The Oxford Humanity Graduate’s Guide to Super-Curriculum Learning

By Ellen Hodgetts (English Language and Literature, University of Oxford)

If you’re aiming for academic excellence and perhaps further study at a high ranking school or university, it’s incredibly important to read around your subject/s of interest. In order to really impress with future applications, it is crucial you explore beyond the confines of your curricula. This kind of research demonstrates a passion and commitment to learning, can help you develop your intellect beyond what is possible at school, take a University personal statement to the next level and allow you to dazzle at interview.

Speaking from personal experience, for humanities students this can be an incredibly daunting task – with subjects such as Classics, English Literature and History stretching backwards over hundreds of years, it might seem impossible to know where to start.

With these challenges in mind I’ve put together a list of informative and accessible ways to tackle some additional material – and to hopefully help you discover your next favourite composer, philosopher or author!

(1)   Listen to a few podcasts

Podcasts are an easy and time-efficient way to brush up your knowledge of your chosen subject area. Pop one on next time you’re in the car, on a run or doing household chores and you’ll learn something new, quickly and easily.

In Our Time, Radio 4

Every week the host of this wonderful podcast, Melvyn Bragg, has a panel of expert guests including leading academics, authors, translators and scientists, discuss a chosen topic. Subjects range across science, religion, culture and history – with every episode available to download from the BBC archive you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Bragg’s discussions are fast-paced and interesting, and explain both the fundamentals and the unusual details of a subject. In Our Time is a great way to find out more about a favourite author, period of history or philosophical school of thought.

The Guardian Books Podcast

A lively weekly discussion of authors both living and dead, as well as wider literary trends and schools of thought.

Their frequent combination of different perspectives – the most recent episode looked at ‘The Art of Biography’, comparing a biography of Thomas Cromwell with a graphic novel – means that you’re bound to come away with some more unique opinions on literature.  Each one even comes with a short reading list if you want to follow-up on anything you’ve heard about.

University of Oxford Podcasts

Oxford University’s collection of podcasts is like the holy grail of educational listening. In a quest to make academia more accessible, the university have compiled a whole library of recorded lectures from faculties across the university – they’re available on browser or you can download and store them for a later date.

Personal highlights include the Approaching Shakespeare series, Poetry with Simon Armitage and the Slade Lectures from the History of Art Department.

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(2)  Dip into a literary magazine

These publications offer a great introduction to the world of critical writing. Although their titles might suggest otherwise these publications are focused on more than just literature – you’ll find history, politics, music, art and much more tucked away within them.

Although many of these magazines charge for full subscriptions, most allow online access to the majority of content, have available digital archives and will let you order a free copy as a subscription trial.

The Times Literary Supplement

The TLS is a weekly supplement of literary culture. They publish book reviews, extracts, and accessible critical essays. Topics range beyond literature to cover music, drama, politics, psychology and more, and for any budding classicists there’s even a regular contribution from Mary Beard.

Recent articles include Oxford academic Seamus Perry on the art of listening to poetry, a discussion of Spanish democracy and a history of women in medicine. You’ll be hard pressed to find something that doesn’t interest you!

Slightly Foxed

Slightly Foxed is an independent publishing house and literary quarterly ‘for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.’ Their contributors share their passions for their favourite books and authors, often digging up books from their past in a touching and personal manner.

Perfect for finding those lesser known gems to help make your personal statement stand out from the crowd.

Literary Review

Founded by an English professor at Edinburgh University, Literary Review is a great read for those of you who want to keep on top of publishing trends. It covers all the latest books each month – fiction and nonfiction, from history to biography and much more!

The short articles are perfect for helping you discover a bit more about a favourite author or period of history.

(3)  Visit a museum (physically or virtually!)

Getting to grips with material culture is a brilliant way to broaden your knowledge of a subject. Understanding the physical artefacts of a culture can offer a unique perspective on works of literature or historical events.

Seeing what’s on offer at your local museum or some of the bigger, national ones could be a great source of inspiration. Most of the larger museums now have details of their collections online, making it even easier to discover what’s out there!

The British Museum

The British Museum has free admission and a whole range of research departments covering Asia, Europe and the Middle East, plus many more.  

And if you can’t make it to London, the British Museum blog is a great place to start – full of  cultural and historical information about the exhibitions, as well as stories from across the museum.

The British Library

The largest library catalogue in the world is at your fingertips on the British Library website – look at original manuscripts and browse British Library Sounds, a catalogue of unique recordings from all over the world.

Their ‘Discovering Literature’ series offers a great insight into some of the most renowned periods of British literature, perfect for students who want to expand on what they’re learning in the classroom.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Transport yourself to New York using the Met website and explore one of the largest art museums in the world. Examine current and past exhibitions in their online archives, which cover everything from the Ritual Art of Nepal to an Art and Conspiracy.

Their recent Timeline of Art History is the ideal resource for any art student, offering an overview of all time periods and geographies.

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4) JSTOR

If you haven’t already heard of JSTOR, check it out now. JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students and has 12+ million articles in 75 disciplines. The accessibility of these can range from easily accessible to very complex and tricky to digest. Choose carefully and, perhaps if an article is too difficult, but has some ideas you’d like to explore more, just check out the abstract/ introduction/ conclusion.

To get access to JSTOR, you may need to register or login via an institution. Check with your school - they should be able to get you an account. If not, u2 can help.

u2’s mentoring system can also help guide you with your super-curriculum learning. Having a mentor from Oxford or Cambridge to supply reading lists, direct you to material based on your particular interests and discuss new topics with you in sessions, can be a wonderful way of developing your co-curricula portfolio. It will be enjoyable too!

By Ellen Hodgetts (English Language and Literature, Oxford)