School of English

English Literature

Here are some tips and some advice on how to prepare for your university studies and how to get the most out the different elements of teaching in your degree.

What can I expect from studying at university?  How is it different from school or college?

Students often find there is quite a shift between school and university study. The first thing many confront is that you are expected to read far more and engage with a much greater volume of texts than you do at school. You will develop your own reading strategies in the course of your degree, but do not underestimate the time you need to devote to reading.  At school you will have often spent many class hours meticulously exploring a small number of books, but at university you may (almost) be reading and discussing the same number of texts in a week that you did over a term at school. Virtually every student finds this challenging at the start, especially when most of the books we study are demanding and deliberately ask us to rethink the world in ways we are not familiar with.  At university you are encouraged to develop your own critical voice; don’t feel this should happen immediately. It is an incremental process and the course is designed to help you achieve this over your years at Sussex.

Another big shift is the move to independent study: whilst you will be guided through lectures, seminars and workshops, you have responsibility for your learning . Unlike school or college, you will find you have more untimetabled hours, and less contact time with tutors, than you may be used to. This doesn’t mean there is less to do! It means we expect you to organise yourself so you can make the best use of the teaching we offer. Here are some tips to help you best engage with your study:

Approaches to studying

Organise yourself

When you get your timetable, mark in study periods as well as plenty of time for other activities. Look at your workload for each week and allocate time slots to complete it. Think about when you work best – are you a morning person or a night owl? Where will you work? In your room, in the library? Get into good study habits early – you’ll find it difficult to catch up if you leave this too late. Managing your time in relation to assessment deadlines is also important.

Persevere

If you find some reading particularly difficult to understand don’t give up but use the text’s difficulty as a way to start engaging with it: why does it seem hard? Try reading a section slowly – even out loud – to try and find the text’s own voice and rhythm.  With some texts, you and a seminar group may come to the view that sometimes the effort is not worth the rewards, but this view should be reached after you have given them fair consideration. And don’t be afraid of revisiting an initial view at some later point: reading and thinking is a continuous ongoing activity. But keep in mind that if you just focus on the texts that immediately interest you, you can’t really  expect to be a successful student of literature.

Look at vacation readings lists each year of your studies. and do what reading you can in advance of term. Reading lists

Make learning social

Talk to your friends  and classmates about how they are finding things, and about their responses to the week’s reading or other tasks. Be supportive to others: learning is a collective enterprise. Maybe you can help each other further by forming informal reading or study groups. Get in the habit of going for a coffee  or getting together after lectures or seminars, and talk about your responses to these sessions. Go for study sessions in the library with a friend, take breaks together and compare notes on what you’ve been reading. One of the best ways to understand what you are learning is to talk about it.

Pace yourself over your first term

Students may feel exhausted by week 6 – remember, we need to keep going for 12 weeks! Don’t expect to master everything straightway: it’s a learning journey.

Don’t let study get on top of you

The first year is all about finding your feet and getting used to things. Give yourself some [MM3] time to relax and enjoy everything else which being a student has to offer.

How will I be taught?

Teaching in the School of English is often delivered via lectures, seminars and workshops. You will become very familiar with the expectations around these within your first few weeks.

Seminar

A seminar typically two hours long, is a form of ‘small-group’ teaching. A group of approximately 18 or fewer students will meet with a tutor to discuss and explore the reading which has been assigned for that week. The seminar may consist of a number of activities, such as: whole-group discussion, led by the tutor; close-reading exercises; student presentations prepared in advance; work in small groups or pairs; individual short writing tasks. Usually you will have one seminar per week per module.

Lecture

A lecture is usually one-hour long (50 minutes, strictly speaking), involves a member of academic staff delivering a talk, often with slides, a handout, or other materials. Students should listen, take notes, and think about how the lecture develops their own preparation on the assigned topic. You may also have the chance to participate by asking or responding to questions. [click here for tips on lectures]

Workshop

A workshop  is typically two hours. This is another form of small-group teaching which may feel like a seminar, but whose focus may be more on smaller, more self-contained preparatory tasks, short writing exercises, small-group work etc. It may also address study skills (e.g. essay writing, close reading, using criticism).

Making the most of your seminars, lectures and workshops

Seminars and lectures will need you to prepare in different ways in order to get the most out of these types of teaching.

Making the most of seminars

Although they are led by a tutor, seminars are a form of group learning: so the more you can do to prepare for and contribute to a seminar, the better. Here are some tips to help you make the most of – and give the most to – your seminars. 

Prepare. Try to be on top of as much of the reading as possible. You may have been able to do some reading in advance of term via the vacation reading lists. If not, do what you can to be prepared. Think about what you have been reading and have some questions and contributions to discussion ready – even if you have not managed to complete the reading. What don’t you understand? What do you find interesting, problematic, striking, strange? What aspects of the reading or topic would you find most helpful to address? What would most develop your understanding of the text? What was said in the lecture that your seminar group could discuss?

