English Literature and Language
Your Professors Wouldn't Last a Minute in the Real World
September 14, 2006
CLASS REVIEWS:English 10a, "Major British Writers I"
English 10b, "Major British Writers II"
English 168d, "Postwar American and British Fiction"
So, you’ve gotten to Harvard and realized that you have absolutely no idea what you want to get out of your classes here. If you enjoy sleep deprivation, caffeine highs (and their debilitating crashes), and social theory that will make you feel like a bastard no matter whose side you take, consider Social Studies. If you’d prefer very few final exams, a shout-out in The Independent as the second-sexiest concentration in the College, and an opportunity to write a book of fairy tales as your senior thesis, English and American Literature and Language just may be the option for you.
The beauty of English at Harvard is that you can take classes in topics ranging from tropes of Elizabethan literature to pornographic plays of the 60s, and hand in the same paper for any one of them. Depending on your professor’s age, bias, and possibly sexual orientation, your grade on that paper, however, will vary incredibly.
Once you get past the random and virtually endless litany of survey courses that the faux-British Undergraduate Studies Director Gordon Teskey deems a worthy use of your time, your fate falls into the hands of dominatrix-turned-Program-Administrator Inga Peterson. With the nose ring, black combat boots, and Rottweiler to prove it, this woman means business. After a stint in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, Inga bears the trivialities of undergrads’ academic issues with patience and poise. She’s even acquired a tiny assistant, Lisa Anspacher, to handle the dirtier deeds of English department business and to send out a cheery weekly email inviting concentrators to tea.
For folks who prefer a different kind of turn-on, John Stauffer’s Eng 17x, “The 19th-Century American Novel” is a great way to fulfill your Eng. 17 requirement. Stauffer, a Moby Dick-obsessed reincarnation of that teacher from MTV’s “Daria” whose eye enlarges freakishly mid-sentence, delivers passionate lectures about essentially nothing except the male bond and slavery’s evils. Apparently, all American novels of the 19th century can be analyzed in exactly the same way, so the class gets old after a week or two. Definite pro: the bodacious Meg McDermott TF’s this one. With her crystal blue eyes and too-cool-for school punky ensembles, she’ll make your atrociously harsh paper grades seem worth every moment.
For something…alternative, try just about any course taught by Matthew Kaiser. Always cutting-edge with striped shirts and paisley ties, this man redefines “fabulous.” He also sets the standard for “brilliant,” with lectures that shoot way over students’ heads in topics ranging from Oscar Wilde to Robbie Williams. His 2006 sophomore seminar, “Literature and the Concept of Sexuality,” was yet another of the English department’s thinly-veiled attempts to intellectualize porn, with a reading list featuring an erotic diary of Victorian London and a book whose most vivid scene involves Hitler rimming an SS officer. Kaiser never fails to bring insight into these discussions with accessible analogies (usually to sex) and touching personal anecdotes (usually not about sex).
If the muses sing in you (and you’re not high at the time), you might want to consider one of the department’s creative writing courses. They’re billed as selective, and they truly are. The key to getting in is to submit just about any self-indulgent piece of crap you’ve written in your livejournal with an eloquent letter containing the sentence, “I wish to explore my intellectual and spiritual identity in the pursuit of a creative thesis.”
For the most down-to-earth creative writing class you’ll find in the department, take a look at “Writing the First Person” with Sven Birkerts. Essentially a gigantic teddy bear, Birkerts leads a really mellow class, occasionally inserting a raunchy comment or two into his critiques and blaming it on the coffee he’s drinking which, until that point, has seemed to have no effect. Dubbed the “worst writer of his generation” by Greil Marcus of The New York Times, Birkerts nevertheless helps students do in writing what Harvard would have them do in life: put themselves first and make it look pretty.