Concentration Throwdown

Studying fiction at Harvard has several prerequisites: a love of reading; a love of writing; a love of deep, introspective

Studying fiction at Harvard has several prerequisites: a love of reading; a love of writing; a love of deep, introspective conversations about context and syntax over a steaming latte; and, of course, a love of frenzied highlighting of key passages in the wee hours of the night. Here’s a rundown of the fiction concentrations—see how well you match up.


Trust the popular consensus? With over 250 concentrators in 2007, the English department is proven to be one of the most popular places to study fiction—and with good reason. Students have considerable flexibility in carving out their focus, with the ability to take a class on virtually any time period and focus on a myriad of authors. If you’re interested in stretching your creative legs, test your skills in anything from playwriting to poetry to science fiction.

If you enjoy interacting with well-known authors and opportunities to schmooze with faculty members, then the “Writers in the Parlor” series and “Tea Stop” gatherings are just what you’ve been looking for. A recent curricular change replaced old requirements with four common ground requirements in the area of Arrivals, Diffusions, Poets, and Shakespeares. But don’t fret: you can still take the new iterations of Major British Writers I and II if you want to. Apart from academic demand, the department’s rich offerings do come with an added pressure: you have to look good while doing it. English concentrators usually dress the part—look no further than the plethora of glittery scarves that adorn the inhabitants of the Barker Center Café—and exude a certain je ne sais quoi that suggests that they just might be better read than you are. Judging by the concentration requirements, they probably are.


Context. Context. Context. But most importantly: context. As a Hist & Lit concentrator you’d better have a deep appreciation for the who, what, when, where, and why of what you’re reading. One of the great things about the concentration is that it allows you to sample many extra-departmental courses and count them for concentration credit. As the oldest Harvard concentration, Hist & Lit tends to kick it old school, with a heavy emphasis on tutorials, small classes, and personal attention for concentrators. A less fortunate aspect of the old school method: lots of hard work. An application is required to enter the concentration; other requisites include an oral exam at the end of sophomore and senior year, a junior research essay, and a student bibliography of studied texts to be prepared at the end of sophomore, junior, and senior year.

If you enjoy some adventure in your life, you’ll like the fact that Hist & Lit has a large degree of flexibility in designing an individual plan of study. The concentration requires you to select a special field within the concentration with a focus on America, Latin America, Modern Europe, Postcolonial Studies, Early Modern Europe, Medieval Europe, or a field of your choice—pending tutor approval. In short, a Hist & Lit concentrator has to endure a fair amount of paperwork, but for someone interested in planning out a specialized field of study, the extra work is well worth it.


Are you trilingual? Do you harbor a special love for all incarnations of the story of 1001 Nights? Do you consider the writings of Copernicus, the poetry of Apollinaire, the philosophical musings of Aristotle, and the narratives of Tolstoy to have equally great literary value? If so, you’ll feel right at home in the Lit concentration. It may be a smaller concentration than its peers, with about 50 concentrators in 2007, but like the other fiction concentrations it allows students to construct their own specialized field of inquiry. The emphasis in the Lit department is on cross-cultural comparisons, so either come in with some foreign language skills or be prepared to learn some. Along with its Hist & Lit, its cousin concentration, Lit has a foreign literature requirement and encourages concentrators to study abroad for a semester—so you’ll probably leave Harvard worldlier than you came.

Lit concentrators work throughout their college careers to answer the question, “What is literature?” Lit’s flexibility allows concentrators to explore the fields of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Visual and Environmental Studies in pursuit of an answer. If you enjoy debating the merits of spoken versus written word, or if you’ve got that well-traveled, inquisitive, and black-turtleneck-with-black-jeans-with-black-shoes-with-dark-rimmed-glasses look about you, Lit is where you belong.