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Literary arts concentrators cite difficulty balancing requirements, small class sizes

Students detail challenges getting into classes necessary for concentration

While Emily Tom ’25 knew she wanted to study literary arts when entering Brown, she found that constraints within the department made the reality of pursuing a concentration in literary arts challenging. Ultimately, to ensure she could get into required courses with small class sizes, Tom declared her concentration in literary arts more than a year earlier than the University requires.

According to the Brown University Bulletin, literary arts concentrators must take ten courses, including four creative writing workshops and six classes in reading and literary research. Among these ten courses, six must be taken directly through the Department of Literary Arts.

Within the department, introductory and intermediate creative writing workshops have a maximum enrollment of 17 students, and advanced workshops are capped at 12, Gale Nelson, academic program director and senior lecturer in literary arts, wrote in an email to The Herald. Some determine enrollment based on a writing sample.

“There are, I believe, six to seven seats reserved in every class of 17 for lit arts concentrators which means that almost half of those seats are going to people who have already declared,” Tom said. “So it would be a lot easier if I could just declare my concentration now as a first-year and then know I can get into the classes that I need to fulfill my concentration requirements.”

“If I came into Brown undecided and then in my junior or sophomore year decided I wanted to do something in lit arts, it would be a lot more difficult,” she added. “I don’t know anybody in any other concentration who’s had to declare (early) because they feel like if they don’t, they won’t be able to get into the classes that they need.”

Some literary arts concentrators told The Herald that being required to take courses with enrollment caps has lead to uncertainty during shopping period, when students interested in taking literary arts workshops must wait to find out if they have been accepted into certain classes. Even when rejected, many continue to attend courses for the remainder of shopping period in the hopes that a spot will open up.

“Shopping period is somewhat overwhelming and inconsistent,” Olivia Booth ’24 wrote in an email to the Herald. “Not everyone who wants to take the classes, especially workshops, ends up being able to take them because they’re not … taken off of the waitlist until weeks into the semester, when substantial time and work has been put into other classes.”

“It’s difficult to schedule lit arts classes and coordinate other classes because for the vast majority (of literary arts courses), you don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to register until relatively well into the semester, while almost every other department is on an earlier timeline,” Booth added.

Marielle Buxbaum ’24 said she found it surprisingly easy to enroll in a literary arts class as a first-year during the summer 2021 semester, when first-year students made up the majority on campus. But during the subsequent fall, Buxbaum faced more difficulties, getting into just one literary arts course, which she did not want to take because it was taught virtually.

“I was planning on being a lit arts and theater concentrator, but I was taking theater classes and other classes but no literary arts. So I was a bit concerned I wouldn’t be able to finish in time,” Buxbaum said. “This semester, I am in a literary arts class, but I wasn’t sure if I would get in and I really felt like, ‘Okay, at this point, if I don’t get into one of the literary arts classes I really like, then I’ll just drop the concentration.’”

Booth wrote that because the literary arts department is “super lenient” with which courses fulfill the reading and research requirement, she did not have many reservations about being able to complete her concentration.

“There are a lot of cross course credits, so you can take courses in English and comparative literature and still get credit for the literary arts” concentration, Tom said. But throughout her first semester, Tom noted that she was confused over which courses could count toward the concentration, which caused her to worry.

Booth recalled a similar sense of anxiety during her first year at the University. “I was definitely nervous about being able to get into enough workshops to complete the concentration.”

Booth, Buxbaum and Tom all suggested that the University increase opportunities for students to enroll in creative writing workshops within the department.

“I think it’s better to have (workshops) be small because you can get better guidance from professors and you can have more time for each student to share their work,” Buxbaum said. But “I think there should be more classes and more sections of each class.”

Nelson wrote that the department is already taking steps to increase the number of workshops offered. “This year, we were able to offer five additional introductory workshops — spread among poetry, fiction and digital/cross-disciplinary (fields) — and two extra intermediate-level special topics workshops,” he wrote.

The department is offering 18 introductory level workshops this year, “none of which require a writing sample,” as well as 19 intermediate and advanced workshops, “of which six allow for concentrators to register without a writing sample,” he added.

Despite the challenges, Tom encouraged all students to explore classes in the literary arts department. “It’s a really great experience for anyone, no matter your concentration,” she said. “So if there’s any way it could be more accessible, not just to concentrators, but to all students, that would be really cool.”

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Nelson advises those who are interested in trying literary arts workshops “to take a methodical and wide-open approach.”

“Take part in as many (course registration) lotteries as possible,” Nelson said. “This past year, we added sections after the registration period ended, so lotteries for those sections were filled” after initial registration was held.

“The more widely you apply,” he added, “the more likely you are to find yourself on a class list.”


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