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Compass-vs Think like an academic

At university, you're being asked to think and write in a different way from what you've done before. This is especially true if you're taking a humanities or social science subject, such as: English, History, Geography, Sociology, International Relations, Media Studies, Drama, Psychology, Criminology, Philosophy, Film Studies, or Cultural Studies.

You've probably noticed that your tutors use language in a different way from what you're used to. This is discussed in more detail in the Glossary. No matter what subject you do, there will be certain ideas that you have to understand if you are going to make progress. As an example, look at these three essay titles (two from History, one from English):

  1. How significant were notions of racial “otherness” in the construction and maintenance of nineteenth century colonialism?
  2. In what ways was the representation of “otherness” essential to the construction and maintenance of imperial power?
  3. Explore the individual’s encounter with “otherness” in the two stories by Conrad.

These essays come from different subjects (disciplines) but they are all about the same thing: “otherness”.

What is "otherness"?  You may have heard the term before, but it's much more likely to be discussed in university than in secondary school. It derives from a very influential book by Edward Said called Orientalism, first published in 1978. It is associated with a school of thought called "post-colonialism". Unless you understand this, you won't be able to write a good answer to any of these essays.

Now have a look at these essay titles. They cover a range of subjects, but again they have certain cultural concepts in common:

  1. Explore the ways in which Pat Barker’s Regeneration seeks to redefine notions of gender in relation to historical experience.
  2. Using psychological research on identity, discuss what it means to be white.
  3. Discuss the representation of women as ‘subsidiary’ or ‘marginal’ in two or more early modern plays studied on the module.

These essays come from English and Psychology, and one makes reference to History. They are all about what question 5 calls "identity", but “identity” here has a special meaning. Two of them are about gender, and the other is about race. Question 6 talks about the "representation" of gender, where “representation” has a specific meaning too. When you understand these meanings, you’ll make progress.

Although these essay titles come from three different subjects, they imply a common way of thinking about the world, or, to use the technical term, a common epistemology. This is the epistemology of Cultural Studies, which has had an enormous influence over the last 30 years on the humanities and social sciences. How many of the following words have you encountered recently? 


For help in understanding these and other key concepts, go to Glossary.


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