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What Is Involved in the Study of Literature?

By R. Stamm
Updated May 23, 2024
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The study of literature involves analyzing the style and content of literature from a variety of time periods with a focus on writing. Literature curricula include course work in medieval literature, English literature, and American literature and include fiction, poetry, and drama. Studying literature exposes students to a variety of opinions from an extensive list of authors, which broadens their world view. One can obtain anywhere from an associate’s degree to a doctorate in literature, and the credit hours range from 60 up depending on the level.

Requirements for obtaining a degree in literature include certain general education courses, which assist in developing the necessary skills for analyzing literature. Most colleges require a course or two in the study of philosophy and religion to aid the student’s critical thinking abilities. History courses assist the student in gaining an understanding of the circumstances during the period in which the piece was written. The study of literature also includes anthropology classes giving the student an understanding of world cultures.

Students begin a more intensive study of literature after fulfilling core requirements, beginning with a concentration in fiction. Students will evaluate classic fiction from around the globe and over different time periods, which may include works by Dante and Shakespeare. They will also evaluate fiction from the Romantic period, reading works from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other authors. The study of literature also includes a focus on realism, naturalism, and symbolism that were popular styles during the 19th century. Degree programs require some focus on 20th century literature, and students may be asked to read works by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, or Virginia Woolf.

In addition to the analysis of fiction, the study of literature involves intensive study of poetry from numerous time periods. A course is required in the study of Greek classical poetry from Homer and Hesiod, and students will be expected to understand the differences between epic poetry, lyric poetry, and comedic or tragic plays. An understanding of poetry from the Romantics through modern American poets is standard for persons who wish to obtain a degree in literature. Some of the works that may be analyzed include poems from earlier poets such as William Blake or William Wordsworth and the later American poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Persons wanting to earn higher than a bachelor’s degree in literature may expect extensive course work in Renaissance writers. Most master’s-level programs require advanced courses on the study of Shakespeare’s dramas and the works of John Milton. In addition, master’s level degrees and above require students to prepare a thesis paper on the concentration of their choice.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Jan 31, 2014

@indigomoth - I can see the point of people who say you shouldn't study literature at university though. It's never going to blow away anyone on your resume, unless you get a PhD in the subject. I think that the study of literature is a good thing, but I also think that you can pretty much do it online or through the library, without having to pay or tuition.

By irontoenail — On Jan 30, 2014

@indigomoth - You might have considered taking a course in a genre that you don't usually read, or one relating to a particular culture or something like that.

But whenever someone asks why study English literature, I have to wonder if they realize the depth and richness of our shared legacy in the written word.

I think people get too caught up with the idea that they are at college to simply get qualifications for a job. Yes, that should probably be the primary focus for a lot of people (especially since college is so expensive) but you've got the chance to talk with intelligent people about ideas that have shaped our entire society.

Not to mention that literature courses can help increase your ability to analyze written material, which is never a bad thing in the workforce.

By indigomoth — On Jan 30, 2014

I know this might seem odd, but I never wanted to study English literature at college precisely because I read so much. I felt like it would be almost redundant to study something that I already had so much experience with.

In some ways I still think that was the right decision, because I took a wide variety of other courses and they have definitely added to my knowledge of the world. But I think now it would have been nice to take literature classes. Like being in a big book club.

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