The English Major

Major Program

Students majoring in English are encouraged to explore the Department’s wide range of offerings in literature, film, culture, and creative writing.

Majoring in English requires the completion of ten courses offered or approved by the Department.  The Department’s courses are organized into four levelsThe 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. 

Class of 2016 and 2017 majors are required to take at least one 100 course, at least three 200 courses, and a 400-level seminar.  One of these courses must substantially address material from the period before 1800.  While special topics also have 400 numbers, a special topics course cannot count as the 400-level seminar.

An Important Change: Starting with the class of 2018 majors, the requirements will be to take at least one 100 course, at least two 200 courses, at least two 300 courses, and at least two 400-level courses. Again, it should be noted that one of these courses must substantially address material from the period before 1800.  While special topics also have 400 numbers, a special topics course cannot count as the 400-level seminar.

In designing their major, all students work closely with their advisor in defining an area of concentration within the range of offerings in English studies.  Upon declaring the major, all students must submit to the Department a statement of concentration which 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.  In consultation with the advisor, the statement of concentration is regularly reviewed and it may be revised to accommodate shifts of emphasis in the student’s curricular choices.  An updated concentration statement must be signed by the advisor and submitted to the Department in order to complete a major in English.

Majors may count towards the ten required courses up to three courses in creative writing.  No more than two courses not offered by members of the Department may be counted towards the major, except with the recorded permission of the student’s advisor.  Because 400-level seminars can lead in the senior year to a thesis project, the Department strongly urges majors to fulfill the seminar requirement during the junior year.  The Department will not guarantee admission to a particular 400-level seminar in the second semester of the senior year.

In addition, in the fall of the senior year, majors must pass a comprehensive examination based upon outside reading.

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.

Senior Tutorial

English majors may apply for admission to the Senior Tutorial (English 498/499), during May of their junior year.  Preregistration is not allowed.  Appropriate tutors are assigned to students whose applications have been approved.  The purpose of the Senior Tutorial is to provide an opportunity for independent study to any senior major who is adequately motivated and prepared to undertake such work, whether or not he or she expects to be considered for Latin honors at graduation.  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.

At the end of the tutorial, to be considered for senior honors a student must submit to the Department a thesis, which contains normally 50 to 70 pages of writing.  The thesis may be a work of criticism, 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, it first must be approved by his or her designated tutor.  If the portfolio is approved, a committee of faculty examiners is then appointed.  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.

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.


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