First-Year Focus

Welcome Northwestern Class of 2019!

Why study English?

Words and stories surround us. We’re immersed in them. Novels, poems, plays, films—but also tweets and Facebook postings and websites and blogs. And, even more intimately, thoughts. We think in language, and its vocabularies and sentence patterns and metaphors and storylines structure our thoughts and help to determine what we think. Studying English at Northwestern means figuring out how words do the things they do, tell the stories they tell – in part so that we can write new stories if the ones we are living in and thinking with now don’t seem to be working.

Being an English literature major at Northwestern means reading literature that’s been circulating across more than 1000 years of history and nearly all the continents of the globe. It means learning whole new ways of critical thinking about the work that literature does in the world, since writing doesn’t merely reflect the worlds it comes from, but also helps to shape those worlds. Even when you re-read familiar works, you’ll ask whole new sets of questions about them, and write about them in a whole new way. We promise that this won’t be high school English.

Being a creative writing major at Northwestern means gaining a deep background in the literary tradition, since every good writer is also a good reader. But it also means learning the ins and outs of peer critique and work-shopping, finding ways to accept and give constructive criticism and sharing the insights of your reading. After all, if you already know what you’re doing before you do it, why bother doing it? The creative writing major stresses craft and technique, with the understanding that the discovery in writing creatively is intimately related to the discovery in reading.

An English major prepares you for virtually any career you can imagine. Top employers for our recent graduates range from Teach for America and Chicago Public Schools to Buzzfeed and the Washington Post to Deloitte and Google. In the last few years, our graduates have also gone on to virtually every kind of professional school—business, law, medicine, education, public policy—and have pursued graduate studies in literature at some of the best universities in the world. English majors learn to read closely, write clearly, research effectively, and think both critically and creatively – skills that are applicable anywhere words are at work, whether in the pages of a book or flashing by on a screen.

Ten Life-Changing Skills that You Will Acquire as an English Major
  1. Learn to read.  Written texts are marvels of subtlety that contain far more than “information.”  They can reveal—and conceal—meaning in ways you might never suspect until you learn the skill we call “close reading.”
  2. Learn to write—coherently, persuasively, grammatically, and lyrically.  Writing is a universally valuable skill that surprisingly few people possess, so it is in great demand.
  3. Learn to speak.  Develop confidence in expressing arguments orally, thinking on your feet, and defending your views tactfully and skillfully against opposing positions.  Future lawyers, take note. 
  4. Learn how language works—its astonishing power and beauty, its dangers, its limits. Become an intentional master of the medium we use every day without thinking about it. 
  5. Develop empathy and insight into the minds of people different from yourself.  There is no better way to do this than by studying fiction, drama, poetry, and other literary works.  This is one reason that medical schools often seek humanities majors.
  6. Obtain a sense of the remarkable diversity, and the equally remarkable continuities, that mark human life and thought across vast gulfs of time, space, and culture.  The knowledge of human nature you will acquire from literature is at least as deep as, and intriguingly different from, what you will learn in Psychology.  If that is your interest, consider English as a second major or minor.
  7. Acquire an independent mind.  Learn to see through manipulative uses of language, such as advertising and political propaganda, to avoid becoming their victim.  Should you be so inclined, you will also have the skill to produce these forms of language.
  8. Learn how the English language has shaped, and been shaped by, the historical experiences of colonialism and postcolonial independence.  Find out how the English of Ireland, India, Jamaica, or Kenya differs from “standard English,” and discover the transformative effects of global English in business and technology.
  9. Learn the differences that translation makes, whether linguistic or cultural.  If you are proficient in another language, consider becoming a translator yourself—a skill that is in constant and increasing demand.
  10. Acquire a source of joy and pleasure that will sustain you as long as you live, and pass it along to your children—because there is more to life than working and earning money.
© Barbara Newman, Professor of English, Northwestern University
Recommended Courses for All Students

Fall 2015

English 220: Bible as Literature, Prof. Barbara Newman, MWF 10-10:50 plus discussion section

English 234: Intro to Shakespeare, Prof. Susie Phillips, TTh 11-12:20 plus discussion section

Winter 2016

English 213: Intro to Fiction, Prof. Jules Law, MWF 11-11:50 plus discussion section

English 214: Intro to Film and Its Literatures, Prof. Nick Davis, MWF 1-1:50 plus discussion section

Spring 2016

English 273: Intro to 20th-Century American Literature, Prof. John Alba Cutler, MW 1-1:50 plus discussion section

English 275: Intro to Asian-American Literature, Prof. Andrew Leong, TTh 3:30-4:50 plus discussion section

Recommended Courses for Prospective English Majors & Minors

English 210-1,2: English Literary Traditions (Fall 2015 & Spring 2016)

English 210-1: English Literary Traditions, Part 1, Prof. Kasey Evans, MW 12:30-1:50 plus discussion section

English 210-2: English Literary Traditions, Part 2, Prof. Christopher Lane, MW 12-12:50 plus discussion section

English 270-1,2: American Literary Traditions (Winter 2016 & Spring 2016)

English 270-1: American Literary Traditions, Part 1, Prof. Jay Grossman and Prof. Julia Stern, MW 12-12:50 plus discussion section

English 270-2: American Literary Traditions, Part 2, Prof. Julia Stern and Prof. Jay Grossman, TTh 12-12:50 plus discussion section.

AP, IB, and Placement Test Credit
The English Department does not grant credit for AP, IB, or placement tests.
Please take a look at requirements for the literature major and minor and the creative writing major and minors on our website.  You can also contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies, at 847-491-7294 or with questions about the Literature Program.  If you have questions specifically about our Creative Writing Program, please contact Jennifer Britton at 847-491-7294 or