After coming to my third year of an English BA at Birmingham University (and sorry for being as a snob, but NO I do not mean the UCE), but I believe I am finally able to complete a full and decent review on the subject...if anything because I am finally annoyed enough to have a good and proper whine. In fact this was how this review started - me whining about the university to a member on here...you know who you are, and thank you for listening!
The University of Birmingham is a red brick university which was founded in Edgbaston in 1900, but its origins go back to the 1825 Birmingham Medical School. It belongs to the Russell group of research universities which is a group of the 20 supposed best universities for research. This does not however bode so well for undergraduates like me, more will be explained later.
Working on pure facts, in 2006-7 it was the fourth most popular university in England, while being bigger than both Aston University and the UCE...now known as Birmingham City University. In the world university ranking tables 2007 it was stated to be the 65th world wide and the 11th in England.
If we wish to go back to the very beginnings of the university this can be found in the Birmingham Medical School which was set up by William Sands Cox, who wished to unite both a medical school and strict Christian values; this was the first major teaching hospital in England. Although the school was founded in 1828, Cox actually started teaching in 1825, and it was given the name 'The Queen's Hospital' when Queen Victoria granted her patronage to it. It was however 1875 when the nucleus of what we call the University of Birmingham was formed, and this was in the form of the Mason Science College founded by Sir Josiah Mason...and I learn something new every day...in this case why the café I go to every day is called the 'mason lounge'!
Chamberlain however was the person who really got the university running; it was him who got the university a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria in 1900, and after this the transformation of the Mason University College into the University of Birmingham was complete...very little signs of Mason now remain, the most obvious in the coat of arms which Birmingham University still has - the double headed lion. From that point onwards the university expanded massively, with the Barber Institute of Fine Arts opened in 1939, and other major improvements.
One of the major things to be noted about the University of Birmingham's history is the major inventions and developments that they were involved in that were vital to the Allie's success in WW2, although these aren't the only science projects that the university has been involved in. Others can be looked up on Wikipedia, but include certain amounts of work regarding whether the atomic bomb was possible.
Officially known as the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, it is probably one of the most striking buildings on the Birmingham University campus and you can see it from miles away...this would be because it is the tallest free standing clock tower in the world...at 110m or 361ft tall. Because the official name is far too long winded for us hung over students to be bothered saying it is most often called 'Old Joe', 'Big Joe' or even more simply 'The Clock Tower'...never said we were original!
Rather amusingly there is a long standing superstition that if student stand under the tower when it chimes then they will fail their finals...now granted, this isn't taken entirely seriously. But I would bet my two front teeth on the fact that the only people you'll see under it anywhere near chiming points are freshers and tutors, the former group being unaware and the latter not giving a ... toss! Not much point in tempting fate now is there?! You certainly don't catch me wandering under it at any of those points...
And onto the actual English literature course, which is what I was meant to be writing about anyway. The course is structured over 3 years with 5 modules per year usually worth 20 credits each, this changes slightly in the final year as your dissertation can be worth 40 credits meaning you only have 4 modules. Much of the assessment for the course is done in end of year exams (all 3 hours) although some is done in coursework, particularly in the language module and the MOMD (module outside the main discipline). I'll first of all split the course into the three years:
The majority of this year is compulsory and there are very few choices about what you wish to do. The reason for this is that it is meant to be an introductory year which covers the basics of everything and you can make an informed choice about what interests you in the following years. This to my mind is an absolutely brilliant idea because it allows you to see all the options. The best thing about this year is that providing you pass and get through to the final year your grades do not affect your final degree, it is a gentle induction to university life. The non choice options are:
Language foundation: This is basically English language A level condensed into one year, they are working on the basis that many people doing the degree have not done a language A level. I found this the hardest module by far because I have never really had to learn grammar and text structure, I know how to write it but not how to describe it! I would advise anyone to buy the A level revision guide as it worked a charm for me! (20 credits)
Literature foundation: This is an introductory course which takes you through the ages of literature and introduce you to as much material as possible (20 credits)
Independent Study: The name sums it up really, it is preparing you for writing your final year dissertation and teaching you how to research it. A lot of it was useless and rather boring but there was enough decent material to make it a worthwhile module. (20 credits)
European Literature (EU lit): You are introduced to one or two of the big names in European Literature such as Dante and Thomas Mann, the course is done in translations (not the original written language) and is actually quite decent. Out of four books which you study you have to pick two to write coursework on them, so you do have a certain amount of freedom. (20 credits)
You also have an MOMD to pick, which can be a module in just about any discipline in the university...my only advice is don't pick psychology. It is badly taught and a pain in the proverbial backside.
