Comparative literature (major)

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The comparative literature program at Columbia is one of the few in the country that offers an undergraduate major.

The only catch is that Columbia's comp lit department, one of the first in the country, has been an unwieldy appendage of the English faculty for most of its 100-year history. This can sometimes make the comp lit major feel somewhat homeless, although the administration is now taking steps to decisively sever the comp lit program from the English department by giving it its own office space. Some of us see the faint light of independent departmental status at the end of the tunnel, but for now comp lit is probably the most decentralized major at Columbia.


Comparative Literature is not for the faint of heart. The only major at Columbia that requires its own application, it has a hefty load of prerequisites which must be satisfied by the end of your sophomore year. Anyone seriously considering majoring in comp lit should definitely get an early start, be sure to complete all Core requirements by the end of sophomore year, and take as many language classes as possible, since you need to be proficient in at least two foreign languages before you can enter the program (proficiency means four semesters or the equivalent). That said, once you get the pre-reqs out of the way, the major offers an incredible amount of freedom. Comp lit majors have at their disposal the combined resources of all the language/literature/culture departments at Columbia. The downside of this, for those who like a more structured program, is that the student must take a great deal of responsibility and initiative in navigating the various departments and assembling a course of study that satisfies the major's very general requirements. The upside is that the faculty in these departments are usually more than happy to discuss with you not only course offerings but theoretical and historical insights within their expertise (the broad lumping together of languages at Columbia gives most of the faculty a bit of a comparatist bent).

As far as coursework goes, be prepared to take a lot of language classes. Most departments require advanced language courses for their upper-level literature classes, and you must take at least two advanced literature classes which require readings in a language other than English. This usually means routine (and sometimes tedious) language drills and exercises on top of your other coursework. Literature professors (especially the younger ones) tend to dislike exams, but they make up for it in papers. Expect between 20 and 50 pages of writing for most literature courses (less if there's an exam or if one of the papers is a research paper). This may seem like a burden, especially when you consider taking up to four such courses each semester (all of which invariably will have identical due dates for their papers), but it makes the senior thesis (a requirement for all majors) seem like a piece of cake at 35-50 pages. The consciencious student can satisfy most of the 30-credit requirement in literature courses by the end of the junior year (hint: take major cultures classes that count towards this requirement). This will leave most of your senior year open for research, which can be your big chance to show that you can pull together all the divergent topics you've been studying for the past four years into a nice, neat little package.

Comp lit is great for people who love languages, especially since Columbia did away with its linguistics department. Don't be afraid to take up new languages; you may find that just because you took Spanish or Latin for four years in high school doesn't mean you're willing to spend another four years studying Spanish or Latin literature in close detail. Columbia's language departments are, for the most part, excellent, and familiarity with a third, fourth, or fifth foreign language never hurt a single comparatist. Those interested in advanced degrees in Comp. Lit. should note that most Ph.D. programs require some experience with a classical language (Classical Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Chinese, Classical Arabic, Biblical Hebrew) and require students using Latin or Ancient Greek as one of their literatures to know some German as well. Don't forget, extra language classes count for related course credits.

As you move up in the major, you'll find that your classes get smaller and smaller. It's not uncommon for advanced literature courses in the original language to have less than 15 students in them (half of which are invariably native speakers). It's therefore a good idea to experiment with the departments which teach your languages and find out where the good professors are; they're the ones who will be teaching your seminars and helping you with your thesis, so you'll want to start building a relationship with them early. Once you've found the department that best suits your needs, it's a good idea to specialize in that literature to some degree, but don't forget that you're a comparatist, and you want to cast as wide a net as possible. Courses offering readings translated into English are a good bet in almost every department, since that's how language departments often try to hook students and they'll help chip away at the 30-credit requirement.

Being a comp lit major is about exploration. There are very few rules, so it takes as much discipline to finish the major as it does to get into it. It's a small major in terms of students (there are only a couple dozen in the entire College), but it draws on the resources of several departments, giving it probably the best student/faculty ratio around. Still, there is a reason why few universities offer undergraduate majors in comparative literature. The discipline itself draws heavily on (often obscure) theory and rests on its practitioners' ability to read several languages and synthesize multiple fields of knowledge, making it best suited to work at or beyond the graduate level. Still, for those ambitious undergraduates who enjoy world literature, who are passionate about independently pursuing their personal intellectual interests, and who thrive on a hearty challenge, there isn't a more fulfilling academic experience to be found anywhere.


Courses not to be missed:

  • Intro to Comp Lit - Heise (aside from the fact that you have to take it, Heise's great and the material is a solid grounding in the diverse theory and methods of Comp Lit)
  • Asian Humanities: Colloquium on Major Texts - de Bary
  • Tolstoy & Dostoyevsky - Belknap
  • Contemporary Drama - Meisel
  • W3333 - W3334 - The literature survey in any department is almost always a great experience

Courses to avoid

  • Russian Drama from Pushkin to Chekhov - Belknap
  • Modern Drama II - Instructor varies
  • The Classical Tradition - Worman (Lit Hum warmed over)

See also

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