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Our education would benefit if we had less choice, not more

The benefits of being forced to study things outside our comfort zone – according to an English literature graduate.

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Charlie Pullen

March 21 2016
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What I’ve learned studying English: Choice is a difficult matter

At the beginning of every term, students settle back in to their classes or begin new modules, but depending on your course, which university you go to and which year you’re in, you will find yourself in these modules for quite different reasons. It might be compulsory because the staff deem the content “core” and “foundational”; perhaps you chose a specialist option or an elective purely because the topic fascinates you.

Students often regard the ability to choose what they study on their degree as a fundamental part of learning in higher education. It’s a sign of maturity and increasing intellectual autonomy, one of the benefits of becoming an independent learner. If at university students have so much more personal responsibility for their learning, it seems only right that we become more in control of our degrees, too.

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Choice was important for me as an undergraduate reading English. My department placed a strong emphasis on this as well, and I was drawn to study there, in part, because I felt that it was far more flexible than most other institutions. Many English departments offered only a limited choice through “option blocks” in each year, while some would allow students to select their classes only in the final year. Because literary studies is a discipline requiring critical and independent students, I felt that the opportunity to pursue my own interests throughout the subject was essential. My first year, not unusually, of course, allowed me no choices, as it was designed to be a foundation or an introduction to studying English. On this overview year, I studied modules with the dauntingly broad titles “Poetry” and “Narrative”, while also reading Shakespeare, medieval literature, and modern critical theory. Once I’d finished that year, however, I had almost free rein when it came to choosing which modules I studied. Finally, and happily, I could read just the stuff I liked.

My feeling now, as an MA student, is that what you study is a far more complicated issue, one that can’t really come down simply to your personal interests or what you already think you like. Some material is essential, some content is fundamental, and all degrees should – as many do – incorporate as much of this as possible. It is obviously important that students should have some influence over their studies, but my experience suggests that we can overindulge in the subjects we enjoy (for me it was modern literature and philosophy) at the expense of gaining a more expansive appreciation of the subject as a whole. I now look back and wish I’d taken the modules on Moby Dick and Victorian poetry.

I actually think it would benefit our education if we had less choice.

Such is hindsight, but I actually think it would benefit our education if we had less choice. I learned only late in my degree how important it is to study topics you don’t like, which is to say that I think that encountering material and ideas that we otherwise would not go to – because they don’t interest us or we feel that they are too easy or hard – is actually crucial to being a critical English student (or, indeed, any student). This is why I now think it is important to be forced, as it were, into modules that are outside of our intellectual comfort zones. On a simple level, this could ensure that we all learn content that is crucial for our course, but, more importantly, it would help to teach us that dealing with potentially unwanted or uninteresting books is actually a great opportunity, rather than a chore or an impediment. This is how we challenge our views, refine our interests, and work out what it is we actually like.

I think it’s a sad day when a degree becomes a plate at some sort of academic buffet.

Students often resent having to take compulsory modules, and there have been various articles that call for universities to give more flexibility when it comes to tailoring degrees to each learner’s specific interests. Students feel especially passionate for this kind of freedom, I think, because of the rise in tuition fees; since the expense of undertaking a university education is so high, it seems only right that a student would, as it were, get their money’s worth by having a direct say over the composition of their course. We all hear the daily complaint: “I’m paying a lot of money for this – I should get what I want.” I think it’s a sad day when a degree becomes a plate at some sort of academic buffet. The fact is that we probably aren’t always equipped to make such choices about what we want to study. In fact, one of the skills an English degree should teach us is how to make wise and informed selections and judgements.

As much as I loved many of my modules, both the optional and compulsory ones, I disliked several of the latter, and felt that they were not really contributing to my knowledge of the subject, before realising a year or more later that they actually taught me much more than I originally thought at the time. Because learning can often take time to percolate before its value and usefulness seems apparent, module evaluation forms can often lead to important but unpopular modules being scrapped. This was the fate of one module we had to take, which was on the history of the essay, a topic that I now regard as both functional and intriguing. As bad as it sounds, I think departments can care too much about students’ opinions in some situations. We may be adults, but choosing modules isn’t everything when it comes to university.

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