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In our current major, students have room to choose courses, but they do so within a framework that has already decided for them, in broad terms, what they should study (in representative samples): British literature (pre- and post-1700), American literature, Shakespeare, the work of a major author, etc.

The framework that Beth presented at our opening meeting shifts a good deal of the decision-making to the student (in collaboration with her or his adviser). In this framework, the student must assemble a coherent combination of courses and be able to articulate what makes the courses a meaningful whole.

Use this page to discuss the question of responsibility for student learning in the major. Some things to consider:

  • Broadly speaking, what do we owe our students as a faculty of English? What are we responsible for (in general, not under one configuration of the major or another) in their learning?
  • Broadly speaking, how much responsibility is it appropriate for students to bear in deciding what they should know?
  • If you believe that our current major leaves too much of the decision-making to the faculty but that Beth's suggested framework leaves too much to the student, do you have any ideas about how to find a balance-point between the two?


  1. In accordance with Paul's suggestion, I'm replying to Tom's (well-articulated) comment(s) here. I think he makes a good case for incorporating breadth and balance into the English major as a structural principle. The info about the Amherst English Dept.'s comprehensive senior exam is also helpful. Such an exam, btw, was instituted during the last two years of my undergraduate days as an English major, and it led to a lot of extra reading and studying for those who had not done course work in the areas covered by the exam (a lot of midnight oil spent on the Norton Anthology).

    As for Paul's questions above, I'm not going to address, "what do we owe to our students," but would like to mention that we also owe something to our discipline. As for the student's responsibility, s/he should bear a significant amount, but within a structured (major) curriculum that allows for considerable choice(s). Perhaps our current one is too structured and does not allow for enough flexibility. And, in any event, it needs to be reconceived in light the four-course student load. But the major that we've had here (and it has undergone some modifications, such as, for instance, eliminating years ago the requirement of a Chaucer OR Milton course), has served our students well, as many of them who have gone off to professional (esp. law) and graduate school in the field (this includes recent ones, like Andrew Kay at Wisconsin,and Matt Dunham at Buffalo) have informed me over the years.These students have praised our major curriculum (and faculty) for preparing them very well for success in graduate and professional school.

    As for the "balance point" question, I think that students should have considerable choice of what courses to take, but that there should also be SOME distribution requirements: e.g., every major should take two courses in British and American literature; every student should take a major author course; and every student should take a course which in some fashion focuses on genre, as well as a course that addresses cultural contexts. And given the fact the we live increasingly in a "global" culture, perhaps we should also include a distribution requirement for a course in a literature other than English. If that literature is in another language, then the student could either take it in (what used to be called) the Foreign Language Department, or take it in our dept. (foreign language literature in translation). If it sounds like I'm piling up too many requirements, remember that some of them could be doubled up: American lit and Major Author, for instance (Melville), or British Lit and genre (Nineteenth Century British Novel).

    1. The comments by Tom to which Gene refers are here. Thanks, Gene, for following my suggestion! Much appreciated!

    2. Thank you, Tom and Gene, for being among the first (if not the very first) to comment; I'm following Paul's prompt and Gene's lead in migrating over to this thread.  

      The proposal/report I made to the department was indeed not a coverage model, as Gene rightly discerned.  And, as Tom astutely notes, I also quite purposely left off the comprehensive exam that Amherst (better funded and more replete with staff) keeps as part of its major. I am unsure in our own program students ever got as much coverage as was hoped or in the order that was hoped.  Pre-requisites were increasingly becoming co-requisites, staffing difficulties necessitated waivers, there were transfer contingencies, course rotation complexities, and all the complications of student desires and antipathies. All these things had an impact on what actually happened as students moved through the major. Of course, as Paul observes, any new system is not going to be free of these structural and individual issues, either, but I think actually that unpleasant but very real structural realities (including funding or lack thereof, the 'smooth SUNY pipeline') are going to complicate even further a coverage-based model. I also think that what the department currently thinks of as 'coverage' (in terms of which classes may students will still end up taking) is still going to be quite often achieved purposely/accidentally under a less coverage driven curriculum, and if we each as faculty take responsibility for grounding our individual courses as part of a larger fabric, then there will be also a sense of coverage communicated explicitly, purposely, and mindfully by actual human practice. It may be a different kind of coverage than that communicated more implicitly through a career of courses that are largely separated from each other (by period, by aesthetic, by nation), and it won't be without its own set of gains and losses, but it won't be an outright lack, either.

