Fisher Shines in Top English Course

First in a five-part series

This semester, English 178x: "The 20th Century American Novel" has moved to a larger lecture hall three times--and students are still sitting on the floor.

Each Monday and Wednesday at noon, nearly 250 undergraduates flock to Emerson Hall 105 to hear Reid Professor of English and American Literature Philip J. Fisher lecture in what some say is the best English class at Harvard.

"It was really a calculated choice [to take the class]," says Sarah K. Matteson '99. "I chose to take 178x instead of 10b because I am thinking of declaring in English and a senior told me it was more inspiring."

Fisher, standing at the podium in a black shirt and green blazer, enchants his students with his expressive and welcoming lectures.

Almost never looking down at his notes, Fisher's teaching style is far from pedantic, as he blends humor into the class and actually talks to his students.


"Once you open a parenthesis, anything can happen," Fisher said in lecture on Monday, stirring laughter in the class.

The three goals of the course are to give a detailed reading of twentieth century literature, to define the basic narrative terms and to connect the literary works to the wider cultural perspective of the time.

"It's designed to be analysis of twentieth century American culture," Fisher says.

The extensive reading list focuses primarily on twentieth century American writers such as Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Jack London and William Faulkner.

Fisher says he added John Updike to the syllabus this year to give the course a more modern perspective.

"This course is designed for people who love to read," Fisher says. "This course is designed for mainly juniors and seniors as an elective that is a sophisticated analytic course in literature."

Fisher adds, "If it were perfected, it would have problem sets."

Many students say they find the reading load overwhelming.

"I think that if you aren't a quick reader, you can easily fall behind," says Matteson. But almost universally, students say Fisher's talent makes up for the workload.

"Phil Fisher is just God," says Matteson. "Everything he says just drips with meaning."