YC English Teaches Canonical Works and More
We write in response to the recent essay from Rabbi Yitzchak Blau,” The Ghost of Torah UMadda: English Literature at YU.” While we appreciate hearing from a former YC English major who is also a stalwart defender of the Humanities, we are pained that he would base his critique of our department solely on the titles of courses for the current semester. A quick look at previous course schedules (available on the English department page of the YU website) would negate this argument entirely: recent electives include “Milton and Religion”; “Jews in Western Literature”; “The European Novel”; “American Literature and Art”; and “Romantic Revolutions,” a course on British Romanticism. Future courses include “Shakespeare and the Bible” (in conjunction with the Straus Center) and “King Arthur and the Idea of England.” What’s more, a quick perusal of our course descriptions, also easily found online, demonstrate that our current courses include far more than what our deliberately attention-grabbing titles indicate.
Since there seems to be some confusion about the difference between Prof. Lavinsky’s popular Core (general education) class “The Monstrous” and Prof. Fitzgerald’s “Literary Hauntings,” an elective for English majors, allow us to clarify. Prof. Lavinksy’s course focuses on the medieval to early modern period, with selections from Herodotus’ Histories, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and Beowulf, as well as authors such as Ovid, Marie de France, Michel de Montaigne, and Shakespeare. Fulfilling the 1700-1900 requirement of the English major, Prof. Fitzgerald’s course examines the motif of hauntings from Hamlet through Romantic poetry, Victorian short stories (including by Dickens and Wilde), and 19th-century US works by Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Wharton, and James, among others.
Yeshiva College students thus have ample opportunity to study canonical authors in our regularly offered classes. But Rabbi Blau is not wrong to note that the focus and nature of many of the courses we offer has shifted since the time that he was an undergraduate. Literary studies, like all academic fields, has developed over the last 35 years, and we would be intellectually remiss if we did not offer our students the tools to engage with those changes. Our syllabi have expanded to include more women and people of color as well as more writing from the past century. English departments across the country now also include more creative writing offerings, which we are able to provide through our well-regarded writing faculty, Professors Brian Trimboli and David Puretz, who was voted Teacher of the Year by last year’s graduating class.
What’s more, it is no longer only verbal literacy that Humanities and English Departments seek to teach, but media literacy on the whole. The study of various media forms– and especially film– and how those forms shape our thinking, our sense of self, and our relations to our fellow humans play a fundamental role in the study of the Humanities today. Our students express gratitude that we offer critical tools for analyzing the kinds of creative works that they encounter on a regular basis. But these fields of study are not separate. In some of our classes, students study film, television, and even podcasts in their relationship to traditional literary forms like novels, poetry, and short stories.
We must therefore take issue with the accusation that our current offerings “scare students away from English classes.” We have seen no evidence of that. Rather, since 2019, we have dramatically increased the number of students taking our classes; our Core classes routinely fill immediately, often past their waitlists; and our teaching evaluations are among the strongest of the college. When students ask us to write letters of recommendation for law school, medical school, and other graduate programs, they often remark on how much they learned from our classes, and appreciate that we are among the professors who got to know them best.
We are gratified by Rabbi Blau’s expression of support for Humanities programming and a thriving English department, at YU and in the country more broadly, but we were disappointed to be subject to this unwarranted critique.
The Yeshiva College English Department
Professors Paula Geyh, Lauren Fitzgerald, David Lavinsky, Rachel Mesch, David Puretz, Elizabeth Stewart, and Brian Trimboli