We offer a broad range of courses in English, American and Anglophone literature of all periods and genres, but also in related areas such as creative and expository writing, literature and visual arts, ethnic literature and cultural studies, the history of the English language and of literary criticism, and literary and cultural theory.
Class sizes are kept at 19 to enable full discussion (12 in creative writing workshops). Instructors assign extensive reading and writing in order to help students become perceptive readers, critical thinkers and strong writers. Our literature and creative writing courses reinforce one another, and we counsel students to take classes in both areas.
We have nearly 40 full-time faculty and they are always available for advisement. Many share appointments in other departments, and can help guide you beyond our department and beyond USC.
We believe in the value of study abroad and will help you to find programs that are right for you. Students who wish to go beyond our regular courses of study can apply for our Honors Program, and we honor excellent work in English with our extensive program of prizes and awards. We run innovative Maymester programs in literature and creative writing, and our undergraduate associations provide ways for students to share interests in small settings.
A student with a major in English should graduate with an appreciation for the relations between representation and the human soul, for the relations between words and ideas, and for the social utility of a sophisticated understanding of discourse. We address these three learning objectives below.
On one level, stories are fun to tell and hear, to read and write, and Aristotle claims in the Poetics that through this natural process humans learn to become human. But he also says that artistic fictions are more philosophical than history. They tell us more than how or why things are; they tell us what could be or should be, and are infused with moral purpose even when they claim not to be. These representations are non-linear and multi-dimensional, and they call for complex responses. They are invitations to students to live other lives— both in time and place—to test attitudes and understandings that are beyond their own immediate experience, and in a university environment that frees them from the familiar. The resulting flexibility of mind and soul, we hope, will help students find their own paths in a world yet unknown. Engaging with complex literatures prepares them for understanding complex lives. We expect our students to understand the major experiences in English discourses and representations from earliest beginnings to the current moment; all literatures exist in conversation with earlier literatures. We expect students to get out of their own skins and feel the experiences of others, both by engaging in literatures and by their own efforts to create new literatures. We expect them to understand how periods and cultural intentions and literary genres differ from one another, and why ignoring those differences leads to a solipsistic misunderstanding of the lives of others that we would find intolerable if we ourselves were so misunderstood. We expect students to concentrate in one or more periods or genres so that they understand in depth just how complex are the relations between a culture and its representations. To that end we teach skills and theories of interpretation, along with the history of our own discipline, to see how interpretive interests shift with time and place.
The second area of learning objectives concerns words and ideas, and the modern English department takes its impetus from that greatest of Renaissance educational treatises, How to Do Things with Words and Ideas (Erasmus, De copia verborum ac rerum). Ideas may finally be more important than words, but words are the pathway to ideas, and they are part of the joy of being human. When words are manipulated in ways unanticipated, they lead to ideas unanticipated. We still have no reliable ways to teach students to generate new ideas, but we have very reliable ways of teaching how to control and shape language—and how to recognize the ways that language has been controlled and shaped. We expect students to learn these ways with language and representation, to hear and practice our different languages in English, in the hope that after they leave us they will have a lifetime of new ideas. Such writing is always creative, and students train in these areas both by exercising their own skills in writing and by studying six-hundred years of the history of creative writing.
The third area of learning objectives is social utility and the relations between English and other disciplines. Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the best undergraduate preparation for a legal career is the study of poetry. The two fields are primarily activities of interpretation, and the minute attention to linguistic detail in poetry has its counterpart in the linguistic detail of legal analysis. The two fields exist because reasonable alternative understandings of discourse exist; both fields adjudicate their differences through arguments that must directly engage their counter-arguments, and those arguments finally must be compelling to parties other than the arguers. Inculcating the habits of mind shared by these two fields takes time, more time than just the forty units of a major, or the three years of law school. Some of our English majors may have careers in law, but most will have lives in very different areas calling for the same skills in discourse, civil argument, and civic engagement. We cannot and should not say what those careers will be; we train students for jobs that have not yet been invented.
Assessment of objectives
Assessment of these three learning objectives reflects the fact that literature is a way of knowing, rather than a gathering of information or theories. We prefer the intense engagement of seminars and small classes to the inevitable asymmetry of large lectures. Students cannot hide; they are under the immediate supervision of faculty. We monitor student progress through close encounter, oral presentation, and the continual exchange of written work both with faculty and among peers (particularly in creative writing workshops). We experiment with lectures where appropriate, but in general find that for freshmen and sophomores small classes provide the best introduction to rigorous argument and the testing of understandings in language. We have explored capstone classes, but have found that the small classes currently required of all our juniors and seniors serve the same purpose more efficiently and with greater variety. As our department and university move toward greater interdisciplinary work, the prospect of a coherent capstone administered by any one department seems less likely.
