Issues in Modern Culture

“Hi, I’m _____________ and I do ‘Issues’.”

That’s how about fifteen of us introduced ourselves in this week’s inaugural Contemporary Short Fiction Reading Group.

“Issues” is, of course, short for “Issues in Modern Culture,” which is the official name of my MA program at University College London (from here on out known as UCL). It’s a “taught” program on Modernist literature with a smattering of culture/society/historical context.

This post will give an overview of the program’s structure — quite different from the US university system — and what we’ve done thus far. I can’t promise to post weekly updates but will try to periodically share particularly interesting tidbits. I will also update my Reading List with the texts we’re meant to tackle each week.

There are 47 of us “doing ‘Issues'”: Brits, Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, a Romanian, an Australian or two, an Israeli, and probably people from other countries whom I haven’t met yet. Many have just finished their BAs, but some of us (myself included) have been out of school and doing other things for a number of years. A pretty diverse group, overall.

We’re split into two groups for our weekly two-hour seminars, of which we have two. Yes — only 4 “contact hours” per week! That’s already a departure from the American system, which likes to get you into class as often as possible. Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll take four courses:

  • “Authors” spans both terms and, as you may expect, covers the main (canonical) authors leading up to and through literary Modernism. For Authors, we have to read at least a novel or so per week — that’ll keep us busy when we’re not in class. Our first two weeks covered Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and In the Cage); next week is Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim).
  • “Contexts” happens this term and looks at the social/historical/cultural contexts behind the development of Modernism. It’s broken into two chunks: “Modernity and the City” and “Modern Forms.” We’re in the first part now and have already covered Baudelaire’s poems and prose poems on mid-19th-century Paris. Tomorrow’s seminar is called “Epiphany and the Everyday” and is theory-based (think Barthes, Blanchot, Lefebvre — dense stuff). Next week is “Detective Fiction”: Poe, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler. I’m pumped for that and will think fondly of my first-year seminar in “African-American Detective Fiction” at Oberlin.
  • Next term, we’ll pick two of six more specific “Options” — each will last half a term. Our choices include “Modernism and Sex,” “Film,” and “Cultures of the Night.” Exciting! More on these later.

Unlike the American (undergraduate) system, where we had at least two or three papers to write throughout each semester, the grades for our MA depend on one paper per course at the end of each term, plus the dissertation. And no class participation grades to pad the final mark. Not much room for error! But, as a classmate pointed out, getting the MA is the real goal in the end, regardless of final grade.

We have a group of professors/lecturers/teacher-people helping with the course — each lecturer teaches his/her specialty, so we have a different seminar leader almost every week (with some repeats). This is nice because we’re getting “expert” perspectives, but it also may prove difficult to form any kind of personal/professional relationships with our lecturers. We will be assigned a Tutor, though, who will guide us on the Contexts paper, so that will be a good connection to make.

That’s about it so far. I’m still getting to know my classmates, but the ones with whom I’ve interacted are nice, smart, and interesting. Everyone seems really excited and willing to collaborate. Stay tuned for future updates, and don’t forget to check out my Reading List to see what we’re studying.

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