Faculty makes changes to English, history majors

The English and history departments have both proposed substantial reorganizations of their programs for next year. The English department has redefined its distribution requirements, made the major seminar an elective and will require “Gateway” courses for majors. The history department has reworked its course numbering system and developed a list of 18 fields of concentration. Majors must either choose from these concentrations or receive departmental permission to concentrate outside of them.

Last year, the English department designated certain 200-level classes as “Gateway” classes, which are intended to introduce students to critical and historical approaches to the study of English. This year, the department has proposed making a Gateway class a requirement for the major.

“In the past there was a strong idea that English should be taught in survey classes but what those classes should include has always been controversial,” said professor Christopher Pye, chair of the English department. “Ethnic literature, literature by women and other categories have often been neglected by surveys. Through the ‘Gateway’ classes, we hope to give all English majors a degree of common background in that all majors will have had an introduction to the skills and approaches we feel are at the heart of the matter without proscribing their entire course of study.”

The department has also made the major seminar an elective, rather than a required course.

“The faculty considers the major seminar very valuable,” Pye said. “It is a small class oriented around a clear focus. We’re making it voluntary and encouraging students considering pursuing honors or graduate work to take it. We’re making it optional because adding the ‘Gateway’ courses draws on our limited faculty resources and because, while the seminar acted as a common experience for all majors, it came comparatively late in the major.”

English professor Anita Sokolsky, who currently teaches the major seminar “Melancholy and History” said, “I like the idea of all majors having an intense, research paper-centered experience at the point they all are majors but in practice, because students have often been assigned

to classes they weren’t excited about, there can be a sense of dutifullness about it. Additionally, it can be hard to teach a major seminar in which the students all have a different background with respects to criticism. Gateway classes should lessen this disparity.”

The department has also rearranged its period distribution requirements. Previously, majors took three pre-1800 classes and one 1800-1900 class. Now majors will be required to take two pre-1700 classes, two 1700-1900 classes and one course focused on modern literature.

“These changes will make the system less idiosyncratic,” Pye said. “Some students felt that the lack of a modern requirement suggested that the department didn’t view 20th century literature as ‘real literature.’ The majority of majors already take a class that falls into this category, so by requiring it, the department is showing that it values modern literature.”

The history department has reworked its course numbering system and created a list of concentrations for majors to choose from.

Brown Professor of History William Wagner, chair of the department said, “Over the past year and a half, the department has been examining both radical and minor changes to the major but at the end of the day, we decided that as it stood, the major was almost as good as it could be.”

One change to the history major is that the department has identified 18 concentrations for majors to choose from. The concentrations consist of three courses linked either topically or geographically. If a student wishes to pursue a concentration outside the ones that have been selected by the department, he or she must present a petition to the department. Concentration topics include “Asia and the Asian Diaspora,” “Gender and Sexuality” and “Urban and Environmental History.”

“Ideally, students would take a 100, 200 and 300-level course within their concentration but we realize that since course offerings change it is not always possible to plan this,” Wagner said. “By designating possible fields of concentration, we hoped to make the concentration more formal and more meaningful.”

The second change in the department is its new numbering schemata. The 100-level courses are driven more by pedagogy than by content and are intended as an introduction to the methods of history. The 200-levels are broad survey courses while the 300-level are more clearly focused. The 400-level courses, which used to be the 350s, are seminars that will allow opportunities for students to conduct their own research and produce an in-depth examination of one topic. The courses at each level are grouped by geographic region. For example, all the classes dealing with the United States are between the numbers 52 and 91: 152-191, 252-291, etc.

Wagner said, “The new numbering system doesn’t alter any of the requirements – it is intended to indicate to students how the curriculum fits together and what kind of sequences they can pursue. The course catalogue looks as if the whole major has been changed but it’s really just been rearranged – like pieces on a chessboard. I think it makes a lot of sense but we’ll have to wait and see if it works.”