A Tale of Two Majors

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Photo by Amanda Buckingham.

Maya Averbuch ’16 sat in a metal chair at the back of Blue State Coffee on Wall Street, her brown hair falling loosely to the sides of her face, a strand resting over her glasses. She is still unsure whether she will major in English or Literature, but she is sure of one thing: You cannot be expected to understand the implications of a character speaking in a specific meter if you are operating sans historical or literary context.

“In a paper I wrote for Introduction to the Study of Narrative [one of the Literature major prerequirements], I tried to say that one character who sings in metered verse is like a bard character,” she said, referring to the minstrels in Celtic, Scottish and Welsh literature. “But the comment I got back was ‘That’s completely out of place.’”

The literature course had not provided its students with an understanding of some sort of literary progression or context, so it was at times confusing, she said. In emphasizing breadth, the class was missing a certain type of depth. The English major falls on the other side of the spectrum, according to Averbuch.

“It’s very strange that one could be an English major and not read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy,” she says. “The English major assumes that it’s producing literary people, and it’s problematic that it excludes some of the most influential writers who are inevitably in conversation with each other.”

Her synopses illustrate a consensus amongst the Literature and English students interviewed: The Literature major, more flexible in requirements and courses, lends itself to breadth over depth; meanwhile, the English major has more rigid requirements, and often emphasizes depth to the detriment of embracing various time periods and genres. 

COMPARING HISTORIES

English professor David Kastan, a renowned Shakespearean scholar, stood before an audience of freshmen and sophomores gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. With pizza boxes empty and all seats taken, the English major information session was well on its way, but Kastan had seemingly gotten off message. He was talking about deer. Or more precisely the gory details of how he and his wife had hit a deer on their way back to New Haven, and how it all happened because, in the midst of mating season, this female deer was trying her best to escape from a sexually deprived male deer. This was the reason he was late, he informed everyone before he dove into the story. It was all very long and very compelling, and Kastan was at his best, holding captive faculty and students with high expectations for the way language is sculpted. But it seemed entirely unrelated to English. Until the punch line.

“And that’s why you should major in English,” he said. The room collectively, but individually, parsed the meaning of the sentence, rewinding. You should be an English major because it teaches you how to tell stories, he was saying.

The Yale English Department, consistently ranked one of the best in the nation, graduates, on average, around 70 English majors every year. The English discipline goes back hundreds of years, and the subject was one of the first introduced at Yale College in the 18th century. By contrast, Comparative Literature — the other major focused on analysis and interpretation of literary texts — is a relatively modern field.

According to Ayesha Ramachandran, a professor in the Yale Literature Department — the undergraduate department’s offical name is “Literature,” while the graduate department is named “Comparative Literature.” In the postwar period, the University became home to a slew of celebrated émigré intellectuals, among them the inventors of the field. In those early years, just like in the late 19th century — when the very notion of literature as a cultural comparative tool emerged — comparative literature was, in essence, an exploration of the universality of narrative. As Ramachandran puts it, “What are the shared building blocks of our culture in narrative terms?” It was all based on a “quasi-utopian” and Unitarian belief that our desire to tell stories and the essence of those stories connect all humans beyond national borders, she said. And then, in the 1960s and ’70s, comparative literature became something much different.

Often referred to as “the de Man years” after one of Yale’s first Comparative Literature professors, the time span brought Deconstructionist theory to Yale. Another transplant from the Old World to the New, Jacques Derrida — considered the father of Deconstructionism, a literary approach that undermines typically unquenstioned assumptions and emphasizes the unstable nature of words — also spent time at Yale. Together, and with the addition of scholars like Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and J. Hillis Miller, they created a set of new literary approaches collevtively referred to as the Yale School.

From the transport of the field of comparative literature from Europe to the United States to the creation of an entire school of literary thought, “there’s a way in which the discipline in the U.S. owes everything to this department,” Ramachandran said.

