Studying both English and Literature in VCE is an interesting undertaking, and I’ve heard very mixed opinions about whether or not it’s a good idea. For me it was a no-brainer; I’d always loved English so why wouldn’t I take advantage of the opportunity to study two English-based subjects? Looking back on my VCE experience now, and comparing my experience of studying each subject, I can see that they are each very different. However, if you’re going to study both, don’t expect that each subject will unfold in isolation, because your work in one of these subjects will undoubtedly impact upon your work in the other - even if, like me, you complete them in different years. So if you enjoy English I would 100% endorse studying both VCE English and VCE Literature, but being an English-nerd I still think there are benefits to analysing the process of studying this dynamic-duo back to back.
At the beginning, I assumed that Literature and English would be fairly similar in terms of studying and writing. It’s all about reading books and writing essays, right? Well, whilst this is essentially true, it turns out that the process for each subject is quite different. I studied year 12 Literature first, completing it in 2017 as a year 11 student, and as my only unit 3/4 subject for that year it was the focus of a lot of my time, energy, and creativity. What I loved about VCE Literature from the beginning was the departure from formula; the impetus to “dive right in” as my teacher always used to say. Instead of worrying about how many sentences your introductions and conclusions have to be, in Literature you can simply get straight into the analysis and see how far it takes you. So, if you’re the kind of person who needs to stick to that body paragraph structure acronym that has always served you so well, then when you first start studying Literature it might be a challenge to loosen up. Or, if you’re like me and can’t shake the compulsion to write paragraphs that take up double-sided sheets of paper, you might find this subject to be a welcome respite from some of the restrictions of English tasks.
Although English is often viewed as the more ‘basic’ of the two, in many ways I found it more difficult once I hit year 12. Having just finished VCE Literature, shifting my focus back to English definitely wasn’t as seamless as I might have expected. In comparison to my Literature essays where I would base paragraphs around in-depth analysis of a few of Gaskell’s sentences, my English text responses felt stunted and forced – English isn’t really compatible with tangents, and so it was difficult to train myself to be expressive whilst also being concise. In my opinion, the most daunting of the year 12 VCE English SACs is the comparative, and this is where my lack of flow was most evident. Being accustomed to delving into complex discussion of the details of my Literature texts, it seemed impossible to provide insightful analysis of two texts simultaneously, whilst also comparing them to each other and also keeping my essays well structured. My first comparative practices sounded somewhat awkward when I read over them, and I just felt like I never really knew what I was trying to get across. This provoked me to be frustrated with myself, and then my frustration distracted me from writing, and then my essays read even more contrived; you get the idea.
So, how do you push past this sense of friction between the study of English and the study of Literature? Well, I think the best way to reconcile the conflicting approaches is to realise that each subject brings out different strengths, but these strengths can be applied to either type of study. Yes to a certain extent English is supposed to be formulaic, but you can use the analysis skills you learn in Literature to enhance your English text responses and give your work a point of difference. On the flip side, the structure you work with in English can be applied to Literature to ensure that your essays always exhibit direction and purpose, even if they encompass a broader range of discussion. Once I realised that I didn’t have to discard all of my Literature skills and start writing my English work exactly the same as everybody else, I began to develop a more fluid, balanced writing style that enhanced all of my English tasks – even the comparative.
Let’s start with the obvious comparisons between the English exam and the Literature exam. Firstly, the English exam encompasses three essays in three hours (with 15 minutes reading time), whilst Literature is only two essays in two hours. The English exams tasks include a text response to a prompt, a comparative text response to a prompt, and a language analysis. The Literature exam involves a passage analysis, and a text response to a prompt influenced by a literary perspective. Where in the English exam you are given a choice of prompts for each text choice, whereas for both sections of the Literature exam only one choice is available for each text. Whilst both exams involve some supplied material, in Literature this material is a passage from one of the set texts, however for the language analysis section of the English exam this is completely unseen material created by the VCAA. For me, this felt like a very significant difference, because there is no familiar material (i.e. passages from the texts) to rely on in the English exam; if you get lost you can’t latch on to anything except what you have memorised.
Personally, I think that the study strategies I utilised for each exam were fairly similar, although obviously geared towards different tasks. I took in depth notes on my texts, planned essays, memorised quotations and explored their significance, timed my practice essays etc. My actual approach to each exam was also similar, for example I made sure to allocate one hour for each different task and did all of my planning mentally during reading time. So although obviously everyone’s study and exam techniques are different, this shows that your own personal strategies that you develop can be applied to both the Literature and the English exams. However, despite the continuity in this sense I still found myself feeling very different coming out of my English exam than I had leaving my Literature exam the year before. Where after the Literature exam I had been content with the knowledge that I had showcased the best version of my abilities, after the English exam I felt much more unsure and ready to believe the worst about the outcome. This particular comparison is of course specific to every individual person, however I think it could have something to do with the knowledge that most VCE students study English and the difficulty in believing that your work could stand out from the work of 40,000 others.
In the end, I achieved very different results from these two subjects, with English being my highest study score and Literature being one of my 10% contributions. It seems to be a general consensus (or at least it was at my school) that it is more difficult to crack the high 40s in Literature than in English, and whether this is true or not it definitely impacted my expectations of my results each subject. However, that said, after being slightly disappointed with my Literature results in year 11 I was not overly optimistic about doing much better in English. When talking about this with my Literature teacher, she told me to “remember that English is marked very differently to Lit, so don’t think you can’t get a 50” and I think this is very solid advice. Whilst you might feel you were equally skilled at both subjects, this doesn’t mean you will receive equally ‘good’ results’, but don’t let this disparity discourage you because, as we have discussed throughout this post, when it comes to Literature and English one size does not fit all.