English Dept. Approves Overhaul of Undergraduate Requirements

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The English department overwhelmingly approved the largest overhaul of its undergraduate concentration in over 20 years on Tuesday afternoon. The new program would sweep away all the current requirements except Shakespeare and replace them with four subject areas or “affinity groups.”

Concentrators would be required to take just one course in each category, giving students greater freedom to take more electives and thus design their own courses of study.

Under the proposal, the required courses English 10a and 10b—as well as the pre-1800 literature, American literature, and sophomore seminar requirements—would die.

In their place, courses in the four new categories—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares”—would interweave literary history with textual analysis. At a gathering for prospective concentrators on Tuesday, English professor Stephen J. Greenblatt said that these courses will most likely be small seminars.

“This is a complete makeover of the undergraduate program,” said English professor Daniel G. Donoghue, who is also the department’s director of undergraduate studies. “Our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.”

If the Educational Policy Committee gives the proposal the green light in February, it is likely to be implemented as early as next year.

LOSING THE CANON?

Although the Norton Anthology of English Literature will no longer be required to sit on the bookshelves of every English concentrator, those who are loyal to the English canon may still be able to get their fix: courses in the “Poets” and “Shakespeares” categories would explore foundational works like “Hamlet” and “The Canterbury Tales.”

“With the changes, you won’t lose any of the content of 10a and 10b,” Greenblatt said at the event. “It will trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.”

In fact, English professor Gordon Teskey—an expert on Shakespeare who also used to teach English 10a—said he thinks there would be more of an emphasis on great authors, whereas the current set-up makes time period and geography the central organizing principles.

Under the existing plan, there is no one text that is guaranteed for every concentrator to have read by the time they graduate.

Student reaction to the elimination of 10a and 10b was mixed: while some lauded the change, others described the survey courses as almost indispensable to the concentration.

English concentrator Spencer A. Strub ’09 said he is glad to see the “Major British Writers” series go.

“Eliminating the 10a and 10b requirements would really allow people to do more with their studies more quickly,” Strub said.

Noa Silver ’10, on the other hand, said that she thinks having an introductory class is “really important.”

“I think 10a really teaches you how the works of English transformed and progressed over time,” said Silver, also a concentrator. “Without knowing where an author is coming from, your ability to appreciate and understand the work isn’t as fulfilling.”

English concentrators said that they hoped the new program of studies would still expose them to a broad range of English literature over time, allowing them to identify their passions within the canon.

“The broad spectrum of books you read in 10a and 10b really can open up different areas to you that you can end up focusing on later in your English career,” Chris L. McConnell ’09 said.

Students like McConnell, however, might find themselves disappointed with the conclusion of the proposal, which emphasized that the new courses are “not gateway courses, but plums offered to those students who have already decided to become English concentrators.”

The proposal was written by a six-person task force chaired by Stephen L. Burt and Daniel Albright. Three of the six currently teach or have previously taught English 10a or 10b.

Most English professors contacted for this article declined to be interviewed, saying that the department has agreed not to discuss the new plan until the Educational Policy Committee makes its decision in the spring.

All English professors are required to fill out a questionnaire by Dec. 16 outlining the courses they are planning to teach in the next two years—including in the four new categories.

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu.


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