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English majors to face changes

Joe Piarulli | Wednesday, March 8, 2006

An English degree from Notre Dame isn’t what it used to be. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Last spring, the English department voted to make changes to the requirements for English majors as a result of years of surveys and discussions. The changes will go into effect beginning Fall 2006.

According to Glenn Hendler, director of Undergraduate Studies in English, English majors have been notified via e-mail of the changes. The e-mails are slightly different for each class, since the changes will affect juniors much differently than freshmen, he said.

“The people it affects the most are going to be anyone who declares the major from now on, although … they won’t be involved in the transitions.”

The three changes include a new introductory course for all English majors, a restructuring of literary-history or “traditions” courses and limiting research seminars to seniors only.

The most noteworthy of the changes will abolish all methods courses in favor of English 30101, entitled “Introduction to Literary Studies,” which will act as a prerequisite for majors-level elective courses.

“The [introductory] course will significantly change students’ experience of the major in that it sets up a prerequisite structure so that in every elective there will be certain things that the professors can assume that all students know,” Hendler said.

Hendler said students and professors alike had been displeased with the lack of an introductory course. Though students were often satisfied with methods courses and professors, there simply was not enough standardization, he said.

“Often students spoke highly about their individual instructor and the individual course they’d taken, but when they talked to another student in another methods class, they didn’t feel like the two had much in common.”

Hendler said he hopes the introductory course will allow professors to focus on elective topics rather than reiterating more basic concepts like how to construct a bibliography.

Students who declared the English major before February 2006 will only be affected by this change if they did not take a methods course, in which case they will need to take the introductory course instead.

The second change is a reframing of survey courses to make them more flexible, Hendler said. “Traditions” courses will continue to be offered, but over time, there will be other ways to fulfill the literary history requirements.

“The canon of literature has expanded quite a lot in recent decades, and our survey courses, designated as ‘American Literary Traditions’ and ‘British Literary Traditions,’ left out whole regions of the world in which people were writing great literature,” Hendler said. “We’re committed to a breadth of knowledge but wanted to give faculty a little bit of leeway in how to map that broad knowledge.”

According to Hendler, most universities have a straightforward distribution requirement models, putting Notre Dame in the minority.

“Few people argued for [a distribution requirement model], in part because we were kind of committed to the survey, to the breadth of knowledge and a sense of literary history having some continuity,” he said. “In having survey courses we’re not unusual, but we’re in the smaller camp.”

The last change being implemented in Fall 2006 will block juniors from taking the research seminar, because it was felt that the research seminar is meant to be – according to the English Department Web site – “a capstone experience” and therefore should be taken during senior year. The only exception to this rule will be Honors students.

Hendler said the changes are “not drastic,” and will not seriously alter the complexion of the English major.

Sophomore Christopher Wodika said the changes probably will not make a big difference as he pursues his English degree.

“They don’t really affect me because most of the changes are to courses I’ve already taken,” he said. “The only thing that really affects me is the [research seminar] that I can only take senior year.”

It’s too early to know if the changes will be positive or negative, Wodika said.

“It’s hard to tell right now. They’re changing the ‘traditions’ courses to something else, but since they really haven’t changed those yet, I can’t really say.”

According to the English Department’s Web site, the current English major requirements after the changes are the “Introduction to Literary Studies” course, three literary-historical surveys, five elective courses in English and the research seminar to be taken senior year.

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