This week, we meet up with Isabelle Rogerson, a flexible-combined honours student with a focus on English and Philosophy to find out the contrast between the two subjects and her take on studying Philosophy.
Hello Isabelle, fantastic to meet you. Could you give us a little introduction about yourself?
I’m a third year student at Exeter doing English with Philosophy. I’ve always picked a broad range of modules because I hesitated between English and Philosophy and Philosophy and Science before coming to university. When I got here, in 1st year I only did English and Philosophy modules but last year I took a module in Anthropology and really enjoyed that. Last year I also did a module in Ecology. And this year I’ve taken two modules in Anthropology – Anthropology of Africa and Human-Animal Interactions.
Given that you study both English and Philosophy, what do you think the main differences are in terms of content and methods of learning?
They are very different. With English, you’ve only got 30 credit modules whereas with Philosophy you have 15 credit modules. In English most of the time you have core modules and if you are doing straight English then you will have a few more core modules too. In Philosophy there are modules for second and third years, so you get a mix of people which is good but it means you have to be quite tactical in terms of the modules you choose. I did a module last year called Symbolic Logic which was really good, I really enjoyed it but it’s not for everyone because it’s quite mathematical based. Whereas in English, there are modules specifically for second and third years.
For the actual approach that they take in Philosophy, it is very analytical and all about constructing an argument for an essay. I think for Philosophy they really value original thought. The subjects are similar in the fact that they are literary subjects where you want to read a lot of scholarship and draw from that scholarship in order to construct your own argument where you insert yourself into the debate, discuss the scholars and comment upon the text. Obviously in English it is more text based. In a section of your essay it will be closed reading which you won’t necessarily have in Philosophy. Personally I find Philosophy more challenging but also more rewarding.
In what sense is it rewarding?
You’re not limiting yourself to one book. Not that English essays make you feel constricted because you have to read a vast array of literature. Philosophy essays encourage you to come up with a fresh perspective so you can be very original. I usually feel like I have a better sense of the scholarship around the subject when I finish the Philosophy essay than the English one. But it might just be my preference for Philosophy.
Do you find yourself studying and looking at English and Philosophy differently after studying both subjects together?
I only studied Philosophy before in France, because I lived there till I was 18 and did the French scientific baccalaureate with an American option before going to university in England. Philosophy in France was very different. It was more of a case of “learn what all of these philosophers have said and repeat these to your teachers”. The first thing they tell you when you arrive in university is, “we do not want you to repeat what someone else has just taught you. We want you to think for yourselves”. What they really dislike especially in first year is people trying to make sweeping statements that sound very philosophical. In England, they want very precise arguments that logically follow each other and therefore you’ve got to be very rigorous in your reasoning. That’s the very opposite of French philosophy which is using very broad brush strokes and being quite florid with your language. It was a big change in Philosophy.
In English I have done it with an American teacher and we had spent 6 months in depth on books which is a lot longer than I would spend on a book here where you do maximum a book a week. If you’re doing an essay you’ll look at a book for maybe 2-3 weeks maximum. I felt like I had less time to go as deep and with lectures and seminars, you have to come up with your own interpretation rather than having a teacher to guide you in interpreting the book. I think overall for both subjects it’s about original and independent thought.
What are your favourite topics in Philosophy?
I like Philosophy of Science probably because I’m like a scientist who decided to do literary studies and have been constantly thinking why ever since. I really like the Philosophy of Logic as well. Symbolic logic was my favourite module. Philosophy of Science is really good in a lot of other sciences subjects. A lot of what I did in a module on Ecology, I also covered in Philosophy of Science but from a different perspective which was really interesting.
Logic is great because it can apply to anything and any subject where you have to construct an argument. If you take Law, Politics, anything where you have to construct a rigorous argument that is valid or if you want to deconstruct someone else’s argument I find it really useful. I find myself using it in an Anthropology essay. I used it in an argument in English. It applies to everything.
