What is English Literature A level about?
Quite simply, almost everything.
In studying English Literature you will explore the psychology of characters, the motives of writers and the political, social and historical contexts in which texts were written and read.
In The Tempest you will discover about magic and illusion and the causes and consequences of 17th century colonialism. In Jane Eyre and in Much Ado About Nothing you will examine issues of gender and social class. How do writers – and that includes you – succeed in shaping the responses and opinions of others? How do they draw you into their world? Why do they make you laugh? Do writers from other countries write differently?
The study of English Literature trains the brain and frees the imagination; it is about life and living and just where you fit into the world around you.
What does the course consist of?
The course offers students the chance to study a rich variety of literature from many different periods. The texts are stimulating and interesting and there are several opportunities for students to develop their own interests and to bring their own creative and independent skills to the tasks.
More specifically, in the first year (AS) we study two units – the first unit is examined at the end of the year whilst the coursework unit is submitted shortly before Easter of the first year.
Unit 1 is divided into three sections:
- Section A requires the student to answer a series of short questions on an unseen text – either poetry or prose. These questions explore the methods employed by a writer, such as tone, imagery, dialogue, etc.
- Section B asks the student to answer one question from a choice of two on a selection of poems drawn from the Oxford Anthology of Poetry.
- Section C wants you to answer one question from a choice of two on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop. Jane Eyre is the 'core novel' and The Magic Toyshop is studied in order to illuminate the analysis of Bronte's novel.
This unit is worth 120 marks.
In Unit 2 attention turns to Drama. This is a coursework unit and the challenge is to write a maximum of 2,500 words, divided into two responses. The first of these is the Explorative Study (c.1,800 words), the other a Creative Critical Response (c.700 words).
In the first of these the student writes a thematic essay on a chosen Shakespeare text but makes systematic links to a second Shakespeare play in order to provide a comparison. The essay needs to include critical reviews of performance, the way audiencs from different times have responded to the plays and the contexts in which the plays were written.
In the Creative Critical Response students develop their understanding of drama through preparing a more creative and personal response to one of the texts. This might include, for example, writing a letter to the editor of the TLS reviewing a recent performance of the play or scripting a talk on preparing an outline pitch for a possible TV series based on the chosen play. A popular approach is to take one of the characters and to place them in the world today. This is a very popular part of the AS course.
Unit 2 is worth a total of 80 marks (62 for the Explorative essay and 18 for the Creative piece).
In the Upper Sixth there are two more units.
Unit 3 is divided into two parts: section A is worth 40% of the total marks and section B 60%.
- In Section A students are confronted by two unseen texts – one on poetry and the other prose. Students select one of these and then write a detailed, illustrated essay on the text. Students need to comment on the meaning of the text and to explore the decisions made by the writer in terms of structure, form, imagery language, and so on.
- In Section B students are given a reader’s comment about three texts they have studied and then students respond to this comment. This question demands independence of mind, extensive personal research and high level writing skills. The good news is that the texts are hugely enjoyable and that the exam rewards students who are willing to pursue their own interpretations and close reading.
The texts for Section B:
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
- Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
The unit is taken at the end of the second year and is worth a total of 120 marks.
Unit 4 is the second coursework unit. It is entitled Reflections in Literary Studies and schools are given a free choice of texts. We have chosen to examine American Drama after the Second World War and I think it fair to say that this is the most popular of all the units.
The specification demands that we look closely at the relationship between text and context and students tend to find this period of American History particularly interesting. It covers, for example, the Presidency of JFK, the importance and power of 'The American Dream', the Cold War, and many other things.
We study two plays in depth. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee – but we also look at other plays written in America at this time. We also study the views of other readers, performances of the plays on stage and screen and the enduing relevance of the two central plays.
The coursework essay needs to be c.3000 words long and the unit is worth 80 marks.
Whom does the subject suit?
If you like ideas, discussion and how others seek to manipulate us then English is the subject for you. If you enjoy reading and becoming immersed in the worlds others create and wonder why they were able to exert such magical powers on you then English is the subject for you. If you want to explore times gone, times yet to come and times that will never be then English is the right choice. If you cherish words and think that it would be useful – in all aspects of your life – to have a richer reservoir of words and the freedom to articulate your thoughts clearly and compellingly choose English Literature.
It will help to have an open mind, an enquiring brain and a willingness to work hard. If you like reading and enjoy putting pen to paper in a robust and imaginative way then English may well be the right choice. The requisite academic skills are a clear mind, a pithy and precise writing style, sensitivity to nuance and hidden meaning and a good level of general knowledge in order that you can 'de-code' symbols and imagery.
Many of these strengths you will gain and polish throughout the two years and we will encourage you to do this through debate and discussion. The study of literature is about sharing perspectives and opinions and challenging received assumptions in order to reach a strong personal understanding. In our small groups we want to stimulate debate and to give students the confidence to express their own judgements and to develop these so they are based on close, accurate textual understanding. A good sense of humour and a willingness to laugh are undoubted advantages.
Who will teach me?
Alasdair MacPherson is Head of English and Academic Head of the Sixth Form. Alasdair has taught at d'Overbroeck's for over twenty years. He graduated from Glasgow University – in the last century – before going on to further studies at Oxford University.
Chris Holland, a graduate of Oxford University, has been an integral part of the English department for several years.
Dr Emma Tinker gained a First in English at Oxford and a PhD from UCL. Jo Williams, also an Oxford English graduate, joined the College in 2010 from the Tiffin Boys School.
What might the subject lead onto?
Almost anything. Well, not an Engineer, Vet or Doctor, obviously (though the subject is highly valued by medical schools, for example), but that still leaves plenty of room for manouevre. Employers tend to believe that a degree in English is 'a good thing', refecting a creative and rigorous mind, an ability to communicate effectively and self-discipline. Past students are to be found in TV and journalism, commerce and finance, politics and the law. Some have become teachers, actors and writers and there is certainly nothing limiting about an interest or degree in literature.