how to answer life’s biggest questions: studying liberal arts at ysju

By Erin Byrne

The Liberal Arts Foundation Year is a brand-new course that just launched this September and I am incredibly excited to be one of the first students to take it. At the helm is the wonderful and hilarious Dr Adam James Smith who is leading this slightly rowdy but enthusiastic group through the maze of what it actually means to be a Liberal Arts student. In our very first session he got us thinking about what this strange, slightly old-fashioned term ‘Liberal Arts’ actually means, and why it is (and always will be) important.

It’s easy these days for Joe Public to point at a Liberal Arts student and say they’re wasting their time reading books and thinking about the world when apparently what we actually need is engineers and mathematicians, biologists and accountants. God knows I’ve heard it enough when asked at the pub what I’m studying at Uni. Telling someone you’re doing any kind of degree in the Liberal Arts is usually met with an awkward smirk and a ‘So what are you going to do with that then?’

Well, mate, I’m going to have a stab at answering life’s biggest questions and write beautiful things. I aspire to start my career in publishing or editing. I’m going to produce the content that you enjoy when you get home from your day at work. I’m going to pen the articles you read with your morning coffee. Liberal Arts is everywhere (whether STEM students like to admit it or not). But I digress. We left our first day’s session with Adam satisfied that we weren’t wasting our time like some of our parents may have feared we were.

Our first module (which we have just finished) was entitled Eboracum: York, Space and Place. This gave us a thoroughly interesting introduction to the beautiful city we’ll be living in for the next few years, and involved various guest lecturers: another really cool aspect of this course!

Erin (far Right) and the Epsilon Study Group exploring Roman York.
Erin (far Right) and the Epsilon Study Group exploring Roman York.

Week Two had us going on a self-guided tour through Roman York, which was not only interesting but also a great way to bond with our fellow students, and served as a handy way of learning to navigate around the winding (read: confusing) streets of Eboracum. We also had a great lecture from Historian Dr Antony Smart on the structure and politics of York in the Roman era. Later that day we also had a session with Dr Pauline Couper on how Geography can be used to map the city’s history.

I’ll be studying English Literature next year but having the opportunity to dabble in History and other subjects encompassed by the  Liberal Arts is one of the reasons I’m really enjoying the course so far.

The following week focused on the more overlooked histories of York, with a walking tour around Jewish York with Prof Pauline Kollontai from Theology and Religious Studies, where we learnt, among other things, that the Sainsbury’s near university is built on an ancient Jewish burial ground. Blimey.

Dr Anne-Marie Evans also came in to give us an awesome (and for me personally, empowering) session about women’s history in the city and how women have helped to shape the way York is today. Our class has a great ratio of males to females and it was great to see young men engaged so enthusiastically in discussions of women’s history. A highlight for me was learning about the ‘Yorkshire Witch’, Mary Bateman, who sold chicken’s eggs she claimed were charmed. After her execution for murder in 1809, strips of her skin were tanned and sold to the public. Gory, yes, but super interesting.

The fourth week of the course had us thinking about how to engage the public in Liberal Arts, with a session from Dr Fraser Mann on literary and cultural events across the country. We planned our own events, with some students focusing on film festivals and my group who thought about a street art festival. This also helped me to understand career opportunities in Liberal Arts, which in this economic climate is something a whole lot of students (especially those of us in non-vocational subjects) worry about. Another guest we had that week was History lecturer Dr Elodie Duché who gave us an overview of prison life in Georgian York. This was a perfect example of how varied this course is: in the morning you’re thinking about the logistics of hosting a sci-fi festival, then two hours later you’re looking at pictures of 200-year-old graffiti on a prison wall and wondering what it must have been like to be locked away for cutting down a tree. Yes, really. All this alongside our sessions with Adam on assessments, critical thinking and how to write well means that this course is seriously well-rounded and a great stepping stone into degree-level study.

The final week on the module took a look at the county of Yorkshire more broadly. As a lass from the far away land of Lancashire, this was an interesting peek over the border. Dr Alex Beaumont made us think about Yorkshire in a new way. What is Yorkshire? What does it represent? We also analysed a film made in Yorkshire, My Summer of Love, which as someone who has never done any kind of Media or Film Studies, opened my eyes to a new, deeper way of watching films. Dr Rob Edgar from Creative Writing was another one of our guest lecturers and talked to us about how to successfully study film and media. Dr Kaley Kramer from Literature also came in to deliver a session on Dracula and vampires in the media in general, what they represent, and how they have changed over time from Nosferatu all the way to the Twilight series. This is more proof of how diverse this Foundation Year course is and how beneficial it can be to students who are interested in any and all aspects of Liberal Arts.

All in all, after just six weeks the Liberal Arts Foundation Year has proven to be an incredibly diverse and interesting course so far. Foundation Years tend to be taken by students who maybe didn’t get the results they were hoping for at A-Level, or who have been out of education for a while and require a gentler path into degree-level study. But even if you don’t fit into these categories I strongly recommend taking this Liberal Arts Foundation Year because of the sheer range of study topics you’ll cover. That, and the fact you’ll be head and shoulders above your classmates when you begin your degree because some of the base skills required for a degree will already be there. Shoutout to Adam for making this course as enjoyable as it is. My classmates and I are having a great time and I genuinely couldn’t recommend it enough to anyone.