      As I've understood larger conversations about pedagogy and curricula through various service through AAC&U, and through becoming familiar with the Six Big Ideas, moves have been towards depth of student work rather than breadth, towards attention to what courses encourage students to do rather than what courses cover: all of these larger moves seek to position students earlier, rather than later, as makers of meaning.

      It may be helpful to have Provost Carol Long as both administrator and disciplinary colleague talk with us a bit as a department. Other colleagues from other departments in the Curriculum Reform Working Group who currently have far more coverage based/ hierarchical programs than we do/did were indeed uneasy at the prospect of, as I suggested at one meeting, rethinking entirely the idea of curricular beginnings and endings. At these understandable expressions of uneasiness, the Provost very helpfully reminded us about larger shifts in curricula and pedagogy that have really changed thinking about what students must/can do first. Of course, as it's the part I'm really invoking, it manages to be the ONE part of the meeting that I didn't take a lot of notes on, and so I'm not going to try to be any more specific than that.

  2. Unknown User (walker)

    Having just come from the coffee discussion, I want the cheap high of making again a point here that I made there.  While I understand the siren song of balance/coverage, it needs to be said that we don't have that now.  A student taking Christine de Pizan and Shakespeare (check, check, check) and 7 courses in the 20th century doesn't have coverage.  She has lacunae.  But she may have a fabulous education.

    Our present model -- indeed, the way each of us thinks about our courses -- is built on the fiction of historical/national coverage.  Might we not do better prep if we let go of that fiction?

    When I say "you can't read Woolf's _Orlando_ without at least knowing about Harington and Ariosto," am I not -- at least in part --  trying to script the plans of my colleague who teaches modern British?  (pax, the ghost of Laura Doan)  Yes, were I to teach _Orlando_, I would need to talk about Queen Elizabeth's actual godson and that wonky Italian epic, but I'm not likely to be teaching Woolf.  Laura had ways of teaching the text that really didn't need the inclusion of flying heads.  No one can include everything.

    So, even as I speak from the shelf with the old stuff, I speak for the construction of a major where the chronological/national paradigm isn't our first --- or even our third -- consideration. 

    Maybe 4th?

    1. Nicely put, Julia, and not just because you wove Laura into the conversation. 

  3. If we so choose we can readily address the ostensible fiction of coverage in the manner of such highly regarded English departments as those at Bard College, U of I/Chicago (Gerry Graff’s home department), and St. Mary’s College of Maryland (Maryland’s public “honors college”). We could require all literature track majors to take  core historical surveys in British and American literature.

    While I found considerable pleasure and inspiration teaching required literature surveys at my previous institution (the first summer Oxford program was a Lit II survey, not a humanities course), they are so alien to our department’s culture that I am not suggesting we institute them. But the fact that we choose not to require “true” coverage courses does not mean that coverage as an achievable and desirable end is fiction. And it certainly does not mean that our literature majors could not derive considerable benefits of breadth of coverage from a less ambitious structure composed of fewer and more effectively considered distribution requirements than we have now.

    I admire the effort and imagination that Beth put into the August proposal, but I do have some qualms about it.  The time investment, effort, and product resulting from compulsory faculty/student collaborations on advising narratives do not strike me as so valuable that they should be privileged as the sole explicit department-wide goal of 70% or more of the ten-course major.

    I am also concerned about clarity of expectation, which is a critical element in both curriculum structure and academic advisement. I am not confident that a “conversation in the discipline” is so distinctly different from an “intersection” in the discipline or a “major inquiry” in the discipline that, to take an example from the proposal, it is clear as to why the Letters course would be classified as an “intersections” course rather than a “major inquiry” course and/or a “conversations” (genre) course.

