Mixed Views for English Plan

Student opinions differ on curricular change

In the first year of the English department’s new curriculum, students and administrators are still reflecting on the revamped program.

The new curriculum—which removed most requirements, including English 10a and 10b: “Major British Writers,” in favor of more elective courses—is rooted in four required “common-ground” areas called “Diffusions,” “Arrivals,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares.”

Student reaction in particular has been mixed.

English concentrator Justin B. Wymer ’12 said that he enjoyed W. James Simpson’s “Arrivals” course, English 41: “Culture Wars 700-1700,” last fall more than he thought he would. He explained that the class resembled a seminar rather than a lecture and allowed for closer interactions between him and Simpson, the English department’s director of graduate studies.

“I don’t feel like I’m losing structure,” Wymer said of the new curriculum. “There’s definitely an ability for you to structure your own curriculum.”

But English concentrator Alexander “Zander” C. Auerbach ’11 expressed concern about the specificity of some common-ground areas. He explained that although it makes sense to define certain areas in which all concentrators should be knowledgeable, the course selections in “Arrivals” and “Diffusions” were too specific.

“Given that the ‘Arrivals’ and ‘Diffusions’ courses represent narrower literary interests than ‘Shakespeares’ or ‘Poets’ courses, it seems odd to me that those requirements hold equal weight,” he said.

“I’ve been frustrated in my attempt to find ‘Arrivals’ or ‘Diffusions’ courses that engage my range of interests,” he added.

Two professors who played a major role forming the new curriculum said that the new curriculum has received positive feedback from students.

Simpson said that he found teaching English 41, an “Arrivals” course, to be much more satisfying than teaching English 10a because it was substantially smaller.

“Getting to know students was a really signal improvement for what you might call the pedagogical way of life,” he said.

He added that the Q rating for English 41 was 4.5, as opposed to the stubbornly mediocre Q ratings he received while teaching English 10a through the years.

English Professor Elisa New, who was also on the reform committee, said that the more intimate environment of the common-ground courses has helped cultivate a better understanding of the literature among students.

She added that teaching “materials that really do help us understand who we are and what it is to be human” in a “dehumanized way” like a lecture can often empty out much of what humanistic study can offer.

“We want a deep understanding ideally,” she said. “That’s why we do this.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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