English

What makes the Cambridge English course so special?

The Cambridge English Tripos (undergraduate course) offers you an exciting opportunity to study a broad chronological span of literature written in English from the early medieval period to the present day. Unlike courses in many other universities, you will study all these periods as part of your undergraduate degree, but there is also plenty of room for individual choice.

The English Tripos is, perhaps oddly, divided into two parts: a two-year Part I, with Part II studied in your third year. In Part I, all students study a ‘period’ paper each term, ranging from medieval to contemporary literature. In addition, you will be encouraged to study Practical Criticism and Critical Practice throughout Part I. Built on the pioneering work of I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism is the foundation for what is sometimes called ‘Cambridge English’: it involves close-reading unseen extracts, upon which you comment in detail using the technical language that you will gradually acquire as a literary critic. As part of this ongoing course of study, you will also encounter literary and critical theories that may enrich your close readings of texts.

Part I also gives you the possibility of studying a language option (such as French, German, or classical Latin and Greek), although this is not a compulsory element of the Tripos and spaces for these courses may be limited. All students, however, are strongly encouraged to take a new online, interactive course in grammar and stylistics; this carefully-structured programme allows students to take themselves through exercises that give vital instruction in these important skills. Work for Part I is generally examined through a combination of sat exams at the end of your second year, a portfolio of essays and a dissertation.

Part II of the Tripos comprises five elements. All students study Practical Criticism. There is also a compulsory Tragedy paper, which falls into three main sections: Ancient Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy, and an optional third area in which to think about theories and practices of tragedy in relation to texts of all periods and a variety of media. All third-year students must also submit a 7,500-word dissertation, which is a research project that allows you to study a specialist area of interest. The other two components of Part II are of your own choosing: either a second dissertation plus one optional paper, or two optional papers drawn from a wide-ranging list, from Old Norse to contemporary literature, Shakespeare in performance to Postcolonial literature, Chaucer to Literature and Visual Culture, Literary Theory to specialist periods.

Cambridge has always encouraged interdisciplinary approaches; it is possible to combine the study of English with that of other languages and other subjects, such as Philosophy, History of Art or History, while remaining within the framework of the English Tripos.

How will I be taught at Newnham?

The Cambridge English Tripos is delivered through a combination of Faculty and College teaching. This relationship may seem confusing: the English Faculty provides a wide range of lectures and seminars to support and enhance your study, some of which are compulsory, some of which are optional. Your College Director of Studies organises which papers (or courses) you take each term, who will be teaching you for them, and where: where possible, this takes place within College, drawing on the expertise of supervisors attached to Newnham. Sometimes an expert in the field belongs to another College, in which case you will have the opportunity of being supervised by them outside Newnham.

Why choose Newnham for English?

Newnham has one of the best-stocked College libraries in Cambridge, with particularly extensive holdings in English. Further resources are available to students at the English Faculty and University libraries, which are just a few minutes’ walk from Newnham.

Newnham is highly fortunate in the English supervisors who are directly affiliated to the College (whose profiles are listed below), and in the range of specialists whose connection with Newnham means that they could be potential supervisors for its students. These include eminent academics within and beyond Cambridge. In addition, Newnham students can enjoy help with their creative writing thanks to the active connections the College maintains with leading authors, and which builds on a strong tradition of English within the college. Newnham English has many writers and actors to its credit: we are proud to have amongst our alumnae Sylvia Plath and A. S. Byatt, Miriam Margolyes and Emma Thompson.

Newnham has an active Arts Society, which further builds on this historic tradition: it counts Virginia Woolf among its former speakers. Nowadays, the Arts Society invites writers, film-makers and artists to give talks at the College, and is involved with a college paper called N-Vie.

Newnham English students also engage in a wide range of extracurricular activities, including acting, music, painting, photography and sports. Students have the opportunity of getting involved in politics and debates as members of the College JCR committee and the University Union.

How many students take English at Newnham?

The College normally admits around six students to the English degree each year. It is one of the largest arts subjects in the College. The ratio of applicants to places in recent years has been between three and four to one. Whilst you will meet other English students through Faculty teaching, you will mostly be taught with other members of your year-group at Newnham.

What A-level subjects should I take to study English at Newnham?

Newnham’s English students come from very diverse educational backgrounds, having studied a wide range of subjects across the arts and humanities, maths and sciences. Whilst we embrace this diversity, it is important to have some grounding in the range of skills required to study English; we therefore strongly encourage you to have a qualification in English Literature or combined English Language and Literature when you apply.

Can I have a gap year?

Some students coming to Newnham to read English have a gap year, others do not: there is no requirement about this. However, we strongly recommend that, if you do have a year out before coming to Cambridge, you use it as an opportunity to expand upon your reading and to keep practising your study and writing skills, alongside whatever exciting plans you may have made.

What jobs do Newnham English students go on to do?

Studying English provides you with excellent analytical, research and communication skills. Our students follow a great variety of career paths, including further study towards academia (MPhil and PhD) at high-ranking universities, from Cambridge to the States. Newnham English graduates also pursue careers in teaching, journalism, arts management, creative writing, acting, consultancy, general management, law and the civil service. The possibilities however, are endless – the skills and knowledge you gain from studying English at Newnham put you in an excellent position to meet the exciting challenges of competitive job markets in numerous fields.

