Thoughts on the English Major

“Everything is the way it is because it got that way.”

-D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917)

During the second week of class we will talk about the English major: what it is, its history, the many forms it takes, and the rationale for the study of language and literature. I will ask you all to do an informal survey of English department web pages to see for yourself the ways English is organized as an undergraduate program.

Thinking about the English major leads me to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book On Growth and Form and in particular his comment that “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” Thompson was a British biologist, and a scholar of the classics, who wrote Greek Birds and Greek Fishes and translated Aristotle’s writings on biology. I first came across On Growth and Form in graduate school. But I am thinking about Thompson not because of his interest in physical forms—“the waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy bay between the headlands, the outline of the hills, the shape of the clouds,” all these, as he writes, “are so many riddles of form, so many problems of morphology”—and not because of his description of the material forms of living things—“Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower.” Rather I am thinking about Thompson’s interest in describing things by reference to their antecedent phenomena, “in the material system of mechanical forces to which they belong.”

Your looking at the way English majors are put together is an invitation for you to learn to see that the very idea of English has a history, and that the majors you will explore have distinctive histories. They are the way they are because people put them together in the way that they did. The other pedagogical goal I have for this week is for you to see the English major as more than 10 courses or 40 credits to, as I have heard some students say, “get out of the way.” The figure of thought is a very limiting way to think about the incredible opportunity of every course you choose in college.

Below is a brief rationale that I wrote in 2005 that describes the changes to the major we had proposed at the time. Since then, we have made additional changes: adding a course to bring the major from 36 to 40 credits, and creating options in literature and in writing.

In 2003-04, the English Department changed to a 4-credit curriculum.  While this change has been beneficial both to students and faculty, our experience with this model has helped us to identify specific areas where our major could be improved.

1) Historical background.  We currently have one introductory course to the major (ENG 209 Literary Analysis) that focuses on writing and an introduction to literary genres. However, our students also need a course that provides a more comprehensive introduction to the history of literary movements and periods.

We are, therefore, proposing a second introductory course that will be part of a two-course sequence.  This new course will focus on in-depth work with one of the genres introduced in the first course of the sequence; students will then study the development of this genre over time.

Proposed introductory-level sequence:

ENG 200 Literary Analysis
ENG 300 Literary Form and History

2)  Preparation for 400-level work.  We currently require three 400-level courses.  Students seldom have the necessary background for the advanced work we would like to see them doing at this level.  For example, students may take a 400-level Black American Women Novelists course without ever having studied Black American literature or the American novel.

We are, therefore, proposing an advanced sequence of courses, with one course at the 300-level and one at the 400-level, so that the 300-level course serves as a foundation for the work at the 400-level.

Proposed advanced-level sequence

ENG 395 Sequence I
ENG 495 Sequence II

3) Enhancing student’s critical writing and reading abilities.  The advanced work that we expect from students demands that they continually improve their ability to understand, interpret, and analyze the complexities of difficult texts.

We are, therefore, proposing a new design for the major that will, through small class size (20 in the first sequence and 20 in the advanced sequence), ensure more one-on-one interaction with students, more individualized help for students who need it, more opportunity for students to practice their critical skills, and more consistent and challenging writing instruction.

4) The need to study theory.  While we currently have a critical theory requirement at the 400-level, students again often come to it unprepared for this study. They may, for example, take a theory course in Romantic Literary Theory having never studied the Romantic period.

We are, therefore, proposing that all 400-level courses incorporate critical theory with the historical background foundation of 300-lvel courses and the advanced sequence ensuring that students will study theory with the necessary background.  We are also decreasing our 400-level requirement by one so that students can more easily select a 400-level course for which they are prepared.

5) Acknowledging changes in the discipline.  Over the last three decades, the once clear lines that defined literature in national terms have been blurred. Our current curriculum tries to address this development through our Multicultural/Continental/World requirement, the name alone indicating the amorphous nature of this category.  In addition, some of our courses fall into both American and Multicultural categories (such as Black American Literature).  Therefore, while we require two American literature courses, students could fill this requirement by taking two courses that actually focus on non-traditional approaches.  By examining the records of past students, we discovered that their way of fulfilling requirements was far more random than our distribution system would appear to allow.

