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« Middlemarch and The Odd Women | Main | This Week's Acquisitions »

April 26, 2007



It's probably too much work for anyone to do, but in my limited experience as a non-English major, I found it hard to avoid Shakespeare (which I wasn't interested in doing) except in courses limited by time (19th century) or geography (American). My college's English department (SUNY Buffalo) did require Shakespeare for majors, and it was a popular course for non-majors. Many survey courses included Shakespeare, and genre courses -- they offered Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire as separate courses -- and several theater-oriented courses included Shakespeare. I suspect that even in places where Shakespeare is not required, it would take a lot of work for an English major to avoid substantial exposure to him, but testing that would involve real inquiry.

Laura Little

Just one correction: Glenvillle State College is in West Virginia, not Illinois.


I suppose another question ACTA should have asked is, "how many English majors at elite and non-elite institutions *take* a Shakespeare class even when it is not required?"


It is very impressive you took the time to do this research; I hope that this gets as many hits as it deserves. The rhetoric and logic of the ACTA report is so tired that it is hard to take seriously, but we should. As Rebecca suggests, a very good question would be to find out how many English majors are actually taking Shakespeare. Enrollment numbers do matter if you are interested in measuring patterns of eduction. For instance, I imagine that many of the classes that ACTA believes to be beyond the pale are small, elective seminars. I know that the classes cited from my institution are of that kind, where as survey classes in British and American literature (which are presumably acceptable, even if they are not always about Shakespeare all the time) are much larger, and upper-level classes defined by traditional literary period (including, yes, the Shakespeare classes) are of medium size.

I am looking forward to reading your post about the justification for requirements. I think there is room for serious intellectual disagreement there. But the authors of the ACTA report do not seem very interested in that kind of exchange.

The Constructivist

I can report that SUNY Fredonia strongly recommends that its Adolescence Education majors take a Shakespeare course for their Major Authors requirement. And that we regularly teach Shakespeare in many places in our curriculum, not just in Major Authors courses.


This is a big deal in my department at the moment actually. I go to a British Uni about 25 miles from Stratford and home to several fairly prominent Shakespeare scholars, as a third year "Pure" English Lit student I have no choice but to take the Shakespeare course, nor do the PhilLit, FilmLit, ForeignLanguageLit or Creative WriterLit students. For some unknown reason the AmericanLit lot don't have to take Shakespeare, they can if they want, but they don't have to.

Next year however, no one will have to. People come to study English here because we have the connection to the RSC, to the Birmingham Shakespeare Institute. We spend a lot of money each year on a centre to bring Shakespeare and performance together. The idea of suddenly making it non-compulsory is deeply bizarre. Especially when Epic Tradition (Homer, Virgil, Milton) and Chaucer and the Gawain Poet are mandatory in 1st year. It becomes even more odd when you consider that we don't study Shakespeare until the 3rd year. He's been known to crop up in the 1st year critical theory module when talking about metatheatre, but that's not every year. So third year "Shakespeare and Selected Dramatists" is the main Shakespeare course - we have a couple of odd little extra ones, but they again can only be taken as a 3rd year - and the idea of making it non-compulsory makes me want to cry.

I want to believe people will still take it in huge numbers, but on paper it comes off as a fairly unattractive course. No one thinks "Wow! Two Shakespeare plays a week! Sign me up!" so there's a big chance of people defecting to the novel courses, or the one on Eliot. And that strikes me as sad. Not only because we have a phenomenal department for Shakespeare, but also because I really do think that Shakespeare should be one of the cornerstones of the English Lit BA course.

Bourgeois Nerd

Brava, Little Proffessor, for the research! Show them how it's done!

And I echo other commenters' in really questioning whether not having Shakespeare REQUIRED means that people don't TAKE Shakespeare anyway. I went to a suburban state school (though one without "State" in its name) and we had to take a Shakespeare I class, but a lot of people took Shakespeare II, which wasn't required, anyway. Shocking as it may be, but English majors tend to actually LIKE Shakespeare, regardless of its status in the curriculum.


Thanks for this great post. I teach Shakespeare at one of the schools (Penn) on ACTA's list, and we do not require Shakespeare for our English major. Not technically, at least.

BUT: we do require chronological distribution, which involves one lower-level course in pre-1640 literature and one seminar in pre-1700 literature. In practice, these requirements alone mean (I suspect) that virtually all of our majors take a course with at least some Shakespeare in it.

Second, we have many, many students who take Shakespeare outside of these requirements, as well as non-majors who want to take Shakespeare. I taught a freshman seminar this semester with Shakespeare in the title, and it was the highest enrolled of any of the freshman seminars I heard about. (This is strictly due to the course title, because I'm new at Penn and no one knows me, and the students were first-years in any case.)

At my old institution (U of Illinois), Shakespeare *was* required for the major, and was constantly overbooked.

