LECTURES AND SEMINARS
A lecture (literally, ‘a reading’) is usually delivered by a lecturer to everyone taking the course. It provides an introduction to or overview of a subject and may focus on a particular topic in some detail. Lectures should give you the basics to build on for seminars and essays, and whet your appetite to do further research on your own.
Some lecturers will encourage students to ask questions, either during the lecture or in a slot at the end. Others lecturers may not – but you can see their point: although students often complain that lecturers don’t allow question time, they sit in silence when questions are invited, making the lecturer feel sorry that s/he cut his precious lecture time down to allow for questions.
Be prepared for your lectures by doing at least the required reading ahead of time. Listen to the lecture (rather than frantically write down every word the lecturer says!) and, if question time is offered, make the most of it: don’t be afraid to ask questions, make comments or even (politely!) challenge the lecturer’s ideas. Make it more interesting for everyone!
In seminars, smaller groups of students meet to explore subjects with the guidance of a tutor. Seminars are not lectures and it’s not the tutor’s role to expound on the text for you to take notes. The point is to exchange ideas and thoughts about the material studied.
A seminar may take the form of an open discussion or a focus on a particular aspect of the subject or text, or it may include presentations by students (see Seminar Presentations below). In either case, preparation is the key: do the required reading thoroughly and make notes; when you’re preparing, think about what you’re reading and if you don’t understand something (for example, a character’s motivation or even why you’re being asked to study that particular topic), bring your questions to the seminar for everyone to discuss.
You may find it helpful to get into the habit of meeting other students from your seminar groups to discuss what you’re studying and benefit from a variety of approaches to the material. If you don’t understand something, perhaps others else can shed light on the matter; and you may be able to do the same for them another time.
Everyone studies in a different way so there is no right quantity in note-taking. Quality, however, is very important. Don’t worry if you find you’re taking fewer, or more, notes than other students: the main thing is to take notes you can easily use later, so it helps to understand when you may want to refer to your notes.
You will refer to your notes when writing essays, to remind you about the subject and the issues. You’ll refer to other sources for this too, both primary (= the material you’re studying, for example literary texts) and secondary. Secondary or critical reading (= reading what established scholars have said about the subject) is a requirement in most courses and is helpful in understanding how other people see the subject. You’ll supplement notes from lectures and seminars with notes from secondary reading.
It helps to keep a list of everything you read, whether books, articles or material from the internet. You should clearly identify the author and location (for example, book title with full publication details and page numbers) with any notes you take in your secondary reading, because all material you use in your essays must be attributed to its source.
You will also want to refer to your notes when you revise for exams; and you’ll benefit more from revising from succinct, relevant notes than to be faced with a large stack of barely legible and sometimes scarcely pertinent notes in the exam season.
Your notes should be detailed enough for you to understand their relevance some months after making them, and brief enough to act as reminders of the subject studied and its main points.
There are various ways of researching your subject. Sources will include material held in the library, such as books and journal articles, and material found on the internet.
Most course details provide book lists (bibliographies) to enable you to learn about your subject beyond the lecture and seminar format. Remember that libraries are limited by budgets and they may not hold many copies of texts. Everyone on your course may head for the same books at the same time: early research into the texts you need and what materials the library holds will help avoid disappointment!
Make sure you understand precisely what is required for your assignment, whether it be an essay, a commentary or a seminar presentation, before you start your research. For written work, read the supplied rubric (the specific instructions) carefully.
Seminar presentations will usually be on a particular aspect of your subject or on a text specified by your tutor. Read the set material thoroughly, make structured notes and do secondary reading if appropriate.
Remember that everyone should have done the basic preparation for the seminar, not just you, so you should avoid lengthy summaries of the issue or text: if you feel it necessary by way of introduction, a brief overview should suffice. Otherwise, focus closely on the subject or text. Try to prepare a few questions or identify contentious issues to draw the group into discussion.
If you are attending a seminar where a presentation is to be given by another student, this does not mean you have the day off! Read the set material and make sure you too identify interesting points. Listen carefully to the presentation so you can enter into discussion.
A commentary is a close reading of a piece of text (usually provided). Elements to consider may include themes and motifs, literary techniques, language and style, all focussed on the passage. While some allusion to the wider text may be appropriate, for example in a discussion of motifs found both in the passage and in the whole text, a commentary is not primarily an analysis of the wider work from which the extract comes nor of literature in general. Demonstration of secondary reading is not generally required. A detailed handout on commentaries is available on the Downloads page.
An essay seeks to test your understanding of a topic in a wider sense, as well as your ability to structure an informed analysis. Essays usually require evidence of secondary reading and engagement with critical texts: this does not mean arbitrarily quoting because you know you must cite references, but using these to support your own views or argue against. (The latter is often more rewarding.) Make sure you have read and understood the question or title before you start planning and writing, and leave yourself plenty of time to read over what you’ve written. Ask yourself: have you focussed on the question? Have you answered the question? Are all your comments relevant or are there paragraphs which don’t really belong in this essay?
Bibliographies supplied for your courses will generally be made up of material found in the library, although some internet sources may be listed.
