Mission Statement

Comparative literature at Barnard College is the study of literary and closely related cultural manifestations across linguistic and cultural boundaries. As a program that builds on the strengths and dedication of faculty teaching in various departments across the campus, Comparative Literature is distinct in its conviction that literary and cultural manifestations are best studied in an international context. The program gives students and faculty a unique opportunity to study literature in world contexts and establish intellectually stimulating relations among languages, cultures, and literary traditions, in order to understand the methodical comparison of texts as a fruitful dialogue. Due to our close affiliation with Columbia University, undergraduate students in Comparative Literature can acquire proficiency in a great variety of foreign languages, including some which are presently not taught at Barnard College.

The undergraduate programs in all departments representing a foreign language or English at Barnard College enable students concentrating in Comparative Literature to study a generous range of literary works tied to several national or regional literatures that interest them. Unlike other language-oriented departments, Comparative Literature is committed to forming a transnational perspective that allows students to connect and combine two literatures. It is an interdisciplinary enterprise geared toward exploring boundaries; therefore it routinely crosses borders and investigates literary, cultural and social relations between communities of readers, writers, and speakers. For this reason, majors in Comparative Literature are encouraged to read widely from different literatures and to develop a comprehensive view of important cultural issues.

Several foundation courses in the program are designed to introduce students to the discipline and familiarize them with classical traditions and questions of method, translation, and comparison. Through parallel readings of exemplary texts from several literatures, the program aims at a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities among individual works and aesthetic concepts; authors or movements; theories and intellectual contexts; or forms and genres from a critical perspective.

We believe that the program is an ideal venue to build and maintain bridges between distinctly different literary and cultural spheres. Through the conscious and methodical effort to transgress national boundaries, we are committed to examine, interpret and critically discuss international cultural relations while at the same time providing students with the skills and knowledge to navigate between two languages and traditions. We seek to accommodate a broad array of individual interests in the different regions of the world and foster a learning environment that focuses on the histories, theories and practices of cultural exchange. By studying Comparative Literature, one becomes aware of how languages serve as indispensable tools for appreciating the values and traditions of the world’s disparate societies and recognizing the concerns of individuals as expressed in literature.

Organization and History of the Program

The Comparative Literature program promotes an active interest in the way different national literatures show affinities or mark cultural differences across geographical boundaries. By systematically juxtaposing texts or similar aesthetic manifestations in multiple languages, students and scholars in this field enter into dialogue with other cultures, traditions, disciplines, media, or forms of art. Such study often relates literary expressions to each other by focusing on the common ground or important differences; or it tracks the influence of works of literature from different languages through historical epochs or artistic movements. This way of studying literature in world contexts entails keen awareness of the necessity, including the merits and constraints--of translations of literature from the source languages.

Students who want to study literature of all periods and regions from a “comparative” perspective typically begin by learning at least one foreign language. The comparative nature of the discipline requires students to choose a second language, which can be another foreign language or English. When declaring their major, students should already have completed courses on the intermediate level of language acquisition so they can proceed to take literature courses in the original language. In their junior year, majors begin taking introductory core courses while continuing to study one or two languages on the advanced level; through careful selection of electives and required courses, students acquire a set of skills that allows them to compare literary texts from a theoretically informed perspective and to perform the analytical tasks necessary to plan and develop independently a writing project on the advanced level of language proficiency.

A required colloquium and seminar offer additional orientation and create close familiarity with the discipline’s methods and directions, based on the main tenet that studying literary or theoretical works beyond geographical boundaries enables and facilitates cross-cultural understanding as well as an appreciation of meaningful juxtapositions between literature and other arts or disciplines.

Since the founding of the program at Barnard College, Comparative Literature has evolved to include not only Western and ancient languages but Asian languages and non-traditional fields of cultural expression as well. The program, in close cooperation with the various literature departments and programs, offers a wide array of courses in literature, literary theory, and cultural studies. The Barnard faculty offering core courses and electives includes members of professorial rank in the foreign languages and English, but also in Africana Studies and Women Studies.

As members of a small-sized department, all faculty and undergraduates enjoy frequent opportunities for close contact in and outside of the classroom. Therefore, students can establish a close rapport with their advisors and receive the kind of guidance that also allows conversations about possible careers, internships in New York, or graduate program and job-search preparation.

Studying Comparative Literature means to establish new relationships across and among different disciplines, languages and regions of the world. Students benefit from the rewards of a program that builds on its curricular diversity and a dedicated faculty who make themselves available throughout the semester.