At the beginning of my second year, during a compulsory module I didn’t much want to be doing, a tutor said to my class: ‘I’d hate to think of you spending your degree just reading what you wanted to read.’ On the contrary, at the time I didn’t think I could imagine anything better than working my way through my degree reading nothing other than modernism and Marx. That’s what I liked, so that’s what I wanted to read. And I had no time for a module which required me to read Wordsworth or editions of The Spectator from the eighteenth century.
Moving from first to second year, I had a very fixed idea of the kind of books I liked, the ones I thought were important, and the ones which I believed were most worthy of study. Personally, and as unpopular as it may sound, I’m of the opinion that we should be studying less Shakespeare in first year, and probably focus more on critical theory. This is most likely because, for my sins, I like reading critical theory a lot more than Shakespeare. On the one hand, of course, it’s very important to feel dedicated to what you’re studying, but I was probably too chauvinistic in regarding twentieth-century literature as far superior to any other branch of English studies. What I’ve learned since, however, is that it’s good for you to read things you do not want to. More than this, it’s crucial to getting the most out of an English degree.
On an English degree you will encounter texts you do not like, spot titles on reading lists that you dread, and be tempted more than once to skip reading books you just can’t stand. This is neither the course’s failure, nor yours. It is not a sign that you aren’t cultured enough to appreciate or ‘get’ the books, or that the course is out of touch with your interests. Given the wide range of books you will be required to engage with on your degree, it is ineluctable that you will dislike some. Again, this is not a problem. These can be some of the most fruitful opportunities for study because we must ask why we did not want to read it, why we didn’t enjoy reading it, and why we wouldn’t want to read it again. On an English degree negative feelings towards the material we encounter can be just as – if not more – provocative and stimulating than positive ones.
It seems an obvious point to make that being prepared to engage with new texts and ideas is important for anyone wanting to be a critical and open-minded English student, but it’s certainly something I needed reminding of. When it came to choosing my third year modules there were plenty I would’ve loved to take, but I was prompted by my personal advisor to take something outside of my comfort zone. Even if that course didn’t sit comfortably alongside my other modules and reading, I might learn new skills and methodological approaches which would enhance my learning in other classes. Much more, though, the very fact of learning new things would be really important in itself.
In the words of Hector in The History Boys, study is never general. And in many ways the point of a degree is to take knowledge from the general to the particular, and specialising in your field is both a natural and desirable consequence of learning in higher education. The journalist John Rentoul advises that acquiring, and being known for, specialist knowledge is fundamental to pursuing a career in the media. But more than a practical and useful tactic of navigating your degree which makes you more employable, developing expertise in a particular field is a very fulfilling and rewarding activity.
I always seem to look back on modules that I didn’t enjoy with a feeling that it was actually pretty useful. Hindsight, they say, is a beautiful thing. Or, perhaps, it’s simply that pain seems less acute at a distance. And the second year module in question was no exception, even though I certainly don’t venture down to the eighteenth century anymore. It seems to me that there is enormous benefit in learning about topics that we might honestly say we don’t care about. Not only from that practical viewpoint, whereby we build versatility and an inclusive attitude to fresh experiences, but more importantly – I would argue – in fostering a critical mindset optimised to open thinking and getting the most out of any text laid before us.