Postgraduate MA English Literature optional modules

You will choose a total of five optional modules.

An indicative list of optional modules is available below:

Meeting Medieval Manuscripts

From the sole-surviving manuscript of Beowulf to William Caxton’s introduction of the printing press to England, this module is designed to open up the fascinating world of medieval manuscript studies and book history. Throughout the semester we’ll use new online and digital resources to explore a series of key manuscripts and printed books from the eleventh century through to the early sixteenth century.

Each week we’ll teach you how to read and transcribe different types of medieval handwriting (a skill known as palaeography) and introduce you to some of the central features of manuscript production (codicology) and early printing. We’ll focus week-by-week on a specific manuscript or type of manuscript (e.g. chronicles, book of hours, copies of The Canterbury Tales) and also discuss themes related to the study of the material text, including illumination and decoration, dialect, the production of miscellanies/anthologies, and digitisation.

Above all else, you’ll have the chance to turn the pages of some very special old books for yourself, beginning with an introductory session in the Cadbury Research Library here at Birmingham and ending with a trip to one of the UK’s major research libraries (e.g. Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Assessment: Transcription assessment and 3,000-word essay

Nineteenth-Century Senses

At the heart of this module is the essential question, what does it mean to be human? More particularly, what did it mean to be a living, breathing, thinking organism in the rapidly changing world of the nineteenth century? Nineteenth-Century Senses considers how writers of the long nineteenth century recorded and responded to their evolving impressions and understandings of the world around them.  Throughout the semester, we will interrogate the manner in which the organs of sensory perception – the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, and the human skin – operate as crucial routes of exchange between the interior world of the body, and its external environments. Reading works of prose, poetry, and musical theatre, we will consider the role of literature in exploring, representing, and experimenting with the senses, and the ways that the human mind and body engage with and react to the external world.

Assessment: 3,000 word essay (75%) and a 15-20 minute `conference' presentation (to include powerpoint or handout) (25%)

Contemporary Literature

This module offers students the opportunity to engage with a range of literatures in English, written between c. 1945 and the present. Texts from the UK, North America and elsewhere in the Anglophone world will be explored from a variety of perspectives and students will be encouraged to employ a range of methodological, theoretical and critical approaches that allow the literary works to be situated within diverse social and artistic contexts.

The module will consist of three units. Each will be determined by either thematic/theoretical contexts or by regional frameworks. Possible units may, for example, address multiculturalism in contemporary British writing, contemporary Canadian writing, South African writing today and Postmodernism.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay 


This module will enhance students' knowledge of a range of key issues within the study of literature in the first half of the twentieth century, introducing some of the more challenging texts written during these years, as well as recent scholarly thinking on the literature of the period more generally. Students will be encouraged to rethink mainstream definitions of the literary history of the early twentieth-century, and examine the complexity of the literary and cultural moment of modernism. Major topics to be covered include: literary nostralgia and innovation, narrative and traumatic-memory, the concept of Modernism, High Modernism and its aftermath, and the social and aesthetic politics of the 1930s. These will be studied across a variety of genres and authors, with reference to formative theorists/philosophers of the period.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Cultures of Popular Literature

How can Popular Literature help us to think about literature, our selves, and the world in which we live? Can popular writing be studied with the ‘standard’ tools of literary criticism, or does it provoke slightly different questions? And how has popular writing figured in wider debates about literary value in the last 100 years?

This module introduces you to some of the major theorists of Popular Literature, situating your thinking alongside up-to-the-minute arguments about the best ways to approach this enormous, important, and historically neglected sector of culture. We will interrogate the legacy of distinctions between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" writing, theories of mass culture, critical appraisals of production, marketing and readership, and how approaches to popular fiction intertwine with discussions of gender, race, environment and globalisation.

Writers and theorists discussed on this module may include Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, John Clute, Michael Saler, Ursula Le Guin, bell hooks, John Carey, Curtis White, Theodor Adorno, and Roland Barthes. This module will equip you to move beyond subjective or historical readings of the popular, encouraging attentive, detailed, and respectful engagement with a wide range of texts.

Assessment: Portfolio of written work totalling 4,000 words

Evolutions of Popular Literature

From medieval myth to contemporary page-turners, this module examines the evolutions of popular literature across six centuries of literary production. Taking a long historical view, we will venture back in time beyond the explosion of mass media in the Victorian era, tracing the emergence of central tropes and concerns that laid the foundations for tastes and pleasures popularised during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over the course of the semester we’ll work through different chronological eras, with each week examining a significant moment in the development and transmutation of popular literature. Key topics may include Norse mythology and Arthurian legend, courtship and adventure in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the development of genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, popular romance, and detective fiction. With a detailed focus on narratives of work, pleasure, and leisure that continue to resonate in the contemporary moment, this module will offer a rigorous historical framework for evaluating new iterations of old stories as they continue to burst onto the page and into our lives.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Please note: the optional module information listed here is intended to be indicative and the availability of optional modules may vary from year to year.