Leading up to last school year’s “Year of the Humanities,” Pitt’s English literature major hadn’t changed much in the past two decades.
Compared to other English programs across the country — now emphasizing independent research and study abroad opportunities — literature majors had a standard course path, including a mix of introductory-level classes, capstones, historical period courses and several electives.
So during the 2014-2015 school year, Pitt’s English department surveyed then-graduating seniors on changes they wanted to see in the curriculum, including certain classes they wanted to take or what they were hoping to learn from the major overall, according to Hannah Johnson, co-director and lecturer in the department’s literature program. From there, Johnson and Amy Murray Twyning, a lecturer and faculty member, spearheaded a department-wide redesign that Pitt announced last spring and fully implemented this fall.
The redesigned major features five concentrations, which focus on subjects such as media literacy, linguistics, science and environmentalism as they relate to literature, according to English Department Chair Don Bialostosky.
“I think the humanities are realizing how important it is to make the connection between the rich archive of texts we study and the world we live in now, “ Bialostosky said.
Through the new program, literature and non-major students can explore their interests while concentrating on a focused path of study. For instance, someone in the “Media and Technology” concentration can take classes like “Narrative and Technology,” “Science Fiction” and “Critical Games Studies” to fulfill their six elective requirements, but are able to explore topics taught traditionally, such as Shakespeare and British Literature. The wildly popular “Harry Potter” course, taught by Lori Campbell, advisor and faculty member in the English department, remains one of the elective options.
“In doing a lot of research in the past few years, the Literature Program Directors and the literature committee felt that some changes were needed to re-energize the program and to keep it in line with what students want to study,” said Campbell.
In the past few months, Pitt has worked through a tumultuous relationship with its humanities programs. In March 2014, Provost Patricia Beeson accepted proposals to cut the graduate religious studies programs, and the German and classics graduate programs met similar fates shortly afterward.
But amid the cuts, Beeson announced in May 2015, that the 2015-2016 year would be dedicated to the humanities. At the time, Bialostosky said that the cuts made some think Pitt didn’t care about the humanities and the “Year of the Humanities” announcement was the University’s attempt to disprove that sentiment.
Now students can choose modernized concentrations based on courses already taught in the old major and faculty expertise.
For example, the literature department already has a popular certificate program in children’s literature, and many professors, including Troy Boone and Tyler Bickford, specialize in areas such as environmental literature and children’s literature, respectively.
Last spring, Boone’s senior seminar focused on the works of Joseph Conrad — specifically his travel writing — while Bickford’s “Children and Culture” analyzed topics such as youth consumer culture and child psychology.
Students who’ve already made progress with the old major have a choice to follow the old requirements, or choose a concentration from the redesigned major.
Miranda Aristone, a junior literature major, chose to “grandfather” out rather than taking more credits to specialize. While having a focus would have been a great way to market herself towards potential employers, she said she was not happy with the three current specializations.
“I understood that I could have built my own specialization, but I prefer to have structure and the idea of gambling my own was overwhelming,” Aristone said. “I do see the positives to the new major, but, as I was a considerable ways through completing the old [major], I am happy with my choice to not switch.”
According to Johnson, who co-directs the department alongside professor Gayle Rogers, switching to the redesigned version of the major will not affect the time it takes to complete it, as many of the classes are unchanged or renamed.
For instance, “Intro to Critical Reading” is now a two-part course called “How to Do Things With Literature.” The class still focuses on interacting critically with a text, but now includes elements such as rewriting classic pieces of literature to further engage with the reading, according to Stephen Carr, longtime faculty member and former director of the literature program. The critical reading course still exists for english students who choose to continue with the old format.
Louis Markowitz, a senior literature and theatre arts double major and linguistics minor, chose to complete the old major, but said the new major helps literature students focus their area of study. The department’s redesign represents somewhat of a missed opportunity for Markowitz, who said he was particularly interested in the “The Invention of Literature and the English Language” concentration.
“Since I’m also a theatre major and a linguistics minor, this ties directly into what I do both as a scholar and a theatre artist,” Markowitz said. “My linguistics minor is dedicated toward a more scientific approach to language study, and theatre arts is devoted to the performative power of language.”
According to Bialostosky, the redesign is not a product of low enrollment numbers, or born out of a “crisis in the humanities,” but rather out of a necessity to think about literature differently in the modern world.
“The links [between traditional literary studies and the world we live in now] have been there for a while, but these tracks call attention to them and invite students to explore them,” he said.