There's a lot wrong with a lot of undergraduate courses in English Literature and plenty of room for new standards to be set so I looked with interest at the New College of the Humanities just launched with much fanfare by Prof A. C. Grayling and Co. The New College of the Humanities is a new, private university designed to rival the education offered by Oxbridge and the Russell Group (and Durham which oddly is not in the Russell Group).
You can read the English prospectus here.
What I like: there appears at first glance to be a good overview on offer with courses from the year dot to the present day. I am not a great believer in sectioning off literature for an entire undergraduate course as some places do e.g. just doing twentieth century literature for three years. I think when you're an undergrad you need the breadth and depth of a good "middle ages to the present" syllabus. Literature is a conversation: you can't effectively participate when you join in near the end.
What I don't like:
1. There is no major language component. I know it is billed as an English Literature degree not Literature and Language but language is still pretty crucial. There's "Varieties of language in conversation and literature" but that appears to be it, and that is optional. There's no suggestion that they'll be studying Anglo-Saxon literature in the original; surely you'd need a separate Anglo-Saxon language module before you could do that. I am not so traditional as to think it vital that you do Anglo-Saxon texts in the original but to have no history of the development of the language course as an alternative seems remiss.
2. There is no overt literary theory. There's an Approaches to Text module which might be a language course or might be a theory course but seems rather more a simple critical techniques course seeing as the set books are called things like Literary Studies in Action and Ways of Reading rather than something like Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents (I don't think I've ever seen a prospectus for undergraduates, and that's first year undergraduates, that doesn't make Walder or one of the alternative anthologies compulsory reading). Lots of people don't like literary theory but you cannot put genies back in their bottles very easily. Literary theory exists and can't be ignored. A good degree should have an overt introduction to the subject and the option to study one or more theories from a purely philosophical standpoint. This degree appears to have no overview of theory and two courses (women/postcolonial) that are optional. As there is no major theory course preceding them I can only assume that they will look at a few books by women or ethnic minorities and that this will largely be the reading of those texts not the study of feminist theory or postcolonial theory philosophically. In fact, I hope I am wrong, but it would appear that women and ethnic minorities have been added as a bolt-on. Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Woolf and Toni Morrison do not make for a balanced course otherwise very, very, heavy on the DWEMs.
3. The only novel post-1945 mentioned on the reading list for the compulsory courses is Toni Morrison's Beloved. Damn good book. But where is the rest of post-war fiction? There is a course called 'the novel' and other courses that might have a post-war novel or two in passing but it seems very light.
4. For this superficially traditional course they are going to charge £18,000 a year. I haven't forgotten the decimal point, that's 18 grand. To my mind what they're offering for that is just not good enough.
In case you're thinking I am asking too much in three years, my own degree, also just English Literature not lit and lang, had a first year of: history of English language, Middle English literature, Renaissance literature and Introduction to literary theory and a subsidiary (philosophy in my case, including formal logic, much vaunted by New College of the Humanities) and 9 courses across the next two years of which Milton to the Romantics, Victorian literature, Modernist literature and Contemporary literature were compulsory as was a course on Shakespeare, further literary theory, and a literary theory option (I did narrative theory, pure theory not applied, and there were about six to choose from). We were able to pick three optional courses from a large range covering everything from the Brownings to Bob Dylan to holocaust literature.
The thing about literary theory is that it is hard and potentially boring when you start. I hated it in my first two years. By the third year I was starting to get it (and quite enjoyed it once I was a post-grad). But in my first two years, broke as I was, I think I would have been tempted to pay 18k to NOT do literary theory. This course, theory-lite as it is, seems designed to appeal to the paying parents (who might not know much about it but like the traditional sounding nature of it) whilst avoiding students dropping out because of having the heebie-geebies over literary theory, and dropping out students take their 18 grand a year with them.
For further thoughts on the teaching and standards likely to be available David Allen Green has a good piece on his Jack of Kent blog.
I don't want to get in to a big argument about whether there should be tuition fees at or not as that seems a done deal for the future. But what do you think about the New College of the Humanities as proposed, and particularly what's on offer as the Literature course?
Edited to add: Harriet in the comments below points out how old fashioned the course seems and no wonder if an article in the Higher Times Ed is to be believed. Gabriel Egan finds he recognises one of the courses offered:
"The college’s website helpfully lists the courses to be taken, and I noticed that something called Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson is a required component. Coincidence? No: the 200-word course description, the prescribed reading, the “topics for special consideration” were all mine. Or rather not mine, as I’d sold them to the University of London (via Goldsmiths) nearly two decades ago.
Students at the New College of the Humanities will take the University of London External BA exams, so for English literature they’ll get the teaching materials written in the 1990s at Goldsmiths. Apparently my fresh-from-a-BA reflections on early modern drama strike the New College professoriate as suitable promotional material for their £18,000-a-year degree. I was just happy to get them past the gatekeepers at Goldsmiths."