Critical CriticismDirector of Studies:Dr Michael Hrebeniak

Faculty Website:http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/

Course Information:http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/courses/english/index.html

Geoffrey Chaucer cover

The Cambridge English undergraduate course, known as the Tripos, was the most influential Literature degree in the world through the twentieth century and it continues to shape international teaching and research in the twenty-first.

The study of English at Wolfson aims to perpetuate its founding educational ethos of creating critical citizens capable of making interventions across the entire range of social knowledge. As such we actively honour the University's great innovations in reading forged by I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis, Raymond Williams and J.H. Prynne, in addition to remaining highly attentive to emerging theoretical approaches. Wolfson English thus takes the duty of teaching very seriously, recognising that the reward of education is found not in the realisation of quantifiable outcomes, but in mining the rich seams of opportunity offered by a Cambridge environment that fosters the adventurous life of the mind.

The English tripos is divided into a two–year Part One, and a one–year Part Two programme. For most students, Part One involves a reading of literature originally written in English from Chaucer through to the present day. At the end of the second year, examinations are set across four extensive literary period papers: 1300–1550, 1500–1700, 1660–1870 and 1830–1945 or 1870 to the present. Other papers include those devoted to Shakespeare, Literature in a Foreign Language, Early Medievalism and Practical Criticism, where students analyse the rhetorical functioning of an argument, the interior relationships of the text and the social determination of its discourse.

The ensuing examination questions are relatively non–prescriptive and wide–ranging. All students sit five exams in these areas and submit a 5,000–word dissertation on a literary subject of their choice within the remit of a period paper. There is also an opportunity to submit a portfolio of three 2,000–word essays in lieu of another of these papers.

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_FolioThe Foreign Literature paper is not compulsory, but students with AS–level or a higher qualification in a language such as French, German, Italian, Old English, Latin or Ancient Greek, might wish to consider it. Faculty classes are provided in order to develop reading fluency, introduce a range of work in a foreign language, and foster an appraisal of the processes involved in translating a foreign text into English. There is no unseen translation requirement; the exam is instead baseon an anthology of set texts. Students with an A2–level in one language sometimes take this opportunity to build their knowledge of another from scratch.

The Part Two component pursued through the final year offers a wider scope for developing individual interests. A palate of optional papers complement compulsory papers on Practical Criticism and Tragedy. These range from Chaucer, Medieval Court Culture, Early Tudor literature, Shakespeare in Performance, and the History and Theory of Literary Criticism, to American literature, the English and European Moralists, Visual Culture, Postcolonial and Related Literatures, Contemporary Writing in English, and Modernism and the Short Story.

Students can choose to study two of these papers, in addition to submitting an extended 7,500–word dissertation (again, on any subject of choice), or to contribute one paper and two dissertations. Cambridge English therefore encourages students to create a course work programme that reflects their particular strengths and interests. More detailed information is available via the Cambridge Faculty of English website

Studying English at Wolfson:

Milton, Paradise lostTeaching is conducted through lectures, seminars and tutorials, known in Cambridge as the supervision system. Lectures are organised centrally by the University Faculty, and offer the stimulus of a wide range of topics, approaches and models of critical thinking. While attendance is highly recommended, students are at liberty to experience as many or as few of these as they choose. The English Faculty and Library is just five minutes’ walk from the College, as indeed is the University Library. The Lee Library at Wolfson also gives access to many primary set texts taught on the Tripos, as well as expert guidance for using electronic resources.

Seminars are held with some or all of the students in the Wolfson year–group, but there are seldom more than four students to each class. The approach tends to be informal: open and conversational without being casual. At Part One students may typically take three classes per week: one concentrating on the wider cultural–historical circumstances of a literary era, another dedicated to appraising one of its primary literary works, and a further class focusing on the close reading of an unseen text. This is known as Practical Criticism – an active interpretation springing from the practices introduced by I.A. Richards and William Empson, the progenitors not only of Cambridge English but of textual study from a literary, as opposed to historical–linguistic, perspective.

