Goldberg: Outdated curriculum readjusted

The English department is going to be shaking things up regarding major and minor requirements in the near future. Students will autonomously generate their own curricula through a continuous process of organic self-reflection instead of following an already mapped-out curriculum of requirements such as a course in British literature before 1700, two courses in American literature and a 300-level Shakespeare course.

This change in curriculum requirements is a movement out of an outdated conception of what English and literary studies is and as such is a welcomed transformation. Even if English is merely the study of texts, our definition of text has changed greatly to include so many more kinds of things in recent decades that the concept of reading has itself taken on new meaning. We read stories and poems on printed pages, but we also read cultures, films and digital pages. Our curriculum should reflect this change, rather than try to stuff all of these new senses of what reading is into old boxes.

The new English curriculum will allow students to let their own interests guide their paths through the major. For example, someone who is interested in the ways in which gender, sex and sexuality are performed by fictional characters and how such fictional performances are related to the political discourse in which the texts are situated can take courses explicitly focused on these kinds of issues. Along the way, this person will likely read literature from the American and British canons (Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf), as well as "non-traditional" literature (Jamaica Kincaid and Maxine Kingston), and even some Shakespeare plays ("Twelfth Night" and "Macbeth"). The idea that not requiring a variety of different kinds of literature will result in students not experiencing certain genres or authors is misguided.   

This is because students' curricula will be organized around critical questions and issues, rather than particular genres, periods or authors. This is, in fact, better preparation for graduate study in English. On another level, it also forces students to critically reflect on what literary studies actually does for them, a question which is too often too easily forgotten about by literature students. Being able to offer an interesting analysis of James Joyce's use of language in chapter 7 of Ulysses is valuable intellectual work, but what does it do? What can be taken away from it? Or, to put it even more succinctly, "so what?"

Back to the idea of potentially not experiencing certain genres or authors: again, so what? What is the huge loss if I never read a Shakespeare play (assuming that's even possible)? Now personally, I love Shakespeare; I think his plays are related to pretty much any topic you'd be interested in investigating, but he's not a necessary tool to have in one's literary tool-belt. That doesn't mean you shouldn't read his stuff, but you don't have to if you don't want. Of course, it's still an option – a really good one, in my opinion – to read something by The Bard. Or not. That depends on your critical questions and academic interests.