The Course.English at Oxford is unusual in that, unlike most courses elsewhere, we have kept a commitment to the principle of coverage: that is, our students acquire a broad familiarity with the whole range of English literary history, from Old English and medieval literature to twentieth century and (if they choose) contemporary writers. Undergraduates study a series of period papers, beginning with Old English, Victorian (1832-1900) and Modern Literature (1900 to the present day) in their first year, and going on in the second year to the Renaissance (1509-1642), Restoration and Augustan (1642-1740) and Late Augustan and Romantic (1740-1832) periods. Besides these papers, there is also a first-year Introduction to Literary Study paper, and, in the second and third year, there are papers devoted to Shakespeare and to the History and Theory of the Language. In addition, a Special Authors paper and a Special Topics paper (both in the third year) provide the opportunity to study a single writer (chosen from a short list) and a theme or a group in greater detail. The list of Special Authors, which changes periodically, currently ranges from the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and Julian of Norwich, to Marvell, Swift, and Wordsworth, and up to Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Stoppard, and J.M. Coetzee. The Special Topics currently include Fiction in English, Poetry in English, American Literature from 1800 to the present day, women's writing, and the theory of criticism, among other subjects. Students may also write an Optional Dissertation, on an approved subject of their own devising. We like to think that this mixture of coverage and specialisation gives the Oxford course an invaluable and highly distinctive combination of diversity and depth.
Assessment. Your first-year studies are assessed by a set of university examinations at the end of the year: these are called Moderations (or Mods), and they are a Pass/Fail test (with the possibility of Distinction). You must pass Mods before you can enter the second year, but your performance in Mods does not count toward the class of your final degree. Your second and third year work is assessed partly by a set of university examinations called Honour Schools, which you sit at the end of your third year, and partly by submitted work written in the course of your second and third years, including an extended essay of 6000 words for each of the Special papers. Your final degree classification is based on this. (You may also be set, from time to time, college examinations called Collections: these do not count toward your degree but help your tutors keep an eye on your progress.)
For the University's English prospectus, click here; and for the complete University prospectus, here.
Teaching. Oxford is also unusual in retaining the tutorial system of teaching: that is, a tutor meets with one or two (or rarely three) students to comment upon the student's essay, to discuss the wider issues that arise from it, and to decide on a topic for the following tutorial. It is a highly concentrated and intensive form of tuition, and its rewards are enormous. It is also very time-consuming, and not especially suited to all the kinds of teaching which the modern course requires, and the colleges now teach by a mixture of tutorials and classes, in which the whole English year of a college meets to discuss a topic or theme. So, students (and tutors) enjoy the best of both worlds. In addition, the English Faculty puts on a programme of lectures and seminars, specially geared to the requirements of the undergraduate syllabus. The terms at Oxford are packed, and you are expected to make good use of your vacation (not 'holiday') to prepare for the next term. You will see a lot of your tutors, who are always on hand to advise and to guide; but Oxford undergraduates enjoy a great deal of independence in their studies too: you will not be spoon-fed, and you will soon learn how to organise your time, and to define and research your own interests and enthusiasms.
Resources. Oxford is very lucky in its resources for the study of English. The Bodleian Library is one of the greatest libraries in the world. All students are members. It is a legal deposit library, which means it can claim a copy of every book published in the UK. In addition, there is an excellent English Faculty Library, and each college has its own library too, many of which are important collections in their own right. The Ashmolean Museum is one of the oldest public museums in the world, and holds an outstanding collection of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and engravings, and much else; and there are many other museums an collections to enjoy.
Balliol. Balliol dates its foundation to 1263, so English (like most other subjects) is a comparatively recent addition to its academic life. But Balliol people have long made an important contribution to English literary history: John Wyclif, John Evelyn, Adam Smith, Robert Southey, Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, A.C. Bradley, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Powell, Robertson Davies (to name a few) were all members. When English was belatedly established in the university, in the years following the Great War, Balliol was one of the first colleges to appoint a Fellow in the subject. Previous Fellows include Roger Lonsdale, editor of The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse; and Christopher Ricks, John Carey, and Stanley Wells (editor of the Oxford Shakespeare), who held Research Fellowships. Christopher Ricks has recently been elected Professor of Poetry in the university.
