A Very COVID-19 Masters Degree

Me to King’s College London: “I bet you’d thought you’d seen the last of me”

Remember four months ago when I said that from now on, I was going to post on this blog weekly or fortnightly? Does the small clue of the fact that this is my first post since AUGUST give away that I failed in that endeavour? It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write, honest! I think I just massively underestimated how much of my time this masters degree would take up, and I overestimated my ability to work on my blog after I had spent hours reading the most dense of theoretical essays. Doreen Massey, anyone? Thought so.

Albeit not Massey but I am still yet to work out how exactly this GIGANTIC piece of theory related to the module it was assigned for

So after giving myself a bit of a telling off, I decided that the Christmas ‘break’ was as good a time as ever to actually get myself back on track (sort of…) and word-vomit my thoughts so far. I mean, for starters, if anyone had told me that I would be doing a masters degree during a global pandemic, I would’ve said two things: 1.) That’s impossible because I’m too dumb to do a masters, and 2.) Nah, surely a global pandemic isn’t in the cards for us just yet. So of course, going into this degree I knew that the experience would certainly be an unconventional one. No in-person gatherings, opportunities to chat with new classmates outside seminar rooms, or lunches in the Kingsway Pret (sob 😦 ). As English literature students, we were lucky enough to not require special laboratories or on-campus teaching so in the grand scheme of things, our classes were in no true way disrupted. Plus, there haven’t been any real technical problems within my own seminars on Microsoft Teams as of yet so I feel a lot better about the whole thing one semester in; I just wish that I didn’t have to still pay nearly £10,000 for it!!

But, to the course content itself. I’m studying on the Modern Literature and Culture MA which focuses predominantly on 19th century and early 20th century British literature, although occasionally we read translated theoretical works or anglophone works from overseas. Being a hybrid of a masters in Victorian and Modernist literature, the course engages with fin de siècle themes such as degeneration and social/cultural/political etc. anxieties. One minute we are reading Charles Dickens and the next, Virginia Woolf. Our compulsory module ‘Text, Culture Theory: London and Urban Modernity’ has given us the opportunity to engage with London not as a mere city space, but as a living, breathing organism with a solid character in possession of its own agency. London across the 19th and 20th centuries was both misogynistic and the site of the New Woman, architecturally ancient and technologically modern, conservative and radical, and just overall simply fascinating. Being born and bred in London and having lived here my whole life, I realised during my preparation for classes that I hadn’t given London much credit in this regard. I had always treated London as the city that stood still and passive as I ventured through it, when in reality London has been alive all this time. I wonder if any of my friends native to other cities, whether British or not, have ever felt such a powerful agency within their own homes? Do you venture through Paris or does Paris take you by the hand and direct you itself? It’s hard to explain but hopefully once I complete the degree, I’ll find better words to describe it!

A Parthenon-inspired building which houses a series of tombs in West Norwood Cemetery’s Greek Enclosure; I visited here for coursework research.

Despite this module being a real eye-opener and intellectual stimulant for me, my favourite module of the semester had to be my chosen class, ‘Victorian Sensation’. A small group of great people and a charismatic seminar tutor are always quality recipes for a wonderful module experience but the class content alone fully solidified this for me. This semester, we studied the phenomenon of the Victorian sensation novel, a cultural and social marvel that had its heyday in the 1860s and 1870s, before quickly losing popularity. The novels sparked a great discourse surrounding what makes a novel ‘good’, as its opponents deemed them “trash” and “immoral”. Well, call me trash and immoral because I LOVED reading them! Conservative critics were afraid of the sensation novel’s unstable bourgeois domestic spheres, ‘masculine’ women and ‘feminine men’, not to mention the adultery, bigamy, murder and deceit that was rife within them. Texts such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne were among those we studied and despite possessing three different writing styles, each of the authors gave me an appropriate lens to view the thematic components that make up sensation literature, whether it is Gothicism, femme fatales or an abandonment of religious duty. I’m currently writing my endterm coursework assessment for this class, and given the green light to do so, am using Braddon and Wood’s texts to argue that the modern show Desperate Housewives can be considered a modern sensation novel. And, in truth, I haven’t had this much fun writing an essay since I spoke about medievalism in Assassin’s Creed and The Legend of Zelda in my undergrad!

But of course, a major part of this degree which just CANNOT be avoided is the dreaded dissertation. A flashback to a year and a half ago sees Second-Year undergraduate Leyla insisting to her tutor that she doesn’t want to do a dissertation in her final year because “I’m not good enough for it and it’s not like I’m going to do a masters anyway so I don’t exactly need the practice”. If I could go back in time and punch myself I would, trust me. It turns out that, shock horror (!), completing a 15,000 word dissertation is pretty much compulsory in English Literature masters degrees. So here I am, half way through a challenging masters degree and in addition to writing my first semester coursework, researching ideas and trying (desperately) to generate a dissertation proposal. With zero experience of working on a dissertation. Yippee for me! I wrote down a list of topics and ideas that interested me and one by one (because I’m very original and smart 😉 ) googled them to see what came up, only to find that they’ve already been written about. Originality isn’t a necessity for this particular dissertation but it would’ve been nice. At the moment, I have an idea which I think I might go with but in all honesty, I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing and the fact that this single thesis is worth a whopping 50% of my degree grade is freaking me out. Help! But if it’s any consolation, no matter how challenged I feel in an academic setting I somehow always get there in the end. Positive thinking is the way!

I’ll admit this is probably the most boring post I have written thus far. Unfortunately since my degree has been COVID-ified and all learning takes place via Microsoft Teams from the comfort of my own desk, there is a lot left unexperienced and therefore, unsaid. Unlike previous cohorts, this masters has revolved around reading, presentations and essay-writing, rather than socialising, urban investigation and academic collaboration. All I can really discuss about it is my own learning which, let’s face it, most of you won’t be interested in! 😉 Whenever I have mentioned my masters to family, my uncle has noted that he simply can’t imagine having a proper university experience with sole online tuition and no social activities. But, to be perfectly honest, it hasn’t been all that bad. Yes, my cohort have suffered on the social front, but we have a group chat and aim to finally meet when COVID is over (if ever), so it can’t all be bleak. We’re lucky to be in positions where we can access information and engage in further study and quite frankly, there is no better way to spend a pandemic than to further expand your own mind.

Published by Leyla Hasso

I'm an anxious 21-year-old Londoner who by day studies English Lit at King's College London, and by night competes in Super Mario Kart...all while trying to always look on the bright side!

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