It’s an obvious one, but be sure to have your assigned text or other learning materials with you in the seminar. And be aware that some tutors may be frustrated if your copy of the text is on your mobile phone.

Participate. Seminars live or die by student participation. In seminars we learn through talking through issues, debating, questioning and listening to others. Think of group discussion as a conversation, guided by the tutor, but to which you can contribute however you want to. This is where your preparation comes in - perhaps you have a question or some thoughts to share with your group. But participation might also involve: listening to others, asking a question, commenting on another’s response, drawing attention to an aspect of the text etc.

Seminar Dynamic.  Do what you can to build a good seminar ‘dynamic’ – your group becomes what you make it. Little things make a big difference here. Show respect for your seminar peers. Arrive early to give yourself a chance to chat a little with others and get to know them – it’s easier to talk and learn with people you already know. During the seminar, use body language to show you are interested in what others are saying. (Eye contact and nodding are good! Yawning and staring out of the window are less good.)

Think about what your seminar role or persona might be. If you find talking really easy, do you need to give way to others at times? What can you do to invite others in? (e.g. ‘One of the things I think is x, but the others might not agree’. ‘I have a question I’ve been thinking about, what does the group think about x?’ ‘I’m really interested in this bit of the text, what do the rest of you think?’). If you find it harder to contribute, show that you are following and participating through your body language. Make eye contact with the tutor or raise your hand when you’ve got something to say. Initially, you might find it easier to ask a question than to offer your own opinion.

If you use a laptop or tablet, be sure you don’t spend the seminar isolated behind the screen, tapping away at your notes, without engaging in seminar discussion. This is a big no-no which could well irritate your fellow students and tutor. Some tutors prefer students not to use laptops at all; they will communicate this to groups individually. The same goes for making notes by hand: yes, make the occasional note to remind yourself of what is being said, but seminars are not for passive note-taking: they are for discussing and participating.

Build your seminar confidence. Some students can struggle to find their feet with seminars. There are some things you can do to help yourself here. Firstly, don’t start skipping seminars – you’ll soon find you feel even less at home in the group having missed sessions, and you can quickly feel left behind. Remember: attendance builds confidence, so that’s the first step. If you find speaking to a big group hard, start by making use of opportunities to speak in small-group situations. Try your ideas out there, before offering them to the group. Volunteer to be the person who feeds ideas back from the small group to the whole group. Again, if you aren’t ready yet to offer a point, show that you are listening to others – a bit of body language goes a long way. Nod your agreement, make eye contact when others are talking. Don’t be afraid to ask a question, of another student or the tutor. Remember, saying ‘I don’t understand that point’ is always allowed – if you didn’t understand something, chances are someone else didn’t either, and often saying so is useful for the whole group. It also helps a tutor to know if something hasn’t really come across well. Try to find yourself a seminar-buddy: someone to chat to before or after the seminar. Finally, you can always have a word with the tutor after the seminar or in their office hour or drop them an email. They will be sympathetic and you can discuss ways in which they might help.

Making the most of lectures

Your job in a lecture is to be an active listener, to make notes on what is helpful, and absorb what you can. Do not try to write everything down, but try not to slip into a passive mode where the lecture just washes over you. Think about what is being said, and whether or not you agree. Can you make connections with the lecture and your own reading? Make notes as an aid to following the talk, and as an aid to remembering key points, or thoughts which occur to you during the lecture. What questions do you have at the end of the lecture? Some lecturers may invite questions, or you may be able to reformulate a question or response to the lecture as part of a contribution to a seminar on the same topic.

After a lecture, you could talk through your response with a friend. Look through your notes, add in anything else you can remember that you didn’t write down at the time, or any other thoughts.  You may wish to get in the habit of looking back at lecture notes before the seminar on that topic.

RECORDINGS of lectures  
Lectures are often but not always recorded; if they are, they will be available on the module Study Direct site a week or so after being delivered, for revision purposes. Listening to a recorded lecture is not a substitute for attending. Please note: We do not allow the recording of seminars or other teaching sessions by students for a number of reasons, not least that discussion would likely be inhibited if recordings were being made.

Making the most of workshops

Some modules, including Texts in Time 1 and 2, are taught by workshops, in addition to seminars and lectures. Workshops are designed to support you as you make the transition from school or college teaching to independent university study. Teaching in workshops tends to be focused around smaller exercises or tasks, which may contribute to a portfolio of assessment exercises. Your workshop group will be the same as your seminar group, although your workshop tutor is likely to be different from your seminar tutor. Use workshops to try out ideas with your peers in advance of seminar discussion, to ask questions about the week’s reading or lecture, and to get to know the rest of your group. Workshops are also supportive spaces for developing your study skills – make the most of the advice and exercises which take place here to hone your writing and study skills.