It is wise to bear in mind that books and articles in journals have gone through a system of peer-review before being published: this means that the book or article (whether or not you agree with the author and the argument) has been assessed by experts in the subject and deemed to be worth the expense of physical reproduction. Usually, the lecturers compiling the bibliography will also have some knowledge of the quality of the material listed.
However, anyone can publish pretty well anything on the internet. The material you find there may not have been assessed by anyone, expert or otherwise. You should, therefore, take great care in using material from the internet. It may be easy to find and use internet sources, but that doesn’t mean that the material is sound. If in doubt, consult your tutor.
Citing sources: overview
Primary source = the book you’re studying (such as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene); secondary source = a critical work about the book you’re studying or on historical context &c.
All material you use in your essays must be clearly identified. This applies to primary and secondary sources. Failure to acknowledge critical sources is plagiarism, otherwise known as cheating: this is frowned upon by universities and results in heavy penalties, even expulsion.
Details of primary and secondary texts, including lectures, should be provided in a bibliography at the end of your essay. Here, texts are listed alphabetically by author’s name, with primary sources (Homer, Milton, Virgil) listed before secondary sources (Anderson, Lattimore, Lewis). Most style guides now prefer a citation system such as MLA, where the in-text citations are brief, but clear, references to material listed in the bibliography. The in-text citation and bibliographical reference enable your reader to identify the source you’re quoting from or alluding to. ‘As Brown says…’ tells the reader nothing unless you note who ‘Brown’ is and where s/he says it – and this includes the page number from to which the citation alludes.
The information and the form of citations will vary according to the style guide you’re using, but bibliographies and other references to sources should clearly indicate author, title, publisher and year of publication. You may also need to show (as, for example, with texts which run into numerous editions and reprints, such as The Norton Anthology) which edition you are using.
Titles of short poems or short stories should be shown in inverted commas (for example, John Donne, ‘The Flea’); longer poems, plays and novels are identified by italics or underlining (Milton, Paradise Lost).
The full citation, then, will usually include some combination of the following (items marked * will always be needed):
Examples of bibliographical use:
CHAUCER, Geoffrey, Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Larry D. Benson et al, The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1988.
HOMER, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961)
If you’re citing an essay in a collection by several authors, or from a journal, place the essay’s title in quotation marks and provide the title of the journal, or the details of the volume and its editor, and the page numbers of the essay:
CROSBY, Ruth, ‘Chaucer and the Custom of Oral Delivery.’ Speculum 13 (1938), pp. 413-32
WEISS, Judith, ‘The Wooing Woman in Anglo-Norman Romance’ in Romance in Medieval England, ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows and Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer (1991), pp. 149-161)
If you’re quoting from, or alluding to, a particular place in a source, don’t forget to insert the page number you’re quoting from in your main text: for secondary material, this will be shown as (Crosby 414) or (Crosby, ‘Chaucer’ 414) depending on the system used by your style guide. If the author has been mentioned in your main text, only the page number needs to be shown following the quotation: (414). The choice of whether to include the abbreviation p. (for page) or pp. (for multiple pages) depends on the system preferred by your style guide.
The exact source of material taken from primary texts also needs to be identified. For prose, the citation will be in the form of page numbers, as for secondary sources.
Where you allude to a specific part of a poetic text, or quote from it, the location should be shown according to the information supplied in the text. Where line numbers are given in the text, these should be used to identify the source of the quotation; any book divisions should also appear. The choice of whether to include the abbreviation l. (for line) or ll. (for multiple lines) depends on the system preferred by your style guide. Inset quotations (separated from the main essay text) should be laid out exactly as in the source; run-on quotations (included in your main essay text) should have line breaks marked / if more than one line is quoted.
To reference a website, put(online) after the relevant material; if you have not identified the source in the main text, do so in in the parentheses: (Jokinen, ‘sentence et solas’, online) and make sure the full details are included in the bibliography.
For more information on citation practice, see the Writing Skills for Students page.
Material included from lectures should also be acknowledged, if only out of simple politeness (no lecturer enjoys reading rehashed chunks of his/her lecture in an essay without being given any credit!). Again, the basic citation principles apply: give the name of the author/lecturer, the title of the lecture, the name of the course and the university, and the date the lecture was given.
Show the author’s name, the page or item title, the URL (= website or page address), any date of publication shown on the site or page, and the date you accessed it. (This is important: webpages may disappear, become unavailable, or be updated and change drastically from the page you accessed.) You can use the short date form, 10/02/03, or the long form, 10th February 2003, but be consistent. Underline the webpage address (your word processor should identify the entry as a URL and do this automatically) and/or place it in < > marks.
Gardner, Patrick. SparkNotes on Paradise Lost (Spark Notes, 2005) <http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/paradiselost/> [accessed 10 February 2003].
Anniina Jokinen, ‘sentence et solas: Joy and Sensuality in Paradise Lost Before and After the Fall.’ 1997.
<http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/solas.htm> [accessed 10 February 2003].
In the above examples, the Gardner title is italicized because the piece is book-length. If you’re citing or quoting from a shorter source, enclose the title in inverted commas instead of italicizing it, as you would for a journal article, as in the Jokinen title above.
In the main text a quotation or allusion to an online work should be marked as (online) in the position where you would put the page number for a printed text.
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