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English Literature


Mission Statement – English Literature

The English major offers a range of courses in American Literature, British Literature, Creative Writing, Cultural Studies, and World Literature. The major privileges freedom, flexibility, and diversity, inviting students to design a course of study which integrates a broad range of topics, genres, and methods.

Elmira College enjoys a proud association with literary history. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote his most famous works, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the octagonal study now located on the Elmira College campus. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was one of the College’s founders and his wife, Olivia, was among our earliest students. Their niece, Ida Langdon, chaired the English Department and oversaw the transfer of the Mark Twain Study to the campus in 1952. 

In appreciation of this unique legacy, faculty and students strive to honor the ethos of Mark Twain. Emulating Twain’s work, the English curriculum is cosmopolitan and progressive. Students are expected to be open-minded explorers of diverse cultures and mediums. English courses stress inclusion. Students investigate unfamiliar ideas, interrogate prejudices, and integrate interdisciplinary interests. 

The English curriculum is also, like Twain, unapologetically modern. “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again,” he told a friend in 1876, “There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Twain’s words are obviously somewhat ironic, as his novels testify to his familiarity and fascination with feudal England and antebellum America. His writings, however, are never “pickled” by nostalgia, but rather caution against socially regressive politics and naïve mythologizing. While most English courses concentrate on works written during or after Twain’s lifetime, majors are also, naturally, expected to take surveys of early periods, but even these emphasize the political, technological, social, and cultural developments which recognizably shape the contemporary world.

Finally, English majors are expected to strive, like Twain, to be imaginative, rhetorically dexterous, and technically proficient writers in a range of creative, expository, and critical genres. English courses expose students to various strategies for drafting and revising, observing and analyzing, representing and persuading, researching and substantiating claims, diagnosing and developing scholarly methodologies.

In 1908, Twain said, “We get our morals from books. I didn’t get mine from books, but I know morals do come from books – theoretically at least.” With characteristic wit Twain displays both appreciation for literature – the occasion for his statement, after all, was the dedication of a library made possible by the donation of thousands of books from his personal collection – and conviction that literary education is not an end in itself, but rather a precursor to humanist wisdom earned by continual, skeptical testing of that education against experience and expertise gained elsewhere. Elmira College English majors are prepared not only for careers in education, publishing, and communications, but also to welcome unexpected challenges and excel under changing conditions because they are intellectually curious, eloquent, motivated, resilient, and self-aware.