The Tutorial Fellows. There are currently two Tutorial Fellows and, periodically, a Junior Research Fellow besides. A.V.C. Schmidt, the Senior English Fellow, is an expert on Medieval and Renaissance literature, with a special interest in the poet Langland, author of Piers Plowman, but he has also written about T.S. Eliot and other modern authors; he is responsible for teaching Old and Middle English language and literature, and Renaissance literature, including Shakespeare. The other Tutorial Fellow is Seamus Perry, who teaches the modern part of the syllabus. He has published on a variety of subjects, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Eliot, and others; he is also an editor of the journal Essays in Criticism. The main period papers are normally taught by the tutorial Fellows. For your Special papers, you may be sent to a tutor elsewhere in Oxford.
The Course at Balliol. Each college places slightly different emphases on aspects of the course. Here at Balliol, Old English is a compulsory part of the first-year course; and first years also study both Victorian and Modern periods. (You have the option of a single-author Special Paper in your Mods, which takes the place of one of the period papers; but, obviously, you need to acquire a sense of those periods before you can come to an informed decision about which special author to choose.) Teaching is by a mixture of tutorials (one or two students meeting with a tutor) and classes (the whole Balliol English year together). The college has a special tradition of studying Shakespeare, and the teaching of this paper extends over two terms, including a long-vacation essay for which college prizes are awarded.
Joint Schools. Applications from Joint Schools candidates for English and Modern Languages, and Modern History and English, are most welcome. Roughly speaking, students taking the Joint Honours course do half of each Single Honours course. Please consult the university prospectus for English and Modern Languages or Modern History and English, or contact Seamus Perry or the other subject tutor for further details.
Resources at Balliol. English students are catered for very well by the excellent college library. The library has about 10,000 early (pre-1800) books, and nearly 100,000 post-1800 books, with excellent holdings in English literature and language, including all the major modern editions and an extensive collection of scholarship and criticism, all of which is kept up to date. The special collections include over 400 medieval manuscripts, and many important 19th and 20th century historical and literary manuscripts, including one of the most important holdings of Robert Browning material, and much Arnold and Clough. Should a book not be here, it will certainly be in the Bodleian Library, which is three minutes' walk away across Broad Street. (Books may now be ordered in advance through the University's on-line catalogue, OLIS.) The University's fine art collection is in the Ashmolean Museum, two minutes' walk in the opposite direction.
The college is generous in its financial support and hardship allowances are available.
Although creative writing does not form part of the Oxford course, there is a College Poetry Prize and an Essay Prize, and Balliol undergraduates play an active part in both College and University societies concerned with the writing and publishing of original work. Several recent graduates have published first novels during their time here. Drama flourishes at Balliol, with English students always playing a leading role: many Balliol English students have written, directed, produced, or acted in productions at one of the city theatres, or in Balliol’s own studio theatre, the Pilch. The college also has a literary society, Biblioll, and a literary magazine, Scrawl.
For the last few summers, the second years have accompanied Seamus Perry on a four-day excursion to the Lake District, to see what Wordsworth (as well as Coleridge, De Quincey, Dorothy Wordsworth, and others) was talking about. We hope to keep up this tradition in future years.
Balliol is situated right in the heart of Oxford, convenient for both railway and bus stations: it takes an hour to travel to London by train, and a little longer by bus, so it is quite possible to go to the West End for an evening, or to a gallery for an afternoon. We are five minutes' walk from Christ Church meadow and the river, and ten from Port Meadow, an expanse of beautiful and ancient common land. Just across it, beyond the hamlet of Binsey, stood the poplars lamented by Gerard Manley Hopkins; in the hills around it Matthew Arnold's scholar gypsy roamed.
Balliol currently admits a total of about eight undergraduates a year for the single honours degree, and up to two undergraduates for the joint schools of English and Modern Languages and Modern History and English. Balliol has a proud history of admitting students exclusively on the basis of their individual merit and potential, and we continue to welcome applicants from all backgrounds, from this country and abroad. Click here to read what the University Prospectus has to say about interviews.
What do the English tutors look for? Good grades, achieved or predicted, in your A-levels or Highers or IB or equivalents, it goes without saying; intellectual curiosity and a responsiveness to language; but, also, a genuine enthusiasm for the subject: you need to enjoy reading, and reading widely (there's a lot of reading to be done once you are here). For further details, please consult the English Faculty website.What will happen at the interview? We normally ask to see a couple of pieces of written work before you come up: we may ask you some questions based on them. While you're here, we will probably give you a short text to read before the interview, and then we'll ask you about that. We are not listening for right or wrong answers : we just want to hear what, and how, you think.
How can I best prepare for the interview? The best advice is the simplest: read. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, read another one and think about how they are alike and how they differ. We don't expect you to know everything, and the interview is not about catching you out or asking you trick questions. We're simply interested in how you respond to literature, including works you haven't seen before – how you make connections between different texts, pick up and develop suggestions, and so on.