As I near the close of another semester of teaching ENGL 1500: Masterpieces of British Literature, I cannot help but reflect on the semester that has been. This course is designed to provide non-majors with an introduction to the poetry, prose, and plays of British literature. The course description tells the student that they can expect to read Shakespeare, Milton, and one pre-20th Century novel; the rest of what constitutes “Masterpieces” being in the hands of the instructor. This student is also expected to perform a substantial amount of writing, somewhere between 20-25 pages and to take a Final Examination on the course. But how well are my students being served by this set-up? What is the value in teaching Business, Science, Engineering, Philosophy, Physiology, Psychology, etc. majors how to write a piece of literary criticism? A survey of undergraduates (performed by me at the beginning of each semester) reveals that the majority of them do not like literature classes. As a result, many do not like literature very much either. This is a shame. We English instructors are extremely lucky to be selling a high-quality product–yet we do not always seem to succeed in marketing it. How can we help our students to experience the pleasure and wisdom of great literature? I believe that universities could do their students a great service by re-imagining the look and feel of English courses for non-majors.
The major change: make them all 1 credit classes. Every undergraduate student would be required to take at least 3 literature courses. These courses would focus attention squarely on reading, interpreting, and discussing rather than on quizzes/exams, presentations, and writing. The grade would be based solely on attendance and participation. Motivation would become more intrinsic and less extrinsic. The content of these classes would be wide-ranging and completely open to the instructor’s judgment. There would be single author courses, genre courses, surveys, theme-based courses, period-based courses, and any other organizing principle that the instructor might imagine. If a student leaves college without ever having read Wordsworth, Blake, Austen, Bronte, Thackeray, Sterne, etc., then he or she is probably never going to encounter them. Furthermore, having more courses will allow English teachers to (borrowing some folksy wisdom) teach the student how to fish, so that he or she will be able to eat for a lifetime. The basic skills of reading poetry, drama, and novels are something that the majority of undergraduates do not possess. Of course, this plan would never work in the current university, but I believe that it would be the best way to inspire undergraduates with a lifelong love of reading and learning, regardless of their future career plans.