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English major to get ‘historic’ changes


After months of faculty discussion and student feedback, Stanford’s English department has revamped its curriculum for English majors.

One of the most notable features of student responses contributed to the creation of a new team-taught, three-quarter-long course that is expected to provide students with a historical narrative of English literature since the middle ages. It is the biggest requirement change to the major.

“One thing students told us was that they were not satisfied with the depth of their historical knowledge…they wanted a big perspective on English literary history, and they weren’t getting it from the old requirements,” said Jennifer Summit, the chair of the department.

The relevance of history to literary study has been a subject of debate within the discipline for decades.

In all, the new major will require three methodology courses, six emphasis electives, four historical courses–three of which will be fulfilled by the core–and one senior seminar, in which students will work closely with a faculty member on that professor’s research interests.

English major Katie Hanigan ‘12 is happy with the changes, saying the type of background knowledge afforded by the new curriculum is conducive to forming a greater appreciation for the works.

“In my T.S. Eliot class, the teacher includes a lot of history in her lectures, and in a lot of ways, it makes the poetry and novels more accessible,” she said. “If you don’t know the historical background of something, it can be hard to decipher what’s happening or what the author is trying to argue,” Hanigan said.

Faculty also examined the surveys and transcripts of recent graduates and learned that most English majors took more than the 12 required courses to complete the major–an indication that more units could be required, said Nicholas Jenkins, an English professor who teaches “Poetry and Poetics,” a part of the new core.

The new English major will therefore require 14 courses. Although the new core will provide more structure to the curriculum, the expansion of the major will simultaneously increase opportunities for elective courses within the major.

Undergraduate Student Services Specialist Katie Dooling said that the department is eager to help students plan their academic path.

“I would say the core would be ideal for a sophomore, but it really can be taken at any time,” Dooling said. “We’re going to be flexible about it. We understand students go abroad, and not everybody knows what their major will be at the beginning of sophomore year.”

The changes have generated excitement among faculty.

“Obviously, we’re hoping that it’s exciting for the students…that’s why we’re doing it,” Jenkins said. “But it’s exciting for us too. Any time you do something new, there’s a surge of energy…we’re doing things in the department that we’ve never done before.”

Summit, who said she has had invitations from around the country to talk about Stanford’s efforts and recently published an article on the initiative, echoed the enthusiasm.

“You look across our faculty, and these are the leaders in the discipline,” Summit said. “We wanted to bring the intellectual energy of what our faculty are doing in the profession to undergraduates.”

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