EN304 TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE:
REVISION / EXAMINATION ADVICE
1. Whatever you do, FINISH THE PAPER. Don't get carried away with the first answer. Marks are awarded equally to each answer, so you must divide your time and writing evenly. Watch the clock; and to be on the safe side, be sure to take a watch or clock in with you. If your first answer is spilling into the next hour, write a brief concluding sentence, start a new page for the next answer, and return to the previous answer if you have time at the end. If you really run out of time, it is sensible to jot down in note form the points you intended to make; but that is a last-ditch measure.
2. This is a timed exam, not a test of your native brilliance and originality. You are being examined on the set texts for the module and the range of contexts, ideas and approaches, which have been covered by the module. Try to select the passage and the essay question, to reflect a range of texts and themes. Try not to repeat material in your answers, and avoid repeating in the exam, material you have already presented in your assessed essay. Remember that a timed examination answer is not the same as a researched essay, where you have a lot of time to plan and prepare; don't expect to produce great thoughts. (It's possible, but rare!)
3. Plan your revision around the specific texts and topics we have studied. Consult your seminar notes, and try to map the module in your head before focusing on texts you want to prepare particularly carefully. Read through notes, and compare with other people's notes if possible. Look at the recommended texts on culture and cultural studies, and selectively consult the other historical/critical texts on the various reading lists, including the initial list.
4. The exam paper is not trying to trick you, and it will cover the key areas of the module. So, while you need to go through all your notes and look back at all the set texts, you should focus especially on a small number of primary texts to revise with a view to specific discussion in the exam. Choose texts that will demonstrate a central issue or theme or characteristic, and revise them by selectively reading and thinking about how they can be analysed, used and referred to. This doesn't mean re-reading every word of those texts; better to concentrate on selected crucial chapters, scenes, or passages, together with some historical and critical material. Make sure that you prepare texts from both terms.
5. It will help focus the mind, and prepare for last-minute revision, if you write out one page of key terms, phrases, one-line quotations, etc. which will act as memory prompts in the exam. Far better to read this through the night before, then relax and get an early night, than to stay up all night frantically skipping through a number of novels.
6. When discussing the passage in Section A, don't do a practical critical reading of every line. Select significant ideas and themes and choose brief illustrations from the passage to make the point. You might find it useful to take a set of differently coloured marker pens into the exam, to mark up different aspects of the extracts. Remember you may do this in the first 15 minutes reading time. Don't copy out long extracts from the passages; it only wastes time. Write as precisely as you can, giving clear examples of all general points (exact quotation is unnecessary). A good place to begin your discussion is the date of the extract (given at the end), and it will help to consider the significance of the writer's gender, ethnic status and region. Do think about genre and make sure that you analyse literary form as well as discuss themes and preoccupations. Don't worry if you don't understand every word or sentence in the extracts. Focus on what you do understand, and don't be afraid to note contradictions and/or ambiguities you find.
7. In answering an essay question, consider the key terms in the question. Again recollect significant ideas and themes relevant to the question. You should probably limit yourself to three main ideas at most. Then relate these to materials from authors / texts you have revised in order to not only demonstrate knowledge and understanding, but also to show your powers of analysis and conceptual thought. Try to cover a range of themes and topics over the Section A answer and the Section B essay question.
8. Exams can be unnerving experiences (and if you dread them, get help from the Counselling Service now). You might also want to refer to the Study Skills section in the Library. (E.g. Jones and Johnson, Making the Grade, vol. 2, (M.U.P., 1990), pp, 161ff.) If you read through the paper and panic that you can't write on any passage or topic, close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Tell yourself to read the paper again slowly; there will be something you can discuss. DON'T leave the exam room early, or you'll get no marks at all; write something and you'll get some marks. If you just can't get going, write out your panic and despair on the answer book (this can be crossed out later). It's good therapy to describe how wretched you feel, and it'll help calm you and get you into tackling a question.
9. And finally, remember, it's only an exam. Prepare for it and plan a strategy for tackling the questions; but, don't work up to the last minute; you'll approach the exam much better if you are reasonably rested and relaxed. Your mind and memory will function better, if you are not stressed and anxious; and as examiners we are not just interested in the knowledge you have acquired over the year, but much more in your own developed responses to the texts. So use revision time to look again at texts you have enjoyed reading, and to work out what you think about them and why.
Remember that you need to discuss themes in Section A as well as Section B
American ideology and literature
- The American Dream
- (and American Nightmare)
- Self reliance and autonomy / importance of community/ies
- The role of the US author in the 20th century.
- Sense of place.
- The City.
- Regionalism and its position in relation to the cultural hegemony.
- Multiculturalism as theme or form.
- African American past: incl. Black Atlantic.
- Native American culture & its sense of the past.
- Do African American and Native American authors draw on orality in their narrative techniques?
- Appropriation of cultural forms by writers from different ethnic groups.
Remember that issues around gender as cultural construction, gender and identity, sexual politics etc. can be incorporated into discussions of other questions. Think how these issues might affect topics such as:
- Literary treatment of the American Dream.
- Writing the contemporaneous culture.
- The gender of the author in relation to the gender of their protagonist / narrator / focaliser / subject, etc.
- Do different ethnic groups relate to the past differently, depending on their position in relation to power / marginality?
- Consider the need to claim agency if you have been dispossessed or marginalized. (This puts you in a different relationship to postmodernity.)
- How do authors write history? Is memory indvidual or communal?
- Can traumas be healed through story and narration?
Modernism & Postmodernism
What constitutes this in the texts you have read?
How do different theories of modernism or postmodernism affect your interpretation of specific texts?
Can you identify authorial strategies for depicting &/or resisting modernity / postmodernity?
- How do technology and industrialisation affect 20th-century US culture?
- Which texts investigate the interaction of technology with human culture, and depict how it has transformed American civilization?
- Affect / influence of other media on writing: e.g. photography, film, newsreel, etc.
Writing Contemporary Culture
- Consider the ways in which various narratives reflect on themes contemporary to the time of their writing.
- The counter-culture and the literary forms it adopts.
- Literature as a field, within which versions of America or American ideology are contested, tried out, etc.
- Effect of narrative innovations in relation to other themes.
- Which is more important: text or context?