Thoughtful Thursday – Studying Shakespeare

For me, because I am a Literature geek and a lover of Stratford-upon-Avon, whenever I think of April and important literature dates my first thoughts are, of course, of William Shakespeare. Now I know, especially in the UK, Shakespeare and his works can be very divisive, people either love him or hate him. Of course, this is understandable, all literature is subjective: people have their own preferences and that’s okay! When it comes to Shakespeare, however, I can’t help but wonder if this is also due to the way Shakespeare is taught in schools.

In the UK most people’s first experience of Shakespeare is when they are taught it in secondary school (ages 11-16 for any international readers), mainly because it’s required by some exam boards rather than teaching it because the teachers are genuinely passionate about the texts. Of course, some are, but there are many who are teaching it because they have to rather than because they want to. Although, this number is dropping around the UK due to Shakespeare no longer being taught in schools in favour of more modern texts. 

Now, it has been over a decade since I was taught Shakespeare at secondary school or sixth form so it’s possible that things are different now. However, when I studied Shakespeare we either studied just one particular scene out of a play (eg. Romeo and Juliet meeting for the first time) or we studied two whole plays to compare (eg. Hamlet and Othello). Regardless of what you were required to do, the way of teaching the plays was the same: we were told to read them. The only deviation from this being when we watched Baz Lurnham’s Romeo + Juliet as a treat once we had finished the coursework. 

Anyone who has ever read or seen Shakespeare will recognise why trying to get a bunch of angsty, restless, teenagers to care about the plays by reading them is a bad idea. Although, I must say that this selfishly worked in my favour when I was 14. One of my English teachers organised a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit important landmarks in Shakespeare’s life and watch some plays, however, the fact that this trip was based around Shakespeare put most people off so there was only 11 of us on the trip (including two teachers) out of around 180 students in the year group. It’s likely that there were other factors which contributed to low numbers, such as cost and other commitments but considering that a much larger group of us went to Alabama the year after makes me wonder how much cost and commitments did impact this, rather than just a disinterest in Shakespeare. 

Fast forward to my first year of university where ‘Understanding Shakespeare’ was a required module for us to take. However, this was a much different way of teaching Shakespeare that I had encountered before. Not only did we have lecturers who were genuinely interested in Shakespeare and the Early Modern period, one even had his own podcast on the subject, but we were told to watch them, not to read them. In fact, they told us only to read the plays as a last resort if we couldn’t find a theatre or film adaption in the library or through other means. Their reasoning? Shakespeare had written these plays with them being performed in mind, therefore to truly experience what he was trying to convey through them they had to be watched rather than read. 

To me, it seems odd that I had to study Shakespeare at university level for it to be acceptable to watch Shakespeare’s works rather than reading them. There’s just so much that can be conveyed on the stage that can’t be through text, especially with the way different actors interpret and portray their characters or directors giving the setting or production a twist or modern update. Whilst getting students to watch Shakespeare rather than read it won’t suddenly make them love his works, I do wonder how much easier it would be to understand and study his works. Especially for the first time. 

Did you study Shakespeare at school or university? Let me know what it was like in the comments! 

Thoughtful Thursday – The Dreaded Dissertation…

Before you can don your graduation gown and leave with an expensive piece of paper certifying that you have graduated in English Literature, you have one final hurdle… The dissertation. Now, as anticlimactic as this may be, I actually enjoyed doing my dissertation. It was stressful at times, but overall I loved doing the research and working on my own project. I even managed to submit my dissertation five days early too. 

As my Top Five Friday was all about how to survive your Literature degree, I thought I would share how I approached my dissertation to help any final year Literature students who may be worried about the year ahead. This is a bit of a long one, so grab a coffee or a tea and get cozy!

Creating a concept

Personally, I found this the most difficult part of the entire process. I had so many bits of ideas but nothing concrete to write about for 10,000 words. I spoke to my personal tutor and she said that for a dissertation proposal you just need to be general in terms of time period and texts so they know who to assign as your dissertation advisor. 

Once I was assigned my dissertation advisor, it was much easier to come up with an idea talking through my proposal and interests with someone who could guide me. I ultimately came up with the title of The Impact of Gender, Setting and Time on Psychological Survival in Dystopian Societies. Since then I’ve thought of more ideas that I could have done which would probably be more interesting, but that’s the best I could do at the time. 

