English, Redefined, at Harvard

New proposed curriculum for majors would replace historical survey courses with a series of smaller seminars, prompting questions on what's lost as well as gained.
December 8, 2008

“Losing the Canon?” prompts a provocative subhead in a Thursday Harvard Crimson article.

“The simple answer to that question is no. We’re not losing the canon, we’re just not doing things the same way anymore,” said Daniel Donoghue, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in Harvard University’s English department.

“This is one of those strange disconnects, not so strange, I guess,” mused Donoghue. “We went through a rather elaborate process to revise our entire undergraduate program. The immediate reception of it is we are eliminating these two longstanding, large British survey lecture courses. That was almost the beginning and end of interest in this new program.”

A proposed new undergraduate English curriculum for majors (or, in Harvard’s terms, concentrators) would indeed replace current requirements, including the standard historical survey courses – in major British writers and American literature -- with a set of four seminars, of 25 students or less. “Part of it is the pedagogy,” said Donoghue. “We’re trying to move away from the large impersonal lecture courses to smaller courses that may still be lecture courses, but students have a much greater chance of getting into dialogue with the professor either in class or outside of class.”

The plan, approved by the English department in a vote last week, is still pending consideration by the university-wide Educational Policy Committee, which meets in February. In the interval, professors are declining to discuss specifics of the proposed new program.

However, that same Harvard Crimson article includes a two-page document outlining the proposed changes. Under the plan, the four core seminars would be centered on the themes of Arrivals (“There is no such thing as writing that is indigenous or ‘native’ to England...”), Poets, Diffusions (“Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, English spread around the globe...”) and Shakespeares. Under the current plan, the set of four seminars would replace the historical survey courses and a sophomore seminar on methodology, and students would have more space for electives.

“We are diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organizing rubric ... to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature,” said Donoghue.

Asked if he still thinks of the four proposed seminars as “survey courses,” he thought for a moment and then cited the breadth of content to be covered, according to the current proposal. “Let's go to Diffusions. It's highly unlikely that there would be a professor who focuses exclusively on Emily Dickinson and her legacy.... All of these courses, as we imagine them right now, would at least have the ambition of a survey, whether or not you recognize it as a survey.”

Consider the written description of the proposed Arrivals course, for instance, which stipulates an expectation of "a very wide chronological range, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to Milton," and lists old standbys as possible texts -- Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Meanwhile, the description of the Poets course states that consideration should be given to works of several centuries (and suggests, as possible readings, such canonical texts as "selected Canterbury Tales" and Yeats’s poetry).

“We also hope that every common-ground course (not just Arrivals) will devote some attention to the ever-changing miracle behind everything we do, the English language itself,” states the document's conclusion.

Rosemary G. Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, said she saw links and synergies between what Harvard’s English department is proposing and wider discussions in the field. She said the MLA is encouraging faculty "to ask what is our discipline today."

“The bigger frame question is how do faculty members in a discipline rethink the presentation of that discipline as time goes on? That’s the meta-question that Harvard is dealing with.”

Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written extensively on teaching literature (and currently serves as the MLA's president), said that there has been a movement away from the historical survey course, stemming from the 1960s.

“I know that’s been greatly lamented by some traditionalists. What those who lament the demise of the survey never confront, I don’t think, is that the traditional survey was often very unsuccessful -- students didn’t come away from the survey course often with a very sharp sense of history,” said Graff. “In principle, I agree with the people who say that a thematic focus actually gives you some advantages in teaching historical perspective because you can contrast, or compare and contrast, the way medieval writers versus modern writers teach the same theme. And you often lose that sense of comparison and contrast in a historical survey.”

Counting himself among the proponents of the traditional core curriculum, Christopher B. Lacaria, a senior history concentrator at Harvard, saw the proposed shift as further evidence of relativism at the university -- “the fact that Harvard doesn’t feel like it has any responsibility to say what ought to be learned.” The New Yorker recently quoted Lacaria's Crimson op-ed on the subject in a short, tongue-in-cheek piece, “Decline of Civilization Dept.: Harvard ‘Eviscerates Liberal Education.' ”

“I’m sort of concerned that the [new] categories are somewhat amorphous,” Lacaria said in an interview. Speaking of the proposed “Shakespeares” course as one example, “A course in Hamlet,” he said, “would fill the same basic requirement for an English major as a course on sex in Shakespeare or something else trendy that they like to study in literature these days.”


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