Department of Comparative Literature BA Q&A

Dr Sara Marzagora, Lecturer in Comparative Literature

Dr Sara Marzagora and student ambassadors answer the questions of prospective students and offer holders about the King’s BA in the Department of Comparative Literature.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could list some of the compulsory readings that I might have during the BA Comparative Literature?

Student ambassador: It depends on the modules you choose to take; every year the reading lists are subject to change but there are some great texts that you will almost definitely encounter such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Mikhail Bakhtin’s The dialogic imagination.

Dr Sara Marzagora, Lecturer in Comparative Literature: Definitely there’s lots of Edward Said in year 2, you will read both Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. In the first year, readings are more variable but can include classics of literary criticism like Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of world literature.

Q: What texts do you recommend we do some reading on before term starts?

Sara: A text that is accessible and covers a lot of ground is David Damrosch’s How to read world literature. This is my suggestion together with Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Q: I would like to know which optional modules are mostly preferred to take by students?

Student ambassador: It depends on your personal interests. I loved a module called “The Promise of Poetry” in second year, which covers the history of poetic language across time and space. I also really liked “Surrealism” in my third year. The great thing about comparative literature is that you can also choose some modules from other departments across the faculty of Arts and Humanities, so you can really get to focus on what you are passionate about. For example, both this year and last year I took creative writing modules from the English department.

Student ambassador: There’s something for everyone. Some of the optional modules which I have taken and loved are “Romantic Britain and Italy”, “The French Revolution Effect”, and “The Canon”. Also, as a Comparative Literature student you have the opportunity to take a wide range of modules from other departments, including the departments of English, French, German, and Spanish – I have really enjoyed taking modules from the Spanish department, for example.

Sara: That depends on your personal interests, but if I was a student I would definitely take “Literature, Solidarity and the Humanitarian Turn” and “Socialism and Literature in India in the 20th Century”. Both courses are unique to KCL and well represent the wide range of regions and themes covered by our staff.

Q: What about “belle-lettres” fiction? What are your favourites that are usually taught?

Sara: First year students this year started off with two classics of the European canon, Stendhal’s The red and the black and Cervantes’s Don Quixote – two incredible texts, captivating and stimulating in equal measure. This year’s students loved them!

Q: I have a question regarding the approximate number of hours taught per week in the first year and how they’re usually distributed – I suppose due to the choice of modules it’s a few hours almost every day rather than, let’s say, only two full days per week?

Student ambassador: We usually have about 8 contact hours a week. You take 4 modules per semester and every module has a 1-hour lecture and a 1-hour seminar weekly.  As you say, it really depends on your timetable. It is virtually possible that you will have 2 full days but it is unlikely. You are more likely to have 2-3 hours a day distributed across 3, 4 or 5 days.

Sara: Yes, hours will be spread out during the week, so you will have more time to rest between classes and absorb what you have learnt.

Q: How are students usually evaluated throughout their time at KCL?

Student ambassador: Some modules are exam based, others are essay based, and some are both. When you sign up for a module you can check in advance what type of assessment the module entails, should that influence your decision. Usually you will submit around 4,000 words of written coursework per module. This could be two 2,000-word essays (a common assessment pattern in first year) or one 4,000-word essay. Some modules will also evaluate attendance and require you to prepare oral presentations.

Sara: It is generally a mix between exams and essays. Some courses also include oral presentations. The variety of assessment is planned for students to develop a range of skills for their future careers. Alongside more traditional assessment methods, some courses have introduced more innovative assessment methods. A course that I will teach next year on “The Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies” asks the students to tweet about the primary texts and write a blog post.

Q: Could you give us a few examples of different types of assessment? Is the written coursework mostly essays? Can I expect to write text analyses or answer multiple-choice quizzes?

Student ambassador: Written coursework mostly consists of essays, though they can also be book or film reviews and shorter critical responses. If you take a module that is assessed via an exam, your teacher will also provide past exam papers for that module.

Sara: Definitely more textual analyses rather than quizzes. I am not aware of any course that uses quizzes. For “Genres of World Literature”, a compulsory first-year module, students have to review a literary exhibition or cultural event. It is a very stimulating assignment, in London there are so many events and exhibitions to choose from!

Q: What are the career prospects for Comparative Literature students? What are the types of careers most Comparative Literature students opt for after graduating from KCL?

Student ambassador: There’s quite a wide range. I remember in my first year the department organised a “meet and greet” event with BA Comparative Literature alumni, and there were loads of careers being represented – journalists, novelists, TV writers, teachers… Many students choose to go into postgraduate study, which is what I am looking to do. The good thing about Comparative Literature is that it is very wide ranging so it does not tie you down to any one field.

