Author: Michael Tonetti
Faculty in the English and Comparative Literary Studies (ECLS) department are revamping the ECLS major to bring new academic life into a department that both faculty and students feel has declined. The major will be renamed “English” and turn away from its current focus on comparative literature.
At an informational meeting last Thursday, professors from the department came together to explain to current ECLS majors the changes taking place. The meeting highlighted the rationale behind the change and the effects it will have for students.
According to Brown Family Professor of ECLS Warren Montag, it became evident after a comparison to peer institutions that the work required of ECLS students was not on par with similar majors at other schools.
“A number of [ECLS faculty] were concerned that the curriculum and the kind of work students were doing was not challenging enough,” Montag said. “Students weren’t reading enough; students weren’t writing enough.”
The senior comprehensive project (comps) is one area where students are not challenged, according to Montag. ECLS has eased their comprehensive requirement over the last 10 years.
“When I looked at other comps requirements at Oxy, the 15-page paper in ECLS [is] equivalent to around half of the least challenging comps, because a lot of them are 50 to 60 pages,” Montag said. “It’s just absurd.”
According to Montag, the new comp requirement will be 25 pages.
Some students agree with Montag on the lack of rigor currently present in the major while others simply feel it is a change that makes logical sense but will not heavily affect them.
“When I came into the major, there wasn’t really a comparative literature aspect to any of the classes I was taking, so the change to just ‘English’ made sense to me and didn’t affect me in any extreme way,” ECLS major Samantha Bellamy (sophomore) said. “Since I’m a Spanish minor and taking Spanish literature classes, I’m still able to indulge in some kind of comparative literature.”
Some graduating seniors support the change because they feel it will have a positive impact on the department moving forward.
“I think a shift to a more traditional approach to teaching English will be good for the department as it will allow English majors to develop themes and ideas for their comps projects throughout their four years at Oxy and not just in their last two semesters,” ECLS major Jasper Creegan (senior) said. “My biggest complaint has been the lack of individual mentorship [during comps], which I hope will be added as the department seeks to reinvent the rigor and legitimacy of the senior comps project.”
Montag stressed that ultimately, it was the ECLS students who were missing out in the department’s current configuration, because they were not being pushed to their full capacity.
“I don’t think the state of the department is because of the students,” Montag said. “I don’t think they’re incapable. On the contrary, I think in many ways, we’ve been holding them back by our curriculum.”
Another rationale behind the change was to ensure that the major met current disciplinary standards. In particular, faculty at the meeting felt the ancient literature component of the ECLS major was outdated and unimportant to the major.
“We did a comparison with our peer liberal arts institutions and major research universities and found we were singular in the requirement of an ancient literature course,” associate professor of ECLS Leila Neti said. “One of the reasons the ancient requirement is no longer is that it doesn’t reflect current disciplinary standards. If you look at a survey of professional output in terms of journal publications, in order to prepare students for degrees in either English or comp lit, ancient literature is really not crucial and could even have some potentially negative consequences.”
A large motivating factor for the change was the desire from faculty to give students a sense of how the discipline is actually practiced outside of the college. According to Montag, some students graduate from the department feeling ill-equipped for a future in the field. With the shift to an English major, Montag hopes that students will feel more prepared.
“There is at times a huge discrepancy between what happens at Oxy and what actually occurs in the outside world,” Montag said.
Current juniors and seniors will complete the ECLS major, and current sophomores and first years will have the choice between either ECLS or the new English major. Starting with the Class of 2018, all interested students will complete the new major.
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