ENGLISH: GOING BEYOND TRADITION

Because of its long teaching tradition here at Yale, the English major stands out for its heavy emphasis on a canon of pre-1900s works, mostly poetry, according to roughly 15 English majors interviewed. The majority of students interviewed said that even if they did not enter English 125 and 126 — “Major English Poets,” from Chaucer to Donne and Milton to Eliot, respectively, the two introductory requirements for the major — dying to read Shakespearean sonnets, they ended up thoroughly enjoying the experience.

“There’s a reason that there’s a canon and that we read it. Everything builds on each other,” Kyra Morris ’15 said, adding that because a large part of writing is understanding how to use others’ writing, all of the poets that students are exposed to in English 125 and 126 are interacting with each other’s works. Still, she concedes that her interests may not dovetail with others’.

“I’m more interested in the dead white men category than some other people might be. If you want to do feminist poetry or Caribbean poetry, it’s not as relevant to be taking pre-1800s credits,” Morris said.

While Ruthie Prilliman ’16 understands that students often approach the English prerequisites with hesitancy, she thinks it serves a practical purpose — when students discuss text in seminar or hear an allusion made by a professor in lecture, everyone is on the same page because they’ve read the same material. Prilliman added that approaching the material as snooze-worthy text whose relevancy has long passed completely misses the point. While most of the texts covered in the curriculum are centuries old, they are still “very much alive,” she said.

Ariel Katz ’15 echoed this view. She took English 126 her sophomore spring, and did not expect the traditional English canon works to engage her like contemporary works do. But they did, she said, and it occurred to her that maybe the canon was richer and more compelling than she thought. “I chose to be an English major to give the tradition a shot,” she said.

Still, according to Zoe Greenberg ’14, those seminars — the ones that are able to breathe modern life into old works — are not necessarily that easy to come by. Before finding an English 126 class she liked, she had to shop four, she said.

“I felt like there was an atmosphere in these classes where ‘you have to learn this, and it’s really important, so I’m not going to make it interesting’,” Greenberg recalled.

Finally, she came across a class in which the professor explained that the pilgrims going to Canterbury were similar to people on the subway in New York, and she was sold.

In fact, for some students, Greenberg’s anecdote about her Major English Poets experience illustrates a larger issue they have with what they see as a dearth of contemporary material in the English curriculum.

Preston, for instance, appreciates and understands the progression the canon offers, but he thinks there could be more contemporary American offerings. And even Prilliman, who is quick to praise the English requirements, notes that novels often get lost in an insistence to study poetry. Perhaps offering different tracks within the English major — exploring novels, dramas or poetry in greater detail — would allow students to understand the canon and literary progression of the genre that most interests them, Prilliman said.

LITERATURE: GOING BEYOND THEORY

Ask most Literature students what distinguishes their major from English, and you are bound to hear the word “theory” dropped at least once in the first few sentences. But according to Ramachandran, the characterization is off base.

“The bad distinction people draw is that in English, we [Ramachandran previously taught in the English department] do Lit, and in Comp Lit, we do theory,” she said. “That’s a relic of that time. That moment is now long passed.” Literature, she said, is about asking why, in every culture and every nation, human beings have a tendency to create and share stories.

To Nat Harrington ’14, a Literature major, the distinction lies largely in textual approach. Whereas English asks students to delve deep into one language and canon, encouraging extremely close reading, Literature exposes students to a breadth of material, Harrington said. He noted that although a student may not have read all of the classic works on a specific topic, because of the wide reach of the program, he or she will be able to draw connections between pieces.

In addition to diversity of culture and languages, the Literature major encourages exposure to a diversity of academic disciplines, said Aziza Tichavakunda ’14. Because of extensive cross-listing and departmental flexibility, “You have more freedom to make it your own,” she said.

Part of that freedom lies in the opportunity to design your own major. Tichavakunda, for instance, has chosen to combine film and creative writing, taking literature, film and theory classes throughout the past years. Her senior thesis examines “Upstream Color,” a movie in which the main characters are unknowingly infected with a parasite that transforms them from human to animal to plant.

In certain respects, the Literature major lends itself to greater diversity of interests, according to students interviewed. There are students like Tichavakunda, who are fascinated by the intersection of literature and another discipline; then there are students who hone in on specific cultures and languages, like Harrington — who plans to pursue Celtic Studies post-graduation — and Stephanie Wisowaty ‘16, who is studying German and French Literature.