Student ambassador: Comparative Literature alumni go into a wide variety of careers! Some will continue their studies with a postgraduate degree, some will go into working. A few Comparative Literature graduates I know are now working as journalists, some went into banking and some into filmmaking

Sara: Careers choices have been varied and versatile! Typically, students work in publishing, journalism, or education. Some alumni work in the tourism industry, in PR, and marketing. Our courses on world literature prepare students for careers in international organisations such as the UN or the European Parliament. We equip students for a wide range of careers through internal placements, and personal tutors offer career support for students at any stage of their degree. And KCL has a great Careers and Employability office!

Q: What are the typical postgraduate courses that BA Comparative Literature students take after?

Sara: That also varies. Many students stay with their core literary interests and continue with MAs in literature. Some shift towards film or visual arts. One third year student I know has just applied for a MA in Digital Cultures and Society. Because the BA in Comparative Literature is quite interdisciplinary, you can also move onto MAs in history and politics. Your personal tutor will offer career support and will write reference letters supporting your applications to MA programmes, you are welcome to brainstorm possible career paths with them at any stage of your degree.

Student ambassador: You can go into a wide range of postgraduate degrees – some students stick with comparative literature, some go into translation studies, postcolonial studies, art, area studies such as Middle Eastern Studies, African studies, South Asian studies… I personally briefly considered doing a MA in Medieval and Renaissance studies!

Q: How are the academic staff?

Student ambassador: Staff are very lovely and are always there to support you, so if you are feeling apprehensive do make use of their office hours and share your concerns with them. They will do what they can to help you and remove any doubts you may have. This is actually one of my favourite things about studying Comparative Literature at KCL – I have never been made to feel like staff did not have time for me, no matter how petty my concern might have seemed to me. They are all very encouraging, always respond to emails, and are happy to receive you during their office hours.

Sara: The student/staff ratio is excellent, which means students are followed individually. I teach the second-year cohort and know all of their names, and have been following all student individually throughout the year.

Q: And how about student life? How is the atmosphere, how are the societies?

Sara: My impression as a member of staff is that the student community is very lively and full of great friendships and collaborations. The cohort is small (we have around 50 incoming students every year), so it is easy for students to socialise, help each other, and plan events together.

Student ambassador: I think the best way to get to know people and make friends, especially at the beginning, is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and take part in activities – do things! Student societies are a great way to make friends because you will get to know many people who share your interests.

Student ambassador: We are a very small cohort, which I personally love. In my cohort we are all very close and have a good relationship with each other. As Comparative Literature students, we have our own common room to socialise and chat with each other. Not every department does, so this is a big bonus for us! And there are too many student societies for me to even begin to tell you about. Last year for example I joined the equestrian society which was new and exciting for me!

Q: Do you have some creative writing organizations/society? I would be very interested in something like this.

Student ambassador: Yes, we do! I was actually the vice president this year! The creative writing society is absolutely amazing and I have met a lot of people there who now I call my best friends. We hold two meetings per week, a reading meeting in which people can read their pieces out loud and get feedback from other students, and a writing meeting in which we all write around a theme, a prompt, or do a little writing game. We also published two anthologies this year with the work of our members, which is really exciting.

Q: How does one join the society? Is that something I have to apply for?

Student ambassador: We are a very relaxed, informal and friendly society, so no need to apply for membership, just come along! Follow our social media accounts, so you know when and where we will meet in September, come to our first meeting, and see if you like it.

Q: I came to the offer holders day back in February and loved hearing that the course had a module about East African literature. I’m half Somali half Ethiopian myself and finding something that catered to my identity was super cool. My parents are immigrant parents so its lovely having the chance to learn more about my roots.

Sara: Of course, I remember meeting you in February! My new module on “Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies” will run in the fall for the first time. I am really proud of this course, which is unique in the UK, and draws on my research in Ethiopian literature and global intellectual history. We will be reading lots of Ethiopian texts, plus a Somali novel titled Ignorance is the enemy of love published in 1974 by Faarax M. J. Cawl.

Q: I am currently studying a course in culture and curation, but have decided it not something not for me, and if anything this year made me realise how much I miss studying literature, so I have applied and gotten accepted on this course and I am very much looking forward to it.

Student ambassador: That’s great – I am glad to hear you are taking the chance instead of sticking with what is easy and comfortable! As a Comparative Literature student, you will have a chance to take modules that cater to visual arts as well (such as “Surrealism”) – not to mention your dissertation, which is very open. You can definitely write an interdisciplinary dissertation that covers both literature and visual arts.