Final, bound, draft of my dissertation.

Finding a work space

Before my placement year I would do all of my work at my desk in my room. It was just comfortable and quiet, although I can’t say that I was the most productive all the time because of it! As I’d been working in London I got used to doing a ‘9-5’ as it were. So, I thought it would be best to try a similar approach when it came to my dissertation. 

At first I did think about going to the library, which had a lot of different places where you could work either in quiet or total silence. However, it was always busy and you could spend ages looking for the right spot to work, only to find you’ve wasted quite a bit of time.

So, instead, I decided to use my department’s common room. The room was barely used outside of small networking events and presentations, so it was the perfect place to go. It was quiet as not many people would be in there (there were many times when I was the only one) and if you had friends with you, you could quietly chat every now and then without people getting too annoyed with you. 

Setting up a routine to get me out of the house and into a different working location really helped me be productive when it came to writing and editing. There was also the odd occasion where I got free food too, which is always a bonus! 

My favourite spot in the common room.

Organising my research

Research is probably the most important part of the dissertation process, if you don’t do enough research or if you don’t do good research then you will struggle when it comes to actually writing your dissertation. Now, when it comes to research, I split my focus into three main sections:

  • Quotes from the book and analysis 
  • Supporting and conflicting arguments from critics/journals
  • Quotes from theorists

In my Introduction to Dissertation lecture, we were all told of the importance of properly organising our notes and ensuring that it was all done in a way that made sense to us. Now, I did a placement year before my final year of university and during that time I discovered that I loved spreadsheets. 

So, that’s what I did. I compiled all of my research onto a hefty spreadsheet. I separated each of the three areas onto a different sheet and then had columns identifying what book the quote related to; what theme it was related to; any comments or analysis I had; the strength and weaknesses of the theory or critic and what chapter of my dissertation it would be best in. 

By doing it on a spreadsheet I was able to easily filter all of the information I wanted on a particular text or theme, which was really useful for when it came to actually writing the dissertation. I wouldn’t have to spend ages flicking through notes until I found what I was looking for.

And, of course, it was all colour coded.

A screenshot of my hefty dissertation research spreadsheet!

Drafting the dissertation

My first draft, for any chapter, would always be incredibly rough. I always find the actual writing process difficult to begin, and it’s always much easier to edit than write. I also find it much easier to write things with pen and paper when I’m trying to organise my thoughts. So, in order to make this work for me, I had a thick A4 notebook with dividers where I would write my first drafts. 

Now, when I say first drafts, I mean the very bare bones of a draft. It would mainly be my own ideas with random “[use x reference here]” or “[full analysis of x book quote looking at x theme]”. This way I found that my writing, and my thoughts, weren’t interrupted to look for the quote that I was looking for as I knew I could always come back to it later. 

When it came to typing up my scrawlings, I would edit as I went along and add in all of the bits that I skipped over whilst handwriting it. For me, this made the writing process far less daunting as it was broken up into chunks. In the end I lost track of the amount of drafts per chapter that I had written and edited. 

One of the biggest fears of all university students is losing all of their dissertation through some kind of technical error. As great as technology is, sometimes errors do occur or it fails us (although, this is not common). In an attempt to combat this I wrote each chapter on a separate word document, saved those documents to google drive, emailed them to myself (and to my parents) and saved them on an external hard drive. You may think this is going overboard but trust me, you can never have too many copies of your dissertation in safe places!


Self-Reflection

Now, as part of your dissertation you may need to write a self-reflection in order to explain how your dissertation and research developed. If you do need to do this then it’s important not to save all of it until the end. Of course, you can’t write this until you have completely finished (or mostly finished) your dissertation but it is important you maintain awareness of this aspect throughout the dissertation process. 

What was recommended to us, which I found extremely helpful, and also a great way to organise my thoughts better, was to keep a dissertation journal. It didn’t have to be anything formal but the idea was that whenever you were forming a new idea or argument, or found that your research was taking you in a different direction or you just wanted to express difficulties you were having or something you felt proud of. Having a journal as something to refer back to really helps by the time you come to start writing your self-reflection, as too much would have happened to remember!


Remember to have fun!

