English majors to have more options

By Sabrina Romano

Samantha Roffman said she would rather write personal essays and memoirs in her writing classes, but instead is often assigned essays that require interviewing or investigating.

“It’s a little aggravating because all I want to do is write something I’m comfortable with,” Roffman, a sophomore English literature and nonfiction writing major, said in an email. 

Kirstie Bake said she would prefer the opposite and favors assignments that emphasize reporting.

“I had never done reporting before my intro class, and I was really uncomfortable with it initially,” Bake, a junior nonfiction writing and communication major, said. “I still feel a little awkward about interviews at times.” 

As a partial response to the feedback of students and professors, Pitt’s English writing program — which includes nonfiction, fiction and poetry tracks —  has instituted and proposed several changes to its curriculum. 

The English writing program first offered the creative writing minor last semester, and it has since proposed additional curriculum changes to its majors. The department has proposed that students in upper-level classes choose an elective course instead of the advanced nonfiction, fiction or poetry course. 

The current advanced-level English writing course is the third course in the sequence of four workshop requirements, which involve an interactive revision process between students and a professor on pieces of writing throughout the semester.  

Jeanne Marie Laskas, director of the writing program, said the English department proposed the replacement of one of four required workshop classes — specifically the advanced level course — with a “menu of courses” that focus on craft. 

If the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences approves the proposal, students can instead opt for a course that aligns with their particular interests.

Laskas said the change comes as a result of discussions among the English writing program’s curriculum committee, which responds to comments from students and professors. 

“Because we have so many students who are interested in other genres, cross-genre work, digital work and all types of things, we didn’t want to lock them into that one version of the course,” Laskas said. 

Laskas said students’ and professors’ feedback fueled the change within the English writing program. The program issues an assessment every year, and many students responded that their classes consisted of “too much workshopping.” 

“There was a call for more craft-focused courses,” Laskas said. 

She added that workshopping could be more appropriate during senior seminar, in which English writing majors work on a single project across a semester, but is not as necessary during earlier stages.

Don Bialostosky, chair of the English department, said that because the introductory, intermediate and advanced classes are all workshop classes, they can start to feel very similar.

In some cases, this course change will also enable English majors to graduate early, according to Mark Kemp, a lecturer and academic adviser in the English department.

Because the major previously required students to take four prerequisite courses in a workshop sequence, Kemp said the elimination of one workshop course will make the major completable in three terms rather than four. A student would be able to take one of the workshop courses at the same time as the newly added elective course. 

The English writing program, according to Kemp, has also proposed to offer more elective courses than in previous years, including Performing Fiction, Science Writing, Writing the Review and Women in Journalism.

Kemp said other ideas for the menu of courses include classes on topics such as publishing, writing and politics, sentence shop  — which will focus on style and editing — children’s books, advanced screenwriting and suspense and form.

Kemp said the common feature among the workshop classes is for students to read and discuss each other’s writing. The switch will ideally give students more flexibility as well as “more choice, with more relevant courses.”

“We can better address these topics through the proposed changes, while students can feel there’s more flexibility to design their own major according to their preferences in writing and plans for their writing life,” he said.

Roffman said she supports the switch to specific classes.

“I think the focus on specific topics would be more helpful than [taking] two of the same class back to back,” Roffman said. “It’ll give people the chance to practice more of the things that get overlooked when writing a longer piece.”