It is with some trepidation that I admit to you the dark secret of university life: you actually have to do some work in order to gain a degree. Horrifying thought I know, especially to those of you currently wading through the quagmire of despair also known as A-level revision. But English essays at York are different enough to give you some hope for the future, some light at the end of the educational tunnel.
Unlike A-level English Literature, York offers total freedom for essay topics, and this can prove both daunting and liberating. At the end of each term you will look back and decide which themes and texts interested you the most, and then you will write an essay on them. It’s that simple. Tutors will help guide your research and argument, but the final choice is always yours. This can feel like a double-edged sword when a deadline is looming and you still can’t decide what focus your essay should have, but a one-edged sword is called a bread knife and it’s really boring. In my experience, this approach offers real satisfaction as you craft and research an argument, and the freedom to go where you like can take you to some very silly (but engaging) places. I once ended up comparing Sir Lancelot to Bruce Willis’ character John McClane, and was rewarded with the marvellous feedback of “This sheds more light on Die Hard than Le Morte Darthur”. The literary world was not rocked by my essay, but I enjoyed writing it, and any essay you enjoy writing is almost certain to be better.
Another difference is the way essays are marked. There are criteria which markers follow, but they are not nearly as strict as the dreaded Assessment Objectives, allowing for much more of an individual style to develop. This makes sense when you think about it; the department wants to turn out students who can show flair and flexibility rather than automatons shoehorning in the obligatory 12.5% social and historical context, and so engagement with an argument is the order of the day here at York. Unfortunately most of you will still have your A-level exam ahead, so don’t throw your exam specifications to the wind just yet, but the chance to write an essay how you want is certainly something to look forward to. The essays you do write will be anonymously marked for fairness, and you will receive extensive written feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your creation.
One noticeable change is that grades are no longer your lord and master . Gone are the ABCs, replaced by mysterious words like firsts and 2:1s. I had no idea what these meant when I arrived so it might interest you to know now. Everything at university is marked out of 100; a pass is above 40, below 50 is a third, below 60 is a 2:2, and below 70 a 2:1. After that you get firsts, but unlike A-levels full marks aren’t really an option. Apparently anything above 80 must be of publishable quality, and I’m fairly sure Shakespeare himself would have struggled to get 90. This change takes a bit of getting used to – 60% gets you the second highest degree at university but a D grade at school – but it very quickly becomes completely natural.
As you may have heard, there are primarily two types of module at York, period and special modules, and each requires a slightly different approach to essay writing. Period modules examine the literature from a stretch of time where similar themes can be seen to run throughout, for example the Romantic Period 1776-1832. This results in an eclectic and fascinating overview of an era, and, for an essay, requires you to show some wider understanding of the literary sphere with which your chosen text is engaging. Special modules are designed and run by a single professor, and tend to have a far more specific focus based upon the tutor’s interests. They change quite a lot year on year, as professors go on research leave and suddenly no one is left who knows quite so much on the subject. This is one of the exciting things about special modules – you are being taught by a genuine expert in the field who is passionate about the area of focus. It is also one of the scary things when it comes to writing an essay because it is hard to fool an expert if you don’t know exactly what you are talking about! This means that for special modules I try to find myself a niche in the overall topic and research that extensively, which is a very useful skill for those of you already thinking about CVs.
Well that’s quite enough about essays for the moment; I’ll start getting flashbacks to deadline day at this rate. As ever, I am more than happy to answer questions so don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Other than that, all that remains for me to say is thank you for reading these blogs, I hope you’ve enjoyed them, and best of luck in all your exams! Wherever you end up, I hope you get to experience the joy of studying literature, because it really has been the best decision I ever made. Reading and thinking about reading are some of life’s pleasures, and to get to do that and get a qualification out of it… well it’s a no-brainer isn’t it! See you in September!