One of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken at Northwestern was the first college class I ever took.
Although I’m a journalism student, I came out of high school with a strong interest in English literature and signed up for the class “American Literary Traditions” when I arrived on campus. I didn’t exactly know what the title meant, but the reading list comprised a lot of the American classics that I didn’t get the chance to read before coming to college (I had never read The Scarlet Letter!). We started off with the diaries Christopher Columbus kept upon landing in The New World.
The diaries obviously didn’t read like traditional American literature, but they did situate the class — we learned about the rhetoric of conquest, how and why certain Native Americans were described in certain ways, and how The New World’s relationship with The Old World was verbalized, and then historicized. Immediately, a subject I originally thought was going to be taught as any other English class I had taken in high school opened up into this whole new interdisciplinary world (and wow that might be one of the nerdier sentences I’ve ever written). I loved going to lecture — the historical approach our professor took to all of the texts made me appreciate English in a way I never had before. How had we been reading books all throughout high school without first dissecting the historical moment in which they were written!? (Nope, that was the nerdiest) The nagging issue I had with English as a subject throughout high school disappeared: We were no longer reading words just to be reading pretty words, my professor helped show me how these books were lasting reflections of American history and culture.
I also loved going to the class (it was 1.5 hours twice a week and I never got up before 11 a.m., life was good). It was in Harris Hall, a beautiful new lecture hall on campus, and I sat with maybe 45 other freshmen and sophomores, most of whom were interested in English the way I was. We met with a smaller group — about 10 other students — once a week every Friday to go over the lecture notes and have a more informal discussion led by our teaching assistant, a second-year Ph.D candidate in the English department. The class wasn’t too big to begin with, my professor knew my name and I would talk to him after class sometimes, but the more intimate discussion sections were a really awesome supplement. Not only were they super helpful in keeping me on track with the reading we did every week, but the teaching assistant leading the section cared about us so much! We always had great discussions and it was fantastic to have another resource I could talk to when it came time for midterms.
I did end up taking a few more English classes at Northwestern just because I had the room in my schedule, but I also started taking American History classes. I never enjoyed history in high school, but I caught the bug after “American Literary Traditions” and ended up declaring my second major in American History before the end of my sophomore year. I’ve done such engaging work, taken some really awesome classes and met some of my favorite professors through the History department, and I owe it all to an English class I signed up for freshman year.
photo source: Northwestern Facebook.