Postgraduate MA Literature and Culture optional modules

You will choose a total of four optional modules - two foundation modules and two specialist modules. 

An indicative list of optional modules is available below:

Foundation modules

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

Understanding Middle English

This module offers the opportunity to explore a diverse range of Middle English texts in their original language, from the Early Middle English of the post-conquest period to the Middle English of Chaucer. Its aim is to facilitate confident engagement with the texts in their original language, a sense of the development of Middle English as a language alongside other Insular languages, and an awareness of the range and variety of English literature across this long period. Key texts will include: the thirteenth-century guide for anchoresses, the Ancrene Riwle; the earliest English language Arthurian epic, Layamon’s Brut; the supernatural romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer; and the York Play of the Crucifixion.

This is an essential introduction to Middle English, and might be taken as a language option alongside Latin, French, German or Old Norse. It is intended to provide you with a fundamental key skill for further medievalist scholarship, and is strongly recommended for students working on Middle English literary texts for their dissertation, or considering further graduate study.

Assessment: Translation exercise and 3,000-word essay

Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Studies

In this module, you will be introduced to a range of modern critical, theoretical, and scholarly approaches to the study of literature and culture in the long nineteenth century (c. 1789-1914), and will explore these methodologies and perspectives in relation to key works from the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian eras. You will have the chance to broaden and deepen your acquaintance with the literature of these periods at the same time as gaining familiarity with the disciplinary landscape of nineteenth-century studies, and will be prompted to refine your understanding and application of advanced academic practices. The module will draw on the methodological breadth of staff specialising in nineteenth century studies.

Assessment: Portfolio of written assignments

Nineteenth-Century Voices

This module considers how writing of the long-nineteenth century (c.1775-1914) records and responds to evolving impressions and understanding of the inner life: of individuals, places, and nations. The module will be delivered in thematic clusters that present you with a range of genres, including prose, poetry, and drama.

Each cluster will explore the period’s diverse identities and the ways in which they are constituted and expressed in literature and the arts. Topics covered might include Voice and Feeling, Comedy / Humour, Colonial Voices, Spiritualism, Silences, Regional and National Voices, Political Representations, Style, Voices of Alterity.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay 

Modernism and Contemporary Literature

This module offers students the opportunity to engage with a range of literatures in English, from early twentieth-century modernism up to the contemporary novel. Exploring writers and texts in thematic clusters, the module will consider different ‘modern’ modes and contexts, touching on diverse issues (such as race and migration) and exploring a range of literary techniques and innovations. In particular, the module traces the purposes of modernism over time, examining the ethical, affective and political possibilities and vectors of modernist strategies as they are adopted and remobilised across the twentieth century and into our contemporary moment.

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

Living in Code: Understanding Digital Cultures

How are digital technologies changing the world around us? Have new tools changed lives for the better, or put users on a path to a range of dystopian futures? In this module you will question the role of digital technologies in shaping lives, literatures, and cultures, exploring how artists and humanities researchers have responded to a wide range of artefacts, artworks, and practices in an increasingly digital world. What new potentials are there for storytelling? Is a printed book the same as a pdf? Do search engines make libraries obsolete? And how might social media affect our identities, self-expression, and the way communities can communicate?

You do not need any previous experience in studying digital technology; this module will show how existing skills of textual interpretation, critical analysis, and consideration of cultural context can be brought to bear on many aspects of the new digital cultures that we are each connected to or work within. You will explore case studies such as:

  • The changing nature of storytelling, from electronic publication to interactivity and videogames. 
  • Shifting perceptions and practices of identity and labour in digital contexts.
  • The impact of ubiquitous devices such as mobile phones on users and society. 
  • Popular culture and the emergence and spread of empowering/toxic discourses.
  • The reach of institutions, from Silicon Valley to digital publishing, and their role in sharing and structuring information.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay


Specialist modules

After the Deluge: Writing and Recovery after the First World War

No aspect of British intellectual and artistic life was untouched by the upheavals brought about by the First World War – ‘a crack across the table of History’ as Ford Madox Ford called it. This module looks at responses by some of the most significant writers of the inter-war years as they sought to understand the war’s personal, literary, and cultural significance. It focuses upon four authors who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and who returned, literally and metaphorically, to make sense of their various war experiences for years afterwards.

