How To Survive A Literature Class

By Timothy Hayes on February 18, 2015

GE. The very name brings about a sense of dread and fear. The horrible general education credits are the bane of every college student. They’ve been called a waste of money, boring and just a general pain. They’re just another class you’re going to take and hopefully pass just to get the degree, but realistically have no bearing on your life. Right?

Well let’s examine these claims in context, specifically the dreaded literature class. Literature classes seem like a waste of time for all but English majors and really don’t pertain very well to any other majors. Does this mean they are useless?

Certainly not. Literature classes are not useless. They have specific, quantitative values like promoting critical reading skills, analysis of authorship, consideration of audience, and promote a better, more rounded education. They open our minds to other perspectives and allow an open forum of discussion of important social issues that would otherwise not come up in say, thermodynamics.

However useful or useless you may think these classes are, they are a pain even for English majors. Ultimately, you’ve got to pass the class or, if you’ve got scholarships, get an A. You might be at wits end trying to get through literary analysis’s of Dante, writing papers on Shakespeare, or burning your way through Chaucer at a rate either like molasses in January or a wildfire in summer. If you feel like this, try some of these tips.

Before you ever even start a literature class, make sure you enjoy the topic. Nothing is worse than getting your schedule to find that the literature class you have scheduled has been turned in a direction you don’t want to go.

Visit the English department before you schedule and ask for course listings to fulfill the requirements you need. Most schools will also have postings advertising new or interesting course listings in their building that might not make it outside of there. So find a course that interests you, talk to the instructor, and select that one.

If you have the misfortune of being in a course you don’t like, was not what you anticipated, or had to take, I sympathize with you. If you’re before your school’s drop date, the above paragraph would again apply, but for the unlucky few of us, it’s not an option. Instead we are left to our own devices.

If you’re not reading the material in a literature course, it’d be like plugging your ears in a physics lecture. (photo credited to

To start out, do your reading. This seems like a no-brainer, but it is very easy to make the mistake of forgetting it, claiming you’ll read it right before class, or something along those lines. Most literature classes you will take in college will involve very heavy reading.

You’re in college, so the expectation is to be able to analyze more complicated subject matter. The unfortunate cause of this is five pages of homework that can take an hour to read. So set aside a designated time to read and remove distractions from around you and get it done.

For a literature class, reading is not enough. You are required to think about the text if you want to pass. If you’ve got any thoughts while reading (about the text, not how hot that person across the library is) then write them in the margins. These can be questions you have for the professor or TA or ideas you might have about the text. If something stands out as repeated or similar to other things in the text or in famous other texts, mark that down too. Post-it notes or page markers are a great way to ask the questions you wrote down.

Notes in the text are like notes from lecture. You need them to pass. (photo credited to Dr Patricia R. Taylor, Georgia Tech)

When you get to class, make sure to pay attention to what the professor is saying. They know exactly what’s going on, so if you’re lost, they’re the place to start. Most will ask if anyone has questions right at the beginning of class. Remember those post-it notes? Open up to wherever you had a question and ask it. Again, this sounds like a no-brainer, but it is so easy to sit in the back of class and pretend to listen, but really just be flicking birds across your screen.

Listen up when the professor asks why something is and make sure to write stuff down when people make comments or have ideas about the text. If somebody says something and the professor gets really excited and pursues that line of thought, be sure to write that down too. Your professor is a great cue.

When you write papers for the course, make sure to ask the professors for examples of good papers. These can give you an idea of what the professor wants. If your professor won’t give you a sample paper or doesn’t have one, be sure to ask them what they’re looking for in the paper. Make sure also that you’re clear about what you’re doing in the paper. Outlines are a great idea to get all the concepts into place.

In recitation, make sure to get some idea of what kinds of questions are going to be on the test. Knowing what kinds of questions the professor could or has asked allows you to know what to look for and study for. Maybe you can convince your recitation instructor to have your section make up questions and answer them with their guidance. This is an excellent way to deep-read a text and get some idea of what you should actually be understanding.

If you’re still really struggling, I highly recommend Sparknotes. This site has a plethora of books analyzed in detail, if rather generically. Here you can find summaries (not a replacement for actually reading), character sketches, themes, quotes and analyses. This site is definitely a jumping off point if you’re still stuck.

Critics might say that you shouldn’t just pass a class or learn what to expect from a test. For some, taking a lot of time in a literature class might just not be an option. You may have other classes, more relevant to your field, that need more attention. Also, these methods will require students to actually do a bit of work and maybe (gasp) learn something from their class.

Whatever major you have, general education is crucial, if annoying. Remember that there’s more to life and college than the job you land. Sometimes, the classes you take can just be an apparent waste of time, but if they make you think and try hard, they’ve done their job.

If you liked these tips, be sure to check out more here.

By Timothy Hayes

Uloop Writer
I'm a Sophomore at The Ohio State University. My major is Journalism. I used to hate writing until a very passionate 6th grade teacher showed me how fun it could be. Since then, I've expanded my skills and portfolio to encompass short stories, poetry, articles, speeches, movies scripts and play scripts.

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