I was older, wiser, and would understand them better. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read classics when you’re young, just that you shouldn’t feel like you must or that otherwise you’ll not be qualified to be a literature student.

I read handful of classics before starting uni but they were all ones I was interested in. Other than that I read what I liked, and I am pleased to say that it has not hindered me at university at all.

We study literature at university because we enjoy it and because it interests us, so there’s no point slogging through something in your free time just because you feel you have to.

Every literature student arrives at uni with a different reading history behind them and it is meeting all these different people who have been exposed to different kinds of books (don’t even get me started on how a lot of the books we’re told we’re supposed to have read were written by dead white men) that makes it an exciting and interesting environment to be in.

Long story short, read what you want and enjoy it to the max.

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Summer 2016 Plans

Hello Everyone,

Apologies that it’s been a little while but I’ve been out of the country for a bit (Florida to be precise) but now I am back, complete with sunburned feet.

Today’s blog is just to give you a little context for what I will be doing with my summer holiday, my FINAL summer holiday (!!!) before I head back to Norwich this September to start third year.

As I have opted to do a literature dissertation this autumn term I am currently surrounded by piles of books which require reading. I’ll try and keep giving updates about how my dissertation is progressing, both to give some context and advice for any other students reading but also to document for myself how it developed.

I won’t go into the details too much right now, but essentially I have had a think about what it was that I really enjoyed studying this last year, to which the answer is Medieval Writing and Romanticism. I was also advised by Karen Schaller, the Convenor of the English Literature BA, to look around at modules that I would like to have taken but can’t for whatever reason. This inspired to me have a root around the websites of other universities and see what final year modules they offer which I would have been interested in. The long and the short of it is that I’ve decided to research Medievalism, specifically Romantic Medievalism which is the 18th century reimagining of what the Middle Ages were like.

Looking back I realise that later interpretations of medieval life have always fascinated me. Even as a child my favourite books were historical fiction (I read The Other Boleyn Girl when I was 10 which on reflection was definitely too young!).

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The very beginnings of the dissertation research

On top of all this reading I also have an interview lined up at my local museum to see whether I can do some work experience with their admin team for a few weeks. As I think I have previously mentioned, I really enjoy doing the behind the scenes work for UEA Drama Society, but looking ahead to the future I think that I might be interested in doing similar work in the heritage sector. Fingers crossed they take me on, if nothing else it will keep my CV up to date and diverse.

And last but by no means least, I will of course be heading up to Edinburgh in August to take the show which I am producing (‘Death and the Data Processor’) to the Fringe Festival. More on that later!

As we are approaching A Level exam results I am aware that a lot of students will be anxiously waiting and worrying about life at uni. As always, if you have any question please feel free to comment on this post or email me at h.armstrong@uea.ac.uk

Best of luck!

Staying in Love With Literature

September is finally here, bringing alone with it that strange mix of cold grey mornings and hot midday suns. But more importantly the first notices of the books you need to buy and the articles you need to read are appearing on Blackboard (the UEA intranet that allows your tutors to set work and post recommended reading lists, etc.)

All summer I’ve been champing at the bit to get started on this autumn’s modules (Medieval Lit, 17th Century Lit, and Writing Journalism) but reading the module outlines has suddenly made it all very real. Laid out carefully before you is all the knowledge they expect you to accumulate and all the assessments that you will need to pass by Christmas, and knowing that these grades are going to count towards your overall degree it suddenly feels a lot more daunting.

Over the summer I have deliberately avoided reading anything that I didn’t enjoy. It didn’t matter if it was high-brow or trashy, the only requirement was that I enjoyed it. I wanted to spend my summer reading things without constantly checking the page number, without worrying about finishing it before a deadline – in short, I wanted a summer of not reading like a literature student.

I love studying English, but it does have a way of taking over your reading habits. After a long day of studying books it’s hard to get excited by the prospect of spending all your leisure time doing the same. This leads to the list of Netflix shows you’ve been meaning to watch growing shorter, but the stack of books you want to read growing ever higher.

I miss the days when I would whip through two books in a week and not think anything of it, when books gripped me late into the night because they were exciting not because there was an essay due next week.

So this summer I have truly indulged. I’ve found a new favourite author in Mary Renault (who incidentally turns out to have lived on the same road in London as me, although not at the same time and to be fair it is a very long road…), a historical fiction writer who was studying in Oxford when Sir Arthur Evans was making his breath taking discoveries on Crete and shipping them back to Oxford’s Ashmolean museum.

Evans discovered the remains of the palace of Knossos, a Minoan palace that is thought to have been destroyed by an earth quake over two thousand years ago. What captured Renault’s imagination however was the Minoan depictions of bull leapers, and it was these frescos she used as inspiration for her retelling of the myths of Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur.