Okay, so I know I sound like I’m repeating myself from my last university post but this is important. Yes, your dissertation is important and it may feel overwhelming when you first undertake this. But your dissertation is your chance to research books and a topic that you’re passionate about!

This went on for way longer than I expected it to, so if you made it to the very end I really appreciate it! I hope this was helpful and, if you’re undertaking your dissertation this year – good luck!

Do you have any tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

Blackwell's Student Price Match Guarantee

Top 5 Friday – How to survive your Literature degree!

As it is September I can’t help but be nostalgic for my time at university, so as a way to indulge in this nostalgia I decided to focus my additional monthly posts on university advice and reflections! 

Although the start of this academic year is not like the others, with more long distance learning than ever before, there are still things you must know before starting your English Literature degree! You may think some of these are obvious but as starting university can be overwhelming, it is incredibly easy to overlook the basics! So here are my top five tips for getting through your Literature degree!

Blackwell's Student Price Match Guarantee

Spend your time wisely!

When you first receive your timetable you may think you have more free time than you actually do. In my first year I had a total of eight hours of class time a week. However, this was to accommodate all of the time that I would need to spend reading and preparing for classes. 

Try and plan your weeks as best as you can, not only with the work you’re expected to do but also so you can fit in your uni work around chores.


Read, read and READ

Okay, this should go without saying but try to read as many of your set texts as possible. Not only does this help when it comes to seminar discussions but, it also helps give you an idea of what you would want to write about for your essay. If you’re struggling to keep up with all of the reading, try listening to an audiobook whilst you’re doing chores. 

It’s important to remember that lecturers aren’t the uncaring, scary, people that school teachers make them out to be. They want you to do well and understand that university is overwhelming at times. If you have a lot of long books due to be read all for the same week, let your lecturers know. Some will then tell you specific chapters to read to be able to contribute in the seminars. By letting them know as much in advance you can show that you’re trying to plan and manage your time, instead of discovering at the last minute that you won’t finish the book on time. 


Avoid buying new books

You’re going to get a lot of reading lists throughout your degree, which means a lot of books, which means a lot of money. Student loans only stretch so far! It’s relatively easy to pick up cheap fiction books, either through second hand websites (like AbeBooks or World of Books). When it comes to classics, you’ll be able to find a lot of them for free on Kindle. 

If you do prefer a physical copy, though, Wordsworth Classics is your best option. Not only are they cheap but they also still include all the notes you need. There will be the odd occasion when your lecturer puts an obscure novel on your reading list and it’s best to get those from your university library. But be quick! As there will unlikely be enough copies for everyone in your class if you all have the same idea!

However, if you would prefer to buy new books or are able to (which is great!), Blackwell’s have a student price match guarantee and offer free shipping so click on one of the banners on this post to find out more!


Research around the texts

Naturally, you will be researching texts to write your essays and to prepare you for exams, however I also recommend that you read around the texts to prepare you for seminars. Everyone dreads the ‘seminar silence’ where no one wants to share their ideas, however if you do a bit of research around the book beforehand you will be more confident in speaking up in class. 

Not only will this score you some serious brownie points with your lecturer, but you will also be seen as the saviour amongst the rest of the students! Additionally, this will open a dialogue with your lecturer and your class resulting in more thoughts and arguments coming across which is a great help when it comes to assignments. 


Up your note taking game

Although many lecturers use powerpoint for their lectures, which then gets uploaded to a learning platform for students to access outside of lectures, it is still important to take as many notes as possible during the lectures. Some lecturers will have in-depth slides, and some will have the basic points, regardless of their approach there will always be things that come up through discussions that won’t be on the slides and you will most likely want to reference or research later. 

If you prefer the pen and paper approach to note taking, I recommend typing up and restructuring the notes digitally, either through Google Docs, OneNote or Evernote. Not only does typing up the notes help go over material from the classes but having digital copies of the notes makes them easily searchable for when you come to do assignments or exam revision later. 


BONUS – Have fun!

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the work, and the reading, and the chores that come with uni. But, you need to remember that university isn’t all work. In your classes you’re surrounded by fellow bookworms and fundamentally you’re just expected to read and write for your classes (no more maths, no more P.E.!). 

Are you starting your literature degree and have any questions? Have you finished a literature degree and have some tips of your own? Comment down below!

Blackwell's Student Price Match Guarantee