Can you tell me more about the English Fellows?

During your time at Cambridge you will meet a wide range of academics, within the English Faculty and at other Colleges. However, as an English student at Newnham you will principally come into contact with Directors of Studies and Supervisors attached to the college. These currently include:

  • Dr Alexandra da Costa
    Valerie Eliot Fellow, Director of Studies for Part I
    Alex looks after students in their first two years at Newnham, as well as supervising papers and dissertations on medieval and early sixteenth-century literature. In general, Alex’s research focuses on incunabula and early printed books meant for an English readership in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. She is particularly interested in cheaper books, which might sell for as little as 1d. and what they suggest about less learned and more “popular” reading practices and tastes. In this period, this means spending a great deal of time working on religious tracts, but these speak to political and pastoral concerns too and are far from dry or one-dimensional. Her first book, Reforming Printiing: Syon Abbey’s Defence of Orthodoxy 1524-1534 (OUP, 2012), looks at the printed books that Syon Abbey printed in the turbulent 1530s, when the Church in England was threatened by both the spread of Lutheran heresy and Henry VIII’s desire for greater ecclesiastical control.
  • Dr Cathy Phillips
    Fellow, Director of Studies for Part II
    Cathy looks after students in their first two years at Newnham, supervising papers and dissertations on nineteenth and twentieth-century subjects. She also directs studies for Part I at Downing. Her research explores various contexts affecting Victorian and Modernist writers from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s interest in art (2007) to W. B. Yeats’s practical experience of the theatre (1994). Other published books include a biography of Robert Bridges, medical doctor and poet laureate (1992) and the completion of the Critical Heritage volume on the rise of Donne’s reputation in the twentieth century. More recently she has co-edited Hopkins’s letters (OUP, 2013) and is currently preparing an edition of his poems.

Other supervisors affiliated to Newnham include:

  • Dr Mary Newbould
    Special Supervisor
    Mary is Bowman Supervisor in English and College Research Associate at Wolfson College, Cambridge, having taught and directed studies at Newnham from 2010-13. She teaches widely across eighteenth-century literature and visual culture, including the English Tripos paper 1660-1870 and graduate supervision in her area of research interests, and she regularly teaches practical criticism. She also lectures and supervises for English literature modules at the Faculty of Education and teaches two courses (‘Literature and Visual Culture, Restoration to Regency’ and ‘Jane Austen: Life, Times, Works’) that she devised for the Pembroke-King’s International Programme held in Cambridge every summer. Mary’s research focusses on parody and adaptation in texts, drama and visual culture, with a particular interest in the work and reception of eighteenth-century author Laurence Sterne. Her book, Adaptations of Laurence Sterne’s Fiction: Sterneana, 1760-1840, appeared in 2013, and she continues to publish widely in this field. She is an Editor of international Sterne journal The Shandean.
  • Louise Woods
    Special Supervisor
    Louise’s research interests lie in the manifestation and influence of the de casibus tradition in sixteenth-century theatre, with particular reference to linguistic/grammatical and theatrical renderings of verticality and horizontality on the Shakespearean stage. Her teaching interests cover both Part I and Part II of the English Tripos; she provides subject paper teaching, portfolio/dissertation preparation and revision supervision predominantly in Renaissance Literature, Shakespeare, Tragedy, and Practical Criticism.
How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

The admissions process consists of a written assessment and two subject interviews.

All applicants are required to take the English Literature Admission Test (ELAT) pre-interview assessment for English at an authorised centre local to them; for a lot of applicants, this will be their school/college. You have to register in advance – separately from your UCAS application – to take the ELAT. You can find information about this on the University website.

The interviews will comprise several different elements, each of which tests various aspects of skills and knowledge you already have, and of your future potential and suitability as an English student at Cambridge. Typically, you will be asked to talk about texts you have read: whether those described in your personal statement, or those you may have studied or be studying, or from your wider reading. The Cambridge English course is very intensive and requires you to cover a considerable amount of material throughout all three years, so it is important to demonstrate that you have an appetite for reading, and that you have read widely. The chronological span of the Tripos includes much that is written before 1800, in a range of genres, so you should also show that you have read across several periods and that you are prepared to explore even further within them.

Applicants will also be asked to read a text before going into each interview, which they should be prepared to discuss in detail, and may also be given a brief passage during the interview to read and comment upon.

You are not expected to have previous knowledge of any of the texts you will be given over the course of the day, although you are encouraged to identify those that might be familiar to you. The exercises we set are not designed as a test of technical knowledge; rather, we want to get a sense of your ability to think, reason, and develop clear lines of argument.

For a quick training session in literary criticism, you might like to visit Converse, the literary website of the Cambridge English Faculty, which provides sample readings of poetry and useful tips on how to hone your close reading skills. The Virtual Classroom, also hosted by the English Faculty website, offers literary exercises and quizzes, as well as a sample class on Medieval literature. Other resources can also be accessed via the web resources section of the English Faculty home page.

Where can I find out more?

An overview on applying to read English can be found on the University website and further information on the Faculty website.

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