We are, therefore, eliminating the distribution categories, and focusing on providing an overview of literary history in ENG 300, and an in-depth study of one literary area in the advanced sequence.  Since we will still offer the same courses we do now and students will still have to choose from among them, we are certain that they will receive as much “coverage” of the different areas of literary study as they do now.

6) Flexibility.  Under the current system, 8 of the 9 courses for the major fill requirements.  This leaves students with only 1 elective.

We are, therefore, trying to balance the new requirement of 4 core courses, by allowing students to have the increased flexibility of up to five electives (selected with the help of an advisor) that will allow students to prepare for their future (graduate school, a specific career option) or to follow a particular area of interest.

7) Ensuring that students are challenged.  We know from our assessment of former students’ schedules and from our enrollment data, that students will seek courses in areas they are most comfortable studying.  We know that they are able to do the work in other areas, but often need to be engaged in this study before they understand the richness of these areas or their own interest in them.

We are, therefore, maintaining one pre-1800 literary requirement so that students will need to study older texts and language.

8) Requiring students to take a multicultural literature course. Currently our students must select two courses from among our Multicultural/Continental/World offerings.  While all of these courses are out of mainstream British and American offerings, students can still study very traditional and Western literature (Classical Literature of Greece, Bible as Literature, Russian Literature) and avoid taking any courses that truly expose them to particular groups of people that have been historically marginalized.

We are, therefore, strengthening our “multicultural” requirement by more carefully defining the category as “Differing Cultural Perspectives” and requiring students to take one course in this category.

The English major at Keene State College has changed over time and becoming aware of some of the reasons those changes have come to be will give you a better sense of what you are doing as an English major. The major (the thing) “is what it is because it got that way.” Follow up comments on this blog posting are welcome. Please click on comments and share your thoughts.

Getting Started

All of the writing you complete in the course will be on a blog (an abbreviation of the phrase “web log”). We will be setting up your blogs on the first day of class. Your blog is a working space for your reading, thinking and writing process. It is also a product, a portfolio that I will use to assess your learning in the course

Setting Up Your Blog
Go to You will be prompted to choose an address, user name and password. For the address, you may use the following convention (first initial + last name + english or if you would like you may use a pseudonym (pen name, nom de plume, or alias). Once you have registered the blog, you will set up your blog using the  Get Started page. The default “theme” for your blog is Twenty Ten. We will talk about configuring and personalizing your blog during the first week of class

You will use a consistent page format for the blogs. Click Dashboard. Click Pages. Add the following pages:

  • About (For a brief bio). You are welcome to use your name or to not use your name
  • Book List (List the books you read in high school and that you have read in college that are worth knowing. Include the author and title and date of publication: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952).) Organize the list chronologically by date of publication. If you would like, you may divide the list into genres of writing
  • Commonplace Book (This is the page where you will gather quotations from your reading.)
  • Reading (This page will be a space for shorter writing tasks and pre-class writing exercises focused on careful and close and resourceful reading.)
  • Thinking (At the end of every week of class you will be reflecting on your work and your learning: thinking through a complex concept, a theoretical idea or a practical problem; or, making connections to other class material, other classes or to other relevant literary and cultural contexts).

We will go over the difference between pages (as opposed to posts) and widgets (such as a tag cloud or a list of links that you can use to customize your page and make it easier for a reader to navigate). If you would like to add images to your site or to postings, you will learn how simple this really is. I will show you the Word Press tutorials as well. The eleventh tutorial, titled “Insider Tips,” is helpful. The “kitchen sink” icon in the post/page editor, to take one example, reveals formatting options, enabling you to create headings and indent text, or to use the “paste from word” button that will carry over formatting from a word document.

