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Two years after a renaming, the Department of Literatures adds new course requirements to increase diversity.

November 15, 2022

Department of Literatures in English Debuts New Curriculum for the Fall 2022 Semester  

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Two years after changing its name, the Department of Literatures in English, formerly the Department of English, began its first semester with a newly revised undergraduate curriculum this fall.  

Revolving around a theme of greater diversity within the department, the new curriculum reduces the department’s requirement for pre-1800 courses — which can cover any literature in English written before the 1800s — from three to two, and added two post-1800 course requirements. Of the pre- and post-1800s courses, two must now be focused on literatures of the Americas (with at least one in the American Indian or Indigenous, African American, Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander or Latinx fields) and one must be focused on literatures of the Global South.

These new distribution requirements aim to expose students in the department to “the vibrancy and excitement of those fields,” according to Director of Undergraduate Studies Prof. Masha Raskolnikov, literatures in English. 

“Requirements are meant to give guidance. For a very long time English had very few requirements, and that was because we wanted to be flexible…but that means that if you didn’t already come knowing what you’re interested in, there wasn’t a built-in way,” Raskolnikov said. 

For Prof. Elisha Cohn, literatures in English, the new requirements also help the department live up to its new name. 

“This [new structure] gives us something much truer to the renaming of the department as Literatures in English, taking that more seriously,” Cohn said. “There’s still enough breadth and room for students to maneuver and get a sense for many different approaches [to literature in English].” 

There was some hesitance within the department regarding the change. Professor George Hutchinson, director of the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, said he worried that the requirements would push out students looking to pursue a secondmajor. However, Hutchinson ultimately voted in favor of the new curriculum, agreeing that the expansion of views read by students was a positive development. 

Hutchinson’s concerns do not seem to be unfounded, as the number of students pursuing the major has dropped from 173 in 2019, to 134 in 2022.

The arrival of the new requirements comes as many second year students begin to declare their majors. However, students in the class of 2025 are still given the option of whether they want to follow the new curriculum’s path, or continue along the previous track. 

Although literatures in English major Katarina Schneider ’25 said she likes the new requirements, she chose to stick with the old requirements because that was what she expected going into the department.

“I’m gonna stick with the old ones because I had my mindset fixed that that was what I was doing”, Schneider said. “In the long run I do think that [the changes were] a good choice… overall it’ll just be better to give people a broader education in literature.”  

Sophie Gottfried ’25 is considering picking up the major after taking classes in the department. As a second year, she also has the option to choose which track to follow. 

“There’s two particular geographically distinct areas that are not Europe and America that we have to take classes on, I think that’s a good direction,” Gottfried said. “Historically… a lot of students, in high school especially, focused on very European and anglophone literature in general. It’s nice to be able to branch out.” 

First year student Gabriel Levin ’26, had heard of the changes before applying to Cornell and was open to the experience. 

“I think it’s important that writers inculcate a global perspective in their writing,” Levin said. “I also think that classical training is important. I think if students are able to balance the two, then there should be no problem.”

Chloe Asack ’26 said she hoped the new structure would force her to explore new areas of the discipline that she would not have taken courses in otherwise. 

“It’s good to kind of force yourself to branch out,” Asack said. “There are some English classes that kind of intimidate me, because I never did anything like that in High School, I’ve never read anything like that. But if you’re going to get a degree in English, you have to push yourself to do those things.” 

While the department encourages students to branch out, it will maintain popular courses such as ENGL 3390: Jane Austen, which is returning for enrollment in the spring with a new instructor. Cohn said she hopes the combination of old and new helps students understand what the department has to offer. 

“I think [the new curriculum requirements are] a good thing, and I think it’s going to encourage students to really sort of understand their own place in the history of the study of English better,” Cohn said.