English Department Alters Curriculum Requirements

The English Department voted last Thursday to implement a revised curriculum that eliminates core text requirements and places more emphasis on skills and “dispositions,” beginning in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Discussions about the curriculum have been happening for more than three years, but following several small changes, the question of core texts had always remained, according to Jeffrey Domina, Instructor and Chair in English.

This question was resolved as part of a six part proposal that Domina presented to the entire English faculty. Nineteen instructors voted in favor of the changes, five instructors voted against the proposal and two instructors abstained from voting.

In previous years, English 100 and 300 revolved around core texts that all instructors were required to teach, such as “The Odyssey,” “Oedipus Rex,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Hamlet.”

This change aims to ensure that instructors are able to expose students to wider range of literature, rather than focusing on specifically Western literature, according to Domina. Curriculum revision included a renewal of the English Department’s “commitment to teaching a wide range of literature.”

“The goal in removing the required core texts is, first, we don’t want the Course of Study or any formal institutional document to communicate to our students that we think only Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer and Chaucer are the most valuable or the most worthwhile. But if I make the decision to teach it in the context of all the other things I’m teaching, then it is less likely to communicate to the students that it’s all about dead white guys,” continued Domina.

He continued, “This really is a way of making sure that students are exposed to all kinds of stuff. Old and new, different genres, poetry, novels, drama, stuff written by men, stuff written by women, stuff written by Americans and stuff written by people all over the world.”

As a component of this change, the required themes for the year-long English 300 course will be discontinued. English 300 classes currently cover romance and tragedy in the fall, comedy and satire in the winter and Shakespeare in the spring. Instructors will not need to adhere to this specific progression of themes next year.

The department restructured the curriculum so that it would more closely align with its Major Curricular Goals document. The document lists several characteristics and English skills that instructors hope students will develop by the time of their graduation, according to Domina.

Called “dispositions” in the document, the characteristic goals include objectives such as engaging ethical issues with openness and confidence, moving beyond comfort zones and empathizing with others’ experiences.

English skills include reading carefully and perceptively, demonstrating literary insight into reading, writing effectively and confidently in various modes, demonstrating an ability for analysis, using powerful vocabulary and thinking critically about literary work with rigorous and genuine questions.

“We reached a point at which we wanted to make a change to that system that we thought would articulate a curriculum that’s truer to what we really do,” said Domina.

“For us [The curriculum change] is a great opportunity to do what we have already been doing and to do it better for all our students. We’re going to keep on teaching Shakespeare because we love his work, but it’s going to be more balanced in how it shares a position with other great literature. This isn’t about teaching lame literature; this is about great literature, but a slightly broader definition of it will challenge us to do even better in pursuing these dispositions and skills,” said Domina.

According to Domina, even though the organizing themes and core texts will not be required next year, their use or role in English courses will certainly not be discouraged.

“It would be regrettable if people misunderstood. None of this is to discourage anyone from teaching Shakespeare. As we have said a number of times in meetings, ‘Shakespeare is not under threat,’” said Domina.

The English Department will begin to offer at least one 500-level elective course on Shakespeare’s work each term. There is currently one annual Shakespeare elective in the spring.

“Shakespeare is unique among these required core authors because of his special place in English as a discipline. Shakespeare and his works are almost an area of study in themselves,” said Domina.

The structure of English 200 will remain unchanged. According to Domina, the English 200 curriculum is in line with the Major Curricular Goals document. In the fall, the focus of English 200 is on different rhetorical modes. In the winter, it is on reading and writing poetry, and in the spring, the focus will be on short and long fiction.

Domina held an open meeting on Wednesday for students and faculty, to present the changes formally and to respond to questions and concerns about the curriculum changes.