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English department denies religious focus

Kathleen McDonnell | Wednesday, April 4, 2007

While junior English students in need of a senior writing seminar may have been surprised to see three of the four fall seminars focusing – to some degree – on elements of religion, the content of these classes has more to do with individual professors’ areas of interest or expertise rather than a push to include more “Catholic” classes, said Susan Harris, chair of the Undergraduate Studies committee for the English department.

While discussions about Notre Dame’s Catholic character may result in an increased focus on Catholic issues in the classroom, Harris said that does not translate into direct pressure from the administration for curriculum changes.

Instead, Harris attributed the number of religiously-themed courses to the English faculty, which boasts a number of professors with particular specializations in religion and literature, Harris said. Additionally, she said some areas of study require religious query. Harris said it is difficult to assess the literature of the Middle Ages without taking Christianity into account.

Even when there isn’t a direct religious connection, she said, questions along theological lines may result from literature’s inquiries into the meaning of existence.

“Even courses that don’t necessarily advertise [as specifically Catholic] can still connect to those theological questions,” Harris said.

Following the debate that University President Father John Jenkins’ “Closing Statement” on academic freedom sparked in January of 2006 and the announcement of increased efforts to recruit more Catholic faculty last September, the question of the role that Catholicism will play on an intellectual level for Notre Dame has been a topic for much discussion.

The discussions on Catholic character “are playing a role but not one that is easy to summarize” for building academic curriculum, Harris said.

“It often comes up in faculty meetings,” she said. “We are talking about what Catholic character means for the University and what it might mean for the department.”

The department, however, has never felt any pressure to tailor offerings to the administration’s preferences, Harris said.

“There has never been any micromanagement from the top,” she said.

The department, she said, does not steer its classes toward a particular direction in which the University may be heading, but it is “trying to get involved in the conversation” and is using the discussions of the University’s character and mission to engage its students.

“It is something that students are interested in,” she said. “[The academic freedom debate] sparked discussion in all of my classes.”

Since Notre Dame has had religion and literature as a specialization historically – it is even its own interdisciplinary minor – it is difficult to determine whether there has really been an increase in Catholic courses and if it’s specifically due to increased discussion about Notre Dame’s Catholic character, Harris said.

Several English students who were asked said they did not notice an increase in the number of courses with a religious affiliation offered for next semester.

The primary concern for the English department, Harris said, is ensuring all majors can fulfill the requirements to graduate.

In the English major, students have four required classes, five elective classes and one senior seminar. The content of the electives and the senior seminar is “more or less up to the individual professors,” she said.

In the long term, Harris said the department has been discussing putting together “a more organized set of offerings on religion and literature.” However, the Undergraduate Studies committee does not count creating courses with obvious connection to strictly Catholic ideas as its first priority.