Every fall we offer two seminars in literary theory that are open to any senior, and required of any senior hoping to advance to our Senior Honors Thesis in the spring. These seminars are based on current research interests by selected faculty and actively demonstrate methodologies that students will need for their own advanced work. Recent seminars have researched the relations between Renaissance England and Islam, while scheduled seminars include experimentation in narrative forms in early twentieth-century novels. Our commitment to assessment through seminars and small classes requires a faculty consensus about criteria and standards. Our Honors Program provides one way to forge consensus. Students are admitted only upon application and must submit papers graded in earlier courses that demonstrate likelihood of being able to succeed in a sustained research project. These submissions are evaluated by a faculty committee whose membership rotates. Our theses must be supervised and read by at least two faculty members; all faculty must participate, all decisions are reached in concert, and all students present their work publicly before faculty and peers. Assessment in creative writing also requires consensus about criteria; admission to advanced seminar is by application and submission of a portfolio evaluated by our senior writers. Creative projects submitted for the Honors Program require both a creative component and a critical literary component, with separate faculty supervising each component. Throughout the year we canvass our faculty for likely candidates for the Honors Program; this helps us identify both capable students and those who need more attention.
We have a number of competitive undergraduate prizes awarded within the department that help to forge consensus about criteria and standards. The William James prize has two separate competitions—one for the best critical essay by a freshman or sophomore, and another competition for juniors and seniors. All faculty take turns as readers and all decisions are reached through discussion. The Edward W. Moses prize for creative writing likewise is read and judged by all creative writing faculty in turns. We continually reassess our procedures and criteria for all prizes.
Introductory courses at the freshman and sophomore level likewise are governed by communal faculty understandings of goals and assessment. We use roundtable discussions for courses with several sections, sharing syllabi and encouraging exchanges about expectations, while avoiding rigidity and sameness. We monitor syllabi across the department, looking for parity in workloads and modes of evaluation. Our junior faculty each have a mentoring team of three senior faculty, and their classroom teaching is observed each year. The number of college and university teaching awards garnered by our faculty, combined with our awards in general education and in student mentoring, argue for the strong standards and common sense of purpose shared by our colleagues.
The resurgence of our self-governing undergraduate student association (Sigma Tau Delta) is evidence that faculty have conveyed a sense of appreciation for our discipline. Not all assessment comes from faculty. Students increasingly have taken their coursework directly into the community, designing and executing projects in local schools. Our creative writing students actively engage with neighborhood public schools, and at the end of January they filled one of the large lecture halls on campus for a public reading of the children’s own poetry. Our students in literature are prominent in the university’s Joint Education Project for outreach to the USC community, and a number of our classes incorporate JEP activities. We are approached repeatedly by organizations and companies seeking our students for internships ranging from public relations and advertising to film and publishing. These and other forms of community assessment complement our internal academic assessment.
We have an excellent record of placement for our students, but we are leery about this as an index of assessment since students come to us with their own learning objectives, and in the real world we must balance their objectives with ours. In recent years our graduates have been placed in every major law school in the entire country, and particularly in the northeast. Our literature students have been accepted at Oxford, Yale, Michigan, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and a host of other principal programs. Recent creative writers have gone on to the best MFA programs in the country: Iowa, Otis, Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Cornell, American University, Virginia, Wyoming, Las Vegas, NYU and UCI. We must not take this achievement as the sole measure of our success, but it does provide another fiduciary to validate our internal assessment.
Our goal cannot be mere replication of the professoriate or service provision to the professions, and we do not articulate either of these among our learning objectives. Flexibility of mind, facility with expression, and a sense of continuity with the past are ways of thinking and engagement that may not develop fully until years after graduation. We believe immediate assessment must be coupled with long-term assessment of fifteen years or more, when we canvass our graduates and ask whether the English Department prepared them for the lives they now live. Here is a sampling from the class of 1992: a filmmaker and film editor in Mexico City, a principal technical writer at Oracle, an insurance and retirement planner, a vice president of new product development at Scholastic, the registrar at the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a head of marketing at Intel, the owner of Gyro Digital in Connecticut, the owner of a luxury real estate firm in Manhattan Beach, a graphic designer in Los Angeles, the managing editor of the Huntington Library Press.
Undergraduate alumni publications pictured above:
Paul Legault, The Emily Dickinson Reader McSweeney's 2012; Becca Klaver, L.A. Liminal Kore 2010; Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men Candlewick 2011; Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife Random House 2011; Paul Legault, The Madeleine Poems Omnidawn 2010; Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls Candlewick 2011.