The Cambridge English Course

The Cambridge English course is unique for combining full historical coverage with the chance to specialise and develop your own interests. In the first two years of your degree, you cover the full historical sweep of literature written in the English language from the medieval period to the present day. In your third year you have the freedom to pursue the interests you have developed, by choosing from a range of specialist topics and undertaking independent, guided research on topics of your own devising. The course embraces all literature written in the English language, which means that you can study American and post-colonial literatures alongside British literatures throughout; there are also options to specialise in either or both of these areas in your third year, and to study literature in other languages. The course also embraces all genres and periods, including writing by, for example, philosophers and essayists, as well as the more traditional genres of poetry, prose, and drama. 

The course is divided into two parts. The first part gives you a strong foundational knowledge of literature across the centuries. The second allows you to explore your own interests in more depth. Manifold approaches flourish here – for example, in poetic and aesthetic theory, in postcolonial writing in English, in Renaissance texts as ‘material’ objects, in film and its links to literature - and we do not encourage any single method. Instead, we hope to instil in you the confidence to undertake self-directed study and develop unique and original approaches of your own. You will be encouraged to define your own questions, and to go about answering them using the analytical and intellectual resources you have developed. 

Part I: A Broad Range, A Solid Grounding

‘Part I’ of the course occupies the first two years and introduces you to a broad range of literature written in the English language from 1300 to the present. This is divided into four periods and you study Shakespeare as a fifth topic. This structure ensures that you try many things - from medieval dream poems to Victorian melodrama to postmodern fantasy, say - but still get to know the major authors. There are few set texts, so you can focus on topics of particular interest within each period under the guidance of our distinctive teaching system. Uniquely, we do not have a syllabus: instead, students work with their supervisors to devise a programme of study for themselves. There are few English departments left in the world that allow you to study the full historical range of literature in English, and we pride ourselves on the strong grounding this gives our students.

A sixth element of Part I aims to develop your skills and critical abilities. This involves the study of 'practical criticism and critical practice', and its intention is to get you thinking about how you do what you do, when you read a book or write an essay or perform a play. It can involve anything from discussing previously unseen poems, to analysing a text's possibilities in performance, to debating recent critical theory. You will be challenged to think about what literature is, how it works, and how it can be discussed. This is a distinctive and long-standing part of the Cambridge English course, and a real highlight for students and lecturers alike.

It is also possible for appropriately qualified students to replace one of their modules with a language option borrowed from another Faculty or Department. There are options, for instance, to study Old English or Old Norse from scratch, or for students to take a paper in Classical Greek or Latin or one of a wide range of modern languages.

Part I: Assessment

The teaching at Cambridge is designed to develop your reading, thinking and writing skills rather than just train you for exams. To check on your progress and give you exam practice, however, there is a preliminary examination at the start of the third term of your first year, when you take exams on two periods of literature, including some practical criticism.

Your first full assessment, covering all of the elements you have studied, comes at the end of the second year. You have the choice of being examined solely through a series of six examinations of three or three and a half hours in length, or of replacing two of those exams with coursework (a dissertation - a sort of extended essay - of 5000 words, and a portfolio of three essays totalling 6000 words). Prizes are awarded by the Faculty and many Colleges for the best work.

Part II: Deeper Questions, New Areas

Having acquired the overview, new skills, and comparative perspectives provided by Part I, you take Part II in your third year: an exciting, adventurous, and intense year of study. Part II has three compulsory components which exercise your new skills and knowledge. One is a dissertation on a topic of your own choice and devising, one is a further examination in ‘Practical Criticism’, and one is the study of ‘Tragedy’.

For the ambitious and sometimes life-changing ‘Tragedy’ paper, you study ancient Greek tragedy (largely in translation), revisit Shakespearean tragedy, and then compare whatever forms of tragic literature – or music, art, film, sculpture, ballet, opera and so on – most interest you. The paper invites you to consider the questions that have tested writers and artists across time: the nature of suffering; the language by which we express pain or sympathize; the ethics or cruelty of theatre. 

You then have a free choice among various optional subjects: you can either choose two, or choose just one but write a second dissertation. The optional subjects alter slightly year to year, to reflect developments in the subject, but there is always a rich mix.

Some allow you to specialize in one period, author or genre: the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, or writing in the age of Henry VIII, or the short story in the 1890s–1930s, or ‘contemporary writing’. Others allow you to range widely across forms of writing and thought such as lyric poetry or moral philosophy. Some introduce literary traditions – American literature, say, or postcolonial and related literatures in English – and some introduce literature in relation to other art-forms (the links between literature and the visual arts, for instance). As in Part I, it is also often possible to borrow options from other language Faculties (for example on modern French literature, or Dante).

Your one or two dissertations can address any writing from the British Isles or in the English language from anywhere in the world. You devise topics in conversation with the people teaching you. Topics range very widely – recently from, say, urban pageantry in the 1600s to contemporary poets such as Geoffrey Hill and Alice Oswald. Some students choose to compare English with foreign literature – drawing on skills gained in Part I – or with other art-forms, as in recent dissertations on Marlowe’s responses to Latin literature or on song-settings of First World War poetry.

Part II: Assessment

Final exams take place at the end of the third year: you can either submit two dissertations, and sit three exams, or submit one dissertation, and sit four, depending on whether you prefer exams or coursework.