Here's what alumni have to say about Comparative Literature (Formally Literature):
"I took the one less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference."
"I'll open this chain of communication on the right foot; simply put, my experience could not have been better in the department. I'm Lizzie Brook, I was a senior in Lit in 2011, and wrote my thesis on Nuyorican Poetry. The department offered me an intellectually invigorating environment complete with a support system which nurtured my personal and academic development beyond that which I could have hoped for. On a more practical level, ask me about Spanish as a second language within the department, any of the tutorials (sophomore, junior and senior), and my experience taking classes with Profs Naddaff, Thornber, Shell and Sollors. As a sophomore I was also terrified of the (dreaded) theory component to Lit, so if you're nervous about that I can provide some reassurance and advice!"
Lit 100s: On Plans
"I started out freshman year thinking I wanted to do Classics (bizarre and unwise, since I don't know a word of Latin or Greek), then set my mind on English (because of all the poetry I simply had to write), then made plans for a semester abroad in Paris. I figured it would all be fine, as long as I stayed clear of theory. When I wrote this blurb, I was a senior; taking Serbian to help me with my thesis on Danilo Kiš, Russian because it won my heart, and On Theory because it was fun. My beloved Literature Concentration rescued me from my misinformed intentions and allowed me to discover things I never knew I would love. Ask me about Danilo Kiš, Russian and German literature (Barker third floor!), rolling r's and accepting your foreign accent, or about bridges on the Balkans. Ask me about navigating life without poetry workshops. Direct inquiries about Derrida somewhere else."
- Maria Vassileva
"Several paradigm shifts occurred during my freshman year. I found the old metaphysical home I had been dwelling in for much of my adolescent life to be no longer tenable -- hostile, even, to this new me that was being forged. And so I shed it, with its pre-med aspirations and the entire 10-year plan that came with them. I declared Neuroscience as my concentration, but continued to take mainly humanities classes because nothing pleased me more. Spring of my sophomore year I took Burgard's Nietzsche seminar and spent the bulk of my days lost in this or that text, this or that armchair. The exhiliration was like nothing I had known. One day I thought, Oh, a concentration/department/life exists that will allow me to feel this way constantly and help me to channel it into critical thought, commentary, and contribution. I went to speak to Dr. Naddaff shortly after this. The day I joined Literature the tectonic plate shifting finally stopped. While I continue to be shaken to my core each day, by the stream of new ideas that flows endlessly through them all, on the deepest level I feel I have arrived. A home, but a delightfully fluid and expanding one."
My Two Kopecks
"This is mostly for compulsive creative writers. When I was choosing my concentration, I was torn between Literature and English because, while I was more interested in the courses in the Literature department, I really wanted to take creative writing courses and write a creative thesis. Well, creative writing courses make great electives. As for the thesis... Though scholarship is by no means a handmaiden of creative writing to me, I must say that working on a critical thesis is also making me write more poems, because my desk and my floor and my brain are flooded with fascinating bits of information, ideas, images that I have been collecting. (I'm also just having way too much fun working on my thesis right now, I almost feel guilty - but not really).
As for everything else - Literature is wonderful in how flexible it is, as others have said. I used to say "I want to major in EVERYTHING" before coming to college, and I am very satisfied with Literature as an approximation of EVERYTHING."
- Olga Moskvina
Lit = Fantastic!
"Honestly, I could not be happier with my field of study. As a freshman (and even as a sophomore!) I was trying to decide among quite the range of concentrations. A combination of factors made Literature stand out from RLL, English, and Hist&Lit as the perfect choice for me. The blend of languages and cultures (I can't pick just one!), the option of doing a translation thesis, and the opportunity for really individualized attention (heck yes one-on-one junior tutorial) were significant draws for me (as was, to be honest, the lack of history requirements).
What really cinched it for me was taking Dr. Naddaff's course "On Translation" (take it! it's amazing!). I think taking an actual class in the department was the best way to decide that it was right for me. Since declaring, I have taken several more really good Lit seminars (I'm in "1001 Nights" right now, also by Dr. Naddaff). Sophomore Tutorial not only gave me a good grounding in theory and the basics of lit, but it was also a great way to get to know my peers in the department. Junior Tutorial (in which I read everything from poetry to French-Algerian novels to sci-fi, with some translation theory mixed in) and Senior Tutorial (I'm translating a beur novel for my thesis) have given me the kind of in-depth discussion and freedom to direct my own studies that you simply cannot get anywhere else. Working one-on-one with a faculty member has been the most profitable experience of my undergraduate career!
Basically, I'm in love with the Lit department. And I'd love to answer any questions about it!"
- Molly O'Laughlin
From Julianne Ross, on a semester abroad in Fall 2009
"I chose literature because I knew it would grant me the flexibility that I wanted from my studies, while still providing me with a solid base from which to explore different areas. I really like that the department is so small and personal, so individual attention is never hard to come by and there is a definite sense of community. In this department you are exposed to a lot of world literature that you might never have come across on your own, but you can also forge your own path and study what truly interests you. The classes are challenging in the best way, really forcing you to think deeply, not to mention vastly improving your writing skills. Furthermore, since I was very interested in learning about other cultures and traveling, being able to study abroad in college had always been extremely important to me, and the literature department has been very accommodating to my study abroad plans."
