Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Location: Owaka, New Zealand
|Posted: Wed Jun 13, 2012 11:26 pm Post subject: University studies
|I think we have talked about our university studies before, but recently I replied to a comment in the Otago Daily Times from the man who runs a fortnightly column on words. He had asked what people studied at university and our correspondence went thus:
Kia Ora, John,
I see you are asking for the English studies we did at university. Iím afraid after 40 years I donít remember it too well, but when I think about it now, I am amazed at how much reading we must have had to do in the holidays for preparation. It takes me months now to read a Dickens or similar, and at university we read several Dickens, several Thackerays, all of Jane Austen, Pamela, Jane Eyre, the early writers like Fielding, Swift and Richardson, Peacock. We seemed to do the history of the main serious English novels up to Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
I did an honours degree in English and it comprised a year of four subjects (in my case English, History, Latin and French Ė nothing, I regret now, that I hadnít studied at school), the next year English mostly and papers in History and French literature (which I read carefully in French, so more difficult reading), and in the third and fourth years we did six English papers.
I am muddled now about what they were but we did Old English with Beowulf and other poems of the time, Middle English and Chaucer, modern novels (including Ivy Compton-Burnett, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, John Barth Ė the latter two whom I didnít read at all, and still havenít), modern plays Ė The Bofor Guns, St Joan, Irish playwrights. And we did a good deal of poetry, especially from about John Donne to Gerald Manley Hopkins. Shakespeare tragedies and comedies, though none of the histories or less common ones like Troilus and Cressida, or Pericles or Titus Andronicus; and perhaps a paper in Restoration drama. We seemed to do all of Joseph Conradís novels Ė was that a separate paper, I wonder and why did I do it in that case. I donít remember them fondly.
The main gaps to my mind were Trollope, Smollett and Sterne, as well as Graham Greene. And 20th century poetry, which I feel a real lack about Ė no Yeats, Plath, Hughes, Stevie Smith or the war poets.
We did some New Zealand works, Janet Frameís Owls Do Cry, and short stories by New Zealand writers. Also poetry by NZers Ė Glover, RAK Mason, etc. (My husband at Canterbury University at the same time studied James K Baxter, and did a mini-thesis on Kendrick Smithyman, but I donít recall them in our studies.)
We didnít do any Commonwealth writing or American writing. Or any analysis of how English literature fitted with other European literature.
I think all the reading and studying we had to do may have meant that I didnít always enjoy them as I might have (though I recall liking Dombey and Son and Jane Austen, and I read a lot of Iris Murdoch at one stage). But recently I read The Moonstone and was amazed at how incredibly readable and enjoyable it was. As well as being so well written and delineating the various characters well, giving them their individual voices etc.
That is all most interesting! Thank you.
I came to Otago (from Edinburgh via Canada) in spring 1971, so i just missed you here, but I well remember the amount of reading which was expected of students, and the "collections" or tests of reading or rather tests of having read the works over the vacation preceding each term.
This was the method I had experienced at university, and which I now find was instituted in about 1660 by Dean Fell at the Oxford Christ Church. It meant that lectures would be given to a class which had some prior knowledge, and immersion too. The lack of this has complicated university teaching ever since it faded out. probably because universities began to compete in wooing students to choose their place, and then their subject, with governments content to play the numbers game. No one single cause of the dumbing down.
I can see you found yourself reading prescribed books which didn't actually delight you. That's unavoidable, but hardly a good thing either. In my first full year at Otago I found myself lecturing on Spenser's Faerie Queene, not just one or two Books of it, but the entire 6 and a bit. This reading had defeated many of the Honours class, and a great pity because Book VI is the best of the six, and the fragmentary VII is better still.
I felt and feel ambivalent. How did you feel about Spenser?! And your husband at Canterbury, how did things work for him?
I'll pull my thoughts together, with some use of what you have written here if I may, as they give me a splendid set of reflections of the Good Old Days and the problems which weren't being addressed. The balance in all this is elusive (but good to be the one writing about it in the column!)
Sorry, John, we were away at the weekend and then I forgot about your query.