The module opens with the poetry and autobiographical fiction of Siegfried Sassoon (the Sherston trilogy, 1928-36) and his close friend Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That, 1929). It then turns to two of the most challenging, and rewarding, modernist texts of the period: Ford Madox Ford’s multi-volume Parade’s End (1924-28), arguably the finest novel about the First World War, and David Jones’s epic prose-poem In Parenthesis (1937), a fusion of contemporary history and myth described by T.S. Eliot as a ‘work of genius’.

Throughout the module we will explore how these writers reconfigured traditional categories of writing – fiction, memoir, autobiography, chronicle, lyric poetry and verse narrative – as they sought appropriate modes of self-representation, reflection and remembrance. We will make extensive use of the texts that surround these key works, especially the authors’ own letters, diaries and essays, as well as the body of literary criticism they have inspired. You will also be encouraged to explore wider contexts for these works, including the authors’ literary networks and significant social and political issues such as female suffrage and conscientious objection.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Alternative Facts: Genre, Historicism, and the Fantasy of Other Pasts

Alternate history closely resembles what historians refer to as counterfactual history – the writing of events which did not take place in order to understand those which did. This module, therefore, treats its source texts not just as part of the canon of fantasy writings but as invitations to explore the ways we use history in the study of English Literature. Should the literary critic be beholden to the established documentary record, or are there alternative facts to which we have recourse? To probe the workings of science fiction, authorship, and English Studies itself, we’re going to try reading – and writing – a range of alternative pasts: we’ll discuss what’s at stake in them, find ways of theorising our relationship with them, and try to understand the perennial appeal, to scholars and general readers, of the road not taken.

The reading list will include Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. 

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Byron and Keats

This module offers you the chance to study in depth the character, writing, and afterlives of two major Romantic poets: George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) and John Keats (1795-1821). At the heart of the module will be an attempt to get to grips with the two poets’ literary careers and achievements: you will come into contact with some of the most flamboyant and affecting poetry in English – writing that is by turns tragic, witty, sensuous, passionate, and tough-minded. But lectures and seminars will also afford time to the poets’ lives and letters, their engagement with the events and thinking of their period, and with other writers.

You will be invited to explore the antagonism between the two poets: to what extent did their consciousness of one another drive and colour their individual achievements? How far did surface hostility mask a deeper-lying sympathy and a sense of shared artistic endeavour? The course will close by examining the legacy of each poet’s life and work by considering their importance to subsequent writers and the significance of their achievements for our understanding of Romanticism.

Works studied might include: 
Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Beppo, Don Juan, Cain, shorter poems.
Keats: The Eve of St Agnes, Lamia, The Odes, The Fall of Hyperion, shorter poems.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Fantasy and Fandom: Writing Back to the Medieval in Modern Fantasy

From heroes and quests to magic and hidden identities, modern fantasy has looked to the literature of the medieval period for inspiration. Yet it has also consistently transformed and reshaped its source material, rewriting the significance of key motifs and ideas in order to address the issues of its own time and place of production.

This module will examine the ways in which modern fantasy writing both adopts and adapts the culture, language, characters and narratives of medieval texts, and in so doing identifies its authors as an (albeit diverse) fandom. Although not fanfiction in the strictest terms, modern fantasy writing often shares with it the desire to extend and appropriate the plots and protagonists of earlier texts, and to challenge or re-examine them by writing in an avatar who explores the textual world in a metaphorical representation of the author's own discovery of the original work.

This module will look at forerunners for this in the medieval period too, and will encourage you to analyse the communally-driven nature of textual production and circulation in the Middle Ages, as well as the communities of interest which have written fantasy in response, from the late nineteenth century to the present. The module will provide the opportunity to examine a range of fantasy writing, which may include texts from George MacDonald and William Morris through C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien to contemporary writers such as Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling and Ursula LeGuin.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Flourish for the Players (Shakespeare's Contemporaries)

This module will offer you an opportunity to study the other people who were writing plays for performance in the age of Shakespeare. Over the semester, we will consider the work of Shakespeare’s rivals, his collaborators, and his biggest influences. Taking in examples of both comedy and tragedy (written by anyone but Shakespeare), this module will provide a full sense of the themes, language, and look of English Renaissance drama. 