Sara: I think that one of the strengths of our department is the fact that we have a very interdisciplinary understanding of literature, so while you will have a rigorous training in literary criticism and literary studies, you also have the option of choosing some modules from other departments in the KCL Faculty of Arts and Humanities. I know students who have taken courses in philosophy, history, film, and digital humanities, just to make some examples, alongside their comparative literature modules. In other words, you are very welcome to explore the connections between literature and visual arts throughout your Comparative Literature degree.

Q: I am a big fan of Spanish-language literature; Cortazar, Bolaño, Borges are my favourites. Are there some Spanish literature modules I can take?

Student ambassador: In terms of Comparative Literature modules, when I took the first-year module “Writer in the Text” we read Everything and nothing by Borges, and I enjoyed it a lot. I cannot promise it will be there next year, as the syllabus might change, but you will definitely come cross these writers in other Comparative Literature modules. You are also welcome to take courses from the Spanish department. I have taken several modules from the Spanish department and really enjoyed them.

Q: Do I have to speak Spanish in order to take modules from the Spanish department?

Student ambassador: Nope – everything is provided in translation. Some modules might specify that a knowledge of Spanish is a pre-requisite, and if you do want to learn Spanish you can always take free modules at the Modern Languages Centre (MLC) – that’s where I am learning Italian.

Q: French and Italian Literature have always been on my bucket list, and I plan to start studying these languages soon.

Student ambassador: Then I would definitely recommend taking “Romantic Britain and Italy” (2nd year module) and “The French Revolution” (3rd year module) both taught by Rosa Mucignat, who is an amazing teacher. The reading lists are really stimulating and cover both Italian and French literature.

Q: I am a student who just completed her A-levels. One of my favourite writers is Barbara Kingsolver, whose book, The Poisonwood Bible I studied during my A-levels. I prefer to read plays more than prose, and my favourite playwright other than Shakespeare is Tennessee Williams.

Sara: You will love Justine McConnell’s course on “Caribbean Drama” then. In the course I teach for second year students, called “Ideas of Nation”, one class is on The piano lesson by August Wilson. There are also several courses on theatre in our neighbouring department of English, which you are more than welcome to choose as your optional courses in your second and third year.

Q: I am more interested about the literature produced during the Cold War, as political historical fiction is one of my favourite genres.

Sara: Javed Majeed’s course on the Indian novel should be perfect, as it covers precisely the relationship between literature and politics in India during the twentieth century, including a focus on the Cold War.

Q: Has attending the Comparative Literature degree changed your literary taste?

Student ambassador: Yes! It is crazy to see how the degree changed my taste and made me a fan of literary movements and authors which I initially thought I would never like. I started university thinking I was a huge fan of Romantic poetry and that I would definitely focus on the Romantic period, and I have ended up writing my BA dissertation on Surrealism, the theatre of the absurd, and David Lynch’s dream-like movies.

Sara: My experience as a student was the same. I started off as a fan of social realism and now I am writing an academic article on a sci-fi Ethiopian novel and how it is related to the movie Black panther and to the novel The Da Vinci code.

Q: What different events does the Comparative Literature department usually hold?

 Student ambassador: One event we hold regularly are research seminars – they are weekly events in which academics from other universities from the world come to deliver lectures on their research. These seminars are open to all and undergraduate students are welcome to attend. Though it can be quite daunting to be an undergraduate in a room full of senior scholars, it is a great experience. And the senior scholars are always very pleased to see their students there. Other than that, we usually have a party before our winter break and an end of year party, which are always lovely get-togethers in our common room to just let our hair down a bit.

Q: What do you think about the location?

Student ambassador: King’s is in the heart of London, a few steps away from London’s main attractions such as the National Gallery or Covent Garden, which is amazing. And being a KCL student gives you access to so many libraries, galleries, exhibitions, you name it! In London there’s always something to do.

Student ambassador: Definitely there is something in London to cater to every interest and lifestyle. Lots of theatres are just around the corner from KCL, so you can go see a show at the end of the day to unwind after your classes.

Q: Since London is such a big city, is it hard to adjust? Are the people welcoming or a bit on the colder side?

Sara: I moved to the UK 10 years ago but have always found people in London very easy to talk to. I love living here and would not want to live anywhere else. And KCL has been such a supportive environment in my experience. And it is a very international university, with people from all over the world, and there is always something new to learn and to share.

Student ambassador: It is true that London is big and can be overwhelming at times, but that is precisely why I really loved the Comparative Literature department – I found my family within the department, and met friends and mentors I know I can always rely on.

Read More:

For the Department of Comparative Literature 2020-21 modules (subject to change), click here.

For student insight into the Comparative Literature BA at King’s, check out Paige’s Day in the Life.

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