Moral Encouragement for A Level Lit Students
For our special tribute to our fellow A Level (and IB) Literature student friends taking papers this exam season, we sought out notes of encouragement, shared frustration and reminiscence from friends of Unseen, and here we present our curation of all the responses of our 22 friends who answered our call. The Unseen team hopes this can help uplift you in time for the exams.
Literature – the subject where we write ourselves into oblivion in school. In this issue, the team has decided to shine the spotlight not just on the subject itself, but on people who have studied Literature, whether formally or informally! We invited respondents to share with us their thoughts on studying the subject as a form of solidarity and encouragement for our A Level Literature friends taking their H1 and H2 papers this November (IB friends we are not forgetting you entirely too!). This survey and its results mark our transition from engaging primarily at A Level Literature students to literature students past and present at all levels, literary lurkers and enthusiasts and we hope to open up a platform to promote a wider sense of camaraderie across Singaporean lit heads who may not always find a space for their voices to be heard and shared.
We would like to thank the 22 friends of Unseen who responded to the open call for our survey (in no particular order):
Sakunika, 25 | James, 25 | Brillia, 22 | Keith, 24 | Ying, 20 | Adeeb, 25 | Ianna, 19 | Daryl, 26 | Eliza, 22 | Nathaniel, 23 | Ling, 34 | Shameera, 23 | Royce, 24 | Ingmar, 27 | HY, 27 | Colin, 23 | JP, 24 | Edward, 22 | Brian, 25 | Yunita, 23 | Leonard, 25 | Ernest, 27
We had 4 main questions, and a curated selection of the responses are as follows:
Q1. At what stage/s did you formally study Literature?
A cool, pretty-looking chart that we certainly cannot claim credit for (thanks SurveyMonkey analytics!)
(Editor: our respondents could tick more than one answer for this, and the option for ‘Did not study lit formally’ also includes ‘studying lit up to Sec 2 only’)
Q2. What was one frustrating moment you had while studying/reading Literature?
For ‘A’s (‘A’ Levels), I high-key struggled with reading Shakespeare. One of my texts was Othello, and the version that we used didn’t have any summary or translation. Yes, I was That Literature Student who couldn’t understand Shakespeare.
(Editor: don’t worry – I am that student too – up to today I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare!)
Frustrating was reading Shakespeare when I was 15 years old, and wondering if I missed out on language classes all the while that lead up to that moment in class where I did not understand what the Bard was writing.
Reading itself – because I’m a very slow reader.
Not understanding what’s going on in the poem — being unable to deal with ambiguity.
Being unable to keep up with the language of English Renaissance writers.
There was no guidance given to write essays. It was kind of like being thrown into the deep end and you either sink or swim. Even though I managed to swim, I didn’t know what I had done right…
I struggled writing cohesive essays that had overarching links. Writing out an essay plan at the start of every essay is a must, while reading exemplary essays written by your contemporaries can be very helpful as well.
That we didn’t get to read more. And how answers I wrote were never long enough to get full marks.
A glut of postcolonial texts.
It was so difficult to put my thoughts into words! Which is… the basic skill you need for literature, haha, so it was very frustrating at times.
Understanding and critically assessing poetry (aka Prac Crit).
Not being taught essay-writing skills, the jargon / language to talk about techniques and analyse texts at an early age – those were things I had to pick up later on my own.
There was no guidance given to write essays from the get go. It was kind of like being thrown into the deep end and you either sink or swim. Even though I managed to swim, I didn’t know what I had done right…
Feeling the pressure to be ‘cheem’ (intellectual) and to understand and luxuriate in the enjoyment of everything.
When I always seem to overlook a seemingly important moment.
Dreading the amount of textual analysis needed to prepare for the exams. You will at times feel overloaded, but there are many ways to optimise the studying process.
For all the prep, I blanked out and panicked precisely during my a level lit paper one. Eventually I submitted less than a page for 2/3 questions. (But there’s a good ending to this later)
I think it was when I realised I wasn’t as good at literature as I thought I would be. Frustration became acceptance, and I have not looked back since then because you should not dwell on the past ahem
Lack of structure or materials in poetry analysis.
Never able to write decent critiques.
One frustrating moment I had was not being able to keep up with the sheer number of readings and going to class feeling loss and unprepared.
Feeling like everyone else started younger and was more lit savvy.
Reading. I don’t like reading.
Q3. What is one fond memory you have of studying/reading Literature?
Just reading. It’s nice.
Reading beautiful texts and poems.
Coming across Marjorie Barnard’s short story, “The Persimmon Tree”.
Four legs good, two legs bad.
Four legs good, two legs better.
Some animals are more equal than others.
Reading and analysing a text, and then re-reading and re-analysing the text. I find that with every read I get a new insight of the text.
When I connected with and understood a certain character or moment.
Identifying with the characters or certain lines from the text–there is an Ah-Ha moment that’s indescribable.
A fond memory I have is having rich discussions with my teachers and leaving class seeing the world with a fresh perspective.
Reading books/narratives and being wholly immersed in them. Discussing plays and their respective themes! However in hindsight I wish that we could’ve analyzed it alongside real world phenomena. Imagine how novel it would be if in discussing say Richard III, that you could relate it in a creative and unfalse way to Trump?
I once dreamt I was the protagonist of The Sound of Waves, a Mishima text I was studying for IB.
When you are presented with an unseen poem/prose and with a single read, knowing exactly what you want to analyse in response.