Authors/texts studied on this module may include: 

  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
  • Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, Tamburlaine pt. 1
  • John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil
  • Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair
  • Francis Beaumont, Knight of the Burning Pestle 
  • John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed
  • Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Assessment: 1,000-word close reading exercise, 3,000-word essay

From Cover to Cover: Histories of the Book

Books are about so much more than the text contained within them. Whether manuscript, print or e-book, newspaper or novel, literary bestseller or ‘trashy’ beach-read, they are unique objects – and forms of technology – with individual stories to tell concerning their production and consumption by generations of readers and writers, scribes and printers, publishers and booksellers. This innovative team-taught module introduces you to an exciting new discipline known as ‘The History of the Book’. Through a series of plenaries delivered by specialists in different periods of English literature, we’ll move from the medieval period to the present day; learn about how scribes copied manuscripts by hand; explore the revolution that came with the introduction of print; and look ahead to the future of books as we move beyond our own digital age. We’ll also explore key issues and topics such as authorship, literacy, editing, publishing, censorship and gender. 

Most importantly, this will be a hands-on, research-led module. Each week we will work closely with special collections in the Cadbury Research Library and at the end of the module you will write a 2,500 word blog entry on an item of particular interest to you as well as a more traditional 2,500-word essay on a topic in book history from a list of set questions. You could find yourself writing about a 500 year old richly decorated medieval manuscript, illustrated copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, first editions of Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels, nineteenth-century slave narratives, letters and diaries from the First World War, and rare editions of works by D.H. Lawrence!

Assessment: 2,500-word blog entry analysing an item from University of Birmingham Special Collections, and a 2,5000-word essay on a topic in book history

From Plato to the Postmodern: Theories of Literature and Art

The module provides an account of the development of theories of literature and art from the classical period to the modern day. It will consider the range, type and purpose of conceptual approaches to the arts, and examine how those theories have been applied to specific works. The course will also reflect on the social and cultural background of the selected theories, and will examine the relationship between writings on aesthetics from different eras (such as in the reconfiguration of romantic ideology in some theories of the postmodern).

Texts to be studied may include:

  • Plato, The Republic
  • Aristotle, Poetics
  • Sidney, ‘The Defence of Poesy’
  • Pope, An Essay on Criticism
  • Burke, On the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
  • Kant, Critique of Judgment
  • Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads
  • Shelley, A Defence of Poetry
  • Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy
  • Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy
  • Leavis, The Great Tradition
  • Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’
  • Johnson, Critical Difference
  • Jameson, Postmodernism
  • Gilroy, The Black Atlantic

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Guilty Pleasures: Reading the Historical Romance

This module explores the phenomenon and development of the popular historical romance from the start of the twentieth century to the present day. You will also examine the history of reading the romance, from the start of mass-market romance publishing in the 1920s to the recent phenomenon of literary blogging and fandom.

Popular romance fiction today accounts for around 13% of the total adult fiction market (of which historical romance in particular has at least a 34% share), with annual sales of over $1billion. Over 80% of the readers of romance fiction are women, and over 70% of them talk about and recommend the romance novels they are reading. Romance fiction is written largely by women, for women, about women protagonists and about women’s experiences and fantasies. Yet it is a genre that is dismissed by the literary establishment as escapist, anti-feminist, and troubling in its romanticising of male authority and sexual violence. As literary scholars (but perhaps also romance readers ourselves), are we simply to ignore the popular romance, or should we examine and attempt to understand its complicated yet persistent appeal for women readers over the changing contexts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

In this module you will read a range of historical ‘romance’ novels from the Regency romance, to the mid-late twentieth century ‘bodice-ripper’, to the more recent phenomenon of the hybrid historical fantasia or paranormal/time-travelling romance. You will analyse the archetypal conventions, narrative structures, plot patterns and themes of the romance genre, exploring the commercial ‘category’ romance’ of Mills & Boon or Harlequin, and the bestsellers of acclaimed ‘Queens’ of romance such as Heyer and Holt, alongside and in dialogue with examples of the contemporary middlebrow (eg. Gregory), and what might be described as elite or ‘literary’ romance (eg. Fowles).

