Revisited: Studying English with Creative Writing at QUB

What’s it like, being a student? An English student? An English student at Queen’s?

Foam PartyRight back in first year, I wrote a post about how I was finding my undergraduate English course at Queen’s, and it was a pretty positive review. I loved so many parts of that degree. I loved the workload, the lectures and the lecturers, and I even came to love a number of my classmates, which isn’t something I’ve always been so good at. I was thrilled to have moved from the vaguely monotonous (but still highly enjoyable) Leaving Certificate English curriculum into a much broader world that covered literature, linguistics and writing – not quite in equal measures, but they were all still there.

I’m happy to report that I have NO complaints about the English course.

UCAS offerI started out by learning about the history and origins of the English language, and I struggled with these few classes a lot. While the subject matter was interesting, it was a lot to take in and I found it difficult and frustrating in all the same ways that I found Junior Cert History frustrating. It was about learning facts and dates off-by-heart, and that wasn’t something I was very good at. I’m still not very good at it, but the history of the English language is now very much my field, and I can work around my mental blocks when it’s something I’m passionate about.

We then moved on to child language acquisition, which was an incredibly interesting section and my only complaint is that I wanted MORE. I would happily have done an entire module on that topic alone, but the information I did get to study was still very interesting indeed.

I actually had a slight blip with the assessment for that module: My tutor announced that we could use information from lecture slides without giving sources because “that information is given to you”, and told us that the exam would be multiple choice. The exam was two essay questions and we all crashed and burned, and my feedback included a note from the lecturer scolding me for using his information without crediting him. I got a grade of 58, my lowest score since Junior Cert History, and cried myself to sleep. I’m not bitter.

We studied the ways in which different wording can place blame on different people in the same story, and I haven’t been able to read a news story the same way since. We studied all manner of poetry, plays, short stories and novels. I managed to get through the entire degree and only study one piece of Shakespeare – Macbeth, which I’d already studied at Leaving Cert and was happy to write about again.

A big part of my enjoyment of the entire course, not simply first year, came from the fact we got to study more than just high literature. We studied David Nicholls’ “One Day” in first year, and in final year I did a full module on American contemporary crime fiction (which was fantastic). Also in first year, we studied Philip Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” and Owen McCafferty’s “Scenes from the Big Picture.” One of these lectures caused students in another year to walk out due to offence caused by the lecturer, while the other saw a friend of mine flee from a seminar in floods of tears because of the emotions in the text. These things happen!

From the beginning of the course, I was expected to read a minimum of two books per week. This number gradually increased over the course of the degree, with extra books and academic papers and blogs and activities added on, and the workload of each semester varied widely between “doable” and “this is insane, I haven’t been outside in seventy years, please someone come and mist my eyes with water.” Through the art of time management I think some found the reading a little easier than others, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t find it challenging.

At the moment, for the course, I am reading two novels a week. Depending on what sort of reader you are, that will sound like a lot or a little.

The quality of lectures obviously depended on who was giving each one, but I had no real complaints about any of them. Some lecturers had thick accents that people struggled with. Others used too many photos and not enough writing on their slides, making them pretty much useless for revision. Generally, though, the lectures were clear, interesting and enjoyable.

A lecture is a serious, formal, informative session, but it is not unusual for lecturers to make little jokes that have the whole hall laughing (yes, you’re allowed to laugh, good grief!).

As naïve and simplistic as my post at the start of first year may have been, I really agree with most of the points it made and am glad that the things I liked about the course carried on for the entire degree. There were major dips (mostly caused by mental health issues) of course, but I still feel like choosing to study English at Queen’s was the best thing I could have done.

I’m very glad that I did my degree when I did, as the university has sort of gone downhill recently and moving to a new place sort of makes me feel like a rat jumping from a sinking ship. Cuts have been imposed that are affecting the quality of education students in the School of English (now the School of Arts, English and Languages because merging those things together means the university is allowed to give them less funding, yay) and causing several of the lecturers who made my experience as amazing it was to leave.

But even if the school I loved is gone and the lecturers who helped me have fled, I will always have my degree, which QUB CAN CLAW FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS. HON THE HUMANITIES!

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