The option in English provides students with a broad and intensive education in literature from the classical era to the present day across a range of national and cultural traditions, from ancient epic to African American fiction, contemporary poetry to early science fiction. Courses teach students to understand literary texts as rich, complex expressions of their own moment, embedded in the vital questions of identity, ethics, politics, and art that continue to shape the present day.
English courses at Caltech invite undergraduate students to become familiar with a wide variety of literary forms, genres, and styles of expression; to understand how authors and texts can be shaped by historical contexts; to appreciate differences in literary expression across time periods and national and cultural traditions; to develop critical reading skills through analysis and interpretation of literary texts; and to become effective writers with facility in style, organization, and interpretive argument. English option students in particular have the chance to work closely with faculty and to carry out independent research, culminating in completion of a thesis.
While students are asked to pay close attention to texts and to make rigorous study of the local cultural and material conditions that produced them, they are also encouraged to frame and consider larger questions about how we imagine other people's lives and experiences. As students learn about different modes of literary exploration and expression, they are also asked to think about how they can best express themselves and understand the role of stories and narratives in self- and social-fashioning.
Most students pursue English as a second option. The emphasis on writing and on critical reading helps students develop communication skills that can enhance their careers as scientists, engineers, and medical professionals. The English option also provides excellent preparation for those seeking careers in law, business, and administration, and in any field that involves extensive communication.
In addition to a Senior Tutorial, the English option requires nine courses, which must include at least one course in each of the following areas: British literature, American literature, and literature before 1850. All English option students are assigned an advisor who will help select courses best suited to their needs and interests, including where appropriate a limited number of courses in related fields such as history, visual culture, and literature in other languages. Students should consult their option advisor in advance of registration for each term. All courses counted toward the option must be taken for grades except for a first-year humanities course in English when taken in the first two quarters of that first year.
During the senior year, and typically in the first two terms, English option students enroll in En 99 ab (Senior Tutorial for English Majors) with a faculty member chosen by mutual agreement. The Senior Tutorial introduces students to advanced methods in literary research and analysis and provides an important means for assessing the progress of English option students in the rigorous study of literary texts and contexts. Students research, write, and revise a 25-to-30-page paper on a topic of their choosing in consultation with their faculty mentor; En 99 a is primarily a research term, and En 99 b is primarily a writing term. English option students should begin considering a senior thesis topic in the third term of their junior year in consultation with the HSS option representative or student's option advisor.
The English minor is designed for students who want to pursue concentrated study in English and/or American literature without the extensive coursework and the senior thesis required by the English option.
The first-year curriculum in English includes courses representing a wide array of time periods and national origins and migrations. While these first-year courses range widely and tend to be organized historically, they are not meant as surveys of their respective fields. Instead, selected authors, genres, and aesthetic movements are presented as a way of introducing students to essential methods of literary analysis and enriching their appreciation of literary language and form. Additionally, these courses emphasize clarity in written expression and the ability to develop interpretive arguments in a coherent and persuasive manner.
Advanced courses in English draw on faculty strengths in British and American literary studies but range well beyond these fields to encompass the ancient world, modern world literature in translation, and film studies. Traditional, period-based study covers the broad history of Western culture, including courses in medieval literature, Renaissance drama, Victorian novels, American literature before and after the Civil War, classical Hollywood film, and contemporary Black diasporic literature. Major developments in genre and literary form are addressed in courses on medieval romance, the early history of the novel, Gothic fiction, Victorian crime fiction, and Black feminist poetry. Leading authors are represented in courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Melville, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Octavia E. Butler. The lived experiences of gender, ethnicity, cultural identity, dis/ability, race, sexuality, and more are vital topics of consideration and elaboration throughout the curriculum.
Faculty research interests have shaped and reshaped this curriculum, and further courses allow students to explore a range of intriguing conceptual and contextual problems in the history of literature and film. These include courses on literature and reading, on law and literature in the Middle Ages, on the afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe, on Dickens's relationship to London, and on the new Hollywood films of the 1960s and 1970s.
Students pursuing an option in English have the opportunity to do independent work beyond regular course offerings in literature. En 98, Reading in English, allows students, in consultation with a faculty member, to develop a course of individual directed reading. Every year, HSS supports Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) that enable students to pursue summer research projects in the humanities, including SURF projects that involve research at The Huntington.
Toward the end of their junior year, in consultation with their option advisor, students should begin the process of identifying a topic of study for their senior thesis, a major research paper of 25 to 30 pages. Approval of this topic requires the agreement of an English faculty member prepared to direct the thesis.
In their senior year, English option students enroll in two terms of En 99 ab and complete the senior thesis. While this project will draw on writing and critical reading skills developed in previous English coursework, it also allows the student to conduct original research, to develop a more sustained and complex interpretive argument, and to engage with an available body of criticism and interpretive commentary. Senior thesis students are expected to revise and refine their thesis in response to comments and suggestions from the thesis advisor.