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Don’t downplay the classics in the English major

Don’t downplay the classics in the English major

By Nikki Jagerman

May 19, 2010 9:00 pm

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that students are not expected to know Middle English when they enter their Milton courses. It should have said they are not expected to know Middle English when they enter their Chaucer courses, as Milton did not write in Middle English.

As of late, English professors have been talking to their students about the department’s possible changes in the undergraduate program requirements. They want to make the individual author courses that focus on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton optional. To cut these classes from the degree requirements would be hugely detrimental to this university’s future English students. The topics taught in these classes deserve their own focus instead of being lumped into a time period or genre.

English students bond over memorizing the proem of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and debating whether Satan is the protagonist or the antagonist in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” We talk about how iambic pentameter gives Shakespeare’s plays direction and find delight in his sonnets’ ending couplets. The reason we’re all so enthralled with these subjects is that we’ve spent so much time studying them.

Students don’t go into their Chaucer courses knowing Middle English. Students are taught how to read it and then grow to appreciate it. If students are not required to take these courses, they probably won’t. They are difficult, and giving students the option of taking other courses is allowing them to coast through their undergraduate program without being challenged.

Removing the Shakespeare-, Chaucer- and Milton-intensive courses from the major requirements would be to undermine their importance. The entire English department is comprised of book nerds who have come to appreciate these authors through education. I often stay in on the weekends and explain to my friends, “These books won’t read themselves.” That being said, we get a little defensive when people try to come in and mess with our reading schedules.

Hypothetically, if the department were to mix the works of Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare into upper-division survey courses, it would not benefit students because each would be taught with extremely tight time restraints. How could you teach “The Canterbury Tales” in less than a quarter because there would be other authors to cover? What professors would want to tell their students to read “Paradise Lost” in a week? Integrating these authors in with others in the same time period and genre wouldn’t provide students with a better understanding of the texts should they choose not to take these important courses. “The Canterbury Tales” was the foundation of the frame tale and character development. Shakespeare remains influential in the modern day. Milton is a demonstration of the artistry in the English language.

I was fortunate enough to travel to England with the UCLA Summer Travel Study program on Shakespeare, where we studied the plays and saw them live. Part of the reason why the program is so successful is because the courses offered are a part of the major requirement. It’s a great way to convince your parents that the trip is vital to your education and understanding of Shakespeare’s writing. That worked for me and pretty much everyone else in my program. Not only did I get a better understanding of the works, but we also were able to talk to actors, directors and history buffs that were just as interested in learning as we were. Getting their insights on the plays’ meanings and directions was invaluable; they taught our classes lessons that we never would have learned at UCLA. (Shout out to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon!)

The English major requirements should not be changed. The study of these great English writers gives the UCLA English department necessary focus and allows the students’ understanding of the scope of the English language to be strengthened.

E-mail Jagerman at [email protected]

Send general comments to [email protected]

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