Applying your literary critical skills to the romance genre, you will explore the formal characteristics, strategies and reworkings of the genre, examining for example the relationship between the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘romance’, and of ‘authenticity’ or verisimilitude and ‘fantasy’, as these are played out within the historical romance novel. You will also examine and engage with key feminist and postfeminist debates on the gendered status of the romance genre.

The module will help you to set your exploration of the romance genre within the context of broader literary and sociological issues such as the sexual/textual politics of the literary canon, the gendering of critical acclaim, and the disjunction of elite and popular reading practices, as well as questions such as how we define ‘good’ literature, and how we might negotiate reading critically and reading pleasurably at the same time.

Texts studied vary slightly from year to year but may include: Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903); Edith Maude Hull, The Sheik (1919); Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades (1926) and Venetia (1958); Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek (1941); Kathleen Winsor, Forever Amber (1944); Victoria Holt, The Shivering Sands (1969); John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969); Diana Gabaldon, Outlander [Books 1-3: OutlanderDragonfly in AmberVoyager, 1991-1993); Philippa Carr, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001).

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets

In his 1921 essay 'The Metaphysical Poets', T.S. Eliot famously observed that, 'A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.' Is this alleged fusion of thought and feeling the hallmark of so-called metaphysical poetry? Or is this apparent synthesis instead 'a kind of discordia concors', as Samuel Johnson put it, in which 'the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together'? This module sets out to explore the nature, varieties, and influence of metaphysical poetry, taking as its corpus of texts selected poems by John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Edward Herbert of Cherbury, and others. Through close reading of the subjects, themes, and rhetorical and metrical forms of these works, you will be invited to explore broader questions of literary genre and poetic tradition, politics and religion, sexual and gender relations, and textual transmission and reception (including discussion of the roles of manuscript, print, and the social history of lyric poetry).

The module aims to place the writers studied in relation to other contemporary groupings of English poets, such as the Spenserians, the Tribe of Ben, and the Cavalier Poets, as well as considering the reaction to and legacy of metaphysical poetry found in later poetic movements, such as the Augustans, Romantics, and Modernists. Characterised by its often outrageous logic, urgent argumentation, querulous wit, and 'discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike', metaphysical poetry invariably elicits a criticism in kind: from Eliot and Empson, to Vickers, Fowler, Carey, and Ricks. Wide reading of such commentaries will aid your analysis and evaluation of the poems in question, and even bring into serious question the validity of the term 'metaphysical poetry' itself.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Modernism in the Magazines

This module introduces you to the forums in which the art and literature of modernism was first published; that is, in the pages of the modernist ‘little magazines’.

On this module, we will examine the development of modernism across a range of literary texts (editorials, manifestos, poems, short stories, essays, serialised novels), as well as focusing on key works by writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Rebecca West, and James Joyce. We will read these texts alongside the magazines in which they were first published, such as The New Age, Rhythm, BLAST, and The Egoist. Studying these magazines in digital form, you will become familiar with the theoretical and methodological approaches adopted in the burgeoning academic field of ‘modern periodical studies’. In particular, you will learn how to read magazines as a means of re-contextualising modernist literature, taking into account the importance of various social, political, cultural, and historical contexts.

We will also situate modernist literature in a wider interdisciplinary context of experimentation across the arts, examining the significance of visual art and graphic design across magazine culture. In the process, you will become familiar with some of the most important avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, such as Fauvism, Imagism, and Vorticism. A key feature of this module is its research-led focus. You are encouraged to bring your own research agenda to seminars, seeking out writers and texts that interest you. Over the course of the module, and in consultation with your tutor, you will develop an original research project based on your engagement with this vibrant magazine culture.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Muslim Women's Popular Fiction

This module examines the global turn in popular fiction through a focus on popular and genre writing by Muslim women from the Arab world and beyond. Focusing on writing by women deemed ‘popular’ rather than ‘literary’, the module engages with critical readings in gender, religion, race, and genre alongside a range of genre fiction by Muslim women authors (including romance, chick lit, detective fiction, Young Adult, fantasy, autobiography, memoir, and science fiction).

