The English Major

Considering an English Major?

The department is home to a wide variety of scholarly and creative interests, and our majors are an important part of department life. Students are generally encouraged to declare the major during their second year. If you would like to join the English department, contact the Director of Studies, for a short meeting to review the requirements. At that time, you can discuss your interests and which courses you have already taken toward the required ten classes.

Once you are ready to declare, obtain a major declaration form from the Registrar's office (you can also download it here). Bring your form to the English Office (Johnson Chapel room 001), where Ms. Bette Kanner will assist you in completing the form, choosing an advisor, and obtaining the proper signatures. Welcome!

English Majors are responsible for satisfying the following requirements:

  • Completing TEN courses, in total, offered or approved by the Department. This includes:
              At least ONE 100-Level course

              At least TWO 200-Level courses
              At least TWO 300-Level courses
              At least TWO 400*-Level course
              At least ONE course addressing material from a period before 1800 (any level).

*While special topics also have 400 numbers, a special topics course cannot count as the 400-level seminar.

(Students in the Class of 2017 can fulfill the major requirements in this way OR by meeting our old major requirements of at least one 100-Level course, at least three 200-Level courses and at least one 400-Level seminar. Again, it should be noted that one of these courses must substantially address material from the period before 1800.)

The 10-course Requirement

Majoring in English requires the completion of ten courses offered or approved by the Department.  The Department organizes its courses into four levels
The courses numbered in the 100s are writing-attentive and writing-intensive courses that introduce students to a variety of genres and media, entail frequent writing, and cultivate students’ skills in close reading. 
The courses in the 200s emphasize a particular approach to method, genre, medium, period, or discourse. They include introductory courses in creative writing as well as literary, film, or cultural study.
The courses in the 300s are electives designed to foster immersion into literary, film, and cultural studies and creative writing. They help students learn skills and/or study materials that will prepare them for independent work in their 400-level seminars. They are open, however, to both majors and non-majors across the college, and generally do not carry prerequisites for admission.  
Courses in the 400s are junior and senior seminars emphasizing independent inquiry, critical and theoretical issues, and extensive writing. These courses teach students the intellectual skills vital to framing a research question and conducting independent research. 

Majors may count up to three courses in creative writing towards the ten required courses.  Normally, no more than two courses from outside the Department may be counted towards the major.  Because 400-level seminars can, in the senior year, lead to a thesis project, the Department strongly urges majors to take at least one of their required 400-level seminars before the end of the junior year.  The Department will not guarantee admission to a particular 400-level seminar in the second semester of the senior year.

Statement of Concentration

In designing their major, students work closely with their advisor to define an area of concentration within the range of offerings in English studies. Rather than prescribe any particular route through its curriculum, the Department helps its majors develop their own interests and questions, which are then recorded in the students' concentration statements. This statement is to be completed over the course of the major, and is not a requirement for declaration.

A Statement of Concentration defines a field of inquiry structured around no fewer than three interrelated English courses.  This statement articulates the student’s understanding of how the named courses cohere in a field of concentration, along with courses in other disciplines or languages that may be related to the primary focus of the English major.  Students should regularly review these statements, in consultation with their advisor, as they may revise them to accommodate shifts of emphasis in their curricular choices.  In order to complete the major in English each student must submit to the Department a finalized concentration statement approved by their advisor.

Comprehensive Exam

The English Department is implementing a new Comprehensive Exam.  Starting in fall 2016, majors will present independent work, drawn from one of their 400-level seminars or from their senior theses at the English Department Capstone Symposium.  Symposia will take place twice a year:  in the week after Thanksgiving break, and in the third week of the spring semester.  The ten-minute presentations can take many forms and they will be organized into panels.  The Comprehensive requirement is that you attend the symposia during your junior and senior years (unless you are studying abroad), that you present once, and that you participate in the conversations your classmates’ presentations generate.  All English instructors also will attend.

Senior Thesis

The senior thesis provides an opportunity for independent study to any senior major who is adequately motivated and prepared to undertake such work.  English majors apply for admission to the senior thesis courses (English 498 (fall)/499 (spring)), in April of their junior year.  Admission to English 498/499 is contingent upon the Department’s judgment of the feasibility and value of the student’s proposal as well as of his or her preparation and capacity to carry it through to a fruitful conclusion.  The Department assigns Thesis Advisors to students whose applications it approves.

To be considered for senior honors a student must submit to the Department a portfolio, which contains normally 50 to 70 pages of writing.  The work may take the form of a critical essay, a short film or video, a collection of essays or poems or stories, a play, a mixture of forms, an exploration in education or cultural studies.

Before a student can submit a thesis, the final portfolio must be approved by the student’s designated advisor.  Once the portfolio is approved, the Department appoints a committee of faculty examiners to read it.  Following an interview with the student, the committee conveys its evaluation to the whole Department, which then makes the final recommendation for the level of honors in English.

Departmental Honors Program

The Department awards Latin honors to seniors who have achieved distinction in course work for the major and who have also demonstrated, in a submitted portfolio of critical or creative work, a capacity to excel in composition.  Students qualify for Latin honors only if they have attained a B+ average in courses approved for the major; the degree summa cum laude usually presupposes an A average.  Students in the English Department write their theses through the senior tutorial.

Learning Goals

By the time of their graduation, we expect that students who major in English will have become:

  • Adept at reading closely and writing well.
  • Skilled at critical writing about works in multiple genres, including both written texts, performances and visual narratives such as film. Some students may choose to create works of their own in verse, prose fiction or other media.
  • Attentive to the production of literary culture in a range of historical periods and social contexts.
  • Informed about the relationship between literary texts, literary criticism, and theories about cultural production.
  • Well versed in the literature associated with at least one specific area of concentration.
  • Capable of producing a well-researched long essay and/or completing a sustained creative project.

Graduate Study

Students interested in graduate work in English or related fields should discuss their plans with their advisor and other members of the Department to learn about particular programs, requirements for admission, the availability of fellowships, and prospects for a professional career.  Many graduate programs in English or comparative literature require reading competence in several foreign languages; while to some extent these programs permit students to satisfy the requirement concurrently with graduate work, we would encourage those interested in graduate study to broaden their language skills while at Amherst.  We would also encourage students to consider writing a thesis, for several reasons:  to produce a polished writing sample they can submit with their application; to gain, and demonstrate, experience in sustained independent work; and to get a sense of the areas they might want to pursue in graduate school, some knowledge of which is essential for writing an effective admissions essay.

N.B.  The English Department does not grant advanced placement on the basis of College Entrance Examination Board scores.

Questions regarding courses and the major should be directed to Professor Geoffrey Sanborn, the Director of Studies.