Once you have created the blog, send an e-mail with the blog URL to me at I will post a link on the course blog so that everyone has access to your writing. If you are having any problems working with  your blog, or would like to talk with me about your blog, please make an appointment with me.

Managing your Blog All of the writing you complete in this course will be posted to your blog. You are required to complete all of the writing tasks that I post on the course blog to receive a passing grade in the course. You must do all of the writing on time. I read every word you write to prepare for class and your writing will be the subject of our class sessions.

Here are some suggestions as you make choices about organizing content:

  • use categories and tags to organize your posts. These features will allow a reader to follow threads in your thinking and writing more readily across different posts. Most WP themes list the categories and tags in a sidebar or in a tag cloud;
  • build a list of relevant links. The “Blogroll” on your site might list sites with materials useful for students of language and literature. The goal is to establish a set of links for readers seeking pathways into the world of English studies.

During the first week of class we will look over the WP dashboard and the various features of the WP platform. However the best way to learn how to use WP is to experiment. As you will see, changing the look and organizational structure of your blog is simple.

Why a Blog?

E-mail, web pages, wikis, blogs, Facebook, social networks, twitter—much of the writing we are doing now takes place using digital media. And while all of us are still working out the conceptual implications of these new technologies, the advent of digital writing has created pedagogical opportunities to think about (and with) the digital tools that we use to represent and understand ourselves, and the world.

Blogging offers significant opportunities for student writers:

  • Designing and managing a blog offers experience using one of the digital technologies we use as readers and writers. Digital writing requires all of the knowledge and skill writers use in other formats in addition to the new ways digital writing blends modes of representation (visual and verbal) and creates opportunities for fresh conceptual and material connections;
  • A blog can help shift the motivation for writing from the assignment to the writer. For it may be that one of the obstacles to growth as a writer is the writing assignment: that is, more often than not, writing assignments motivate writing for a purpose other than one’s own. Your blog posts will therefore be focused on questions and problems rather than assignments, on the thoughtful (and creative) exploration of ideas as opposed to more mechanistic forms of response to the readings;
  • The relatively short form of the blog entry encourages concise and purposive writing. Managing to say exactly what you need to say in fewer words will challenge you as a writer;
  • The likelihood that the blog will actually be read will help you become more rhetorically aware—of the conceptual, linguistic, social, emotional and ethical concerns a writer must address to be effective with any audience;
  • Writing in a digital format (a web log, or blog) enacts (and represents) the complex process of thinking and writing that takes place in a college-level course; and we will use your writing experiences, and the archive of writing that we create, to reflect on your learning process, and the role of writing in that process;
  • Finally, from a standpoint of sustainability, a blog allows for drafting and composing and sharing your thinking without using reams of paper. While the resources to sustain the electronic networks consume vast amounts of energy, we will at least be using and recycling less paper.

Consider This

What is English? This gnarly (and arguably preposterous) question has a complex history that I have asked you to think about in your provisional answer to the question. In your writing and in this post we have been using the term “English” to refer to a field of study—a body of material (literature, writing, texts), method (ways of reading or approaching texts) and theory (the questions that arise in the practice of criticism or the assumptions that underwrite particular methods, or a theoretical approach, such as structuralism).

So, where to begin? You might start, as many do, with Wikipedia:

In the past an academic degree in English usually meant an intensive study of British and American literary masterpieces. Now, however, an English Major encompasses a much broader range of topics which stretch over multiple disciplines. While the requirements for an English Major vary from university to university, most English departments emphasize three core skills: analyzing literature, a process which requires logic and reflective analysis; creativity and imagination with regards to the production of good writing; and an understanding of different cultures, civilizations, and literary styles from various time periods. Prospective English Majors can expect to take college courses in academic writing, creative writing, literary theory, British and American literature, multicultural literature, several literary genres (such as poetry, drama, and film studies), and a number of elective multidisciplinary topics such as history, courses in the social sciences, and studies in a foreign language. To the end of studying these disciplines, candidates for a Major in English attain skills in rhetoric, literary analysis, an appreciation for the diversity of cultures, and an ability to clearly and persuasively express their ideas in writing.