    In responding to Gene’s concerns about breadth, Beth stated that one of the rationales for the proposal is that it represents a move  “towards attention to what courses encourage students to do rather than what courses cover.”  The point of this dichotomy eludes me.   I am not prepared to argue that students in, say, ENGL 310 Medieval British Literature necessarily do less (or do less of that which is valuable) than students in a theme-based course by virtue of the fact that the 310 course description and reading list address period coverage. What students are encouraged to do once they are in a course is principally determined by the professor’s pedagogy, interests, creativity, and objectives -- certainly more so than by course title, classification, or description.

    We are looking at ten courses to introduce our students to a discipline that revels in its variety and range of interests more so than its pursuit of internal coherence. One of the most widely valued of those disciplinary interests is breadth of readings within a structure that acknowledges the traditional paradigm of British/American literary periods or eras. A few courses that ensure all majors will be introduced to and “do” some work in the context of that paradigm will well serve their grounding in the discipline.

    I concur with what I gather to be the majority of our colleagues that a revised curriculum should have more flexibility for students than our current structure of nine hours of free electives out of thirty-six hours allows.   But breadth requirements are still so widespread among undergraduate English curricula  (to say nothing of graduate literature programs to which our students apply and the NYSED Language Arts learning outcomes for grades 9-12 that future NY high school English teachers will be required to address) that a traditional breadth requirement in some form merits a clear, unambiguous presence in the goals and structure of our revised curriculum.

    Citations and Sources.

    St Mary’s College English Major

    U of Chicago/Illinois English major

    Bard College English Major
    (Bard requires literature majors to select two courses from one of three available “historical studies sequences”:  English, American, Comparative.)

    NYSED English Language Arts Resource Guide with Core Curriculum Standard  #2 for Grades 9-12 states: “The competences that 9-12 students demonstrate as they learn to read include to... interpret literary texts based on understanding of the genre and literary period.” (link to pdf).

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    In looking over the previous discussions, it strikes me that the term “coverage” has not been especially useful if the goal is to move toward consensus (if, however, the goal is to refight the canon wars, then it’s perfect!). Coverage suggests that there is a stable set of great works and that we, as a department, must see to it that our students study as many of those works as possible. Now, I think everyone would agree that this notion of coverage is a fiction---there is no canon that has been passed down to us by god. Rather, the canon is a construct, encoding a set of cultural values, it’s contingent, not universal, it privileges certain voices while occluding others, …etc, etc, etc. I mean, people fought over this stuff in the 70s! The foundationalists lost, and that’s a good thing.  

    Which brings us to the current discussion: I don’t think that those advocating coverage mean that we should return to a foundationalist model. The point, it seems to me, is actually an anti-foundationalist one: we, as a department, recognize that canons are constructions; but this does not mean we must do away with anything that smacks of a survey course. Instead, we can agree upon a general set of works, periods, histories, etc that we believe an English major should encounter. By exploring these works, periods, histories, an English major will be in a better position to develop those skills that we see as important. Put in a different way, the point isn’t to check a bunch of boxes (You’ve now taken your course in the Medieval literature. Congratulations, you now know everything about that age! Move along). The point is that students will become better readers when they have a sense of how a particular work relates to other works, periods, etc. 

    If the word coverage conjures up a group of people who want to take us back to the days before the canon wars, it also suggests that those who oppose coverage would banish any talk of traditional literary periods, histories, etc. This too is a fiction. I can’t imagine a major in which students never hear that there was, say, a Romantic Period in British literature, that Shakespeare was an important, influential writer, that there’s such a thing as allusion and that you’re going to miss a lot in a work if you don’t pick up on the allusions. Nobody is going to advocate for a complete, anything goes model where every act of reading is done in isolation from broader trends, periods, and the like. Indeed, as I think Beth noted, the Amherst model could easily incorporate multiple survey courses; and many other courses would be built around what we now consider as traditional groupings. The point is simply that this type of model doesn’t make an understanding of literary periods the first priority.

    Obviously, we’ll need to think about our own priorities. And that’s something we’ll debate. In this entry, I’ve just tried to point out that, with all this talk about “coverage,” we risk sliding back into entrenched positions from the canon wars when, in fact, I think there’s a lot more agreement among our views than disagreement.

    1. Nicely put, Rob.

    2. This works for me. Thanks, Rob.