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Joint Honours at Oxford: Double the Complaints, Double the Joy

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By Tasneem Jodiyawalla – 24th October 2023

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Why study Joint Honours at Oxford?

I was very indecisive at the age of 18. So, when I managed to find a course which incorporated three out of four of my A-Level choices (Latin, Greek and French), whilst also retaining the literary element of English Literature, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. I was aware, deep down, that this was a decision which would condemn me to another four years of a very intense workload (which I did not stop complaining about during A-Levels, as my poor friends know), but the prospect of doing a degree which appealed so much to my interests outweighed all the potential challenges.

Having now finished my first year at Oxford, I can say with certainty that studying this combination here is an immense privilege. I think one of the most unique aspects of a joint honours degree is the way each subject can inform my understanding of the other. One of our prescribed texts for French was based on a classical myth, so my tutor singled me out as a designated expert on that play, which was quite funny, as I don’t actually think that I had that much more knowledge about the play’s background than anyone else. In general, though, overlaps like this make studying and reading certain texts really interesting — in this case I found the reception of this myth and its passage through time fascinating (although this was not a universal opinion amongst my fellow students).

What is the course structure of Joint Honours?

After first year, you can tailor your course to your interests, for the Final Honours School (FHS) — this is essentially the remainder of your degree, and the material which you’ll be examined on in your final year. For Classics, the options and combinations available, especially to joint honours students, are almost overwhelming in their quantity - it took me more than a month to finally decide what I wanted to do! There are some modules uniquely offered to Classics and Modern Languages students, known as bridging options: the French one explores connections between Classical tragedy and French tragedy. I had no doubt that I would choose this paper (for once); in fact, I had written an extended essay on a very similar topic for my EPQ, but explored different plays, so this seemed like a great way to revisit a previous interest with much more range and in much greater depth.

How do I manage my time doing two subjects?

Speaking of essays, you have to write a lot of them (in addition to translations, learning grammar and other language work). I usually had to write three every fortnight: in Michaelmas (the first term) I had two 2000-word Classics essays and one French commentary (around 1000 words) per week, and in Hilary (the following term) I had two Classics commentaries and one 2000-word French essay per week. Phew! Although I gradually got used to this volume of work, it took a lot of adjusting, particularly in Michaelmas. I would spend most of my week reading articles for my Classics essays, and then start my essay the day before, sometimes only finishing a few minutes before the deadline, handing it in frazzled with stress and adrenaline. After starting Hilary Term, I became much better at scheduling specific blocks of time to finish my reading and write my essays, so that I would usually finish at least 24 hours before the deadline.

Looking back, one of the reasons I found the workload especially daunting is the fact that compared to some of the Classics sole students in my tutorials, I had almost twice as many contact hours, and a significant amount of French assignments too. On the other hand, all the French freshers at my college, LMH, were joint-honours students, so we were all in very similar predicaments. Balancing two subjects is already a challenge, but there are definitely some additional difficulties created by the university’s organisation of the course. Timetabling was a nightmare because of inevitable clashes. Lectures posed the most difficulty, and since these are faculty-organised, I obviously couldn’t reschedule them if they clashed with my other subject. A lot of the time I had to just skip lectures and watch recordings of them. Or at least tell myself that I would…

A word of warning - the mandatory Classics language classes are not necessarily adapted for different course variations. There is a key difference between the language requirements for Classics sole and Classics with a modern language/English. If you study the latter, the language course for first-year exams (Prelims) only consists of translation from Latin/Greek into English. However, if you do Classics sole, you sit exams known as Mods in second year instead of Prelims, which requires a very tight grasp on the intricacies of grammar, as you have to translate from Latin/Greek into English, AND from English into Latin/Greek (known as prose composition). The mandatory Classics language classes were therefore geared towards Classics sole students, aiming to teach them the tricky elements of prose composition - but weren’t relevant for joint honours students! This meant that a lot of the work and content covered wasn’t entirely relevant and often felt like an unnecessary additional burden on an already heavy workload. Plus, these classes were at 9am, so were already the bane of everyone’s existence. After too many tricky, unnecessary classes and punishing early mornings, I spoke to my personal tutor about dropping the homework for these classes. After he liaised with the language tutors, I was thankfully allowed to. Your workload is immense as a joint honours student - make your life easy where you can!

What are Joint Honours Exams like?

Prelims (first year exams) are thankfully out of the way now - meaning that I won’t sit any exams other than collections (mocks) until the end of my fourth year. Whilst I’m glad that they are out the way, I’m still mildly traumatised from the number of papers I had to sit: SEVEN. Somehow, I had more papers than the Medicine students, which is deeply concerning… Sitting these seven papers was a little tough as the other classicists in my year were doing a different course, so were sitting their exams at another time. For this reason, sitting Classics prelims often felt quite isolating as I had nobody in college to relate to and study with. However, through this experience, I ended up making an amazing friend at another college also doing Classics and French, whom I’m very grateful for. We really bonded over the shared trauma of Prelims!

Is it really 'double the joy' as well as 'double the complaints'?

As you can tell from the previous paragraphs, joint honours courses can pose a lot of difficulties. Despite my complaints, however, I don’t have any regrets about choosing my course, and am not considering dropping either of my subjects (which is definitely not unheard of). As clichéd as this might sound, some of the challenges I faced taught me useful skills, like how to prioritise my tasks and how to set limits for myself, especially with how long I spend reading for and writing essays. The course I’ll study from next year already seems much more cohesive and tailored to my interests, since I’ve chosen the modules myself. I’m feeling very optimistic about it, especially as, despite the challenges, I have really enjoyed first year, and feel like I’ve developed the necessary skills to tackle topics with greater academic rigour.

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