A History of the English Department

Following World War II, in 1947, the College instituted a New Curriculum with core requirements, one of which was English 1-2, a two-semester course in Composition for all freshmen. Taught in multiple sections with a common syllabus, the course had no reading component during its first semester, but required students to write a brief paper for every class, three times a week, in response to a sequence of assignments. Selected anonymous student responses were the sole subject of study for most of the course. Its syllabus changed every year and assignments were never repeated. The course, which gained national attention for its unique demands on both faculty and students, was the invention of Professor Theodore Baird, who had conceived an early version of it in the 1930s.

During the 1950s two other department members, Reuben A. Brower and G. Armour Craig, were responsible for the invention of a sophomore introduction to literature called English 21-22, a multi-section course in “close reading” required for the major. (Brower led essentially the same multi-section course under the title of Humanities 6 when he later went to Harvard.) English 1-2 and English 21-22 gave the Amherst English Department of that era a distinctive character.

When the New Curriculum, with its core requirements, came to a close in 1966, English 1-2 and English 21-22 did not survive. The Department thereafter offered an evolving set of "introductory courses" to reading and writing, taught with a common syllabus to sections of twenty or so students. As time went on, the sections tended less and less to share a single reading list and common assignments. Small separate classes offered by individual faculty came to function as "first courses" in English, and continue to do so to this day. Read more, including further historical accounts, and descriptions of our teaching past and present.


Front door of Johnson Chapel