by Luke Fernandes
In the Classics tripos, the set texts loom large in the first two years. Already formidable in Part 1A and much more intimidating in Part IB, the set texts – roughly balanced between Greek and Latin, with an elective component in Part IB – will take up perhaps the majority of your exam preparation, so I give in-depth advice on how to handle them before moving on.
Literature set texts
Some small consolation is that a relatively tiny amount of the overall texts will be cited in the exams; but this makes knowing all or the vast majority of your set text even more important, lest you be caught out. There is no one way to prepare yourself. Some learn the texts by rote, having a knack for that kind of recollection. This is the way many fall into doing it at school, but frankly it becomes more difficult given the much larger volume of text in the degree.
Others may use mnemonic aids to help them remember the meaning of the key paragraphs and sentences. Still others translate on the fly, which has the advantage of reducing the possibility of confusion or error, and the work done to get your language skills up to the task will be rewarded in the unseens. I did the latter but made sure to learn and re-learn unfamiliar vocabulary in each text, which was something of a hybrid method. Of course – before any specific method of learning or revision is started – each text in Latin or Greek must be read through first and translated. There are no supervisions devoted to this so happily can be left to you on your own time. There are however optional reading lectures/classes provided by the Faculty, which I would not advise going to, unless you are having difficulty working through the grammar; these can be slow-moving and take up time that you might want to spend just relaxing or preparing for an essay supervision.
When working through text, it is advisable to have a translation beside you. Although the ‘green and yellow’ Cambridge critical editions and OCTs will be strongly recommended by the faculty, these are actually primarily suited for literary analysis and textual criticism, and in my view the humble Loeb – with its facing translations – is best for quickly getting through text and as such is justly popular with undergraduates. The Perseus Project is, moreover, invaluable for helping with identification of odd verb forms, particularly in Greek, so should be used occasionally along with other online tools. If you want, you can write down your own literal translation for future reference as you go through. (almost any available will take more liberties than will be helpful for the purpose of the exam). In a small number of cases there will be no published English translation for a set text; try to identify and translate these in advance (it can be laborious as there is no comparandum).
Speaking of time, you will be strongly encouraged by supervisors and others to prepare many of your texts in the summer before Part IB to get a head start. This is good advice – but many undergraduates do not take it. I can personally attest that it is quite possible to successfully work through all the set texts throughout the year after having done very little in the summer!
The set texts will form the material for another compulsory part of the degree before Part II – the appreciation and criticism in the broadest sense of the Greek and Latin literature you will have looked over. In the exam, this skill will be tested through essays and practical criticisms. The latter (passages which the student must ‘discuss’ without further guidance) often pose the greatest challenges to undergraduates. The key is being comfortable with lateral thinking, intellectual confidence and versatility. One of the principles behind the examined practical criticism form has been said by a senior Faculty member to be ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. As such, there is no one right answer, but uninteresting or poorly argued answers will naturally be penalised. Try to be bold, but make sure all conclusions are supported by the text, preferably with quotation.
For language, you will – if doing the three year course – already have developed strong language skills in Latin (and Greek, depending on your non IG/IG status). You probably know what works and what does not, so there is little to be added here. Take the Greek accent classes – you won’t regret it! For those starting the four year course, I am told the language tuition in the first year is effective, even if the whole process can be a little gruelling.
History, Philosophy, Linguistics and Art and Archaeology
It would be impossible for me to give detailed advice for the non-literature essay based parts of the degree, of which there is a choice of two (among History, Philosophy, Linguistics and Art and Archaeology) since I have not done them all. The approach to these is necessarily the same as in any other Humanities subject. In general, reading widely – even or especially outside the lecture or supervision list – will lead to more developed, better supervision essays and certainly better exam performance.
Part II – thesis
In a similar vein, the options for Part II are vast and I am ignorant of most of them. However, I would advise you that if you choose to write a thesis for one of your papers (recommended!) I would certainly do it in Michaelmas, so that any spillover can be contained to Lent and you do not risk spending the Easter vacation hurriedly finishing it off. Also, try to prepare well – despite the time pressures of other exams – for the thesis viva at the end of the year, by refreshing yourself as to your thesis and its sources. The viva can boost (or lower) your final thesis mark.