Modern lit classes needed
October 23, 2007
English majors have many classes to choose from and few core requirements. It’s obvious why — the faculty are so uniformly talented and the students so eagerly interested that a lot of learning is going to happen regardless of requirements. The English department is hugely popular on campus: about one in ten undergraduates is an English major and the department has such prestige that a friend of mine heard of it in Albany, NY, where he attended college until he transferred here to study English.
p. Recently, perusing the ways to fulfill one of these rare requirements — the single-author requirement, wherein a class intensively studies one author’s life and works — brought to my attention an idiosyncrasy of our otherwise fantastic department. All the literature we study is really, really old. Important, yes. Enjoyable, certainly. But ancient, truly ancient.
p. Of the 28 single-author classes offered over the past three years, the authors’ average birth year is 1663. That’s 30 years older than the College and over a century older than the Declaration of Independence. Only one of these authors was born after 1900: Umberto Eco, a 75-year-old writer whose chief work takes place in the 14th century.
p. There is no question that authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer are infinitely important to the study of literature as well as endlessly enjoyable to read. But literature, despite what our televisions would like us to believe, did not die with the invention of electricity.
p. The curriculum’s agedness is not limited to single-author classes. Majors are required to take two surveys of British literature, which begin with Beowulf, the first piece of English-language literature, but cease at 1800. What happened in 1801 that ended the merit of required-study British literature was not addressed in my otherwise fantastic class.
p. Upper-level classes are generally limited to one of three categories: the extremely old (Arthurian literature), the very old (Renaissance literature) and the merely old (modernist literature, largely written between the World Wars). “Modern Poetry” ends at 1930 and “Modern Drama” ends at 1940. The four courses covering American literature begin with Columbus’ arrival and end in the 1960s.
p. The enormous amounts of literature left out are crammed into a single survey course: Contemporary Literature. While the class is good, its burden is unreasonable, perhaps impossible. The literary developments of the last few decades have been so rich, so complex, so full of differing voices that to teach it all in one semester seems unrealistic. The decision to relegate an era of literature to one class represents a refusal to address recent developments, particularly postmodernism — a movement begun in the 1960s, and a four-letter word in Tucker Hall.
p. To be fair, the task of teaching postmodernism is not easy. Most critics argue over its basic contours, and it will likely be decades before consensus emerges. But some critics and many readers believe postmodernism has come and gone. Whether it is succeeded by “performativism,” “new sincerity” or, God forbid, “postpostmodernism,” the fact remains that students deserve a class to fully examine the closing decades of postmodernist literature.
p. There is no doubt that such a class would be popular among English students. Every contemporary literature class fills up in moments, as does the occasional course that hints at covering recent authors, such as “Magic and History,” which lists Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its course description. We want to learn about recent literature, hunger for it, need to hear that more is happening with today’s novel than “Harry Potter.” I joked to a group of English majors about a single-author course on Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut, and the drool on their chins was heavy and real. Never has a group of students been so desperate to learn.
p. Could you imagine an art history department that focused on Renaissance paintings, or that only taught the last 50 years of art in a single class? What about a history department that didn’t teach anything that happened after 1969? Or a science department that largely ignored scientific developments of the last few decades? Shouldn’t the study of literature be concerned with the present and past, especially when that literary present is as rich and deep as our own?
p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__