At the same time I know from friends' children and our teenage babysitters, always arriving with sagging bags of books in tow, how much work is involved. Are they wasting their time? I chose English Literature because it's the one subject I regret not taking.
Disclaimer: I am a born swot and, despite the anxiety dreams, I secretly quite like the buzz of taking exams. Come on, why else did you think someone would choose to take an A-level out of curiosity? Last September I persuaded a friend who is a teacher in a local school to sign me up as an independent candidate. I would not receive any teaching: I would study on my own. But it turned out that I couldn't just come in to school one day and sit the A-level. No, there would be coursework.
What is a literature review?
A lot of it. AS-level is now a prerequisite to A-level. As a journalist, I could hardly complain about the coursework — three essays of up to 3, words apiece. But I was amazed that teenagers are expected to put out work of that length.
How are they remotely similar? I didn't even know that comparative literature was a discipline until I went to university. For and year-olds, it's an impressive stretch. The language and the understanding demanded of students is also reassuringly sophisticated. Answer this, for example: "A Streetcar Named Desire is about the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive and the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.
I came to lots of earnest conclusions about the new violating the old. Let's not get Freudian about that. Over the course of the year, instead of the dumbed-down questions of urban myth, I repeatedly bumped up against concepts I hadn't discovered myself until I was a first-year undergraduate. Students are now supposed to be familiar with the theories of Marxism, feminism, modernism and structuralism, for example.
Again, admirable. And that's just AS-level. The A-level itself, is, frankly, terrifying. And engage intelligently with Othello on paper for an hour — with no text to hand. Taking your book into the English exam was standard 20 years ago. This is no job for a monkey. I lost marks on my coursework for "failing to engage sufficiently with TS Eliot". It was semi-intentional on my part: he was the one I understood least and I didn't want to risk making some appalling gaffe, so I concentrated on the authors I preferred, Woolf and Mansfield. Big mistake — but one I'm sure I would have got away with 20 years ago when I can remember bending the exam questions to what I wanted to answer and no one seemed to mind.
Things now are more prescriptive. Despite the reassuringly high standard, however, there were concerns. Thinking for yourself and reading outside of the syllabus are discouraged. There's no point, because you don't pick up marks for extra knowledge. A lot of it is about box-ticking: show you know this, show you know that. If you forget to do those things, no matter how good your analysis, you are penalised.
I dropped four marks on my Seamus Heaney coursework essay, for example, because I did not specifically put that he was Irish: not enough "context". Never mind that his name is Seamus. If my future had been hanging on my grade, I could have taken the chance to fix the Heaney and Eliot oversights and improve my scores.
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After an initial marking, you are allowed to rework your coursework before handing it in. I avoided doing this on purpose as I wanted to know what mark I would "really" get and be made to live with it. Anything else felt like cheating.
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I was left with the impression that, although the most able pupils do get their chance to shine, the least able also get perhaps a little too much of a leg-up. Is that really fair? I realised when I took the AS-level exam how much my much younger fellow students have absorbed the box-ticking. Obviously anxious not to lose their "context" points, they were all pacing the corridor outside the exam room reciting Robert Frost's biography by heart: "Born Bought a farm in Died In their defence, today's A-level students have a lot of burdens we couldn't even have imagined.
They have to be able to produce lengthy coursework on a computer, double-spaced and complete with bibliography and footnotes.
A Level Coursework Titles (over 60 different) by acnichols99 | Teaching Resources
Once again, this is something I did not learn how to do until the final year of university. At the same time you have to make sure your handwriting remains legible and fluent enough to carry you through a two-hour exam where you are writing constantly. The handwriting was actually one of the biggest challenges I faced all year. I never write anything longhand any more and I was acutely aware that my exam paper resembled a lengthy, unreadable GP's prescription. And God, does your hand ache at the end. The callus on the third finger of my right hand bulged prominently for the first time in more than two decades.
Looking back on the year, I'm proud to have survived an exam where I was expected to "situate texts within their historical context whilst looking at different interpretative stances". I have a new-found admiration both for A-level students and their teachers. But although I am relieved and, actually, pretty impressed, I still have reservations. Students with A Level English Literature have a wide range of possible higher education or career opportunities open to them.
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It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website. English Literature. English Literature A Level. Who is this suitable for? You love reading and want to learn more about a wide range of literature.