The module has four key themes:

  • The global – How is popular fiction marketed, produced, and consumed as a global product?
  • Genre – How culturally-specific are literary genres? How do we think about these works in the context of existing genre theory? We will address issues of taste, reception, and readership.
  • Women’s writing and its development – How does popular writing fit into the tradition of women’s writing? How might we rethink the ‘tradition’?
  • Gender and sexuality – We will conduct guided intersectional readings of texts, drawing on theoretical and critical works.

Authors and texts studied on this module may include:

  • Leila Aboulela
  • Fadia Faqir
  • Nawal El Saadawi
  • G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen (2012)
  • Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big in This? (2005)
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000-2003/2007)
  • Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006)
  • Rajaa Alsanea, Girls of Riyadh (2007)
  • Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015)
  • Karuna Riazi, The Gauntlet (2017)
  • Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead (2015)
  • Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, Love in a Headscarf (2009)

Assessment: Group research assignment and 2,500-word essay


This module offers you the opportunity to engage with and think critically about Neo-Victorianism – depictions of the Victorian era in the twentieth century and beyond – and its cultural outputs and offshoots. Encompassing a variety of forms (which may include novels, short stories, plays, films, comics and graphic novels), and genres (which may include the ghost story, detective fiction, and steampunk), this course seeks to introduce you to a range of ways in which the Victorian past has been imagined and re-imagined. Texts might include Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (1938), John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black (1983), and Guillermo del Toro’s film Crimson Peak (2015).

This module will be organised around ten distinct focuses in terms of subject matter or theme: each week will comprise a one-hour lecture and a two-hour seminar on this subject matter. For each week, at least one text (or other cultural product) will be compulsory, and this will be accompanied by at least once piece of set reading. This diversity will allow you to familiarise yourself with and critically respond to depictions of the Victorian world in myriad forms, as well as establishing particular features of individual works upon which they can focus in developing your unique ideas for assignments.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction

This module introduces you to the development of the genre of detective fiction during its nascent period in the nineteenth century. Reading for the module draws on a selection of British and American detective novels, short stories, and non-fiction articles in order to analyse the formal and narrative properties of detective fiction while tracing the key themes and concerns of the genre across their social and cultural contexts. The genre’s engagement with and representations of nineteenth-century science and medicine will be considered, as well as the influence of its primary mode of circulation in the periodical press. You will be led to interrogate the influence of issues such as class, gender, race, and empire upon literary representations of crime and criminal investigations, as well as of criminals and detectives, over the course of the nineteenth century. More broadly, these materials will provide you with an opportunity to reflect upon the typology and characteristics of popular fiction and the split between "high" and "low" literature and its significance in modern culture.

Authors to be studied include but are not limited to: Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Secondary materials will include key critical and theoretical contributions to the study of detective fiction.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Nineteenth-Century Senses

This module considers how writing of the long-nineteenth century (c.1775-1914) records and responds to evolving impressions and understanding of the world around. Across the term, you will investigate how a range of prose, poetry, and drama from across the century reflects and refracts the natural, social, cultural, scientific, and intellectual environments in which it exists. Topics covered may include nature writing/landscapes, tastes, gothic sensations, oceanic studies, museology, animal studies, the Anthropocene, environmental humanities, sound studies.  

Assessment: 3,000-word essay and 15-20 minute presentation

PoMo Historical Fictions

History – what constitutes the past and the methods we use to explain that past – has always been a close relation of the novel. Both are concerned with telling believable stories and both rely on the power of narrative and the structure of language to convey truth. The genre of historical fiction, so prominent and popular during the early decades of the nineteenth century, was revived in the later years of the twentieth century by writers seeking to test the boundaries and hinterlands of historical subjects and stories to reflect on the difficulties of writing about the past. This revival was no longer interested in presenting the past – as the great German historian Leopold von Ranke described it – "as it actually happened", but instead challenged the belief that ‘history’ describes a realm which can be accessed in the present in an unbiased and objective way. Rather, such works of postmodern historical fiction are strongly concerned with the idea that versions of the past are contingent on who is telling them, and are subject to the prejudices and partialities of the present. These are issues that are still being hotly debated in theory and criticism across disciplines today – many of the questions contemporary philosophers of history have concerning the nature of knowledge, epistemology and the increasing separation of "event" from "fact" share common ground with the suspicions that postmodernist fictions have for narrative, language and point of view.

