So, uh, Who's Milton Anyway?

By Issy Goode - 21:23

What is it like to study a subject you knew next to nothing about when you started it? I'm sure this is a question rarely asked of students because, of course, we pick subjects to study that we have experience of doing or plenty of knowledge of. Well, at least enough to know how to write an essay in that subject anyway.

I, on the other hand, and I'm sure this is true of others too, had a seriously basic level of knowledge when I chose to do a degree in English and American Literature. So how on earth did I even get into university to do a literature degree? This was a genuine question one of my lecturers asked, and he also said, had he been aware of the fact I'd never studied literature at A Level, he would have been likely to turn me down (though he did add that I'm a wonderful person and student, whose almost consistent 2:1 grades obviously show I'm capable of studying literature).
In my application to university I gave a convincing argument about both my interest and my capability to succeed in the field of literature. Enough to get me 4 offers during my UCAS applications anyway (one turned me down because I'd actually applied to the wrong one - my bad - it totally would have been a full house if I had got the correct university). 

So - what is it actually like to study something that you have so little knowledge of?

Now, as you've probably guessed, literature is insanely vast, and if you've only just dipped your baby toe in when you take the step to studying it at university, then you're going to feel something pull at your feet and drag you right down the rabbit hole. 

Attending seminars was probably the hardest thing for me. I lacked confidence when I began university as it was, but in the field of literature I was a mere peasant in comparison to my peers. I could barely pipe up and say a thing for the entire year, partially because I found it quite a struggle to keep up with the reading load, and also because everyone was so smart. How did they know what to say? On most occasions I didn't even know who the author was, even if they were well known. I had the disadvantage of not being forced to read some of the author's many aren't interested in studying in their spare time at A Level and GCSE, so I wasn't "educated" as it were. I knew some big names in the field of modern American literature, but not the old boys. Luckily, on the American literature side a lot of people were as ignorant as I was, so I felt slightly more at home there. 

When my first assignment came in, I panicked. I stared at the question, at the passage we'd been given to analyse, back at the book that I hadn't had time to read all the way through and then felt like I wanted to cry. Had I made the wrong decision? Was I going to fail every assignment thrown at me? At this time I also broke up with my long term boyfriend and my confidence in my decision to come to university plummeted. I scheduled a meeting with one of the tutors who seemed like she would say some kind words, and in fact, she said some extremely helpful words that contributed to the confidence that kept me going. Not only did she assure me that I was capable, but also that I was at an advantage in some respect. I was a clean slate whose ideas and writing weren't tainted by mistakes I'd made at school or college, and who hadn't been taught things that often university tells you is utter rubbish. As a college English Language student I could take my essays off in different directions, and explore words and sentences perhaps more thoroughly than some literature students could. Whether she was saying this because I was sobbing out pathetic little tears or because it was actually true, I still don't know. But she wasn't wrong, I was capable.

If anything it wasn't my knowledge of the subject, or lack of it, that held me back during my first year  of university but it was my self-belief. It was also the fact that I let the party side of university sweep me off my feet and distract me from throwing myself head first into my degree. I grazed 2:1's and mid 2:2's throughout first year, thankful that it didn't contribute to my degree, but also thankful that within a year I had already learnt more about literature than I ever thought I would know. 

By second year, whilst partying a little less my interest in literature blossomed. I started to realise what genre and period of literature interested me. Having not had to suffer any of the abysmal A Level literature exams or essays on authors I didn't even like, most writers were completely new territory to me. Maybe having knowledge or having worked on an author before coming to university was advantageous for some, but on other occasions people were finding that their A Level ideas were being shot down by lecturers. I was almost glad I didn't have knowledge and that my ideas were at a university standard, but at the same time I recognised people's essays and class contributions were very much influenced by their previous knowledge. 

Of course, it doesn't work like this for everyone and the only way I managed to get in and come to this point now 98 days away from my graduation was by learning the things I had to, to improve and to keep up. I was already so many steps behind everyone else when I came to university, but most of my lecturers haven't scolded me for being so uneducated in the field of literature but instead applauded me for working hard to get to where I have, and achieve pretty consistent grades. So what, I'm not the smartest in the class and I'm not even half as well read as the rest, I know how to write an essay, I know how to analyse a book and get down and dirty with the themes. 

When it comes to the American literature side of my degree, it's probably been the part that really has spurred me on throughout these three years. I never really had the opportunity to read American literature and was never encouraged to do so by others, so when I borrowed some novels from my boyfriend's mum during college, I became acquainted with the American writer who is now the focus of my dissertation, Paul Auster. 

So what's it like to study a subject you had very little knowledge of before you started? Rewarding, refreshing, challenging and a real roller-coaster. If I had had more knowledge before I came to university and more practice in writing about literature my grades would be a few marks, maybe even a whole grade higher but you know what? I'm damn proud that I've achieved what I have, and I wouldn't change my decision to do a degree in literature, because it's opened my eyes to the world I knew I was interested in, but now know I really do love.

My advice is if you have passion and self-belief, and you can prove that you can achieve what you're setting out to, then go for it. You shouldn't let education hold you back, because you'd be surprised where a positive and convincing personal statement could get you.

P.S in case you don't know, like I didn't, John Milton was an English poet well known for his blank verse poem Paradise Lost. I studied this in second year and I think quite a few people were shocked that I'd never even read it and if I'm honest, I hadn't really heard of Milton. I told you, I was a literature peasant. 

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  1. This is a really interesting post, Issy! I'm so pleased you've carried on because god yes, you teacher was 100% right and you ARE capable! It sounds like you made the best decision you could have made because not only will you get a degree (which is awesome in itself), you're obviously a lot more confident and have gained so many life skills xx

    Sam | Samantha Betteridge

    1. Thank you! I really have, I'm a completely different person now and certainly for the better :) xx


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