December 10, 2018
Reprinted from “New English course lineup gives students broader literary exposure,” by Bess Connolly Martell. Originally published in Yale News on 12/4/18.
Appreciation of a beautifully written text is but one of the skills that students taking courses in English at Yale will learn. Among the others, says Yale English professor Stephanie Newell, is the skill of rhetoric.
Sometimes, when she sees students start feeling like an outsider when reading a text, she tries to get them so engaged with a literary text that they almost feel like it’s a living world and they’ve got to make an argument within that world. “They are really passionately invested in that world. That is how I think of the subject of English,” says Newell.
Last spring, Newell taught English 128, a new course designed with a focus on world anglophone literature. It was part of a redesigned series of foundational courses in the Department of English.
The foundational courses in English now 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”; and English 128, “Readings in Comparative World English Literatures.”
“We carefully designed this slate of four courses to offer the best and the most balanced introduction to the traditions of writing in English,” says Jessica Brantley, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English. “Every student will now experience the geographic, racial, and ethnic diversity that English courses at Yale offer.”
The courses are foundational in two senses, says Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor and chair of the Department of English. “One is that they are transmitting bodies of literature that other literature is made out of in a range of cultures, traditions, and genres. Then they are foundational in terms of their commitment to teaching basic writing and reading skills that students will build on in future course work in English and other disciplines. They help students learn to interpret, argue, and use evidence; and in this way they are foundational not only to literary studies, but to any kind of humanistic work.”
Brantley believes that this new lineup of courses enhances a Yale student’s education by exposing them to works or authors that they wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to on their own, such as Chaucer, one of her specialties. “The language in Chaucer’s works is difficult because it was written in the Middle Ages. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s old,” says Brantley. “But the stories are amazing and moving, and the characters are recognizable. You see them crossing Old Campus. Chaucer gives very up-to-the-minute characterizations of people, and I think once students realize how funny and wise Chaucer can be, they really do enjoy reading him. I enjoy opening them up to that experience and letting them discover something they wouldn’t have been able to find on their own.”
The addition of the world literature course, says Newell, was vital to the department because it complements the global emphasis that was already present in the department. What is different about this course though, is that it takes students out of a familiar cultural context even as they read in English. “There is a sense that students are just going to ask different questions,” says Newell.
The hope is that the new foundational course gives students “a small taste of world literature in English,” says Newell, who adds that after teaching the course she has encountered a considerable number of students whose curiosity was so piqued that they planned to study in literature from both the English and non-English speaking world.
To enable students to grasp the breadth and depth of world anglophone literature in English 128, Newell treated each writer that her students read as a magnet that would attract other texts if the student was interested. “I presented alternatives to the authors on the syllabus. Sometimes, particularly with world literature, the works are very politicized and very socially engaged. As a result, students can have a strong emotional response to what they are reading. Often this response is a result of empathy because they’ve identified themselves with certain issues in the text.”
What students take away from the foundational courses varies considerably depending on the texts they read and their personal preferences, says Newell. Some of the students loved the beauty of the writing. Some students relished reading a certain author’s writing because they found it delightful or it sparkled for them. Other students fell in love with particular styles of writing or became politically impassioned through the reading.
“There was a particular excitement about teaching the first instance of this course,” says Newell, who is looking ahead to teaching it again in spring of 2019.