Advice on Selecting Courses

English Course Listings
English Course Listings

The English major allows students a great deal of leeway in choosing their 300-level literature courses – a degree of flexibility that can offer wonderful opportunities, but can also be something of a burden. How do you make good course selections, especially when you are just starting out as an English major? And how do you progress from individual course selections, which depend in part on variables such as course availability and scheduling, to an intellectually coherent program of study?

Your first step in course planning should almost always be English Course Listings, published each spring with a full set of course descriptions for the following year. A current version, updated with any late-breaking changes, can always be found on the department website.  Your crucial second step should be to ask for advice. Pay a visit to a favorite TA or professor during office hours, whether or not you are currently enrolled in one of his or her classes (a current list of office hours is available on the Faculty Directory page). Most professors and graduate students know a lot about the department’s course offerings, and are happy to talk to you about them.

If you are hesitating between two courses, they can often positively recommend one or the other based on what they know about your interests and learning style. They can also direct you to great but mostly undiscovered classes, where you’ll be one of fifteen students rather than one of thirty-five – and where you’ll find commensurately greater opportunities to grow as a writer and thinker. Even with dedicated and highly skilled instructors, class size still matters.

Asking for course advice is also an excellent way to get into the habit of going to office hours – and thus of taking advantage of one of the best resources Northwestern offers. Once students start coming to office hours, they tend to return again and again. The setting lends itself to great one-on-one conversations, first about concrete matters such as course selection and thesis statements and later about broader intellectual issues and future plans. Some of the most intense pedagogy takes place in office hours, especially as you draw connections among courses and begin to gain your own distinctive perspective on literary study.

For both intellectual and practical reasons, you should optimize your experience by taking courses with faculty members who are at a variety of stages in their careers, from assistant professors just starting out to associate and full professors with decades of experience. A directory of English department faculty members is available on the Faculty Directory page. Assistant professors, who tend to have received their PhDs quite recently, often offer innovative courses and can do a terrific job of conveying the excitement of new ideas. Associate professors and full professors, who have been in the profession longer, offer an impressive depth of knowledge as well as a wider perspective on their respective fields. They can also write particularly strong letters of recommendation.

Finally the English department is proud to have excellent instructors at all of these ranks, including winners of multiple Northwestern and WCAS teaching awards. It’s terrific to take more than one course with the same professor, continuing an intellectual conversation over the course of multiple quarters. But you should also make a point of taking classes with faculty members who have different methodological approaches and areas of expertise.

Still have questions? We hope so! Stop by a faculty member’s office hours or come to see the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).