How will you advise fellow and prospective undergraduates whilst studying for a double degree in terms of the management of workload and difference in content?
Flexible combined honours is absolutely great! It’s great to have an interdisciplinary education. Make sure that your modules are evenly weighted in both terms. Unbalanced module distribution in your academic year means that you will work less well because you have too much to do and end up not performing as well in addition to feeling very stressed.
It’s good to choose subjects where there is a bit of an overlap or at least something in common where you can relate two subjects together. In Philosophy I chose mostly Philosophy of Science modules, and then I did Ecology and Anthropology where I managed to find common areas in all of those subjects and that’s what helped me the most in writing my essays. For instance, in Anthropology I wrote an essay on Darwin. In my Philosophy of Science module I chose a question on race because I studied Darwin. They’ll see that you’ve already got quite an in-depth knowledge which is different to others on the course which will give you a distinct advantage. It’s also interesting for you because you can delve into a very narrow field and you might find that you want to specialize in that field. For instance now I’m doing my dissertation about race and this year the modules that I have chosen in Anthropology I’ve been able to pick out the aspects that interest me. It’s being able to see the links between the modules and subjects you’re studying that are going to be most rewarding and beneficial for your degree.
You mentioned that you studied and grew up in France. What’s it like coming back to the UK and do you find that the methods of learning are different between the two countries?
Very different. The French baccalaureate was very intense. I did 10 subjects. You start at 8 and finish at 6 most days. You would have just probably one hour for lunch. Also, four hours exams. It is very different to A-Levels. In some ways it’s great because it gave me an amazing work ethic because I was having to push myself so hard. It meant that I was much better in sustaining my concentration because I was having to do four hours exams. Obviously being bilingual is a huge advantage. The fact that you do such a broad array of subjects is really useful. Even though I was doing a scientific baccalaureate Philosophy was still obligatory.
But in France the relationship between the teacher and student is very different to how it is in the universities here. It’s very much “the teacher is in control, the teacher tells you what to do and you copy what your teacher says. Learn it off by hard, repeat it to them and if you do that you’ll get a good grade.” Original thought is less valued apart from the American section in literature and history. It is a very different relationship and it’s a different way of learning. It’s much more of learning what they tell you to learn. Whereas when you come to the university, what they want you to do is to come out with your own ideas, bring your own perspective to independent research. It is a much more informal relationship with your tutors, your lecturers and you can meet up with them. I feel like when you meet up with your tutors, even though they are a senior lecturer or professor, they still make an effort to treat you as an equal and you feel like you can have a really interesting intellectual discussion with them without them being just the “teacher”. They value your ideas just as much. That’s one of my favourite things about university in England. That’s why I wanted to come here.
As a final year student, what are the challenges you anticipate as you complete the final stretch of your undergraduate degree?
Dissertation, it’s one of the big ones. I think it will be really rewarding. I once had to do a big project in France that was with one other person. It was one of the hardest things because it was completely independent research but it was also one of the most rewarding. At the end, it’s like writing a book. It’s something you’ve put together which is entirely your own ideas which is something you can be proud of and say “I did that myself”.
Another would be to either find a career or a masters. It’s going to be hard. If there are second years reading this I will say, get an internship while you can, do something useful because it will help you later on.
Do you have any advice for our fellow undergraduates in the study of Philosophy?
Choose modules that you enjoy. Try everything in first year so that you can have a good idea of what you want to do. In Philosophy, go to lectures and keep up with the readings but what worked for me was that in your essays, choose one subject to focus on and go really narrow and in-depth rather than trying to do every single reading. You wouldn’t have time and you wouldn’t be able to use half of every reading. The more knowledge you can have is obviously a good thing but given that you are restricted in the amount of time that you have, it’s better to focus your research and your studies on one area.
To cap it off, who’s your favourite philosopher?
I like Wittgenstein. I find the Philosophy of Language really interesting. It’s quite similar to logic which is why I like it. Having studied in France and being bilingual you have a much broader perspective in language and language is something we talk about when studying English.