An English Major for Our Time

12 Nov

This post is something of a cri de couer.  Or, more accurately, it is a second attempt at a cri de couer after a failed first attempt.  In the last round of curriculum revisions in my home department, I proposed that we take a new direction, the one outlined below.  Owing to my own failings, I could not prevail upon any of my colleagues to accept any aspect of the proposal whatsoever—though one notable exception is Gordon Hutner, who added the course described below as the “Hutner Addendum.”

Ultimately my department wound up doing what many of our peers have done: with no clear sense of pedagogical direction, we stripped away a few requirements that seemed out of fashion.  With nobody really willing to say just what it is that an English major ought to do, we, like so many others, settled on a curriculum that does nothing in particular.  If that’s good enough for Michigan and Texas, the sentiment ran, it’s good enough for Illinois.

I think we need to face up to the central problem of the English major as an institutional structure: it is in many ways an artifact of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with their concern for cultivating a liberal personality with especial reverence for the Anglo-American tradition.  We now recoil from such ideas.  But much as individual courses in English say so, English curricula do not: they are retreating from a focus on the canon, but have not yet advanced an intellectually coherent alternative.

The major below challenges the idea of unified literary traditions, British, American, or otherwise.  English languages and literatures must be read in the context of contending cultural forces.  Indigeneity and racial and sexual minority must not be treated as asides to “the tradition” to which we nod with a single course requirement, but as ever-present existents with an inherent claim to our attention.  Thus the survey “Literature from the Haitian Revolution to Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’”: it begins with the uprising that made palpable the fear of rebellion running through the slave-owning Americas, and which poses a challenge to the Enlightenment values that European powers unevenly applied.  That revolution anticipates not only the American Civil War, but also Nehru’s famous speech at the moment of Indian independence, which marked an end of England’s empire.

“Global” for the purposes of this major includes not only diverse geographical locales, but also issues of eco-criticism and sustainability, as well as histories of the dissemination, and imposition, of English language and literatures through various media.  The major seeks especially to de-naturalize the supposed primacy of English on the North American continent.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the single-subject major is a millstone around the neck of undergraduate humanities education.  But we may as well make the most of it while working to shed the thing.  So here it is: an open-source English major.  Reach and freely taste!  Steal, revise, or suggest an entirely different approach, but please do take a moment to share a response in the comments.

English in Global Contexts

Core Courses

i) English 200: World Shakespeares (3 credits)

-This course will initiate the kind of thinking emphasized in the major as a whole: close attention to how English writers read, and are read by, the world around them.

-Shakespeare’s inescapable influence in one of the three major genres of literature suggests that a requirement is desirable.  But it need not, and ought not, take its traditional form.

ii) English 300: Critical Theory (3 credits)

-a writing-intensive course satisfying the college’s advanced composition requirement.

iii) Surveys (12 credits)

English 209: From the Beginnings of English to the Spanish Armada

English 210: From Jamestown to the Declaration of Independence [drawing on current Trans-Atlantic scholarship]

English 211: From the Haitian Revolution to Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny”

English 212 [The Hutner Addendum]: Literatures of Sustainability [a survey of post-war world literatures in English focused on sustainability: ecological, national, social]

Remaining Courses (12 credits)

-all remaining credits toward the major must be completed at the 300 level or higher

-there are no further courses specifically required, but over the degree students must complete at least one of each of the following at the 300 level or higher: one course that is pre-1800; one course in women’s writing, queer studies, minority literature, or world literatures in English

-Students may substitute up to six credits for advanced-level study in a foreign language

-Students may focus their remaining courses in one of the following areas: 1) The Cultural History of Form and Aesthetics; 2) Critical Theory; 3) Eco-Criticism and Sustainability; 4) Gender and Sexuality; 5) Borders and Identity; 5) Media Matters; 6) Political Order and Political Resistance; 7) Religion and Literature.

One Response to “An English Major for Our Time”

  1. Joseph Comprone November 15, 2013 at 12:36 am #

    I like the new perspectives on global and interdisciplinary subjects. I have three additional comments (neither critical or laudatory). 1) Many English departments would have a difficult time assembling a faculty that could or would be willing or able to offer this program’s key courses on a regular basis. 2) Most of these courses would encourage pedagogical workshops that fit new subject matters and national boundaries. Yet departments or colleges are either unable to afford or develop themselves the resources to conduct such pedagogical support systems. 3) Is the English department the best starting point for changes of this type? Perhaps placing this type of curriculum revision at the college level would be most effective. Departments could then contribute key and already interested faculty to an interdisciplinary leadership group working at the the college level.

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