And now I look at it again, I realise I canít answer it anyway. I donít seem to remember anything about The Faerie Queen except that I definitely studied it (all of it? I donít think I read 6 and a bit books). All I remember is the names of Britomart and Artegal and Gloriana. My first reaction, which you wonít think much of, was ďIs that the poem with What though the field be lost? All is not lost,Ē but that was Miltonís Paradise Lost, of which I know we only did a couple of books at most. Possibly only one. I donít recall disliking The Faerie Queen, but I suspect I didnít really understand it. I did like history and we had studied to some degree Elizabethís reign at school and I was brought up a church goer, but I think the Presbyterian religion wasnít one for a lot of historical analysis. And I have never been specially familiar with the Arthurian legends. I think a lot of its significance wouldnít have been known to me in advance, at least, and how much we would have been taught of that background I canít remember.
Thereís a lot of books to read and re-read and I am not at all sure that The Faerie Queen is likely ever to come my way again somehow (though it is probably still in our back shed with a lot of other books of mine, still awaiting the bookshelves inside after several years in this house).
On the plus side, I have discovered that Dickens is much more to my taste than he seemed to be at university (one of the few essays I remember writing was to compare some aspect or general idea of Dickens and Thackeray and I came down firmly on Thackerayís side (though Vanity Fair is still one of my favourite novels, of the classic ones, anyway). But I recently found out how great Bleak House was, for instance. (Never will I try Pamela again though. I remember it with strong distaste.) Mostly I want to re-read sometime Tom Jones and Great Expectations.
I don't get the paper every day so don't know if this has been commented on again or not. Must check. I thought it might be of interest to the board, especially his comments.
Joined: 18 Dec 2008
|Posted: Wed Jul 25, 2012 9:04 pm Post subject:
I saw this thread a couple of days ago and have been meaning to reply (sorry I'm so long after you've originally posted!). I am still quite close to my university experience and it's a bit early to reflect how it will affect my reading in future, but it's quite good to compare and contrast our experiences!
The English course at Cambridge is voluminous and daunting. Like you, I am astonished at how much we were expected to read and actually absorb and comment on in a critical manner! While speed isn't a problem, I'm sure I will go back to a lot of the books I read and think 'I didn't get any of this first time round...'
In the first two years of my study, our papers were divided into time periods: English literature 1300-1500, 1490-1660, 1660-1850, 1850-present day (I think - the time periods escape me now!). On top of this we had 'Shakespeare' and 'practical criticism' as separate papers and had to take at least one 'language' option - I chose Italian, and 'Language for Literature' (linguistics useful for studying lit I suppose). Within those constraints we were given enormously free reign. We did not have to attend lectures. Most supervisors would give you an essay question which you could interpret with any literature in the period, or else give you a reading list (always hefty) and allow you to select a title. Seminars were for open discussion of approaches and themes.
There were very few set texts; I can probably list them: Paradise Lost, Faerie Queene, Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare), Inferno (Dante), Troilus and Creisyde (Chaucer), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Anon), Piers Plowman (Langland). In the 'long 18th century' paper I read Swift, Fielding, Keats, Dryden, Pope - the authors you would expect in the syllabus - but I also wrote about the relationship between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, allusion in Keats, and metaphor in Clare. The freedom was both wonderful and horribly daunting. Coming in at 18 with enthusiasm and presumably some aptitude, I was often lost in trying to self-direct.
When I did my M.Phil we were given core texts for seminars which I loved - it gave me a focus point to start at and then move outwards from as I read around and outwards. It also gave me a forum to bounce ideas - whereas in one-to-one supervisions there is a clear hierarchy of opinion! Perhaps I was just more confident and able, but actually I think the balance of having chosen the papers, being prescribed a few books a week and then being free to roam afterwards was a better balance. Though incidentally I too struggled with the Faerie Queen!
There are a few books I am really grateful to my degree for making me put the effort into: Thackery's Vanity Fair, Paradise Lost and Sampson Agonistes, some of Shakespeare's lesser known plays... And I think ultimately what I will gain is a broadening of my curiosity, and more motivation to step out of my comfort zone.
Anyway, I fear I'm rambling and not of interest to anyone, so will stop there!!!