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English revises major curriculum

The English department will be overhauling its major with what Director of Undergraduate Studies Ian Baucom called a "significant reimagination of the curriculum."

The revised major, approved last month by the University, will model itself in part on the freshman FOCUS Program, asking students to concentrate on a specific topic through focus clusters of about three linked courses.

"What we're going to do is ask students to pursue some common question or thematic across the subfield," Baucom said.

Possible clusters include The History of the Book, Creative Writing, Theory of the Novel, Gender and Sexuality, The Science of Literature, and Psychoanalysis and Literature. Students will also have the option to design their own focus in a chosen field.

"[The new plan] provides a much more imaginative course of study," said Susan Willis, associate professor of English. "Students map their curriculum rather than take courses by rote."

Several professors said another benefit of the cluster system would be increased conversation and collaboration among faculty and students. Classes within a given cluster will apply fundamental texts used in previous cluster classes, giving each focus some structural coherence. "[The cluster system signals] a willingness to work together as more of an intellectual community, rather than a group of disparate scholar-critics," said Maureen Quilligan, chair of the department.

English is the first major to explicitly model itself upon the freshman FOCUS program, though Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson said he hopes more programs follow the department's lead.

"For a number of years, we have been thinking about ways to develop clusters beyond freshman year," Thompson said. "I think we should see more of that."

The main difficulty for the new system will be putting the vision into practice. Professors will be creating new courses, discarding others, and revising their syllabi to varying degrees to accommodate clusters. Baucom said it may take three to four years to implement the curriculum fully.

For the time being, professors seem solidly in favor of the changes, with Quilligan reporting a renewed sense of excitement in the department. The faculty reached its consensus over the course of a year of extensive discussions, which culminated in what Willis called a "euphoric" day-long retreat.

Before this change, the English curriculum had not undergone a substantial shift in 20 years.

"We have grown with the times," Willis said. "But the way our major was defined looked like a fossil."

The department tweaked the major in other ways besides the new focus program, creating more numerous but also more flexible requirements. Gone is the old requirement of at least one course in the work of Shakespeare, Chaucer or Milton; the new curriculum assumes these authors will be read and does not prescribe a course, Baucom said. And the former requirement of two courses on pre-1900 British literature has given way to a broader requirement of literature--from any English-speaking culture--across the history of English.

"What we've tried to do is ensure the major is reflective of the broad global range of English literatures," Baucom said.

The apparently increased set of requirements sets the stage for possible student backlash, however, Willis admitted. But he added that the perception of more requirements is misleading.

"Students have to get over the initial perception that English is asking for more requirements," Willis said. "English is asking students to make more choices within required categories."

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