Every day when I walk to class, I go past the old quad and remember walking there this time last year when I first attended an open day for the English Literature course here at York St. John. At that time the snow drops were only just shoots. But now the snow drops are giving way to the crocuses, and the many other flowers that spring welcomes in. It is this sight on a day-to-day basis which means the most to me when it comes to thinking about how far I have come this past year. Because back in March of 2016 I could never have imagined the events of the following year, or that I would end up getting to see those flowers in full bloom. As a fan of metaphors, this feels like a positive omen in relation to the success of my studies.
My first week at York St. John only managed to prove further to me that I had made the right choice on where to study. Settling in was such an easy thing because the city isn’t too difficult to navigate and the campus is friendly enough that, should you get lost, you are easily able to find a fellow student to help you get back on track. As soon as fresher’s week began, I was meeting students who had the same motivation as me to go out and learn new things. In the welcome lectures for the course, we weren’t only greeted with the hello of our teachers and peers but by the poet in residence Jack Mapanje. Along with the head of subject Dr Anne-Marie Evans, there was a conversation led about the power of poetry and writing as an act of changing the world. Those lectures encouraged me right from the start to see writing as not just an academic or class led routine, but as something far more liberating than I had ever previously realised. Immediately this act of learning felt more like a discovery opposed to something just being told to me. When we heard Mapanje read his poems, it made me want to go out and read more of his work without being told to. That was the first step towards making progress with my own education by beginning to read actively, making mental notes as I went.
Realising how important and relevant the arts are in the modern world has been a big part of my studies thus far. It began with seeing how the world around me is represented within the texts I study every day. Such as how the familiar places I frequently see in York are represented in Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Studying this book was also the first opportunity we had as students to attempt our own creative work as well as literary criticism in essay format. Getting to go to the places we had read about and use it as a means of inspiring our own work was an intriguing experience. It made me feel like Sylvia Plath when she visited the moors Emily Brontë wandered and wrote about her thoughts on Wuthering Heights.
At the beginning of the year, essays seemed a lot more complex than they do now. That is largely because we spent so much time in class going over how to build a strong thesis statement, structure and argument. Going over those different elements meant that when it came to writing my first assessed pieces nerves weren’t all-consuming, but instead just a part of producing something I had worked hard on and wanted to gain positive feedback from. Forgetting about the mark scheme and focusing on the content has been the biggest achievement for me so far as an individual. And that wouldn’t have been possible to achieve without staying motivated or open to the constructive criticism of those around me. It might sound obvious, but when you really internally register that the best way to make your essay have a convincing flow and tone is to focus on how passionate you are about your topic, it is much easier to succeed. That is largely because you learn to care less about grade barriers. Of course, they matter, but if you let the shadow hang over the content you are producing it will never truly reach its full potential.
The most challenging pieces I have written as part of my undergraduate degree so far were the ones which have shaped my development the most. Because they required research and commitment that doesn’t just happen overnight, it required me to put in the time and effort to make those ideas a reality. Those would probably be the very early pieces of semester one previously mentioned, and my most recent essays this second semester. I’ve really enjoyed writing on Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues as these were both texts which opened new branches of interest for me which went beyond the class room (those are the best kind of texts) They shared the common theme of space and place, which is fascinating due to how it is represented in largely any text you can think of. Due to my love of travelling, it was not difficult to quickly focus in on researching how New York or Britain are represented as places. And also, the element of dystopia or speculative science fiction has been something I have explored alongside (as well as in relation to) space and place. These areas of research have been the areas where my voice as an individual have really taken root, which has aided my confidence when writing in regards to newer ideas which I might not possess too much knowledge on.
In addition to challenging and enlightening me, the literature course here has also really enabled me to take the things I enjoy and integrate them within my research and writing. For instance, a big part of my life is music. Currently I sing with the Halle Youth Choir and play around 13 instruments. When working on Sonny’s Blues I got to research the history of jazz as the main protagonist is a jazz pianist. Which meant my habit of Glenn Miller Friday’s had more purpose than just me wishing I was Glenn Miller!
I’ve also been doing a lot of external writing and reading outside of class which has improved a great deal due to all my academic work. For instance, I currently write for UCAS as a student blogger as well as a digital ambassador for York St. John. This means should I ever come up with ideas that need cutting from essays due to time or relevance, I can develop these ideas in my own time. It also means getting to write about books which I’ve really enjoyed but aren’t necessarily on the modules. These include newly published texts such as Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is based on the true stories of the women who worked at NASA at a time when the civil rights movement was at its peak, and women were still struggling to gain a more equal footing in the work force. It is a magnificent and moving account, which is why it was so important to me that I take the skills I had used to write on similar themes and issues within Sonny’s Blues and my musical interests to create something new in relation to that particular literary discussion. For that project, I began transcribing the entire Hidden Figures movie soundtrack.
Becoming more confident in voicing my ideas and opinions in seminar discussions has also made it much easier for me to connect with others and to feel at home in my surroundings. As someone who is quite introverted, it has been an interesting transformation process to go through as now I feel happy contributing to practically any conversation or discussion in or out of class. This has meant I have met a lot of wonderful people and been a part of many projects and societies. Such as forming my own essay club to assist myself and fellow students in shaping our work through peer review, discussion and debate. Through this I have also made some of my best friends. That confidence has impacted on some major decisions in my university experience. Such as my successful application to study for a semester in Amsterdam at the beginning of my second year. Dutch literature has so much to offer and I’m really looking forward to learning more about it. Especially as I am keen to encourage further literary translations of all texts published in another language. The statistic of translated books published each month is still relatively low, which is something I believe needs support and research in order to broaden. It is definitely something I am considering into looking at career wise for the future.
Whilst I still have a long way to go and much to learn, this past year has been a real turning point for me. The people, places, artwork and ideas I have come across have been life changing. 2016 was one of the best years, and 2017 is so far shaping out to be even better. It has been the beginning of something exciting, and it is odd that so soon I will be a second-year student. But I am looking forward to seeing what new challenges and opportunities this will bring. I have every faith that with concentration, motivation and focus it will lead to something wonderful.