Alternatively, as I suggested, you could read what others have done with the question, including Terry Eagleton’s chapter What is Literature. Or Listen to Eagleton discussing the questions about the literary in his new book, The Event of Literature (Yale 2012). Or Consider the history of English studies, browsing the resources of professor Rita Raley’s web page The History of English Studies.

Another path is to examine the table of contents of anthologies that define the field of study at the level of the course syllabus—a more instructive path, perhaps, than the Wikipedia, or at least the next step in a genuine path of inquiry leading out from the question. I will use here the example of the Norton anthologies of literature: American, English and World. (Of course there are also anthologies published by Norton on poetry, African American Writers, and so on, designed for courses that have a narrower generic or thematic approach.)

The Norton Anthology of English Literature is using mostly historical periods to divide the material into digestible units. The Middle Ages, The Sixteenth Century, The Early Seventeenth Century, Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Romantic Period, Victorian Age, Twentieth Century. You can link to the web page and pull up the Table of Contents. Close readers will also note that the volumes in the set are organized not only by century but also by other categories that refer to a period (“Medieval”) a political era (“Restoration,” or the reign of King Charles II) an intellectual and artistic movement (“Romantic”) or a queen (“Victorian”).

The Norton Anthology of American Literature (4 Volumes) organizes the material  chronologically: to 1820, 1820-1865, 1865-1914, 1914-1945, Since 1945. Consider the Table of Contents for The Shorter Norton Anthology of American Literature. This condensed survey text selects from the selected works in the multi-volume edition (already a selection in and of itself) and organizes literary history chronologically, as well as by author and by theme. It starts with transcriptions of oral creation stories from the Iroquois and Pima to the early writings of exploration and puritan writings all the way to a selection of poems by Sherman Alexie and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short piece of fiction “Sexy.”

The Norton offers one representation of a consensus in the field of study “American Literature.” I have used this edition, and the longer version, in my courses, and have offered comments to the editors on texts that I think might be included or discarded. I say this to remind you that a table of contents is a dynamic list that changes as the field is shaped and reshaped. The Norton American Literature is now in its eighth edition, after all

There is also The Norton Anthology of World Literature that appears also in a Shorter World Anthology  (in this case, the Third Edition). Have a look at the table of contents to this volume and see how time (chronology), space (nation, hemisphere), genre (orature, lyric poetry, drama).

These anthologies are a good starting point for students interested in literature and literary history.  If you don’t have them, pick them up and read in them over the summer months. (They are cheap on the used market.) One can build a broader range of literary and cultural reference and experiences as a reader when you have copies of this anthology on the shelf.

As we talked about in class, and as you explored in your writing, the bodies of writing and texts that now fall under the purview of “English” as a field, and of the English major, cannot be reproduced in a ten course undergraduate major. Still, the anthology represents a consensus—an always imperfect but useful configuration—of literary history that is worth knowing. It is also a convenient way to discover texts that will lead you to other texts and writers who you want to know.

You might consider a handbook for English majors. Here is an example of an “English Handbook from the College of William and Mary

Remember that last week when we looked at the Keene State College English Department web site you first encountered the way we have organized the English major.  The “Courses” page and the four general program objectives that we ask that you study during your four years with us at Keene State College.

Production and Reception: The program teaches how historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works-including those works produced by cultures whose humanity and identity have been devalued, denied, or dismissed;

Language and Poetics: The program introduces students to the major genres of literature, rhetorical and literary strategies, and the ways in which literary works relate intertextually.

Criticism and Theory: The program introduces students to historical contexts and critical theories that shape literary analysis and inform scholarly debates in the field of literary studies.

Reading and Writing: The program teaches careful reading, the use of literary vocabulary, an orderly critical approach, and the use of writing for a range of purposes.