In her article “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What, and Why,” Jennifer Summit underlines some problems her graduated students have had with their undergraduate classes. More specifically, these issues have to do with literary history and a broad vs. narrow approach to literary teaching.
First of all, I have to be clear that I am not an English major in any traditional sense. I was, at one point, following the requirements for an English major, but after switching majors and concentrations so many times, I’m now in an ad-hoc program meant to take bits and pieces from both English and Spanish. So while I’ve experienced the English major curriculum, I’ve not had to follow it to the letter. That makes a huge difference in how I relate to Summit’s article.
I’m a details person. I like focusing on minutiae, the little things that make the big picture worth seeing. For that reason, I hated the only true survey course I took, but that’s just a personal taste of mine. I have very different needs from the English major than the typical student has, so my experiences, by definition, are different.
That being said, I can see the value, absolutely, of a class (or series of two classes, maybe) that concerns itself solely on a timeline for literature. ALL literature. I still don’t know where romanticism, gothic, classical, baroque, modernism, postmodernism, and all of the other movements of literature lie on a timeline, nor do I understand their historical contexts or, in some cases, their themes. I actually have a better idea of this from my Spanish literature classes–not my English ones. There is a lot of truth in what Summit is saying; we’ve come to be so specific that our details no longer fit into a bigger picture or context, but the context is what makes the details matter. As much as I would have groaned to have to take a literature history class, I feel that it would have been an invaluable foundation on which to build the rest of my literary studies.
But then again, I’m not entirely conventional.