English department seeks to overhaul major

On Tuesday March 12 the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee passed a proposal submitted by the English department for a refurbished English major to take effect spring 2014. 

This marks the first step in the proposal’s trajectory, which will now be passed to the College Senate for two readings and a voting process.

According to professor and Chair of English Paul Schacht the process began in the 2010-11 academic year, and was precipitated by the SUNY-wide initiative “Six Big Ideas” to get colleges to think creatively about financial difficulties. 

One such idea was to change the semester student course load from five courses to four. Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Long said that she asked departments throughout campus to devise a plan concerning what their program might look like should this idea come to fruition. 

While the initiative did not prove viable, Long still offered the option for departments to submit proposals for curriculum innovation grants. 

“We used this as an opportunity in English to go back to square one in thinking about how our major is structured and why,” Schacht said. 

According to Schacht, from both the disciplinary perspective and the students’ perspective, the current major is not organized on the best design principles. 

“The design principle of the current major is the principle of coverage,” Schacht said. “The idea is that English is field of knowledge and students need to ‘cover’ it. The meaning of the major is reduced to properly distributing yourself among these courses.”

Currently, the major is separated into category requirements, including two national categories, two chronological categories, selected major authors and a category for Shakespeare. 

Alternatively, Schacht explained that the new English major would be designed around definable skills and knowledge. Together, the English faculty established learning outcomes – the things students should be able to do and know after obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in English. 

According to Schacht, these skills include the ability to read texts closely and write about them critically, contribute something to the larger conversation of a literary text, relate literature to history, society and culture and the ability to investigate a topic of literature in depth.  

These skills will be reflected in the learning outcomes of each course level, for which the new major will have four. Additionally, many courses will be labeled as “early,” “modern,” and “recent,” and students must have one course from each historical category. 

“The idea is that each level builds upon the skills of the one before,” Schacht explained. “We’re replacing coverage with outcomes, while we’re replacing the distribution logic with a discovery logic.” 

Aside from a shift away from the “coverage” approach, the major will also feature a shift from three-credit courses to four, structured around the Western Humanities sequence. 

“We decided we could do what we’re doing better if each course had more time, especially if we could use that time to engage students in certain kinds of innovative – high-impact or transformational – learning,” Schacht said. “Things like undergraduate research, service learning, hybrid pedagogy and individual conferences with faculty.”

According to professor of English Rachel Hall, this will be a beneficial transformation.

“One of the things that we emphasize in this department is writing,” Hall said. “Different stages in the writing process really require one-on-one time. A lot of us have been struggling with how to best teach writing for a long time – this allows that opportunity.”

“The point is that you get to choose and the burden is on you to find something meaningful in those choices,” Schacht said. “Presumably, you’re choosing in accordance with how your interests are growing and developing. It should be your engagement with the material that’s driving how you move through the [new] major.”