English Professors Discuss Curriculum


The Department of English approved the most wholesale restructuring of its undergraduate program last week since World War II. But Louis Menand—the English professor who has had the most experience with curricular change—said that the current proposal still needs work.

Although there was overwhelming support from English professors for the proposal in last week’s vote by the department, the former co-chair of the Task Force on General Education said, “I think we’re trying to do too much with too little.”

The present legislation, which the six-person drafting committee has been working on since March, would give students greater freedom to form their own plan of study, accompanied by more robust advising from a faculty member. English concentrators must complete 11 courses for the non-honors track: six English electives, one English 90 seminar, and one class in each of four newly-created “common-ground modules,” in the words of English professor W. James Simpson, who helped draft the proposal. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

“The new curriculum is very simple in its operation,” Simpson said. “It’s called a minimalist-requirement, maximalist-encouragement concentration.”

But Menand said the department is trying to do too many things all at once: give students a common literary experience, make sure they take classes they would otherwise avoid, and engage them in small classes. But the curricular review veteran said, “It’s very hard to meet all those needs in the same curriculum.”

Menand, who did not play a role in drafting the new resolution and was on leave last year, said it would be more “efficient” to have a straight distribution requirement, rather than claim to be giving concentrators a unified experience.

“You have one course on Milton and another on Anglo-Saxon poetry,” Menand said of the “Poets” category, “and that’s no common ground.”

While the four new modules—“Arrivals,” “Diffusions,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares”—would contain up to four newly developed classes in each category, concentrators were previously required to take low-level courses such as English 10a and 10b, which provided reading from a wide breadth of authors.

Drafters of the proposal, however, said that they’re excited about the new plan.

Capped at around 20 or 30 students, most classes in the new “common-ground modules” will be limited to English concentrators.

“We want to give our concentrators a feeling of belonging to a special group who are being focused on,” Simpson said. “We want to concentrate on our concentrators.”

Writers of the proposal also said that it was time for English 10a and 10b to go.

“In these large required lectures, too much of the passion just escapes into the room through the anonymity of the relationship between the faculty member and the student,” said English professor Elisa New, who served on the committee that wrote the legislation.

“We feel pretty confident that the trade-off between more intimate interactive treatment of these materials and uniformity of syllabus is a trade-off we’re willing to make,” she added.

Under the new plan, students will not be required to take any lecture classes.

“The instructor will have liberty to stamp that course with his or her own stamp,” Simpson said of classes that would be developed in the new categories. “For a course to work, teachers have to be given liberty to make it their own.”

Although these courses would share common themes, the syllabi could vary extensively.

Menand said that the proposal would backfire if students cannot take the “common-ground” courses until declaring their concentration their sophomore year, forcing them to jump into 100-level department courses as a gateway into the concentration.

“As a teacher of a 100-level course, I want English concentrators,” Menand said. “I don’t want all freshmen or all Chemistry students.”

Menand added that the four “common-ground modules,” which claim to redefine the English discipline, still leave out many branches such as literary criticism and 20th-century American literature: his own specialty.

He added that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Educational Policy Committee will probably send the proposal back with suggestions, and the department will proceed from there.

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at


The Dec. 9 story, "English Professors Discuss Curriculum," said that English concentrators will have to take the seminar course English 90. In fact, only concentrators in the honors track will be required to take English 90.