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English department head Laura Knoppers discusses changes to English curriculum

| Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Notre Dame English department’s new curriculum requirements look to put a greater focus on “multiculturalism,” department head Laura Knoppers stated during an interview with The Observer. 

“As a discipline, [English is] very attuned to social issues,” Knoppers said.

Recently, the department instituted a number of changes for the required courses for the class of 2025 and beyond. Students are no longer required to take at least one course in both British and American literature. Instead, students are simply required to take two “cultures” courses, one of which must be focused on “race, ethnicity and indigeneity.” 

The requirement to take one course on literature in the period before 1500, one course in the period between 1500 and 1700 and one course in the period between 1700 and 1900 has also been eliminated. Now, students only need to take two courses on literature in the period before 1800. The poetry requirement is also a thing of the past. 

Knoppers described three major reasons for the changes to the English curriculum, the first of which being a change in the discipline of English as a whole.

“The discipline of English has changed and continues to change,” Knoppers said. “It’s become much more global, much more diverse.”

Knoppers also pointed to the younger, more diverse faculty that have been brought on board as a motivator for the change.

Most importantly, though, Knoppers stressed that the changes were primarily the result of feedback from current English majors and changing student interest.

“We had a meeting with the majors. And one thing that majors said, as a group, was that they wanted [the curriculum] to be less British, American and canonical,” she said. “They wanted it to be more global and more multi-ethnic and more concerned with issues that they felt were very relevant.”

Hearing student feedback prompted the department to institute changes that it had been hoping to implement for some time, Knoppers said. First on this list was making it easier for English majors to concentrate in creative writing.

“We wanted to better integrate creative writing and literature courses,” Knoppers said. “One of the concerns that came up about the old structure was that to be a creative writing concentrator, you had to take all of the English literature requirements, plus extra.”

Under the new curriculum, creative writing concentration requirements overlap with major requirements, thus lightening the course load for students interested in the concentration.

The second change was the diversity requirements for the major.

Knoppers explained that the old diversity requirements had been written about 15 years ago, and she described them as “anemic.” 

“It just wasn’t really pushing people into multi-ethnic literature or conversations where they would talk about race,” she stated. “We really needed to make that robust and reflect and lean into the steps of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Knoppers also said that some of the themes of the curriculum are “environmental studies, gender, sexuality and disability.”

Thirdly, Knoppers said the department changed the literary history requirements in order to make the major more flexible.

“There was a very precise delineation of early literary historical periods. It was hard to navigate for students when their other classes were set, and they had to take specifically a course in medieval, specifically a course in early modern,” Knoppers said. “Now they can move around.” 

Knoppers stressed that the department still puts a great emphasis on the classical literature of the language despite the changes.

“You can’t lose that earlier period because all the writers that are writing later are reading in that tradition, and that’s always been a strength here. And we definitely want to still help students in those early period courses,” she said.

At the same time though, Knoppers did say the department is focusing more on modern literature as opposed to classics.

“In general, in order to broaden out to more contemporary literature, I think there is a shift,” she said.

Ultimately, Knoppers emphasized that there is still great value in an English major in this day and age and urged students to consider it.

“There are lots of things you can do with an English major, but particularly for students who double major, it teaches them to think clearly, write clearly, use evidence, analyze texts and communicate clearly. And those are skills that carry across a whole spectrum of careers and everything from any career,” Knoppers said.

Knoppers also made the case that majoring in English can lead to greater understanding of different peoples.

“English allows students to explore other worlds, to inhabit other perspectives and to develop an understanding and empathy of people who are different from themselves or worldviews that are different from their own,” Knoppers said.

While Knoppers touted the benefits of the English major, she clarified that the changes to the curriculum requirements were not part of an attempt to increase the number of English majors. 

“This was obviously something that we wanted to do. But we were not primarily motivated by numbers. We were motivated by pedagogical reasons and ethical reasons to change the curriculum,” she said.

Although Knoppers said that she does hope that the number of English majors increases, the changes were primarily an attempt to get students to focus on “the social justice aspect of the mission at Notre Dame.”

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