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.