According to several students, though, the choice to focus on the literary traditon of one language can also present some drawbacks. To be able to read and understand texts from different cultures, students are required to take three more foreign language credits than they would need to simply fulfill distributional requirements. For Wisowaty, who grew up speaking German, began French in high school, and then completed a semester abroad in France before coming to Yale, jumping right into studying the literature was an option, so she took the intro German and French Literature classes last year. But for a student who enters Yale with no previous language experience, the Literature language requirement means condensing seven years of language study into four years of college.

For Averbuch, the language issue is frustrating, and one that might ultimately play a role in her decision between English and Literature.

“I speak one and three quarter languages. I can communicate in Spanish, and I’ve finished L5, but I’ll probably never be able to pick up on nuances [in the language] in the same way that a native speaker is,” she said.

She added that because a large body of the work being taught in the department is taught in translation, students cannot discuss the significance of each and every word the way they could in an English class.

Even in classes for students with advanced language skills, it can be challenging to dive deep, Wisowaty said. The fact that the majority of those students are not heritage speakers affects the level of discussion, she added.

 

A POINT OF CONTENTION: THE CREATIVE WRITING CONCENTRATION

“If you want to be an artist, guess what you shouldn’t major in?” Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said to a group of students gathered at Saint Thomas More Chapel this past November. “Yeah, art. Why are you wasting your money and not learning something? I studied history and history gave me Oscar Wao. If I had studied creative writing, what would I have learned? How to run a f—ing workshop?”

The Creative Writing Concentration at Yale — an application-only, intensive track for aspiring writiers to which English majors can apply between their junior and senior year — stands in stark contrast to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s words of advice. To be a successful creative writer, you must understand the progression of the English canon and thus how your writing is in dialogue with the past, the thinking goes.

At the same English major information session in which Kastan shared his deer catastrophe tale, Cynthia Zarin, the coordinator of the creative writing concentration and a reknowned American poet, stood up to explain this thinking.

“We believe that to be good writers, you have to be good readers, which is why the program is limited to English majors,” she said.

Richard Deming, director of Creative Writing at Yale, said that the general sentiment among faculty is that the creative writing concentration rests on “the interdependency of writing and reading” to produce “a really full and fully realized project.” Deming — who teaches the famed Daily Themes, a writing course that asks students to submit daily 300-word nonfiction pieces — added that reading original English texts, as opposed to works in translation, is necessary to master the subtletities essential to effective writing in English.

“It’s a fair question — one that to be honest we’re thinking through,” he admitted about opening up the creative writing concentration to Literature majors.

Yet, some students feel that the canon and contemporary creative writing do not fit  perfectly hand in hand.

“If I had a choice to do another major and do the writing concentration, I might seriously consider another major,” Oliver Preston ’16, who will likely declare as an English major, said. Preston wants to write after college, and the genre he hopes to pen — contemporary American short fiction — is a world removed from the one he inhabits in his Major English Poets class.

“Having an interest in writing and having an interest in reading English poetry aren’t necessarily super super related, but at the same time, if I want to do writing here, I have to declare myself as an English major without having any knowledge if I’m going to make it into the writing major junior spring,” he said. Preston’s interest in English stems from a craft perspective, so analysis conversations, in which discussion centers on characters’ psychology and motivations, can be frustrating. To him, reading is an act of perpetually asking “how?” How does the author generate the characters’ psychology, make the character someone with whom the reader can empathize and potentially identify?

Greenberg feels similarly. “I think there’s a huge emphasis on a super close reading of the text almost in a vacuum, devoid of context,” she said. “We would have conversations in Major English poets about a word or image in Paradise Lost, which was interesting, but I would leave class wondering ‘why?’ What are the stakes of the word being here?”

Creative writing is different because it’s a craft, a process, she said. And in contrast to Diaz — who said “If I was an artist in this culture, I would look at a creative writing program and … would’ve gone into government,” — Greenberg likes that.

In the 2012–2013 academic year, Yale graduated 64 English majors and 14 Literature majors.

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