Dickens, Bleak HouseThe weekly supervision lies at the core of the Tripos, an hour–long individual meeting in which a lecturer discusses an essay that a student has prepared over the past few days on an agreed subject. For instance, if a student is reading Modernism, a week might be dedicated to T.S. Eliot. A supervisor would recommend a series of poems to concentrate upon, and suggest a small number of complementary works which could spur a fruitful reading – as, for example, Ezra Pound’s criticism, F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, and HD’s Trilogy – along with a some approaches for a structuring an essay. Secondary criticism is also commonly recommended, but at undergraduate level the emphasis at Cambridge falls expressly upon the primary text. The creative act is not to be regarded as a subordinate demonstration of a theoretical position! 

The following five days or so would be spent intensively reading Eliot and supporting materials, before embarking on an essay of around 2,000 words. This would be an exploratory, even raw piece of criticism: a framework for experimental perception which may then be further developed, qualified or challenged in discussion with a supervisor.

Wolfson has one Fellow and Director of Studies in English, Dr Michael Hrebeniak, who specialises in Modernist, Postmodernist and American literary culture, and a College Lecturer, Dr Mary Newbould, who conducts teaching and research into the ‘long’ Eighteenth Century Literature, with particular interest in the work of Laurence Sterne. However, in common with every English Faculty member, they teach enthusiastically beyond those areas, and lecturers from every other college also supervise our students. 

Woolf, To the LighthouseStudents can expect to work alongside University specialists in their chosen fields, throughout the three years of Tripos. Supervisors tend not to impose a single academic model on the interpretation of a text – as, for example, Marxian, poststructuralist, phenomenological – but seek to encourage students to discover a plurality of perspectives as a means of enhancing their own critical thinking.

Supervisions are characteristically non–prescriptive in their orientation; students always have a say as to which authors they choose to study, and they are often encouraged to slant their work in a direction that might reflect a burgeoning interest in, say, cultural history, cinema or philosophy. More generally, a supervisor responds to the person as much as the subject, and tailors his or her approach accordingly.

English is a discipline of the Humanities and, as a student’s ability flourishes, supervisions evolve away from a master–pupil relationship into a lively exchange of perceptions among equals, who share a recognition of what Lewis Mumford described as ‘the cooperative and generative functions of life – feeling, emotion, playfulness, exuberance, free fantasy – in short, the liberating source of unpredictable and uncontrollable creativity.’ At Wolfson this ethos extends into a series of extra-curricular events, including visits to the triennial Cambridge Greek Play and an annual trip to London, typically comprised of a museum talk, a theatrical production and an interminable psychogeographic walk led by the Director of Studies.

Academic Requirements:

Joyce, UlyssesIt is essential that applicants should have English Literature as one of their A level (or equivalent) subjects. Where straight English Literature is not offered at an applicant's school/college, the combined English Language and Literature A level is acceptable.

Modern/classical languages and History are also useful subjects though not essential and many successful applicants have studied Mathematics and science subjects.

While there is no fixed quota of places in English at Wolfson, the subject now boasts the most populous undergraduate community at Wolfson, with up to eight students typically admitted per year. Our undergraduates frequently distinguish themselves; over the past decade two Wolfson finalists achieved the highest and second highest results in English across the entire University, and this year two of our Part I candidates were ranked in the top seven. Our students frequently go on to read for postgraduate research degrees.

Charles OlsonWhile competition for places is severe in common with every Cambridge college, Wolfson has made a commitment to the development of the subject of English at undergraduate level, and we are now actively recruiting students of exceptional promise and ability. While many of our successful candidates can claim to have achieved three As at A2 level (or equivalent), the demographic of Wolfson students swerves a long way from the identity of those inhabiting the more standard ‘post–school–age’ bracket. The majority of our undergraduates might well arrive in their early– to mid–twenties, but we have also benefited hugely over the years from the presence of university entrants in their seventies. This is a literary community of multiplicity: of age, nationality, race and creed – one that is wholly unique in Cambridge. Pedagogical attitudes positively reflect this, and we aim to celebrate the vast range of experience beyond prior academic achievement that our students bring to the subject. If you are driven by an overwhelming intellectual curiosity, believe passionately in the social necessity of the arts, and desire to become a producer, rather than merely a consumer, of meaning, then you could be the kind of student who would thrive at Wolfson.

