Robert Cairns, MA American Literature and Culture student

Robert Cairns

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I come from Rochdale, a small town outside of Manchester where there is very little to do. I lived and studied there for my entire life before coming to Leeds to study BA English and History. After my finishing my undergraduate studies, I realised that I couldn’t leave the atmosphere of the students’ union or the glories of Hyde Park behind, so I decided to continue my studies here with the MA American Literature and Culture.

What made you want to apply to your course and to Leeds?

I originally applied to Leeds as an undergraduate because I liked the freedom of interpretation and focus on independent research that my course provided. Coming for a sneak peek at Leeds on an open day, I instantly fell in love with the vibrancy of the campus (evident even when there were very few students around), the size of the students’ union, and the passion with which the lecturers addressed the prospective students and their parents.

It was immediately clear that Leeds was miles ahead of any of the other universities whose open days I had managed to travel to. Leeds seemed to be the perfect combination of social opportunities alongside serious attention to academic progress; it proved to be just that.

Having had such a good undergraduate experience at Leeds, and with a lot of my friends remaining at the University for another year, it made little sense to apply for a Masters degree anywhere else. I chose to continue my studies in English literature because I wanted to apply historical theories to literary evidence, specifically in the fields of race studies, whiteness, and American Literature. This also allowed me to audit certain Masters-level History modules, meaning I could continue to research key areas of interest at no extra cost.

How would you describe your experience of studying at Leeds?  

A lot more is expected of you at postgraduate level. The workload is not necessarily heavier; however, you are required to delve into the material at a level of inquiry you have most likely never experienced. There are no exams, and with a 100% emphasis on coursework there is no need to find yourself stressing for weeks over preparing for hypothetical exam questions that may never arise.

Instead, you are challenged to formulate your own essay questions about the texts you are studying. This means that you are always pursuing something that fundamentally interests you, and not something that you are forced to be interested in. The focus on independent research means that your tutors will not always have the answers to your questions; you have to find the answers yourself.

It is this necessity to go beyond simply the library’s website and to uncover new primary and secondary sources, as well as new interpretations of those sources, that provides the largest challenge. ‘Originality’ and ‘independence of thought’ are buzzwords used throughout any Arts degree at university, but at postgraduate level, they become incredibly important.

It is the seemingly endless ability to uncover and learn more and more about myself, how society sees me and how I see society, that makes me so passionate to continue learning. With its emphasis on independent research, my Masters course is allowing me to investigate what intrigues me the most.

Each new text or avenue of approach seems to open up new questions to explore – theories and interpretations which I explore on my own terms. There is no definitive answer to what I am investigating, and it is precisely the unresolved nature of my studies that makes me so passionate to pursue it until I am as close to a conclusion as I will ever be. 

What activities have you taken part in outside of your studies?

The University of Leeds is special in the array of extra-curricular activities it offers, as well as the commitment of its staff to ensuring that every society is unique, incredible, and accessible. There are close to 400 diverse and versatile student societies ranging from sports to religion, cultural heritage, hobbies and performance – all with the goal of enriching your life.

As an undergraduate student I had limited contact hours, so I invested myself fully in the English Society in order to meet like-minded people who I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise, and in my third year I was elected Society President. This meant I was in charge of overseeing social events, liaising with tutors, and trying to ensure that the School of English is a diverse space where all students feel welcome. I have also been a writer and editor for the student newspaper - which has seen me vastly improve my writing and communication skills – and have captained the English football squad.

I cannot stress enough just how important and enriching societies can be to your life as a student, wherever you study. While it is important to focus on your studies, it is equally important to push yourself to try new activities, and student societies offer the perfect platform to do just that, as well as to meet great friends who may not live in the same halls as you or study the same course. Termly ‘Give it a Go’ events allow you to try anything that takes your fancy, meaning you can attempt things you would never have dreamed of.

What would you say about Leeds as a city?

I have yet to stumble across a city quite like Leeds; it has something for everyone. Although the city centre is small compared to the likes of Manchester or Birmingham, the fact that all of its individual parts are packed so closely together makes it such a brilliant place to explore. It’s chaotic, flamboyant, and beautifully ordered all at once.

No matter where you look, there is something unique going on, as well as a large population of locals who are passionate about promoting independent businesses and events. Step just outside of the city limits and there are numerous places of idyllic beauty to visit, such as Roundhay Park, Temple Newsam, and Kirkstall Abbey. The music scene is incredible, the clubbing scene is diverse and always exciting, and there are no fewer than 13 branches of Greggs in the city centre alone. It has to be seen to be believed.

What do you plan to do once you’ve graduated?

I plan to continue my career as a writer and journalist. The many essays I have had to write over the past four years have resulted in writing becoming one of my main sources of enjoyment, rather than a chore. I love investigating new fields of enquiry, but most of all, I love discussing these ideas with other people.

University is all about developing a confidence in your own abilities, as well as a technique that allows you to justify your points of view, allowing you to engage with differing opinions, and hopefully, convince a few minds in the process.

What would you say to anyone thinking of applying to your course?

I have absolutely loved my time at the University of Leeds. While I feel I may have been very lucky in acquiring a close group of friends who have stayed with me and expanded from day one, I know that the opportunities are there for all students to realise the university experience of their dreams. There is something special about the University in the way it encourages and supports its students throughout their time here, that allows them to become the kind of people they would have looked up to as children. 

No matter what university you end up at, it’s imperative that you throw yourself wholeheartedly into everything you can. I am inherently shy and introverted, naturally avoiding any opportunity to exert myself in a public space. But it is precisely the product of all these moments in which I have pushed myself to try something new or to achieve something I thought beyond my capabilities, that I know I will be able to look back on my time at Leeds with very few negative thoughts. It’s a feeling which every student should have the chance to experience.