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."

Many of the students flock to English 178x because of the reputation Fisher has earned for being an excellent and animated lecturer.

"I think the lectures are really interesting," says English concentrator Mercedes M. Blackstone '98. "I love [the class]."

Standing at the podium and using his hands for emphasis, Fisher gives abundant examples from the reading to illustrate his points.

"He's very, very knowledgeable," says Zachary T. Buchwald '96.

"He puts a great emphasis on aesthetic and artistic meaning of writing," Buchwald adds, saying that he hasn't encountered that philosophy often in his English classes.

Fisher also demonstrates a commitment to undergraduate teaching. He leads section discussion on a rotational basis, attending one meeting of each of the 13 sections in the first three or four weeks.

Fisher also looks at one fifth of the graded papers.

"It's a kind of pleasure to see and monitor the course," Fisher says. "It's the only way that to get to see those students who a little way down the road will need assistance [in graduate and advanced work]."

Students clearly appreciate Fisher's dedication to his students. But some say that following his lectures can be difficult.

"I like his lectures, and he makes a lot of good points, but it's not too structured," says Justin A. Nowell '98. "With all his points, it's sort of hard to formulate anything."

Although Fisher does tend to speak very quickly, he adds humor to his lectures, making them very enjoyable.

In his Monday lecture, Fisher showed the slight difference in the words "the rapist" and "therapist" in reference to a novel he was discussing.

"I am loving every minute of it," says Buchwald. "This genre of literature is not otherwise emphasized in the English department."

And since the course does not have an in-class final, many students say they just sit back and enjoy.

"I think when I try to take notes, I lose a lot of the lecture," says Grace Tye '99.

The course requirements are three 5-7 page papers, a take-home final exam; the readings; lecture and section attendance; and participation.

The class begins with a focus on naturalism and the move from the "nineteenth century culture symbolized by its landscapes and its relation to nature" to the modernism of the twentieth century, according to the syllabus.

"The goals of the course are really that people will really break through into the structure of the books," says Fisher.


Charting the Course is an occasional series on classes at Harvard. A five-part installment will include stories on the following five courses:

English 178x  "20th Century American Novel"  Thursday, February 29Mather 117  "Narratives of Motherhood"  Friday, March 1Lit & Arts C-20  "Hero of Irish Myth & Saga"  Monday, March 4Lit & Arts B-51  "First Nights"  Wednesday, March 6Women's Studies 111  "I Like Ike, but I Love Lucy"  Friday March