As Yale’s English department prepares for an upcoming review of its offerings, the undergraduate major is coming under scrutiny from professors and students alike.
The English Student Advisory Committee met earlier this month to discuss the undergraduate major and provide feedback about the structure, requirements and direction of the major. These suggestions — along with alumni responses to questionnaires — will be one component of a report given to a committee of professors from outside Yale who will review the department. While administrators said no concrete plans are yet in place to restructure the English major, students said there are aspects of the program they hope to see addressed.
English department chair Langdon Hammer said the call for the external review — which will be led by five professors from other institutions — came from the Provost’s Office and is a standard practice at most universities. He said the department has composed a “detailed and lengthy self-study” based on a variety of data and comments.
“Everyone has put in a lot of work and so far the process has been constructive, giving us both a sense of our strengths and of areas we can get better in,” Hammer said.
English Director of Undergraduate Studies Lawrence Manley, who chairs ESAC, said the external committee — which will consist of about five distinguished faculty from other institutions — will evaluate the department’s overall strengths and weaknesses, including the undergraduate program, the graduate program, the junior faculty and the national profile of the department. He said that while he does not anticipate any specific changes to the undergraduate major, the review will show “how the outsiders perceive it.”
“The undergraduate major is part of [the review] but you don’t jump through this many hoops just to make changes to the undergraduate major,” he said.
But Maggie Doherty ’07, one of ten English majors who sat on ESAC, said she would like to see a number of changes made to the structure and requirements of the major.
She said one of the main issues addressed by students was the pre-1800 requirement, which currently is not fulfilled by Directed Studies courses or introductory classes such as English 125 or English 129, even if they cover literature written before 1800. Doherty said some English majors were frustrated that even if they had taken these classes, they still needed to take four pre-1800 classes to fill the requirement.
“I know a lot of people who … are spending most of their junior and senior years fulfilling those requirements,” she said.
Doherty said senior English majors would also like to see more uniformity in the structure of the senior requirement, which currently allows students either to take a senior seminar — for which admission is often very competitive — or to write an independent senior essay. The lack of writing courses is also a common complaint among majors, Doherty said.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said departmental reviews are not conducted for the purpose of evaluating or ranking departments, but rather in the spirit of “self-criticism and strategic planning.”
“[The review process] provides a kind of blueprint for hiring new faculty — what areas one would look to strengthen — and for any kind of curricular innovation or revision,” he said. “Not every recommendation is taken but it always gives the department a good starting point for a conversation with itself.”
While the external review is scheduled for November, the English department will not receive the committee’s report until several months later, Associate DUS Amy Hungerford said.
The English department review is part of a program launched by the Provost’s Office in 2005, which provides for external reviews of three to four departments per year. Hammer said the last two departments to be reviewed were American studies and anthropology last spring.