Drawing links where I never knew I could in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter.
I had a secondary school teacher, Mr Lam, who taught us Literature when I was in Cedar. He taught me literature at Sec 2 and Sec 3, if I’m not wrong. He introduced us to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – it was mind-blowing and definitely made me fall in love with Literature. He used to stop me and two good friends when we ran into him randomly at school and go “IT IS AN ANCIENT MARINER/ AND HE STOPPETH ONE OF THREEEeee!!” (the opening line of the poem). Then we’d three respond with “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, now wherefore stopp’st thou MEEEE”. He was an aged gentleman, which just made the whole thing more hilarious la.
Listening in amazement (and trying to follow) my teacher down a deep spiel was a bit like Alice following the rabbit down into wonderland.
The discussions we had in every class. I enjoyed every single one of them, even if some went incredibly off-topic. I recall one class on poetry suddenly drifting off and switching to the efficacy of chia seeds. There was a lot of life in those classes, and I became a more complete individuals after those dialogues.
I think reading the texts are fun enough, but seeing how they translate to movies or are revised to other forms of art during class made things more interesting.
When I understood every detail and how it linked to themes and authorial intentions, I felt like I could be a writer myself. Not just for my essays, but I thought I had a shot at writing poems and prose, too. It’s very satisfying to think about the complexities of literature and how they tie together so nicely.
Learning to appreciate good writing.
Marvelling at the beauty and elegance with which words can express the human condition.
Being able to write poetry as a group, that would eventually turn out to be a heavily-coded hate mail to the teacher grading the assignment.
Follow up to earlier question. I went into the second paper knowing that whatever happens I’m finished and won’t get an A, even B. I let myself free and wrote with no pressure and presented my best papers. Eventually I pulled myself to a C grade. Maybe that’s what you need. The mentality that it’s about you presenting what you truly feel about the texts, not chasing some grade.
Q4. In about 50 words, what is one piece of advice you would like to share with students taking the ‘A’ Level examinations this year?
You think the A Levels is bad? Wait till you finish your A Levels.
Be curious. If you don’t understand something, Google it and find out what other people are saying online. Ask your peers. Ask your teachers. Have that conversation. Be respectful and open to different takes on something, and accepting that sometimes there is no answer, just how one argues. But most importantly, be curious.
Definitely go to your teachers and friends for help if you need it, don’t be shy! It’s perfectly fine to ask for help – it makes the process so much more stress-free and you’ll learn some really interesting stuff.
Be open, and give your thoughts some structure and you will be fine.
Spend time to re-read the text in its entirety again.
Use the Internet and resources in the NLB (11th? floor), especially for set texts. It expands your understanding of the text, and allows you to gather very different insights that you can piece together to form more novel ones – that’s what helps you stand out from those regurgitating what was raised in class. Even for unseen, reading a lot of analyses helps you break down what to look for and improves the flow of your essays.
Don’t do it for the grades. Do it because you love it.
Remember that the idea is to examine the writing and delve into it properly. Simply memorising model answers without understanding how the writer came to such a thought or concept will lead to mechanical and stiff answers.
Do not read passively; always been keenly aware of thematic concerns and threads running through your literary text. Draw mind-maps to visualise how everything connects. Lastly, create a system to be able to quickly identify critical portions of the text – I find coding paragraphs to specific highlighter colours greatly improves the speed in recalling why this particular text is important.
Study with friends. It’s a lot more fun.
Don’t necessarily think of it as an examination/subject to pass or get an A for. Part of the reason H2 Lit was one of the subjects I performed best in was because I honestly enjoyed doing it – reading the texts, doing supplementary readings, and even crafting and writing my essays. All the best!
Work smart rather than hard and know that in a couple years grades won’t matter as much as your skills. And learn to enjoy the process — especially in literature, if there is joy in the process there will be joy at the end!
I’m so out of touch tbh but I think something that helped me for my A Level novel text was to go through the text slowly, marinating in all the ways in which the themes we talked about in class come through, in ways not covered in class to see all the interlinkages.
Summary notes for each text were really great for me. I listed the themes, techniques, authorial intentions, character analysis things, and more major quotes for evidence from the texts into 2 pieces of A4 paper. Great for revision and forces you to link everything together.
Don’t worry too much about memorising stuff. Focus on reading your text, knowing where things happen, and why, and how, and when. Then just apply it appropriately to the question at hand.
Most of you probably took the subject as a choice, so you have to enjoy the journey. Books weren’t written in a day, so don’t fuss if you don’t understand. Keep on reading!
Good result, bad result, it all somehow works out in the end. I did badly, felt the sting for 3 months, but got into university anyway.
Appreciate the struggle, it’s part of the process. Sometimes you will feel you’re not getting anywhere, but actually you are. (:
As you write your essays, seek to develop a personal voice in your writing and let it come through strongly. All the best!
(Editor: Oh… this is so important! Remember you don’t want to give the same cookie-cutter ‘model’ answer – the best essays are those that are firm and with strong evidence, but you can only give that if you believe in what you’re arguing!)
Please study with a bigger perspective in mind. How does it benefit your life? How does literature inform our society, or at least, the way human relationships are formed?
Do not study so hard that you miss your paper. I studied up until 5 minutes before the exam started, and as a result of that was shut out of the examination hall. All of my schoolmates witnessed me knocking on the front door at 7.59am yelling, “PLEASE LET ME IN. I’M SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.”
Photo credit: Nah Dominic