Wolfson also invites applications from graduates of approved universities who may wish to study Part Two of the English Tripos (with one additional paper) over two years as an Affiliated Student. The title is slightly misleading in that affiliate status in fact assigns full student membership of the University. For further information please visit the main University website. We also welcome applicants who propose to defer their entry to the College by a year.

See also Entrance requirements for additional advice about general requirements for entry, qualifications and offers.


Candidates will be asked in advance to submit two marked essays or other written work. This should be in a related discipline which the candidate is studying/ has studied. Interviews are preceded by a sixty–minute entrance exam. The interviews are relaxed, and are free of any cunning attempt to test student ingenuity by unorthodox means! The intention is to gauge a student’s ability to read perceptively and critically, and to glean evidence of an inner motivation and intellectual hunger. Beyond these considerations, we have no preconceived ideas about the type of person we are looking for. 

Prospective applicants, who would like clarification about any of the issues raised in these notes, are most welcome to contact Dr Michael Hrebeniak directly, either by letter or email (mh433@cam.ac.uk).

The Director of Studies

Kerouac_On the road

Dr Michael Hrebeniak is College Lecturer in English at Wolfson, a post that he also holds at Magdalene College. He previously taught Humanities and Jazz History at the Royal Academy of Music and Metropolitan Studies at New York University, and produced poetry documentaries for Channel 4. His teaching and research interests range across the fields of twentieth-century literature (British and American), visual culture, performance and urban ecology. Recent publications include chapters in edited collections on the subjects of cinematic space, photography, manuscript culture and jazz writing.

His concern with interdisciplinarity informed his first monograph, Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form, which located Beat Generation writing within the New York and San Fransisco milieu of painting, music and radical politics. He is currently finishing a book and film installation on the medieval Stourbridge Fair in relation to cultural memory, habitat and the carnivalesque. He is also co-heading the bid to bring the BBC Arena archive to Cambridge in collaboration with the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, which will involve a major AHRC-funded research project. His poetry has been published in anthologies and his journalism has appeared in the Guardian and on BBC Radio.

Michael has regularly lectured for the Faculty of English and examined both parts of Tripos. His administrative responsibilities have extended to the chairmanship of the Directors of Studies' Committee and the Literature and Visual Culture Subject Group, and membership of the Graduate Subcommittee for Criticism and Culture, for which he convened a longstanding seminar series and examined extensively. He sat on Faculty Board and the Degree Committee for several years, and has supervised a number of PhD theses in subjects ranging from James Joyce's fiction and nonsense verse, the technologies of modernist writing and contemporary US women's poetry to black nationalist poetry, jazz and post-beat writing and high-modernist representations of the Arabian desert. He has also supervised many MPhil dissertations across the terrains of screen media, modernism, postmodernism, critical theory and American literature.

Bowman Lecturer in English

Tristram ShandyDr Mary Newbould teaches across eighteenth-century literature and visual culture, with special interests in prose fiction, graphic satire, travel writing and drama. She mainly supervises students for the Part I paper, 'English Literature and its Contexts, 1660-1870', for Practical Criticism, and for dissertations on a wide array of topics. Mary also lectures for the Shakespeare and Modern Prose courses for the English and Drama BA at the Faculty of Education. Her teaching expertise is partly born of her research specialism: she works on the eighteenth-century comic author Laurence Sterne, with a particular interest in parodies and adaptations of his work in text, performance, and visual and material culture. Her first book, Adaptations of Laurence Sterne's Fiction: Sterneana, 1760-1840, appeared in 2013. She continues to publish on eighteenth-century literature and is an editor of the Sterne journal The Shandean

College Supervisor in Medievalism

Dr Lotte Reinbold works on dream poetry, Chaucerian after-lives, medievalism and fantasy literature. She is currently the Nigel and Judy Weiss Scholar at Robinson College, where she recently completed her PhD thesis entitled 'Unstable dream, according to the place: Setting and Convention in Chaucerian Dream Poetry'. Her next project, which she's just starting, is a book tracing the dream-poem form from Chaucer to Bunyan, tentatively titled 'Unstable Dreams: The Dream in Literature 1330-1678'.