Second year is very similar to first in the sense that you do not have a great deal of choice, you get to pick which language module you want and you can focus on either the grammar and such like of language, or the social impacts of language. Three guesses which I picked!? But the literature modules are set and you have no choice in them:
Writing Society: Spans the timeline of 1380-1580 literature...so more or less beginning with Chaucer and ending with Spenser. I originally thought that I would hate this module as I cannot cope with language which I have to do anything resembling translation with! But once I got into it I was pleasantly surprised...main themes include women writers and religion in this period...
Generic Transformation: Spans the timeline of 1580-1780...it runs straight off the previous module. These two were both in the first term, and needless to say worked very nicely together...once I had got the hang of what was expected this was an interesting module as well.
Literature and Change: Spans the timeline of 1780-1960, again running off Generic Transformations and looking at how much change was going on in the style of writing in that period I wouldn't ask me much about this module as I hated it, and didn't actually turn up to over half of it...it still amazes me that I got a 2.2 on the exam!
Dissertation preparation: A very annoying module that really explains itself and is assessed entirely on one 4000 word essay.
Again you have an MOMD to pick, I picked EU lit as I knew I was on stable group and it was the same style and structure as before only with different authors...Don Quixote by Cervantes being one of them.
And this is where it gets complex to explain, mainly because of the amazing amount of choices you are given. The only compulsory module is the dissertation...but even on that you have a choice as to whether you want it to be 20 credits and do an MOMD, or for it to be 40 credits and double the word length. Language is however still compulsory to a degree although you have a mass of choices about where you want to go with it...but this did annoy us as we had hoped that by the time we got to third year we wouldn't have to do language! Some of the literature modules are very interesting, such as children's literature and sexuality of the body, but trying to explain them all would be hell for me and boring for you!
All in all there are some very interesting topics and many of them are well taught, I have learned an awful lot in my time here, and although it is a lot of hard work it is often worth it.
I have a new definition of the term academic, and it has become my new swear word. Academic: pretentious snobs who are also left wing fundamentalists with their heads so far up their own backsides that they cannot see the sunlight. They are a species which cannot think on their own and have to think as a pack which is exacerbated by them having very little real world experiences, if any. Students as a distraction from their research which is what they get paid for, and thereby are there only to fulfil the pretence of teaching and to keep the government grants coming in.
That probably sums it up...although to give credit not all are like that, I have had some excellent tuition in my time at the university; it is just that I have also had some absolutely awful tutors as well. The majority in the former group are welfare tutors...and this alone suggests that they have actually lived in the real world. But we have actually come up with a system that would allow lecturers to both teach and research, without either of them being pushed to the back burner...and it would be a sensible idea, but the university is so set in the past and what has worked in the past, that they cannot see what might be best for the future.
The English degree welfare tutors are amazing, point blank. They are able to listen and to give sensible advice, which is a definite start. But they are also very understanding and very caring...and I should know considering how much time I spent their last year. Recently they have increased the number of welfare tutors from two into four, which also makes a large difference. On this front I cannot complain about the university, I have had an amazing degree of support from them and cannot fault them in the slightest.
And the receptionists, I know people will be going 'What?? Why??', but I could not write a review about the English department without including these quite spectacular members of staff. Anyone who can look at me sidling in the door of the office with an essay clutched in my hand, smile and say 'late again?' deserves my respect. They do actually seem to know and recognise most second and third year students, and are always willing to make life that little bit easier...even on one occasion taking 10 minutes off the time an essay was handed in so I wouldn't lose the 5 marks for a late submission! I have decided receptionists are Gods!
Students at the university are another sore spot for me...the main issue with students at Birmingham university is that a large percentage of them are private school students, and a large percentage of them are up their own backsides. It really is the 'Daddy will pay' syndrome. This wouldn't normally be an issue if they didn't spend their entire time looking down their noses at those of us who aren't quite so privileged and have parents to pay for everything...or as in one major argument I got into this week, if we have parents who give who give a flying monkey's at all. The entire time I've been here it has been like negotiating a childhood playground except the kids are smarter and the insults more subtle and cutting. By no means are all of the students like that, but enough of them that they can make life a living misery for those of us who aren't...and unfortunately the group which seems to be the major issue are the private school students...
The Society for English which is registered to the Guild...basically you sign up and pay a £3 minimum to be bombarded by emails from them. To give credit there are some pluses, for instance you get money off vouchers and the like, and cheaper tickets to plays and drinking sessions. Personally I've never found it worth the hassle, mainly because I don't go to the drinking sessions and the plays and lectures they pick often don't appeal to me...
