Why I Majored in Comparative Literature

Why did I major in Comparative Literature (alongside my sociology major)? There are two answers to this question: the original, not-so-good reason, and the longer-term, better reason.

I declared a major in comparative literature because I was awarded a Western Undergraduate Exchange scholarship. This scholarship allows you to attend certain out-of-state public institutions for 150% of what it would cost to attend an in-state school. It was my ticket out of state, to a university I was incredibly excited to attend.

But only certain majors at the University of Oregon qualified for a WUE scholarship. The most popular majors on campus (English, for example) did not qualify—there was no reason to recruit aggressively for programs that already enroll so many students.

Comparative Literature was one of those “certain majors.”

 If it hadn’t been for that requirement, I probably would have declared a major in English. As you might have noticed on the blog, I love reading and writing. I do both quickly and well. I figured that an English major was the best chance to spend my college years reading excellent and important books, and discussing them with other engaged students.

But because of the scholarship I did a bit of research into Comparative Literature, decided that it was a close enough fit, and I signed on the dotted line.

That is the less-than-great reason I majored in Comparative Literature. I can’t say I’m particularly proud that I let a scholarship dictate a decision as big as a major. However, I will say that I am grateful for the shove it provided away from the best-known track for lovers of books into the less conventional realm.

What is Comparative Literature?

Essentially, comp lit is the study of literature with an intentional cross-cultural focus. This can mean simply comparing literary works from different languages, countries, time periods, or cultures. OR it can take much subtler distinctions, including ‘reading’ film, TV, politics, graffiti, history, etc. as ‘literature’ to form scholarly insights through these analyses. Literary critique is central to the discipline, as is a comfort with this broad-ranging, somewhat nebulous description.

What does all this actually mean? It means that comparative literature is about thinking deeply about the stories around us. How are they formed? What to they mean? Who shapes the narratives, and how do people react to them? How do different cultures deal with the same ideas and same human frailties?

Comparative literature is interdisciplinary—drawing from English, philosophy, film studies, languages, and psychology, and also from political science, history, sociology, women and gender studies, ethnic studies, and more. If you choose to study comparative literature, you’ll most likely be in other departments as often as you are in your own.

What are comparative literature requirements?

Generally speaking, you’ll take classes in the comparative literature department, plus qualifying classes elsewhere on campus. You will also need to reach a reading competency in a second language, meaning that most comp lit students at least minor in a second language. This also means you will probably be required to have a ‘concentration’ in a world region or culture (for example, I studied Spanish so my concentration was Latin America/immigrant literature).

The classes taught within the Comparative Literature department are often really fun in that delightfully nerdy sense. You might study the theory of comic book adaptations to film. Or ‘the undead’ in the contemporary imagination (perhaps in a cross-media fashion, focusing on video games, young adult novels, and TV). You could explore activist strategies in fiction vs. the personal essay vs. traditional journalism. You will almost certainly take classes examining gender and gender identity in various forms of literature across culture and time.

Highlights of my Comparative Literature Career

My interests are fiercely interdisciplinary. Also deeply nerdy. I LOVE drawing parallels between different stories, and became interested in the ways stories shape experiences.

My comp lit experience dovetailed nicely with my sociology degree. Taken together, I dove into a realm of looking into subjects and stories that most people take for granted. And I loved it.

My personal favorite Comparative Literature classes:

  • Gender and Identity in Colonial Literature
  • Indigenous Literature
  • Feminist Theory
  • Senses of Place
Presenting Nomad paper Comparative Literature Undergraduate Conference, 2009. 

Presenting Nomad paper Comparative Literature Undergraduate Conference, 2009. 

The uncontested highlight of my comparative literature experience was taking part in nomad—the University of Oregon’s Comparative Literature journal of undergraduate writing. This involved partnering with a PhD student mentor and writing and refining a scholarly paper on a subject of my choice, so long as it fit the year’s theme. In 2009 that theme was “the undead,” and my paper was titled “La Llorona Cries for Me: Chicana Feminist Redefinitions of a Latin American Ghost.”

Over the course of my comparative lit experience, I got to write essays examining the tv series Battlestar Galactica from a Freudian perspective; an Alanis Morrissette album from a feminist perspective; and immigrant narratives from an identity theory framework. Need I even say “how cool is that?!”

What do you do with a Comparative Literature Degree?

The conversation always turns back to ‘what are you going to do with that,” or even (as I personally experienced many times from probably well-meaning acquaintances) “do you want fries with that?” I’ve already written quite a bit about the problems with degree-based career statistics and the limitations with this kind of thinking. But let me reiterate briefly.

Comparative Literature, like other humanities degrees, teaches you to think critically, pursue deep analysis, and communicate complex ideas. It prepares you to be an informed, engaged, and active member of any community you participate in.

Comp Lit students go on to be academics. They teach English as a foreign language. They enter communications fields, education, non-profits, research groups, human resources, medicine, law, marketing, journalism, publishing, blogging, government, nonprofits and the rest. They pursue careers that interest them. They leverage language skills, writing skills, and the ability to think deeply. They get trained in a field and launch successful careers. They think a lot. They draw parallels that others miss.

I’m glad I majored in Comparative Literature. I’m grateful that a scholarship requirement strong-armed me into joining a group of dedicated, curious scholars and peers who care about diving deep into whatever stories appear before them.

My Comp Lit training has served well since then, and I imagine will keep playing its part in framing my aspirations and interests. 

Any other comparative literature folks out there? What were your experiences? What makes a great interdisciplinary experience in your opinion? Please leave your comments, questions, thoughts, and stories below. 

If you enjoyed this post, also check out "Why I Majored in Sociology," "The Benefits of an Honors College Education," "What is College For?," and "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures."