About halfway through an exchange with someone at a party last weekend, it became clear that acknowledgment of our graduation later this month wasn’t going to sustain us through the customary small-talk cycle. I had already told him I was in the Department of English, but lately, I’ve found, that isn’t enough.

“But what do you do?” he asked. “What did you study?”

My father had asked me the same question a few weeks ago as he ordered my graduation announcements. He wanted to include a “specialty,” and asked what that might be. Well, I’ve done stuff with film, I told him. I had a few classes about gender and literature. The modernists took up a lot of time. “Huh,” he said; wasn’t I into journalism or something? Eventually I just told him to put down whatever he wanted.

I am apparently not the first person who studied English at the University and for which this question has posed a problem. The department recently announced that it will begin to offer “fields of specialty” in the fall, which seem to mirror (if not replicate) the creative writing subconcentration and the Honors program by offering students particular sequences of study that focus on specific historical, geographical, cultural or analytic traditions.

I suppose I applaud the changes in the sense that they seem designed mostly to help students navigate the considerable list of English courses every semester. Having studied in the department and endeared myself to its open structure, though, I wonder if the changes don’t confirm many of the stereotypes I’ve encountered as a concentrator there over the years.

The Daily’s story on the changes (Lacking direction, English Dept. adds new areas of study, 04/04/2008) offered the sentiment I’ve heard from most graduating seniors who have done work in the department – that it figures that they’d do this right as we’re about to graduate – and one less frequent, the fear that these changes might restrict the ability of students to move around in the department at will.

Like one of the professors quoted in the story, I doubt that will happen, if only because I have found consistently that the faculty who teach in the department are some of the most flexible on campus. It isn’t that the department isn’t challenging, because it certainly can be, it’s just that it’s one of the most cooperative at the University in terms of allowing (and compelling) students to do what they like how they like it. Attendance is the cornerstone of most classes, but as long as you conform to those standards, there is almost always room for original and unique directions to take coursework.

Many students outside the department probably think “original and unique directions” translates roughly to “blow-off class.” To be honest, it can, and the 27-credit English major on the whole has in my experience come down to what students make of it. The elite Honors program in the department might have limited admission compared with some departments in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, but it’s reasonably accessible to students who have a demonstrated interest and discipline. Then there is also the possibility never to take a class with fewer than 40 students and slip under the radar of the department’s more intense pursuits altogether.

I fall somewhere in the middle, and that fit my time at the University well given my other campus commitments and my desire to explore the department. It’s true that I don’t have a stock answer prepared about some pared-down subconcentration, but it’s beginning to occur to me that such is part of the appeal. The concentration requires a certain number of credits in different time periods and in different literary disciplines already, so it’s not as if I floated from class to class, I just took my interests on a semester-to-semester basis.

My concern is that this announcement taps into the sizeable perception that the undergraduate English program is an easy way to avoid taking class seriously, and the damaging paradigm that might create for those of us who feel comfortable deciding our own paths. Scotti Parrish, director of the undergraduate English program, told the Daily last week that students “felt like they weren’t coming out an expert of anything,” and so the department “thought we could create a map for them.” That’s fine, but the tradition I appreciated in the English department is one of choice, of an open system of concentration that set it apart from many other disciplines at the University.

I hope the new specialties can help guide the students who wanted more direction, but even more so that the faculty who implement it will allow students a more exploratory path should they choose it.

Jeffrey Bloomer was the Daily’s fall/winter managing editor in 2007. He can be reached at bloomerj@umich.edu.

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