Comparative Literature Course

If you have taken an English course, you are probably familiar with American and British literature. Did you know there are literature courses that survey works from lesser-known countries and cultures, too? These are known as comparative literature courses.

Most comparative literature courses are offered by colleges and universities through their English undergraduate and graduate programs. Though the title of the course is comparative literature, these courses may include a survey of a nation or culture’s laws, history, visual arts, film, and music.

A comparative literature course will have one of three foci. It will:

  • Compare the literature, art, politics, and culture of other nations and groups of people to the students’ culture (intercultural studies);
  • Compare the literature, art, politics, and culture within a nation (multicultural studies); or
  • Compare the relationships between a nation’s literature and other types of human activity, such as the arts, sciences, and philosophy (interdisciplinary studies).

Intercultural Studies

Courses that compare the art, politics, and culture of other nations to the students’ own culture are the most common comparative literature courses offered at colleges. These courses might have a focus as broad as “Asian culture” or as specific as “Swedish literature prior to the Industrial Revolution.” Most college professors who teach comparative literature courses with an intercultural focus will incorporate visual arts, film, and music, in addition to literature, to give the student a comprehensive understanding of the nation’s language, values, and customs.

Multicultural Studies

Instead of comparing two nations, some comparative literature courses focus on a single nation and study its literature, art, politics, and culture. These multicultural comparative literature courses often have a broad national focus, such Japanese, Swedish, or Indian culture or they can focus narrowly on a group of people such as the Cherokee, African-American slaves, or Vikings.

Interdisciplinary Studies

The least common type of comparative literature course is one that studies the relationships between a country’s literature and other cultural disciplines such as art, philosophy, and politics. Unlike a multicultural comparative literature course, which aims to give a comprehensive portrait of a nation or people, an interdisciplinary course will analyze how a nation’s literature reflects and influences other parts of the culture.

Most people take comparative literature courses to fulfill requirements for an English degree. Comparative literature courses tend to be offered to upperclassmen, since they usually require deeper analysis of the works studied, as well as more mature critical thinking skills than most introductory English courses.

Even if you are not seeking a degree, you can take a comparative literature course just to increase your personal knowledge of a culture. There are even American comparative literature courses, which would serve as an excellent introduction to American culture for a person who grew up outside the United States.

Many universities offer degrees with a concentration in comparative literature, and it is common to see this in graduate and doctoral programs, too. While the majority of people who study comparative literature in college go on to seek advanced degrees to teach full-time at the university level, you do have a few career options even with “just” an undergraduate degree in comparative literature. You can teach English courses at colleges or even high school.

Employers also know that years spent intensively reading and writing about literature tends to give these graduates superior speaking and writing skills. Thus, a comparative literature degree can even translate into a career in publishing as a writer or editor, too.

Comparative literature courses can help you see the rest of the world through the lenses of art, philosophy, and culture. Their genius is that by helping you understand other countries and peoples, and they help you better understand your own.


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