English Department: Goals and Objectives
We investigate the design, purpose, meaning, modes of production and reception, and the uses that are made of literary texts. We carry out these investigations by examining closely texts in themselves and by bringing to the texts knowledge of relevant literary, historical, philosophical, and biographical contexts. We examine texts for their complicity in the construction of social norms and for their attempts to oppose or undermine such norms. We undertake these investigations in a liberal arts setting for the purpose of improving our students' understandings in a general way. Studies in the medium of language, of course, are particularly useful in this regard, because of the close relationship between language and thought. English courses contribute to numerous aspects of general education at Vassar, as it is represented in the mission statement and in the Assessment Committee’s list of goals. We offer non-majors an "immediate experience . . . of works of art"; opportunities to "give and receive constructive criticism"; occasions for improved "self-knowledge"; and a better understanding of the limits of our knowledge. English courses also provide unusually broad avenues for the stated mission "to educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others."Although there is a wide range of opinion on the subject among the many members of the department, there are a few points of agreement. Our long-standing freshman course, "The Art of Reading and Writing," suggests some of these. English majors must be able to read a literary text closely: that is, they must learn to understand the literal and figurative meaning of a complex text; the tone in which that meaning is delivered; and the verbal arts—such as figures of speech, diction, and syntax—by which the tone and meaning are generated. As well as reading closely, English majors should appreciate some of the cultural, social, technological, economic, and artistic contexts of a literary work, both because such contexts contribute to the meaning of a text and because, many interpreters of literature believe, texts are an expression of elements in these contexts. In addition, and concomitantly, English majors should know how to express complex thoughts in writing. To achieve this goal, they must develop skills ranging from the ability to control the tone they set and the stance they strike in their papers to the ability to vary and adjust the syntax of their sentences for the sake of accuracy and interest. All of our courses teach the arts of reading and writing, even when they have other goals as well. However, our freshman courses and our many writing courses address more directly these core arts.
English majors should be familiar with a substantial portion of the traditional canon of English and American works from the beginnings to the Modern period. At the same time, they should understand why certain works, and not others, have entered the canon, and they should read many works that have survived only on the edges of academic study over the last 150 years since English studies began as a university discipline. Many of our courses focus on important periods, movements, or authors in English and American literature. Others take up subjects that have not traditionally been part of the canon. To some extent, the concept of the canon is breaking down as our curriculum explores non-canonical texts more and more widely, and as those explorations lead us to post-colonial and other literatures written in the world-wide language of English.
Most members of the department would also agree that English majors should understand something about the theories and methods of literary study, as well as the ways in which English studies might converge with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many members of the department believe students should understand the "meaning" of literature in terms of social, cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual movements that are also the provinces of the social sciences. Many of our courses on periods and authors also address questions of theory. In addition, we have several courses devoted to studying theories of literature. Several others discuss literature as a realm of experience that reflects aspects of its social and cultural contexts.