What are the Foundational Courses in English?

The foundational courses in English include four seminars, of which majors are asked to take at least three:

English 125 (Readings in English Poetry I)
English 126 (Readings in English Poetry II)
English 127 (Readings in American Literature)
English 128 (Readings in Comparative World English Literatures)

Following longstanding departmental practice, these courses teach the arts of critical analysis and interpretation in small, faculty-led, discussion-based seminars. Unlike most introductory surveys, these foundational courses focus on reading deeply, rather than broadly, dwelling on a few important texts instead of moving quickly over many. The contents of the syllabuses have shifted over time—English A1, introduced in 1906, centered on the works of the Victorian prose stylists Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin; current readings explore a range of forms and genres including medieval lyric poems, early modern epics, nineteenth-century novels, and contemporary short fiction. But an emphasis on close reading and clear, incisive argumentation endures. Through conversation, writing, and rewriting, students enrolled in foundational seminars learn to make meaning out of words, lines, stanzas, sentences, and paragraphs. They come away with a sharpened awareness of what it means to read with the attentiveness that literature demands, and a capacity to respond with their own ideas and insights. This is necessary training for English majors, and it has value for all writing in which the marshaling of words and facts, the construction of an argument, and the relation between text and context play a significant part.

Each section of English 125, 126, 127, or 128 is likely to develop its own narrative threads, as the contents of the readings and the tastes, interests, and expertise of the participants shape the conversation over the course of the semester. At the end, however, the common result of these distinct experiences should be a heightened sensitivity to and curiosity about the way language works; a confidence in engaging with historically, geographically, formally, and culturally diverse literary texts; and a capacity to translate keen observations into elegant, well-crafted essays. To quote a passage of some length and draw out its implications so that each word gives an account of itself; to support general assertions with the particulars of evidence; to attend to the shifts of the meaning of a single word or a phrase over time—the improvement of these skills forms an essential part of the curriculum in English.

Of course, no one can hope to read everything, but we ask you to approach your introductory coursework in a spirit of adventure, remaining open to the pleasures and challenges of texts that are new, alien, or even off-putting to you. The requirement of three courses is meant to encourage this: by ranging across periods, genres, and geographies, you will acquire an appreciation for both the diversity and the continuity of literary history, grounding your study in multiple, mutually illuminating canons of English literature.