English class edits usual format

At first glance, the class that met in Saybrook College’s Lyceum Room Tuesday afternoon seemed like a typical seminar.

The topic of discussion — how literature becomes part of the canon and ends up on a college syllabus — did not raise many eyebrows among the 20 or so sophomores sitting around the table.

Then, a hand shot up. David Chernicoff ’07, brought up a book he had recently read that related to the discussion. The professor, rather than passing over the comment, turned to the blackboard.

“That sounds really great,” professor Amy Hungerford said, and promptly put the name of the book, “The Tipping Point,” and the author on the board, instructing students to write it down for reference later in the semester.

“I mentioned the book to make a point,” Chernicoff said later. “I was not expecting its immediate synthesis into the course.”

The exchange, an odd departure from the typical rigidity of course instruction, surprised Chernicoff. But the seminar, “Literature Now,” or “English 130,” aspires to just this sort of academic transparency.

Offered for the first time this semester, “Literature Now” is breaking all sorts of established norms, dissolving the barrier between academic advising and the classroom in an effort to help sophomores think seriously about their paths through higher education.

The brainchild of professor Amy Hungerford, the class functions both as an English seminar for sophomores and as a forum for academic advising. While reading the contemporary fiction of authors such as Philip Roth and Yann Martel, students will examine “the purpose of a liberal arts education.”

Approximately a third of students in the seminar, who preregistered in the fall, are Hungerford’s advisees. Although the advising component will not be graded, all the students will be expected in “good faith” to attend evening sessions and individual meetings, as well as to consider the process of education through reading and writing assignments.

“I thought: you build an interesting community in a seminar,” Hungerford said, explaining why she feels a seminar is a natural environment in which to advise students. “If it’s working well, students think of questions they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

An English professor in her sixth year at Yale, Hungerford said she drew inspiration for the course in part from her involvement on the 2003 Committee on Yale College Education. While the recommendations of the academic review, including freshman seminars and new language requirements, have begun to be incorporated into the Yale curriculum, changes in the advising system have been less visible. Sophomore year, especially — and the dreaded “slump” that often accompanies it — frequently leaves students feeling confused and ignored.

Hungerford took the review’s “commitment to strengthening undergraduate advising” to heart.

“Sophomore year is a difficult year for advising,” she said. “Sophomores are not really under the wing of a particular department or of the advising system in place for freshman.”

To strengthen her seminar’s cohesion, Hungerford said she decided to try basing the class in residential colleges. Berkeley and Saybrook Colleges co-sponsor the course, and a large number of the students in the class are members of the colleges.

But at an institution where tradition and established classes, such as Professor John Gaddis’ “Cold War” and “English 125″ reign supreme, students rarely like to hear the class they are taking is an experiment. And that, according to Hungerford, is exactly what “Literature Now” is: a quiet experiment.

“Nobody asked me to do this,” she said. “I did it for myself, for my students, and also because I know that I learned a lot from my colleagues.”

Hungerford is no stranger to experiments. English 127 or “Introduction to the Study of American Literature,” now a staple of the freshman English curriculum, came about as a result of the collaboration between Hungerford and her colleague professor Elizabeth Dillon.

So far, students say, the result of Hungerford’s latest experiment — a strange hybrid between advisory group, residential college seminar and English course — is like nothing they have experienced so far at Yale.

“I loved the first two seminars,” Gordon Jenkins ’07 said. “It doesn’t feel like a normal class, which is refreshing.”

Jenkins, who heard about the class after he e-mailed Hungerford looking for a sophomore advisor, said he entered the class choosing between English and Literature as his prospective majors.

Now planning to major in Literature, Jenkins said the class is helping him contemplate what to do with a “wishy-washy” humanities major after college.

In the end, Hungerford said, she hopes the course may serve as a blueprint for a larger program of sophomore advising, perhaps with a number of such seminars aimed toward different disciplines.

“I thought maybe I could do an experiment that would be helpful to my colleagues,” Hungerford said. “Change in a university is very slow and often happens from the ground up.”

English professor Amy Hungerford leads her “Literature Now” sophomore seminar, which innovatively blurs the boundaries between instruction and advising.
Lauren Fine
English professor Amy Hungerford leads her “Literature Now” sophomore seminar, which innovatively blurs the boundaries between instruction and advising.

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