Here are students' views on coming to Cambridge and studying first year papers.
I’ve always been fascinated by religion, but I also loved studying History and English Literature. However in Lower Sixth I realised that the one thing that united my A-level subjects (apart from Maths) was the theme of ‘religion’ and I realised that a Theology degree at Cambridge would enable me to pursue my interest in literature (for example in the first year paper on the Old Testament or the second year paper on Religious themes in Literature) and History (for example A4 and other second and third year papers) whilst focusing on a core interest of mine, namely religion.
I realised that if I did a History or an English degree, there would be papers that simply wouldn’t interest me such as medieval poetry or economic history, and in many universities there wasn’t really a way to avoid choosing these papers as they all formed compulsory parts of the degree. Theology at Cambridge was different in that because all the papers, regardless of discipline, centred on religion, I knew I would be very interested in the papers, and even if there were some that I wasn’t so interested in such as Philosophy and Ethics, the degree allowed me to not even take these papers in my first year.
I also saw this degree as highly important and relevant for modern society, as Religion plays such an important part in not only the history of civilisations but also in the contemporary ethics and debates of today. Issues such as Fundamentalism, Religious identity, sacred texts and inter-religious dialogue are pressing topics that are discussed in the political and social forum in today’s world.
The interdisciplinary nature of the course really is a major selling point. Theology at Cambridge is more like an American Liberal Arts degree where you can have a remarkably broad skill set in a range of humanities, such as philosophy, literary theory and sociology, whilst also specialising over your three years.
The ability to learn an ancient language is also a great thing about the Cambridge degree, as it enables you to approach a sacred text in its original form, which greatly enlightens the interpretation and discussion of the text.
To find out more about the sort of person that studies Theology, see the profiles on the Why study Theology? page
The teaching style in the Theology and Religious Studies faculty at Cambridge differs greatly from that at school, mainly because you are frequently your own teacher! Fortunately you aren't completely left to your own devices, as formal instruction takes place in the form of lectures, classes and supervisions. Each paper you take, bar the compulsory language paper, in first year, generally has one fifty-minute lecture per week, where a lecturer will give a presentation to everyone taking the paper on an aspect of the paper. During this it is useful to take notes, in order to make revision easier in Easter term.
The language paper is instead taught through 2-3 classes per week, of anything between 2-15 people on average, depending on how popular the language is in your year. These classes tend to focus on grammar and translation exercises. Additionally, most of the other papers have around 4-8 classes each in total, which take place during a specified term. Classes are attended by all students of the particular paper, and may focus on certain subject areas from the paper. Your lecturer often provides notes and prompts which are useful for later revision, and supervision essays.
Supervisions are the most unique and exciting part of the Cambridge learning experience, comprising an audience with an expert in your paper (your supervisor). You generally have 6 supervisions per paper (including the language paper), meaning that, when these are spread out throughout the year, you average 1-2 supervisions per week. In preparation for a supervision, you will generally need to read articles and books from a reading list relating to an essay title your supervisor will give you. Your essay will need to be approximately 1500-2000 words, and you will have around a week to complete it. The supervision itself will take place either one-on-one with your supervisor, or with 1-2 other students joining you. The supervisor, having read all of your essays, will discuss them with you and raise points that you may not have considered, overall enriching your knowledge of the subject area and making you eager to read more around the issue in question.
It takes a while to get used to the unusual arrangement at Cambridge, but your Director of Studies (your college-specific port of call) will help you greatly at the beginning with advice on time management and what supervisors expect. Supervisions in particular soon become enjoyable; there is something very rewarding about researching a topic independently, and putting forward personal opinions to your supervisors (which sometimes differ greatly from their own!). Given the small amount of contact time during the week, you do have to structure your hours wisely, researching for your essay and practising your scriptural language. The varied and fascinating subject matter of the course means that those hours go incredibly quickly!
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DIVINITY STUDENT - AMBER
My day usually starts by getting up at around 9, unless I have an early lecture. I will meet a friend and walk to the Divinity Faculty library; here I will work on my current essay. Because I know that I work best in the morning I will try and get the bulk of my work for the day done here (you soon realise after a few terms at Cambridge when and where you work best!)
At 11am, I head down to the reception area of the faculty for coffee. Postgrads of the department put coffee on every day and this is a great chance to catch up with friends, or meet new people who are also studying, teaching or working within the Divinity Faculty.
After more private study in the library and a lecture in the early afternoon I will head back to college to have lunch with friends. I like to go to the gym or go for a cycle or go to a dance class after lunch, otherwise I might be tempted to do something unproductive like take a nap or watch too much Netflix… When I get back I will organise lecture notes, and settle down in an armchair to read some more relevant material for the looming essay.
Late afternoons are usually reserved for tea with friends from my college who also study Theology, this is a chance to talk over aspects of our papers that we are finding difficult or discuss ideas that have developed out of our reading or the lectures we have attended.
In the early evening I will update my blog or do a piece of writing for The Cambridge Student. If my essay deadline is the next day I will probably spend the rest of the evening working, but if not, I will plan what needs to be done tomorrow for my current essay and then go out and socialise with friends.