There are several good reasons I can think of why many schools no longer actively require "Shakespeare" per se for their major, none of which involves any desire for students to take less Shakespeare:

1) Courses called "Shakespeare" have shifted from the major to the gen ed part of the curriculum, because they are guaranteed to enroll huge numbers and thus bring money to the department;

2) Shakespeare requirements have been removed from the major because departments can count on students taking Shakespeare anyway, and the requirements are often used to force students to take courses in those areas that they are least likely to want to study if left to their own devices--ie, there is no reason to require Shakespeare; I suspect this is the main reason at most schools that have dropped their requirement;

3) Shakespeare is increasingly being taught in courses that do not have his name in the title and hence probably escape ACTA's blinkered eye (e.g., Drama of the English Renaissance; Tragedy; English Literature from Chaucer to Milton; etc)

Hopefully this report will be ignored as the shoddy polemic it is, but somehow I doubt it...


Hannah: My experience has actually been that (American) college students do, in fact, say "Wow! Two Shakespeare plays a week! Sign me up!" (Well, maybe not in those exact words...) Our big Shakespeare lecture consistently enrolls over 100 students (quite big for my school), and it's not required for anyone.


Note also the responsible method of proving statements like "they are studying everything BUT great literature" by listing a bunch of course titles that aren't about Great Books. Perhaps the authors should be recommending a course in argumentation.

Anyway, one does tire of hearing Shakespeare used as some kind of freestanding indicator of literary knowledge. I didn't take any Shakespeare as an undergrad myself, but I did read Pope, Johnson, Spenser, Sidney, Chaucer, all the Big Six Romantics, and a host of minor figures and managed to pull top scores on the literature GRE. Most kids read Shakespeare in high school, don't they? But if they don't, are they going to be transformed into literati by one required course, or is it that there's some essential value or truth that is conveyed by Shakespeare, and only by Shakespeare, and moreover resides in every one of his plays? Sheesh.


Z: That's reassuring to hear. I kind of did say "Wow! ..." when I heard about the course, as did most of my friends, but I know a few people who were put off by the idea. I don't think enrollment on the course will really drop very much when it's non compulsory, there is a certain sense that you *should* study Shakespeare at some point in an Eng Lit degree after all, but it saddens me that it's going to be a choice.



Another reason schools have dropped Shakespeare, I suspect, is illustrated by the difference between the two schools I've taught at, one of which requires Shakespeare for the major (in a class of 36 maximum) and the other of which does not. At the public university that requires Shakespeare, we needed to teach a total of 9 sections per year to give all the majors a chance of fulfilling the requirement--that's about 330 students per year. Since this was a course in the major, only tenure-track faculty were able to teach it. So this required a huge number of Renaissance faculty--when I arrived there were something like 8 tenure-track faculty in the Renaissance. Most departments are 1) unwilling and 2) unable to devote so much of their resources to supporting a huge cadre of faculty in one period like that.

I suspect, therefore, that many schools that require a dedicated Shakespeare class for the major, and that have a substantial number of majors, are either 1) staffing those courses with adjuncts or grad students; 2) teaching them in huge lectures; or 3) staffing them with faculty who are not Shakespeareans. I imagine that all three of these options turn up in other ACTA reports or the reports of similar advocacy groups as "problems": our children are being taught by grad students! our children are being taught in huge, anonymous lectures! our children are being taught by people who don't know what they're talking about but presume to be "specialists" in every subject! etc. etc.


Maybe this only accounts for a few schools, but I also doubt ACTA took into account schools that have no requirements or core curricula. (Though I'm sure they'd see that as a problem of another kind.)

There's actually a footnote on page 10 of that survey that says that they're deliberately *not* counting schools that have requirements in medieval and/or Renaissance English literature, because there's no guarantee that Shakespeare will be covered (ha!), or that he will be covered in depth. Which is ridiculous.


Although maybe my favorite bit is the affronted way they argue that at many schools, a class on Shakespeare "may count the same as" a class on Renaissance food or "medieval writing on flogging, stabbing, and rape." Because Shakespeare, of course, never wrote about any of those things.


R: entertainingly, the second year required "C17 Literature" course in the English course at my uni, doesn't cover Shakespeare. Deliberately. Of course, this is a degree course in England where no one takes courses outside the department, and (up until now) Shakespeare has been required in the 3rd year.


You should publish this research. It is certainly better done than ACTA, and shows just how little effort they put into their report. They probably spent more time writing and publicizing it than they did researching it.


Great work! I despair when I recall that this is ACTA. Timothy Burke and Michael Bérubé have done great analyses of how their arguments operate. Memorably, Anne Neal, when told here at Temple that there were almost no student complaints about "Liberal Bias," took it as proof that PA needed an "Academic Bill of Rights": the students were obviously too intimdated to stand up for themselves!

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