ViviLnk

After finishing my A-Levels I went to Greece for a week, specifically to Athens and Crete, the two main locations for her novels. The pleasure of reading them was heightened by the fact that I recognised the landscapes she was describing and had seen the frescos she referenced (I could write a whole heap more on literary landscapes but I shall spare you).

My favourite of the frescos - 'The Ladies in Blue'

My favourite of the frescos – ‘The Ladies in Blue’

Renault has been largely forgotten these past few years, but there is a concerted effort being made to revive this wonderful writer. Her books have been republished by Virago and many well-known writers and academics have said that her work inspired them (Bettany Hughes, Hilary Mantel, and Emma Donoghue to name a few), hopefully this attention will allow her work to go on and inspire another generation of readers.

On a separate note, I read this poem by Walt Whitman for the first time recently. I’ve had a soft spot for Walt ever since I watched Dead Poets Society, but this poem particularly appealed to me because I think it captures something of what it is to study the subject you love.

Walt Whitman

There is much we can learn from the rigorous examination of literature, but sometimes we need to wander off by ourselves, enjoy it simply for what it is, and read it in that perfect silence.

5 books to read when you should be studying:

The ever persistent problem of being a literature student is that you have gone to university because you love books, but consequently have no time to read books you actually want to read (not that I haven’t enjoyed the set texts, but there is something particularly enticing about reading a non-curricular book when you know there are set texts waiting to be got through).

Consequently, reading for pleasure becomes illicit, something talked about in hushed tones. Or else it becomes the treat and motivator when a particularly dense piece of theory needs to be got through, read a chapter of Judith Butler then you can read fifty pages of (insert frivolous reading material).

Bearing in mind the necessity of reading all your set texts, it’s important to keep reading things you like on the side, or else you are in danger of forgetting that there is a world outside of academia, in which people read a book and their only comment on it will be if they liked it or not – not a breath shall be breathed about how it interacts with the theory of literary realism etc.

On which note, I have compiled a short list of books that I think should be read whilst a student.

Note that I did not say, should be read by every student, such prescriptive lists often serve only to stroke the ego of the compiler, rather my list is of books which I think have a particular resonance when read as a student. These are of course only my opinions, and I would love to hear what other people would put on their list.

The Bell Jar:

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The Bell Jar is the only novel by the American poet Sylvia Plath, and whilst it is a work of fiction much of it is autobiographical. Primarily it is a novel about college student Esther Greenwood’s battle with depression, but beneath the surface it is a tale of anxieties, of feeling that you don’t ‘feel’ like you should, and of that gap between our abilities and our achievements. What most struck a chord with me was Esther’s fear of her own indecision, her desire to do and be many things but feeling she can only have one. The Bell Jar isn’t a cheerful book, but it will stay with you for a very long time.

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

A Room of One’s Own

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Semi-fact and semi-fiction, Virginia Woolf’s essay on the place of women in literature is one of the key feminist texts. It discusses the historical exclusion of women from formal education and examines the reasons for the absence of writing by women. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about this text which makes me love it, but it sits on my bookshelf over my bed, and when an essay is proving particularly trying it’s a reminder of how relatively recently women have been able to go to university (Cambridge only began letting women graduate in 1948), and helps puts things into perspective.

The Secret History

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This books kind of makes me glad we don’t have any classicists at UEA. It’s the story of a young college student, Richard Papen, who befriends a close knit group of five other classics students, but their dedication to their subject takes a dark turn, and the novel closely resembles a Greek tragedy. University is an environment in which almost everyone desperately wants to fit in, even when that sometimes compromises their morals, read The Secret History and try to resist the seduction of its characters, and take it as a sobering reminder of the dangers of the herd mentality.

This Side of Paradise

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By all accounts F. Scott Fitzgerald was an unpleasant person to know, especially if you were a woman. But that doesn’t stop his debut novel from having the kind of resonance which sticks with students. It’s about adolescence, great expectations, and ultimately what to do when you don’t seem to be meeting them. Particularly helpful to read if exams don’t go as well as you hope.

One Day

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More than anything this novel is terrifying. It is a brutal look at life after university, which will dash the dreams of literature students everywhere and leave you either sobbing into a pillow or staring listlessly into the distance. One reviewer described it as portraying, ‘the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating. Not for nothing has Nicholls said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy.” …. Even after all that, I still think you should read it.

A Fork in the Road

“TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
…”

-Robert Frost

Despite what the title of this blog may lead you to believe, I am in fact not just a Literature student, but also a Drama undergrad. Drama is something I picked up at GCSE and sort of forgot to ever put down again.

Drama classes are the strangest classes you could ever hope to take part in; one week might have you pretending to be a tree, the next you might have a lengthy debate about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. No other subject is quite so diverse or exciting.

