On February 22, I was just minding my business when I got an email.
“Hello English Majors!” it read. “We have some exciting news to share that affects you — requirements for BA students with English as their major are changing starting September 2019.” This caught my attention. Warily, I read on. “So what’s the news? You’ve got a lot more flexibility and choice when it comes to which English courses to take.” No kidding. My academic requirements, which used to look like the instructions for a missile launch, now just say:
- 9 credits at the 200-level
- 9 credits at the 300-level
- 6 credits at the 400-level
That’s math even an English major can do. Three areas of study are strongly recommended: Indigenous literature and culture, Canadian literature and culture, and pre-1900 literature and culture. But what does strongly recommended even mean? Gone are the days when English students had to take Canadian literature. Say goodbye to medieval literature and American lit. Hasta luego to textualities and reading histories. Of course, all these courses will still exist, but no one needs to take them! If you don’t want to, you’ll never have to touch another Shakespeare play. If you’d rather not read about politics, no one’s forcing you. If colonialism makes you feel too guilty, or if the thought of reading The Handmaid’s Tale for the fifth time makes you gag, then you can just avoid Indigenous and Canadian lit like the plague.
This sounds nice in theory, right? Flexibility sounds good, and more choice sounds uncontroversial. Scared little first-year Sofia, who wanted to be an English major but really really didn’t want to read anything written before the 20th century, is dancing happily at this news. But I want to hit her across the face with a copy of Othello. You will not grow as a reader or writer without having to read and write about things outside your comfort zone. You will never discover your love of theory if you don’t give it a chance. You won’t meet one of your best friends if you don’t take that Shakespeare class. And you won’t bond with your favourite professor if you don’t take textualities.
Yes, some of the classes you take will be duds, but some classes you didn’t want to take in the first place will inspire you to follow new paths. It is also much more attractive to graduate schools to have breadth in your experience. Having so many specific requirements may dissuade students from taking English — which is obviously a problem — but removing all the requirements does a personal disservice to students in the program.
I also worry about what it will do to the program on a larger scale. I would hate to pull up Beartracks and just see a sea of popular culture classes. I would hate to see the talented professors and contract instructors who teach in less popular, but extremely important areas, let go as demand for their courses fizzles. I would hate to have students who want to take those less popular courses find themselves without fulfilling options. Maybe this is a moot point; maybe there are enough students who would willingly take medieval English (I have to say I’m not one of them) to keep the course afloat. Or maybe the department would intervene, and still run a section every year even if there were only a few students in the class. But I find it hard to believe that the program can stay the way it is with all these requirements axed.
All of this is not to say that I’m mourning the old system. I think it was sorely time for the requirements to be overhauled. It’s intimidating to take on such a demanding major, and when weighing it against other, much more flexible majors in arts, it can often not seem worth it. It was also almost impossible to plan out your degree, and to even figure out how to meet all these requirements. Multiple classes you needed would all be scheduled at the same time; you’d miss a requirement and find yourself scrambling in fourth or fifth year to figure out a game plan. I showed up exasperated at the advising office many a time trying to wade through the confusion. On top of all that, these requirements haven’t been changed in 15 years! Even if things were running smoothly, it seems like it was about time to check in. But to just get rid of all the requirements? To not even leave a few key areas that students are required to take classes in? It seems like an overcorrection.
This change won’t really affect me; I was almost done my requirements anyway and I won’t be haunting Humanities for much longer. But it will affect the next generation of English majors. To them, I can only say: I hope you challenge yourselves in ways the English department seems too scared or lazy to do. You’re the captain of your own degree now, so make it count.