Life after Lit
"In the week before the day we were expected to declare our concentrations (way back in the dark ages, this happened during the second semester of freshman year), I nervously thumbed through the concentration handbook. Quite randomly, I happened upon the concentration in Literature. As a classical singer, I had an interest in poetic interpretation – maybe Lit could help me there? Intrigued but hesitant (studying languages together sounded fascinating, but how did it work in practice? What is “theory,” and where did the concept of “culture” fit in?) I sent Dr. Naddaff what I thought was a long-shot email to see if she could meet with me – the day before we were to declare our concentrations! – and she responded right away.
This was the beginning of an always warm and encouraging experience in the Literature Department. The Lit half of my dual concentration with Music was certainly also the most challenging intellectual experience I had at Harvard; but facing that challenge at Dana Palmer, rather than Sever or, God forbid, Sanders, meant that I never felt in danger of falling through the cracks. There were no cracks – it was just the eight or so of us in our sophomore tutorial. Perhaps the most fantastic thing about the Lit was the Department was its openness to allowing me to pursue my particular interests. I’m not sure how many other departments have something like the Lit Junior Tutorial as a required course; the opportunity to devise one’s own syllabus, and to work one on one with a member of the tutorial board, for two full semesters, is really a tremendously formative opportunity. How many other departments have that kind of belief in their students?
Thinking about the texts that have shaped my critical development, I realize that I came to nearly all of them via my Lit tutorials. Though initially drawn to Lit for my singerly interests in textual interpretation, I discovered musical applications in my department tutorials well beyond those I had anticipated. Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” suggested that a complete account of musical meaning may lie outside the confines of composer biography or intentionality; Paul de Man’s notion of “undecidability” in language – that ambiguity of textual meaning is an inescapable interpretational dilemma – meant musical utterances might also be attributed multiple, even contradictory values; theories of gender performativity brought to the surface what had been paradoxically underplayed by my practical training: that musical performance too, a bodily act, engages in articulating one’s relationship to others and the world. As I struggled through these theories, I felt my musical perspective shift irrevocably and dramatically.
Perhaps, this mélange of critical perspectives and new vocabularies seemed to suggest, the experience of music might not be so ineffable after all. As I came to realize, the musical conversations implied by my introduction to literary theory and criticism – absent from my practical education as a classical musician – though difficult, were not impossible. My experience in Lit gave me the confidence to focus on texts about music extensively in my senior thesis, a project on the concert program notes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now a graduate student in musicology, I have felt extremely well-prepared for my classes, thanks in large part to the wide theoretical reading I got to do in Lit. This isn’t to say that things have been easy; but my experience in Lit, learning to zero-in on the theoretical backing of a text, is a skill I fall back on again and again.
If you’re at all intrigued, contact Dr. Naddaff, find out more. I can’t recommend it more highly."
- John Kapusta ('09)
Life after Lit. 2
"The Literature concentration offered me an opportunity I was unlikely to find anywhere else: to read and think critically about texts, as products and catalysts of our world and its changes, and also to pursue a topic of my own choosing, not to be found in the course catalogs (namely, the relationship between history and fiction in both the Western and Chinese traditions in the recent centuries). The Lit concentration gave me tremendous freedom to do research on what interested me, provided tutors with similar interests to direct my sometimes overly-ambitious readings, and encouraged me to seek out professors from different departments to direct my thesis. It was a great pleasure to see a body of work of my own develop through the help of so many people.
After graduating, studying literature has become only more relevant for me. I began a joint JD/PhD program with Comp Lit and HLS -- perhaps a curious combination. A large part of reading literature is no doubt for our own enjoyment, but that does not mean that by studying it more closely we do not see something more profound -- how the world shapes us, especially by what we read, and how we shape it (for good or ill) by what we write. I have found this true in reading legal texts of early medieval China, where law was not only a means of settling disputes (in fact, that was only a secondary function), but reflected people's deep-seated notions about morality, justice, and even aesthetics (e.g., some legal judgments in ancient China were written in highly literary parallel prose). Law, of course, is a technical and practical art, seemingly far from literary. But that is just the point. Literature, in a way, is immensely "practical." My pursuits have shown me that learning to be a careful reader (and my years in the Lit concentration taught me just that) is an invaluable skill in understanding the various facets of our world."
- Tony Qian ('08)
Life after Lit. 3
"Right after college, I started working as an equity analyst at a hedge fund, a job that I ended up enjoying quite a lot. Studying the stock market is like taking a front row seat on the side of a giant crossroads where all the forces in the world intersect, like a Times Square of the global economy. Though some people might find that a surprising direction to take after concentrating in Literature, I think what drew me to this academic course was the exact same appeal: the Literature concentration at Harvard stands at the confluence of all the humanities. The breadth and flexibility of the program allowed me to immerse myself in studies that spanned cultural theory, history, linguistics, sociology, and film to name a few, while simultaneously gaining a deeper understanding of worlds as distant as China, Russia, and England before it was known by that name.
This said, the concentration arms its students with microscopes as well as telescopes. The tutorial system allowed me the kind of freedom and focus that most fields only permit at the graduate level. When most of my friends in other departments were still juggling lectures and sections for their concentrations’ requirements, I was already delineating my own curriculum and exploring it with some of the world’s foremost experts on the subject. As an unexpected bonus, the structure and the dimensions of the concentration fostered a friendly, tight-knit, and vibrant community that I loved calling home.
Though I no longer work in finance, I haven’t drifted too far from the markets since I’m currently preparing the launch of a consumer web startup that revolves around online stock-trading. Some people inevitably still ask me: then why you did you concentrate in Literature? I’m still baffled by the question. I want my career to tackle every possible challenge, current, and movement in the world: no other concentration could have prepared me so well."
- Teymour Shahabi ('05)