It is in drama that I have made some of my dearest friends, fallen a little bit in love (and out again), laughed until I’ve cried, wept in frustration, and on numerous occasions made a right prat of myself.

It was with this in mind that two years ago I applied to universities for places on their English and Drama BA’s, I just couldn’t choose between my two favourite subjects, and it was because of this that I came to UEA – in my opinion they have the best English and Drama joint honours course in the country (I may be a little bias). Had I been applying just for English, I don’t know if I would have looked at UEA, not that they don’t have a good reputation for Literature, but so many uni’s offer it that you would have to be a bit more ruthless when cutting down the list, and East Anglia wasn’t somewhere I would have immediately chosen to be (when I was younger I had often fancied going to university in London). But here I am.

In the interim between A-levels and starting uni, I took a year out and trained with a theatre company in London. We were all trainee actors but our directors and creative teams were all professionals, some of whom are renowned in their field. This was a wonderful opportunity to see what the life of an actor is really like, and the answer is that it is hard. You might have 9-5 rehearsals for ten days at a time, then have only a day off before you are called in again, you’re always short on money (I went for a month once living on £5 a week for groceries) what with the price of rent and travel, and at the end of all that you might not even like the play you’re working on – but that’s the life, and for some people it’s all worth it.

However, for me, it is not. I started uni no longer sure whether drama was what I should be doing, but I decided to stick it out for a while and see. I’ve made so many great friends on the course and I have really enjoyed some of the classes, but at the end of the day I just don’t think that this is what I should be doing. As I write this post, on my desk sits the form that I need to submit to request a move from English and Drama, to just English. Despite my conviction that this is the right step for me, I still find the form reproachful and feel that in some way I have failed already, after nearly four years of practical drama classes the notion of just stopping seems almost unthinkable. I feel in my heart that I shall always be a drama student even when I am no longer studying it, and will always hope to be considered in some way a part of that community, as strange as that might sound.

But there it is, and we shall see whether I live to regret it.

I hope that in writing this post I can show other students, or prospective ones, that you don’t have to fear making the wrong choice of subject at university, because there are always ways of changing your path, if you can find it in yourself to do so.

Until next week, adieu.

Plagiarism and Plays

What is originality?

Well according to William Ralph Inge, it is undetected plagiarism (but that quote isn’t plagiarism because I cited it, kind of).

Anyway, it is the “P” word that has been on my mind all week after a particularly terrifying lecture from our Plagiarism Officer on Monday. Now I know that she didn’t mean to scare the pants off us, but put the fear of God into us she did.

To recap, I have just handed two essays in, and I am 99.9% certain that I have not committed anything that might be termed as bad practice, but it’s like during A-Level exams when they ask if you have your phone on you, and you know you don’t, but you still have a ten minute panic wondering, “what if…”.

But the talk turned out to be immediately beneficial to me, as I went straight back to my room to reread my essay, and discovered that I had in fact put two of my references the wrong way around – a close save.

The rest of the lecture was far more enjoyable, including such wonderful lines as, “we’re literature students, it’s our job to be pretentious… so go forth and be pretentious”. It also turfed up the old history vs literature debate – what is the difference between them if we view history as a narrative (other than that historians claim to be more scientific), or as Alan Bennett puts it, “Just one fucking thing after another”?
But now that I’ve handed the essays in I have promised myself to not look again until I get the marks back, because I know I will just stress over what I could have improved, etc.

I’ve also been working on improving my studying habits, as I’ve settled into the term my fresher’s enthusiasm for going through all the further reading given us has waned, and I admit my reading of our actual texts may have become a little sloppy too. But, after a few days spent with the Significant Other in Oxford, I’m feeling a little more invigorated. When you’re surrounded by people who have to turn in two essays a week it puts your own studies in perspective, and creates an environment more beneficial to working than sitting alone in front of your laptop, where the siren call of funny cat vines is strongest. So, if my friends are up for it I think small study groups might be the way forward, but we’ll see. Everyone has to find what works for them.

(Pro-tip: Audiobooks mean you can get through the more meaty texts faster, and tidy your room at the same time!)

In other news, the Minotaur Theatre Shorts ended last night and it would be remiss of me not to congratulate all involved, and to not give a special shout out to the cast and team of “Maggie” who were, as always, wonderful. It’s exciting to see just how much talent exists in our relatively small community, and very flattering to know that the staff have deemed you worthy of being a part of it. (Our alumni include the, late, Doctor himself, Matt Smith, and others such as Radio One DJ Greg James)

So that’s it for another week. It’s scary to think that we’re more than half way through the first term already, and before we know it, it shall be Christmas…

essay desk
My desk mid essay frenzy