Last semester I had a class where my professor encouraged everyone to bring in a piece of writing that he or she found especially meaningful. Everyone shared their favorite novels, poems and even screenplays. All was going well for me until I informed one of my classmates that I had never read the book he brought in, which was J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. When he learned that I had yet to read this novel, the kid looked at me as if I not only had a hand growing out of my head, but that this hand was giving him an obscene gesture.
What bewilders me the most about this situation is that if Catcher in the Rye is such an important book, then why has it never been introduced to me in any of my classes? Why am I permitted to take core English classes whenever on a whim instead of being required to take them in order to be permitted to take more advanced classes? Unlike more objective departments, such as science or math, the problem in the English department is that there is an absence of structure and guidance in the curriculum.
If a student wants to major in biology at Temple, they must take certain classes in order to join more advanced classes. For example, fundamental chemistry and biology classes must be passed before a student can move forward. While this rigid structure can be restricting, it also gives a person the basics they need to succeed in future classes.
A student who majors in English, however, does not have to worry about intense structure. There are few required courses in English, which include a few introductory classes along with several literature surveys. Yet even these classes do not need to be taken immediately. Theoretically, they could all be taken as a senior, since none of the more advanced English classes require these courses. When I made the transition from biology to English during my sophomore year, this freedom, at first, seemed like a blessing. No longer did I have to drudge through classes I had no desire to take. I could pick my classes as if they were a buffet, and we all know that when we are at a buffet we rarely choose what is best for us, but rather what tastes good. If given total freedom, students are going to choose only the classes that interest them, and while this does make life a lot more fun, it also deprives us of much needed background in our discipline. Teachers, such as Stephen Zelnick, have noticed a marked lack in familiarity with texts that should be common with English majors.
“My frustration is that English majors, even in advanced courses, lack basic familiarity with the ancient classics, the Bible and with the master texts that provide points of reference for sophisticated reading and discussion,” Dr. Zelnick explained.
Having taken a class with Zelnick, I can remember several instances in which he would refer to a text only to meet a response of blank stares.
Temple’s English department shouldn’t take the brunt of the blame. According to Dr. Zelnick, other departments suffer from a lack of structure. He also adds that Temple’s English department is taking steps to strengthen fundamentals in its students, which includes having basic courses taught by presidential faculty and ensuring basic terminology is discussed. There is also a possible honors schedule in the works with a more intense schedule that could be a prototype for later models.
I’m not bashing the Temple English department; my experience with Temple ever since becoming an English major has been nothing but pleasant. My only concern is that I am perhaps not the only one who has seemed ignorant for not having read books such as Catcher in the Rye. We need a way to help give every student the basic knowledge needed to keep up in the world of English and literature, or we run the risk of sending them into the world inadequately prepared.
Bryan Payne can be reached at email@example.com.