What is a Literature Degree?

Literature is an expression tool. Through the written word, it offers insight into the spirituality, intellect, emotion, and physical environment that form a culture, society, or social group. It is one of the cornerstones of every civilization across the globe.

Degree programs in the field, therefore, vary dramatically. They may focus on geographical distinctions, such as British literature, French literature, or American literature. They may explore specific eras, such as the Classical period, the Renaissance and Reformation, or the Romantic period. They may study different genres like historical fiction, mythology, fable, or short story. Or they may combine some of these subject areas in a single curriculum.

This wide spectrum allows literature students to flex their interpretation and analysis muscles, explore philosophical and moral questions, and understand our past and plan for our future.

Program Options

As noted above in the introductory section, there is no single standard literature program. The degree sections below are merely examples of how a typical curriculum might be structured.

Bachelor’s Degree in Literature – Four Year Duration
Regardless of their specific focus and content, bachelor’s programs in literature aim to provide students with foundational knowledge in the discipline. The curriculum asks students questions which provoke discussion and foster skills in communication, interpretation, and creative and critical thinking. How do we distinguish literary texts from non-literary ones? What role does literature play in society, and what role did it use to play? Why are certain stories exciting, while others fail to excite us? How does one recognize a good plot? What types of plots recur in different guises throughout the ages? How do literature and society affect each other?

Here are some sample courses that may be part of a bachelor’s level literature curriculum:

  • Introduction to Literary Studies – the role of literature in society, how to link literature to culture and history and how to write about it
  • Close Reading – close reading is a method of reading and literary analysis which focuses on the specific details of a passage or text to discern some deeper meaning present in it; reading of stories and poems to practise this method
  • Topics in British Literature to 1800
  • The British Novel
  • Chaucer
  • Shakespeare
  • Milton
  • Whitman and Dickinson
  • The Gothic Tradition
  • Renaissance English Literature
  • Romantic Literature
  • Victorian Literature
  • Irish Literature and Culture
  • Introduction to Major American Writers
  • William Faulkner
  • Literature of the American South
  • Jewish American Literature and Culture
  • Introduction to US Latino /Latina Literature
  • Introduction to African-American Literature
  • Topics in US Ethnic Literature
  • American Literature of Social Justice
  • American Indian Literature

Master’s Degree in Literature – Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Literature – Six to Eight Year Duration
The master’s and doctoral degree programs in literature provide students with the ability to produce professional academic writing and independent original research. Available courses span a wide range of topics, periods, and genres and allow students to develop graduate-level ability in literary study and analysis. Candidates for the Master’s Degree or Doctoral Degree in Literature choose an area of emphasis from a wide variety of specializations.

The master’s program is comprised of core courses, electives, and a thesis. The doctoral program is broken down into four distinct parts: coursework, research, comprehensive exam, and dissertation.

Sample Graduate-Level Courses

  • Literary Scholarship – an introduction to scholarly resources, methods, theories, and responsibilities that guide the study and interpretation of literature
  • Graduate Writing Workshop – a studio course in which the primary texts reviewed and evaluated are student manuscripts in fiction and poetry genres
  • Form and Theory of Fiction – examination of traditional and contemporary theory and practice in fiction
  • Form and Theory of Poetry – examination of traditional and contemporary theory and practice in poetry
  • Studies in Autobiography and Biography – a study of selected works in autobiography and biography with special attention to the art forms used in these works
  • Studies in Literary Genres – a study of one or more genres over several historical periods or from a variety of cultural perspectives; genres may include the epic, the novel, the short story, the lyric, the pastoral, the romance, and comic fiction
  • Contemporary Composition Theory – the theories of writing and composition, the history of teaching writing
  • Studies in Literature for Children or Adolescents – a study of contemporary works in the field; picture books, the contemporary novel, children’s classics
  • History of Children’s Literature – the history of children’s literature from the Middle Ages through 1940
  • Banned Books: Literature and Freedom of Speech – a survey of the conflict between literary creativity and control by society, in a wide historical European context, from the first printing press to the 21st Century

Sample Literary Specializations

  • Medieval
  • Renaissance and Early Modern
  • 18th Century British
  • 19th Century British
  • 20th Century British
  • Colonial through 19th Century American
  • 20th Century American
  • Postcolonial
  • Global and Transnational
  • Contemporary
  • African American
  • African and Caribbean
  • Asian American
  • Irish and Scottish
  • Jewish
  • Latino / Latina
  • Southern
  • Children’s and Young Adult
  • Comics and Graphic Novels

Degrees Similar to Literature

American Literature
This degree field is concerned with the literatures and literary history of the United States, from the colonial period to present. Coursework may include contemporary American literature, literary theory and criticism, the American novel, and American Jewish literature.

Children’s Literature
Children’s literature is about much more than picture books with beautiful illustrations. It is about the power of words and images to both entertain and teach children. Degree programs in the field span classic and contemporary works, poetry, folklore and mythology, and multicultural and global literature.

Throughout their studies, students read, analyze, and critique children’s literature. They explore the characteristics and components that are common to works written for children and adolescents: repetition, instructional qualities, illustration, optimism, fantasy, child and young characters and perspectives, innocence, action, and transition from childhood to adulthood.

In English degree programs, students read, study, and write about the literature and culture of the English-speaking world. Coursework also includes the history, linguistic structure, and use of the English language.

Classical Studies
The study of the languages, literatures, philosophy, history, archaeology, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome is the focus of a degree in the classics.

Creative Writing
In creative writing programs students analyze how prose and poetry are constructed and also write their own works. Typical classes include American poetry, fiction writing, the contemporary short story, and the creative process.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic/international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

This is a multidisciplinary degree field that combines study of languages, literatures, art, history, music, philosophy, and religion. Coursework includes examining ideas and themes that run throughout human history and throughout different cultures.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups.

The primary sub-areas of linguistics are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

Philosophy encourages the asking of big questions and the formulation of arguments to attempt to answer them. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? What is right and wrong in life? What is true and false? What is real and unreal? Philosophy is concerned with the nature of existence and knowledge.

Skills You’ll Learn

First and foremost, graduates with a literature degree develop a keen capacity to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in written form. It is not, however, the only transferable skill that they take away from their studies:

  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Ability to understand different points of view
  • Ability to work independently and in groups
  • Capacity to communicate, debate, and lead discussions
  • Capacity to summarize written material
  • Confidence
  • Creative and critical thinking, reasoning, and analysis
  • Organization
  • Research
  • Time management
  • Understanding texts, concepts, and theories

What Can You Do with a Literature Degree?

Most graduates with a Master’s Degree in Literature go into teaching at the secondary, community college, or university level. Literature doctoral grads typically teach and conduct research at universities.

The career path for individuals who earn a bachelor’s in literature is not as defined. Literature undergrads who choose not to pursue further education often apply their transferable skills in somewhat related fields, such as professional writing, editing, and publishing, or in other careers which call for exceptional critical thinking and communication abilities.

Here are some employment options outside of the teaching and research sectors:


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