Loosen the Requirements, Lose the Rigor

Last week, the Forum published an opinion piece calling for the Literature department to restructure its major in favor of contemporary works.

I am like a student of any other major: I cannot expect to love every class that I take.  I know plenty of pre-med students that hate organic chemistry but have to take it anyway.  I don’t know why literature majors would expect to be any different. Sometimes, education can be tough and not particularly fun. I’m not a huge fan of T.S. Eliot or Edmund Spenser, but I realize that they are both people I need to read, especially as someone interested in modern poetry and Paradise Lost. Literature builds on itself. The works of an author like J.M. Coetzee may be much more accessible to a modern reader in terms of style than the work of Daniel Defoe, but I think it would be very hard for a reader to have a full understanding of Coetzee’s novel Foe without being familiar with Defoe’s work. Foe, after all, is based on Robinson Crusoe and even has Daniel Defoe as a major character.

Reading through the literary canon may be a slog at times, but I know there’s a pay off. Even a rebellious and revolutionary poet like Allen Ginsberg can point back to someone who might considered old, like Walt Whitman, as an important influence. The course requirements at CMC may tend towards older work, but  that work makes up the very foundation of our literary tradition. This is a great thing for discussion based literature classes. Reading requirements pull students together and give them common ground. A student that has read The Odyssey has a base of knowledge that can be used in classes stretching from the classical world to our contemporary one and spanning authors from Homer, to Dante, to Tennyson, and Joyce. It is for this reason, I think, that the discussions in my CMC literature classes have been, on the whole, better than the discussions in my Pomona English classes.

While I’m glad that we offer courses tailored to suit student tastes, there are other factors to consider when structuring a major. While 20th century authors are generally much easier to read than older works, 70 to 80 percent of the material on the literature subject GRE was written before 1925. A student can focus on post-modernism or post-colonialism all he or she wants, but that could leave a huge, crippling gap in a student’s knowledge. Is it really acceptable for CMC to structure a major in a way that could leave students entirely unready to continue their studies on the graduate level, without significant additional study before applying?

While I realize that a lot of institutions have decided to forgo certain course requirements, CMC offers something special. We have a major that forces the school to preserve the specialties of each department and forces students to take certain foundational courses. At the same time, we also have a major that allows students and faculty to branch outward to other subjects. We are a college that offers courses on both Milton and post-war Polish poetry. We offer a traditional liberal arts foundation without placing  onerous requirements on our students. Lovers of contemporary literature, if they structure their classes correctly, could take a total of four classes (about half of the major) on contemporary work while still getting the fundamentals the college deems important. In the CMC major, there is plenty of room for a student to study what they love.

All this is not say that there are not some changes that could be made to the literature major. I think the addition of a creative writing sequence would make a lot of students happy. It could be a less structured way of studying literature and focusing on creative work. I also think that because we are a Literature rather than an English department, literature classes in foreign languages should count  towards a literature elective. Both of these options have huge possibilities for growth. There are, perhaps, other changes to make. But taking all the structure out of the major isn’t one of them. Loosening the requirements of the literature major would take away its most unique and essential element: creating a foundation for critiquing and understanding the contemporary literature that so many of us love.