PoMo Historical Fictions takes in a wide range of late twentieth century texts, films and theory to reflect on the uses made of historical tropes in postmodern fiction. It sets literary postmodernism in a wider debate about the nature of knowledge and epistemology and introduces you to the history of ideas and to historiography. Moreover, it highlights connections between disciplines, and promotes and encourages vibrant interdisciplinary assessed work.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

The Art of Translation

Translation is an essential feature of English literature across history. The module, which involves texts in English only and requires no foreign language skills (though you can make use of any that you possess), will help you to appreciate what makes a good translation, and to understand cultural and theoretical issues that affect how translations are made. Just like any other English module, we will be reading English literary texts closely and examining thematic and theoretical issues that arise from them. We will primarily study short pieces of poetry, prose and drama from different (mostly European) cultures and times, always aware of each text’s status as a translation.

In early weeks we will practice comparing different English translations of the same work. We will initially work with classic texts have been translated into English numerous times. These may include: Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, the Bible, Paradise Lost (which has often been translated into ‘plain’ English), and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. Lectures will introduce the work and passages under discussion, and critical and theoretical concepts for analyzing translations. In seminars we will read translations alongside each other, and discuss critical frameworks for reading them (likely to include several from The Translation Studies Reader).

In later weeks the module will open out to consider a wider range of ways that translation inspires writers (with opportunity to work on examples of interest to you). We’ll think about how gender, politics, empire and religion shape how translations are written and received, and about the relation between translation, imitation and originality. We may study such texts as: Brian Friel’s Translations, short stories by Lydia Davis, translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Robert Lowell’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Structured preparation for the final assignment will be built into our week-to-week schedule.

Assessment: 3,000-word essay

The End of Life As We Know It: The Implications of Digital Technology

This module will give you the opportunity to explore the artefacts, effects, and politics of our increasingly digital moment. Each week will focus on a specific technology (e.g. social media, mobile phones, digital currencies, videogames, virtual reality, or search engines) and explore its current and projected impacts, its context of use, and its place in a history of technological development.

The module will also investigate the connection between these phenomena and their artistic representations in books, films, television shows, and/or videogames. What role does artwork and discussion in the humanities play in the development, dissemination, and criticism of these new forces in our lives? And what wide-reaching influences might these technologies have as they are ever-increasingly adopted?

The Pre-Raphaelite Circle

This module focuses on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of mid-nineteenth century artists and writers, as an entry point to explore a series of art/text movements of the Victorian era. Derided in the press as the “Fleshly School” of poetry, the PRB engaged many of the most pressing debates of literary and artistic production and consumption during the period: the role of craft versus inspiration, the relationship between realism and idealism, the pressures of facing an increasingly vocal public, and the wages of industrialisation, among others.

In this module, you will consider the ways that that Pre-Raphaelites—as well as the Aesthetes, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Century Guild, and other groups that the PRB inspired—responded to these debates in the various artistic forms they advocated. Texts to include verse by Tennyson, Keats, Browning, Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Swinburne, and Wilde; prose by Pater, Ruskin, Arnold, Morris, Beerbohm, and Buchanan; and images ranging from the fine arts to cartoons from the popular periodical press. 

You will also have the opportunity to explore the rich local links to the PRB, including visits to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Theories of the Modern

This module will introduce you to a range of the theories and methodologies that have been prominent in literary and cultural criticism in the 20th and 21st century. Theories and methods to be addressed may include cultural studies approaches, postcolonial theory, new media theory and narratology.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Please note that the optional module information listed on the website for this programme is intended to be indicative, and the availability of optional modules may vary from year to year. Where a module is no longer available we will let you know as soon as we can and help you to make other choices.