A Guide for International Students Studying Literature in the U.S.

A Guide for International Students Studying Literature in the U.S.

An undergraduate literature course in the U.S. demands textual analysis, writing academic essays, and engaging in critical thinking. If you come from an academic background that did not equip you with these skills, you might fall behind your peers. These tips will tell you what you can expect from your literature courses, and how you can prepare for them.

  1. Understand what literature is

Your courses in literature will deal with much more than just fictional texts. They will present nonfictional works, essays, films, graphic novels, music, and plays as integral aspects for understanding literature.

Keep yourself open to these forms of literature and take them as seriously as written text. Most of what you perceive as good literature comes from the standards that society has taught you. For American Realists, the notion of fine writing was for authors to present things as they were. For the Modernists, standards for good literature were less representational. Discover your bias as you evaluate literature, and separate it from the act of reading. You can locate your bias by reading a selection of texts without the author’s name, and compare your impressions to how you would have perceived them if you had known the name of the author.

Try to read Terry Eagleton’s “Literary Theory” to better grasp the complex idea of literature. The book is an easy read and will introduce you to various literary theories.

  1. Try to read critically

In the U.S., high school students are expected to read books for their literature classes and write essays or reports on them. Because of this, they have a decent grasp of critical reading.

Learn how to read critically. In your courses, you will be expected to analyze texts and make arguments about the motive of the text. Here’s how to analyze a text:

  1. Skim through the work to get a rough idea of the text
  2. Write down the main ideas
  3. Always keep a dictionary handy
  4. Ask, “how,” “why,” and “so what?”
  5. Think about the reasoning behind the actions in the text
  6. Question the purpose of the writer and the relevance of the text
  7. Think about the writing style, and look for patterns or peculiarities
  8. Form connections to other texts and compare them

Nothing in the text you’re analyzing is happening just for the sake of it. Any idea that seems out of place must have a deeper motive. Learn to locate that motive.

  1. Start from the end of the book

You might be reluctant to start a book from the end, as it ruins the suspense, but in a literature course, most texts do not have a climactic ending. Rather, they have an ending that is open to interpretation, or is symbolic. To escape the frustration of not being able to understand the ending, start from the end of the book. As you do this, you’ll be able to spot foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a detail that the author intentionally provides to hint at what is to come.

  1. Familiarize yourself with history

If you’re studying English Literature as an international student in the U.S., you might not have the same grasp of European or American history as local students do. To remedy this, look at literary history which consists of different genres and forms of literature from different time periods and how they came to be.

Every literary form – the poem, the novel, prose – came into existence due to underlying political and historical factors. You’ll only be able to understand a literary text if you understand the context. The nature of literature is so that you cannot separate it from its history. Once you gain that knowledge, you’ll know what to expect from a 20th century book or a 9th century poem.

Download e-books or buy paperback books of literary history. Even better, spend some time taking an academic literary history course.

  1. Practice writing academic essays

If you have studied in a strictly examination-based curriculum, you might not be as skilled at writing essays. In literature courses, you’ll be expected to write many academic essays, so you should spend some time practicing academic writing.  

Formulate an original perspective to evaluate the texts and then develop your thesis. After this, analyze the text to find evidence to support your claim. You should consider the time period in which it was written in order to understand what might have influenced the text. Apart from this, you can look into the author’s personal life for more evidence to support your claim. Of course, the most important evidence is what comes from the text itself.

The key to writing a good academic essay is to read existing academic papers on the topic, as this will provide you with better perspectives with which to analyze the text. You can respond to the claims made in these papers based on your reading of the text. Do your best to start with a popular text so that you have enough support material with which to work.

  1. Try creative writing

Your course will demand at least a few creative projects. Practicing creative writing will not only help you excel in those assignments, but will also give you an edge when interpreting texts. Getting into the writer’s mindset can help you better understand another writer’s actions.

You do not have to start out with a long, academic paper. You can begin by writing a short poem, or a short story. If you start to enjoy it, you can actually self-publish your work on websites like Tapas Media and Wattpad; you can even make money doing this.

  1. Understand figures of speech

Given that most American students have to read almost one book a month for class, they’re more likely to be familiar with figures of speech like metaphors and similes. Understanding metaphors, irony, and other figures of speech is integral to understanding literary texts. If you do not have a good grasp of these, you’ll miss important details. You can either use Wikipedia entries to look up the figures of speech, or purchase the book “A Glossary of Literary Terms.”

A literature course is a journey around the world through different time periods. It can be a truly magical experience if you stay on top of the course. Keep an open mind, and engage actively in the learning process to get the most out of it.

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