The Guild, our student union, is something that really annoys a lot of people, in no small part due to the influence and power that it holds and uses as a strangle point for both the university and its students. This includes the stifling of completely free speech in debates ("everybody has a right to live and work in an environment without fear of intimidation"- those who don't comply will no longer be represented by the Guild) and in the University newspaper (which nearly had its funding cut by the Guild due to publishing a story criticising Guild staff and employment policy). As opposed to representing the students fairly and in their best interests; such as education, value for money and student support; the Guild only seems interested in acting without anyone acting against it, with only its own interests in mind. A few may remember back in the dim past of 2005 when the Christian Union was expelled from the Guild due to a lack of inclusivity in anyone who is not... Christian. Or, in the 2005/6 term, when the hockey team was threatened with closure due to acquiring a new corporate sponsor on their kits and failing to inform the Guild of the uniform change.
They do have some good schemes, however; with street wardens volunteering in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham; volunteering projects in schools and mediating any disputes between Town and Gown. However, in my eyes this does not exclude their politically correct and thinly veiled authoritarianism which does little more than to hamper free thought.
===Whine about University in general===
My first point of whining is about the number of contact hours I get in relation to the amount of money I am paying to be educated at the university. When I started in first year I was getting between 8 and 10 hours a week depending on the particular week, this seemed like a decent number of hours because it also gave the time to do all of the necessary reading. However, coming into third year was quite a shock, because for 5 modules I am getting 4 hours of contact time a week...and only two hours of that is seminars...this to me seems atrocious. When you are paying £3145 in tuition fees a year you expect to get a decent number of contact hours, and I would not count 4 hours as a decent number. When you consider that medical and science students often get 4 hours of contact time a day it seems even more annoying, all of the university's resources are going into the science departments and the rest of the university has to scrape along as best as possible.
The same issue goes for the library. When a book is on a main reading list you would expect the library to have more than three copies of a book in the entire library, particularly when it is supposedly one of the most prestigious and largest university libraries in England. But again, this only applies for the science and medical books, of which there are often more than fifteen copies and versions of the books that they have on their reading lists. In direct comparison when I was looking for my language module this year I found they had 3 copies, two in long loan and 1 in short loan. The two in long we won't see for at least another month...the one in short loan has to be back for the next day, but that gives you very little time to actually look at what you want to read. They do have a week loan section as well, but this seems to be massively under stocked...I can understand that they cannot have a copy for every student, it would be very expensive and rather silly...but can they not at least have a decent number in so that when we need to read a book for a lecture we don't have to pay £25 from Waterstones for it...so far I am £200 down on books alone.
And as an added whine I have just heard that student grants are about to be cut...one VERY unhappy Lissy...how is it our fault that the givernment university section are morons and have over-spent...especially considering how much we are actually paying for this education.
===Student living in Selly Oak===
This is another one of the pluses about the area, Selly Oak being so near to the university and being absolutely populated with students means that there are many opportunities for cheap rent. And if anything goes wrong that the landlord refuses to do anything about students have the safety net of being able to go to the Guild of Students who can try and sort out with your landlord for you. There are shops in easy walking range, including a second hand book shop...and of course the stereotypical student living place - the pub. Because there are at least 5 pubs within a 20 minute walk of each other the prices are low and competitive...I mean £1.95 for a pint of bitter??
I do have some advice on picking your house and housemates which those people who are planning to go to university shortly, and that is to be very careful who you choose for both your landlord and your housemates. If you can find a University Accredited landlord that is always much better even if it is a couple of quid more expensive a week...my reason for saying this is that you have so much more power if your landlord is university accredited - no landlord who has gone to all the trouble to get himself university accredited will take the risk of losing it, and a complaint to the university will be far more damaging to him. Housemates wise, be very careful...and also keep an eye on whether your bills are actually being paid. Me and my housemates nearly got in severe trouble this year because an ex housemate from last year hadn't been paying the gas bill...owing British Gas £480...it took a long time for us to convince the bailiff's that there was no one of his name residing at the address...the fact that he had used a fraudulent name made it easier as well!
I have to admit my general advice is that you have to have a self esteem like rock to negotiate an institution like Birmingham unless you have Daddies who are millionaires. Or maybe that's just the course I'm on. The last two years I have got through by making myself as endearing to tutors as possible...which works until you have tutors who actually enjoy putting students down, and usually manage to find the most pointed places to do so...which I have this year.
The university has its good points and it's bad points. For one it is no worse than any other institution with a similarly academic rating and research reputation, but this doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't a problem. But overall I think I have summed in up in this rather overly long review. Thank you for reading...