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.

Further Reading

You can read about the mid-20th-century New Curriculum in Gail Kennedy, ed., Education at Amherst,: The New Program (New York: Harper’s, 1955). An entire book has been written about English 1-2 and Theodore Baird by Robin Varnum, Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938–1966 (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996). Baird’s own essays are collected in Theodore Baird, The Most of It: Essays on Language and the Imagination (Amherst College Press, 1999). Reuben Brower’s teaching method is well described in his essay “Reading in Slow Motion,” in In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962), pp. 3-21. The experience of teaching in Humanities 6 under Brower is sketched by Richard Poirier in “Reading Pragmatically,” in his Poetry and Pragmatism ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 171-93, while William H. Pritchard provides a memoir of Brower in his Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

The experience of being a student of English at Amherst, and later a teacher here, is remembered by Pritchard in English Papers: A Teaching Life (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1995). He describes his own version of teaching “close reading” in “Ear Training,” in Teaching What We Do: Essays by Amherst College Faculty (Amherst College Press. 1991), pp. 127-43. One course among our current freshman English offerings that has many continuities with our past practice is described by Howell Chickering, "Creative Reading: A First-Semester First-Year Course," Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 263-87.

The variety of our present subject offerings and the scope of our teaching methodologies are well represented by three very different essays: Rhonda Cobham, ‘Go Eena Kumbla’: Caribbean Ways of Seeing and Knowing,” in Teaching What We Do: Essays by Amherst College Faculty (Amherst College Press, 1991), pp. 29-48; Michèle Barale, “The Romance of Class and Queers: Academic Erotic Zones,” in Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower: Lesbians Teaching Queer Subjects (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 16-25; and Howell Chickering, "Chaucer By Heart," in Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard, ed. David Sofield and Herbert F. Tucker (Athens: OH: Ohio University Press, 1998), pp. 91-108.


Front door of Johnson Chapel