I should preface this article by saying that I am a Literature major, and I love the Literature department at CMC. So far, I haven’t had a single bad professor. But I think I could love it more.
Last year, I took a British Fiction of the 1980s class, where I had the privilege of reading relevant, interesting fiction by authors like J.M. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie. I became acquainted with British politics, history, and culture in the 1980s and learned much more from that class than I thought I would.
It wasn’t until this class, until I was weeping over The Remains of the Day, that I realized I could really intensely enjoy my Literature classes, that I would want to do the homework and reading for these classes.
Unfortunately, the CMC Literature major consists of several required courses whose subjects often tend toward older British writers. As is, the CMC Literature major is too confining and should either be completely restructured – similar to the construct of Pomona or Scripps’s major – or should favor more general electives in its requirements.
The Literature Department offers an array of interesting courses and is composed of talented faculty. However, a lot of these courses–the more modern Literature courses that appeal to students–cannot count toward the Literature major. By adding new contemporary literature electives and offering students more choice, the department could make room for more types of Literature electives.
The CMC Literature major consists of seven required courses: two required survey courses, British Writers I and British Writers II and a few elective courses that fulfill the pre-1700 Lit course requirement or single author course. The major has two electives as well. Two.
Conversely, Pomona College’s English department requires 11 courses for the major, which consists of three required courses and “eight additional courses,” which each major selects after consulting with his or her advisor. Scripps College also requires a minimum of 11 courses for the major, constituting five survey courses in British or American Literature and four electives, with the last two reserved for thesis.
CMC’s Literature Department used to be structured similarly, with five survey courses and the rest electives. According to Professor John Farrell, the current chair of the Literature Department and a Literature professor at CMC for 22 years, this policy changed in the mid-1990s because the department felt like they were teaching too many survey courses and wanted to go more in depth in other subject areas.
“Surveys have their purpose, which is to orient you in a grand way with the subject,” Professor Farrell explained. He also noted that the classes were getting too big, and the department thought it was better to switch to a two-semester survey course.
Survey courses, generally, are more limiting than the elective style courses CMC currently offers. For example, students have to take British Writers I and British Writers II, but then can choose which elective they take that falls under the category of a pre-1700 Lit course. In a way, survey courses can be more restrictive, but the existence of survey courses allows more electives and less restrictive elective courses (like a 1700-1900 elective, which the Lit department currently requires).
Farrell also emphasized the importance of reading authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. “All the modern writers read Chaucer, and all the great writers before them,” he explained. “You can’t read modern authors without reading these.”
While I agree with the basic premise, I think that message can, and has, been taken too far. There is a reason authors no longer write in the style of Daniel Defoe or Henry James. Literature has developed, I would argue, for the better, and it is a shame that more of our classes shy away from these incredible new novelists. Studying the “grand” writers of the past seems to overemphasize their historical importance, which in turn underemphasizes the literary merit of newer writers.
Farrell noted that there is generally high demand for Literature courses, and that most classes don’t have a problem reaching capacity. While this may be the case, the narrowness of the CMC major might still deter students from majoring in Literature.
While it is important to read original, classic authors, it is equally important to read authors who currently demonstrate a mastery of the English language. I will always love Jane Austen and appreciate her development of complex, interesting characters, but she can’t make me cry like Jonathan Safran Foer does.