Ways through the major

Literary history

Focus on literary history arises from the conviction that to understand what a literary work means it is vital to understand the context from which it emerges, whether that context is a matter of political circumstances, the way in which texts are materially produced and circulated in a given era, or the drama of literary influence.  At the same time, becoming informed about the longer arc of literary history is no less critical to understanding our own relation to literature here and now.  By considering familiar and less recognizable modes—drama, lyric poetry, polemical rant–across historical and cultural spans, we are able to see that the literary forms we take to be transparent expressions of human experience are far from givens: they emerge in distinctive and often surprising historical circumstances. Which means our own forms of expression are anything but inevitable. But “literary history” is a two-way street. Even as attention to history can transform our understanding of literature, attention to literature may well transform our understanding of what history is.  By exploring the comparative life of literary modes, including the untimely returns of banished literary forms, a focus on literary history can suggest how literature complicates familiar conceptions of how history itself unfolds. Students wishing to focus on literary history might consider taking courses in earlier literary periods soon after declaring the major.


Creative writing

Creative Writing is an integral part of the English department; many of our literary courses include creative assignments. Each year, we offer our core sequence of introductory and advanced workshops in poetry and fiction, as well as occasional classes in other genres (for example memoir, science fiction, and documentary poetry). In these intimate workshops, usually of no more than twelve students, students from across the college come together to develop their own creative practices and to become more attentive readers of one another’s work. We believe that better readers make better writers and encourage our students to be close readers not only of texts, but also of the world and their place in it.  

The typical creative writing student might move through the program by taking an introductory 200-level course, an advanced 300-level course, and then either a 400-level tutorial, an independent study, or an honors thesis in creative writing. The introductory workshops are open to all students, regardless of prior experience. If you’re interested in enrolling, please be sure to preregister for the class; if it’s overenrolled, you’ll receive an email asking for a sample of writing that you’re pleased to have done, whatever the genre (we’ll take anything: letters home, journal entries, academic essays,  inspired fragments, etc.).

Majors in English who have excelled in workshops are encouraged to consider applying for Honors in Creative Writing. The creative writing thesis is a significant body of writing (typically fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction) completed during the fall semester and winter study of the senior year, and usually including revisions of  writing done in earlier semesters. (With permission of the honors committee, the thesis may be undertaken during the winter study period and the spring semester of the senior year.) Requirements for admission include outstanding work in an introductory and an advanced workshop (or the equivalent), a recommendation from one of the creative writing teachers (who will typically then act as thesis advisor), and the approval of the departmental honors committee. A creative thesis begun in the fall is due on the last day of winter study; one begun in winter study is due the third Monday after spring break. The methods of evaluation are identical to those for critical projects, though their page limits differ (typically a minimum of 25 pages for poetry and 45 pages for fiction).

Outside the classroom, the English Department students and faculty are engaged in curating the Literary Arts through readings, workshops, and publications. More information can be found at the Williams College Literary Arts web page (currently under construction) and on our Facebook page.


Film and media

Though Williams does not offer a major in film or media studies, many students have successfully pursued those interests through the English department, typically beginning with Hollywood Film (ENGL 204), an introduction to the dominant form of narrative cinema. Other film courses include European Cinema and Film Theory (ENGL 262); Documentary Fictions (ENGL 367); Black Queer Looks: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary African-American Film (ENGL 286); and Catastrophe/Apocalypse: The Movie (ENGL 387).  In addition, the department offers at least a dozen courses in which film and time-based media are crucial components.  Samples include Introduction to Cultural Theory (ENGL 117); Theater and Politics (ENGL 125); What Is Comedy? (ENGL 134); and Androids, Cyborgs, Selves (ENGL 153).  Still other courses teach production skills, or study narrative modes closely related to film:  Making Things Visible (ENGL 237), Graphic Storytelling (ENGL 289), The Nature of Narrative (ENGL 120).

Most students supplement the department’s offerings with crosslisted courses, particularly in Studio Art and Theater, including Introductory Video (ARTS 124); Moving Photography, (ARTS 227); Shadow Puppetry (THEA 15); and Music Videos (ARTS 335).  Winter Study provides another chance for students to immerse themselves in subjects ranging from feminist filmmaking to screenwriting to the nature of horror.  Students may also opt to spend a semester studying away, at an American or European film school, or seek out summer internships with one of the many Williams graduates now working in film, television, and new media.


English + American Studies

English majors who are interested in the interdisciplinary study of literature may want to explore the possibility of a double major with American Studies. In addition to taking the three core courses, American Studies majors choose one of four specialization routes through the major. The cluster of electives that constitute the specialization route called “Arts in Context” is designed for students interested in American arts, literature and media. English majors have been drawn to the program’s emphasis on aesthetic form and on the contexts — historical, social and political — that determine and situate those forms. If you are interested in performance studies, queer theory, activist art, or comparative studies in race, ethnicity, and diaspora, for example, you might want to consider this combination of majors. If you have questions about American Studies, please contact Professor Cassandra Cleghorn, Chair of American Studies ([email protected]), who divides her teaching between the English department and the American Studies program


Critical theory

The term critical theory names a set of intellectual counter-traditions that combine philosophy, aesthetics, and social thought in order to better elucidate historical forms of oppression and exploitation. It has an especially keen eye for the ways in which domination disfigures the traditional academic disciplines, though it is a discipline in its own right, at this point, with journals and big conferences and whole departments dedicated to it (though these last often go by other names). Critical theory is perhaps most easily recognizable by its subfields: feminism, anti-imperial and postcolonial theory, critical theories of race and racism, Marxism, queer theory, post-structuralism and its offshoots, the new materialisms, &c. The English major is one of the best ways to anchor a course of study in critical theory, with courses offered at every level of the curriculum. Many of these emphasize questions of language, representation, and the literary, while also opening literature up to the other disciplines: literature + philosophy, literature + politics, literature + sociologyliterature + x. Some critical theory courses are emphatically interdisciplinary, with no priority given to literature or aesthetics. Students interested in critical theory are encouraged to look for related courses in philosophy, political theory, and the interdisciplinary programs.