Students motivated by a desire to study literary art in the broadest sense of the term will find an intellectual home in the Program in Comparative Literature. The Program in Comparative Literature gives students the opportunity to develop their critical faculties through the analysis of literature across cultures, and through the exploration of literary and critical theory. By crossing national, linguistic, historical, and disciplinary boundaries, students of Comparative Literature learn to read texts for the ways they make meaning, the assumptions that underlie that meaning, and the aesthetic elements evinced in the making. Students of Comparative Literature are encouraged to examine the widest possible range of literary communication, including the metamorphosis of media, genres, forms, and themes.
Whereas specific literature programs allow the student to trace the development of one literature in a particular culture over a period of time, Comparative Literature juxtaposes the writings of different cultures and epochs in a variety of ways. Because interpretive methods from other disciplines play a crucial role in investigating literature’s larger context, the Program offers courses intended for students in all divisions of the college and of all interests. These include courses that introduce students to the comparative study of world literature and courses designed to enhance any foreign language major in the Williams curriculum. In addition, the Program offers courses in literary theory that illuminate the study of texts of all sorts.
Note: the English Department allows students to count one course with a COMP prefix as an elective within the English major.
The Comparative Literature major consists of nine courses in literature (broadly conceived) or relevant theoretical approaches, and a Senior Portfolio (COMP 490; thesis-writers substitute COMP 494). All Comparative Literature majors are required to take COMP 111: The Nature of Narrative (in exceptional circumstances, a student may substitute an upper-level course with the approval of the Comparative Literature Advisory Committee). Of the remaining courses, five must have at least half of their content originally written in a language other than English (non-English texts may be read in the original language or in translation) or be heavily focused on comparison across different media. Two of the courses taken for the major must be designated as Writing Skills courses and two must be at the 300-level or above.
The Senior Portfolio is an assembly of the student’s work that explores their intellectual development through the course of their study of Comparative Literature. The student will select three pieces of work from previous courses taken for the major and tie them together through an eight-to-ten-page unifying essay or other creative project. There are a range of possibilities for this aspect of the portfolio, including more traditional analytic essays and other forms of creative artistic expression (fiction, poetry, visual arts, etc.). For thesis writers, the thesis replaces the Senior Portfolio. Majors will present their Senior Portfolios during a symposium soon after spring break in their final spring semester. Students should select a Senior Portfolio advisor and submit an initial proposal to the advisor and to the chair in the semester preceding (fall semester of senior year for students graduating in June, and fall semester of junior year for students graduating in December), and must enroll in COMP 490 in their final spring semester.
The Degree with Honors in Comparative Literature
Honors candidates in Comparative Literature are required to have maintained a GPA of 3.5 in the major to qualify for submitting a thesis proposal. In addition, candidates must demonstrate a strong interest in a specific topic for which an appropriate faculty advisor will be available in the senior year.
Students wishing to pursue a thesis in Comparative Literature are strongly urged to secure an advisor by the end of the week after Spring Break in their junior year. By May 15th of their junior year, candidates must submit to the Program Advisory Committee a one- to two-page proposal and a preliminary bibliography. The Advisory Committee will inform candidates by June 1 whether they may proceed with the thesis and advise them about any changes that should be made in the focus or scope of the project. The summer before the senior year will be spent compiling a more detailed bibliography and preparing for the process of writing the thesis.
In their senior year, candidates will devote two semesters and the winter study period to their theses (493-31-494). By the end of the Fall semester, students will normally have undertaken substantial research and produced the draft of at least the first half of the project. At this point students should also have a clear sense of the work remaining for completion of the thesis. In the course of the Fall semester, students will also have chosen and met with a second reader for the project, who will provide additional guidance and read the final thesis. By the end of Winter Study, students should have completed a draft of the entire project. At that time, the Comparative Literature Advisory Committee, together with the advisor, will determine whether the project may continue as an Honors Thesis, or whether its first portions (COMP 493-COMP 31) will be graded as Independent Studies.
The second semester of independent thesis work will be spent revising as necessary. The completed thesis in its final form will be due one week before the last day of classes. The student will make a public presentation of the thesis as part of the Senior Portfolio Symposium soon after spring break.
Characteristics of the Thesis, Evaluation, and Major Credit
The topic of the thesis must be comparative and/or theoretical. It is also possible to write a thesis that consists of an original translation of a significant text or texts; in this case, a theoretical apparatus must accompany the translation. The complete thesis must be at least 50 and at most 75 pages in length, excluding the bibliography. The advisor will assign the grades for the thesis courses (COMP 493-31-494); the Advisory Committee will determine whether a candidate will receive Honors, Highest Honors, or no honors.
For students who pursue an honors thesis, the total number of courses required for the major—including the thesis courses COMP 493-31-494—is 10, plus one winter study, i.e., one of the thesis courses may substitute for one course and the Senior Portfolio.
Forms and Documents for Majors
Major Advising Form. For majors and prospective majors, a worksheet to help you and your advisor track what you’ve taken and what you still need to take.
Comparative Literature Course Catalog. The Comp Lit section of the most recent Williams course catalog, with official information about the major and program policies related to study abroad, honors theses, etc.
Comparative Literature Thesis Guidelines. The text from the course catalog describing requirements and deadlines for students intending to write an honors thesis in Comparative Literature.