Comparative Literature FAQ
A bi-college interdisciplinary major program at Haverford and Bryn Mawr
What is the field of Comparative Literature?
The study of Comparative Literature situates literature in an international perspective rather than studying the literature of a single national tradition; it is concerned both with particular works of literature and with literary history and literary theory; it works towards an understanding of the ways literature functions in its social and cultural context.
Comparative Literature is an interdisciplinary field not just because it works with a variety of literature and languages, but because it also draws on interpretive methods from other disciplines broadly concerned with cultural discourse; among these are philosophy, history, religion, classical and area studies, Africana studies, feminist and gender studies, anthropology, music, and the history of art.
What is the nature of the Haverford/Bryn Mawr major program?
Our program is a joint interdisciplinary program at the two colleges. We require students to take three central courses (an introductory course and a two-semester senior seminar), to do work at the advanced level in each of two language/literature departments, one of which may be English, and to take at least one course in literary theory and two electives that are themselves comparative in nature. We recommend (but do not require) that majors study abroad during one or two semesters of the junior year, and that students with a possible interest in graduate school begin a second foreign language before they graduate.
Why do students choose the major?
Majors are drawn to the program by several features, the most frequently cited being these: that it allows them to work with two languages and literature without giving preference to either (as a major/minor combination would); that it readily allows interdisciplinary work with other fields such as anthropology, religion, or art history; and that the flexibility of the program, within the requirements, allows students to have a great deal of choice in designing their own major. The fact that the program allows and encourages study abroad also appeals to many students.
How many students major, and what are their programs like?
The number of majors at the two colleges in a given year has ranged from 6 to 19, with an average of 12. The most common combination of languages is English and Spanish, with English and French a close second, but we regularly have students working in English and German or Italian and have also had a number who work with other combinations, such as English and Russian, English and ancient Greek, English and Japanese, French and Italian.
Some students follow a fairly traditional model, working with two bodies of literature, while others make use of the flexibility of the major to develop a program that has a strong language component but allows them also to pursue interests in other areas, such as music, art history, or anthropology; a number of Comp. Lit. students combine the major with a minor in another field. Probably about two-thirds of our majors study abroad for a semester or a year during the junior year.
In their senior year (as part of the work for the senior seminar) all students write a senior thesis on a topic of their own choice.
What do students do after they graduate?
Comparative Literature alumni/ae are engaged in pretty much the same range of post-graduate activities as other majors in the humanities. Our students have gone on to do graduate work in Comparative Literature and related fields, have pursued advanced degrees in business, law, medicine, and journalism, and have undertaken a variety of careers including publishing and teaching at the primary and secondary levels.
Who are the faculty?
The program is run by two co-chairs, one at each college, and by an advisory committee of faculty from different departments, including those who have taught or are teaching the three central courses in the program. The current advisory committee includes faculty with degrees in a variety of fields: Comparative Literature, Classics, English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, and Religion. The affiliated faculty (those who teach one or more courses cross-listed with Comp. Lit.) broaden our reach still further to include philosophy, art history, music history, and cultural anthropology.
What should a freshman interested in Comp. Lit. do?
Freshmen may take the introductory course, Comp. Lit. 200, though most students take this course as sophomores; they may also try out any of the various Comp. Lit. Electives open to first-year students. What is most important is that they make sure they are doing work in a language that will allow them to reach a sufficiently advanced level (normally the 200 level, though there are exceptions) by their junior year. We recommend that students who think they might be interested in the major talk to the Chair at some point during their freshman year.
If you have further questions --
Please get in touch with Israel Burshatin, Chair
of Comparative Literature at Haverford College.