Student profiles:

Anastasia Bow-Bertrand (BA English Graduand 2015) 

Perhaps what is most distinctive about studying English at Wolfson is the fantastic diversity of backgrounds, interests and motivations of those with whom you share your degree. Originally a medical student, I arrived here unversed in the facets that make Cambridge (and its teaching in particular), so unique. That soon changed through regular individual and small group supervisions with colleagues and experts from across the university, supporting your written work and encouraging you to think experimentally. This academic environment which facilitates creativity and rigour, although initially daunting, is what I will most miss. People here get excited about a point of difference, and medicine proved to be mine, spending my final terms exploring the extraordinary modernist Doctor Stories of William Carlos Williams and Anton Chekhov’s Medical Tales.

Over the course of three years, I have found the English student college community a source of love, generosity and inspiration. From wine-fuelled poetry readings to impromptu book suggestions over lunch, the cohort invariably rally together through the less romanticised aspect of coming to Cambridge: the undeniable pressure, change and juggling of lifestyle demands. It is all very worth it. Wolfson offers an outstanding level of directorial academic support, wonderful peers, and a librarian who will buy any book you request (within reason). Three years over and many stay and others go. For me, studying here has opened up the possibility of medical writing, which gives me the very best of both worlds. 

Adam RushtonAdam Rushton (2nd year student)

Studying English at Wolfson has been the introduction to a wealth of literature, but more than that, it has inspired within me a tremendous lust for life. This College in this University is a place of profound opportunity, filled with interesting people. It's a place where it pays to say 'yes.

Ruth Mattock (during her 2nd year as English student at Wolfson)

Course structure varies between colleges, but at Wolfson we’ve worked chronologically from Medieval Literature through to Modernism. Two years of reading so far and my lasting impression is of all the books I still haven’t read. One of the hardest things about the course is working out how to get the best of everything – there are just so many lectures and classes available, and how do you fit in the one about that obscure 1960’s sci-fi writer amongst all the Milton you’re studying this week? I didn’t come to the course with many expectations beyond apprehension at the workload, but everyone settles quickly into the pace. We’re lucky at Wolfson to have a few English post-grads and fellows, and, as there’s no differentiation of seating at meals, you might catch one for a chat over pudding about your current essay. If you don’t manage that, supervisions are as much about filling the gaps in your knowledge as they are about showing off all you do have. It’s an intense hour, often one or two to one, but it’s the academic highlight of the week. Having to talk about your ideas makes them clearer, and moves them in directions you hadn’t thought of before. We have a great bunch of people doing English at Wolfson, and the fact that we’re all friends makes discussion classes a lot more liberated. Even the creative writing classes we are lucky enough to have, once a fortnightly terror, have become feasts of creativity!

Matthew GreenMatthew Green, final year English student 

This week I found myself sitting in a supervision at Wolfson College, looking closely at the text of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. We’d already spent about 20 minutes analysing the  first few words of the opening chapter in a previous supervision and this time we spent more than an hour looking at just six lines. I can only describe the experience of these small group teaching sessions, in this case just three of us with our tutor, as mind-blowing.

Ellie Rofe, 2nd year English student

Studying an English degree at Cambridge is often seen as one of the less pressured subjects, but I think that’s a bit of an illusion. I agree that we don’t have the packed timetable of science students, with no compulsory lectures or lab time, but this means we do have to manage our own time and our learning to a greater extent. That can bring its own challenges – you need to be flexible, open–minded and try to avoid the dangers of procrastination – but obviously the flip side of that is the incredible freedom you have in your studies.

That freedom can manifest itself in various ways: the papers you choose to take, the authors/texts you choose to study or the approach you choose to take in each essay. There are so many ways of practising criticism and each supervisor, each text, each week allows you to choose a different way of looking at things, or to develop skills and expertise in one particular theory if you prefer. There is also a wealth of lecture courses available to you, and you quickly find which lecturers engage you, which courses are most appropriate or applicable to your studies and which ones are not for you. Add to this the amazing libraries, online journals and books, computing facilities and hundreds of other things that you discover week by week, and the potential for learning is really only limited by you. I wish I’d known that before I started!