About the Tripos
What distinguishes the Cambridge English course (known as a ‘tripos’, as all Cambridge courses are) is its balance between a solid grounding in the essentials of the discipline, and the opportunity to specialize and to innovate.
Part I: A Broad Range, A Solid Grounding
‘Part I’ of the course occupies the first two years and introduces you to the broad range of English literature 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 postmodern fantasy, say - but still get to know the major authors. These papers have few set texts, so as long as you range widely across periods, you can focus on topics of particular interest within each period under the guidance of our distinctive teaching system. The emphasis falls on literature written in the British Isles, but some inclusion of world literatures written in English is possible. Thus, Part I offers a valuable overview of the core knowledge of our subject and room to think for yourself.
A sixth element of Part I aims to develop your key skills. This is a course in 'practical criticism and critical practice', where you write essays on previously unseen passages for comment, testing your general critical abilities and knowledge, your understanding of the use of English, and your awareness of critical theory and debate.
If you wish, you can also replace one of your period papers with a language paper borrowed from another faculty or department. You may, for instance, study Old English or Old Norse from scratch; or, if you have a good A-Level language qualification, you may take a paper in Classical Greek or Latin or from a wide range of modern languages (though there may be a cap on numbers for any particular paper).
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 your third term, when you take papers on two periods of literature, including some practical criticism. Your first full assessment, covering all six 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 by replacing two of those exams with coursework (a dissertation - a sort of extended essay - of 5000 words, or 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 (a few students take Part II in two years as an ‘affiliated student’ after a first degree elsewhere: see http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/mature/affiliated.html.) Part II has three compulsory components which exercise your new skills and knowledge. One is a dissertation; one is a further examination in ‘Practical Criticism’; and one is a paper on ‘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.
Part II: Options and Specialisms
Beyond the dissertation and those two intellectually freewheeling papers, you then have a free choice among various optional examinations, of which you either take two, or you take just one but write a further dissertation. The optional subjects alter slightly year to year, to reflect developments in the subject; but there is always a rich mix. Some papers 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 modes or forms of writing and thought such as lyric poetry or moral philosophy. Some papers 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 papers 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 English 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.