Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature is one of the most dynamic and diverse in the country. With a faculty that has included such scholars as Irving Babbitt, Albert Lord, Harry Levin, Claudio Guillén, and Barbara Johnson, the department has played a crucial role in shaping what remains a polymorphous discipline. Our 28 faculty members and more than 50 graduate students have come from across the globe to study, teach, and publish on literatures in several dozen languages from a wide range of historical periods. The research generated here reflects an exhilarating scope of methods, approaches, and questions. Critical theory, literary interpretation, and comparative philology provide the basis for work on translation, the history of ideas, gender, drama, oral poetics, multilingualism, postcolonialism, the environmental and medical humanities, globalization, and world literature. Our students and faculty also work in a variety of fields contiguous with literature, including architecture and the visual arts, film and music, history, anthropology, philosophy, and medicine.
In our graduate seminars, students analyze in comparative perspective the literatures and other cultural products of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Coursework is designed to meet individual interests and expectations. Our students are encouraged to complement seminars in comparative literature with courses in other literature and area studies departments (with which most of our faculty hold joint appointments), including African and African American Studies, the Classics, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English, Germanic Languages and Literatures, History, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Romance Languages and Literatures, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and South Asian Studies. Many of our students also engage in interdisciplinary work, taking courses and often earning qualification in secondary fields such as Film and Visual Studies, Medieval Studies, Music, and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
The stunning range of our students’ dissertation projects is well supported by Harvard’s unparalleled library resources. Our library system, the largest university collection in the world, comprises 70 libraries, with combined holdings of over 16 million items.
In the past few years, the faculty has restructured the Comparative Literature program so as to attend better to students’ needs as they prepare for a professional career in the 21st century. New course and language requirements allow students to engage more fully in sophisticated comparative work from their very first year at Harvard. We have also established specific guidelines for advising and faculty feedback from the first year through the completion of the PhD. Our “Professing Literature” professional development course prepares students for the challenges and opportunities of graduate school. And our Renato Poggioli Faculty/Graduate Student Colloquium enables students of all levels to present their works-in-progress to peers and faculty, everything from seminar papers to mock job talks.
Given the nature of graduate projects, most of our students spend time abroad, both for language training and research. This work is largely funded by fellowships from the graduate school as well as from Harvard’s many area centers.
When in Cambridge, students enjoy the department's home, the historic Dana-Palmer House at 16 Quincy Street. With its comfortable lounge and meeting and seminar rooms as well as administrative and faculty offices, Dana-Palmer House provides the perfect setting for scholarly exchange.
The PhD in Comparative Literature generally takes between six and eight years, depending on a student’s prior training; most students enter with an AM, but this degree is not required for admission.
The Admissions Committee carefully examines the overall profile of each applicant, taking all parts of the candidate’s application into consideration. Locating courses that are offered will help identify which faculty are teaching what courses and if your research interests would be met in our program. Students are also encouraged to closely read faculty websites, which describe the range of expertise of each faculty member.
Your application must include a writing sample, which should demonstrate your ability to engage in literary criticism and/or theory. It can be a paper written for a course or a section of a senior thesis or essay. It is usually between 10 and 20 pages. Do not send longer papers with instructions to read an excerpt; lengthier samples should be edited so that they are no longer than 20 pages.
Applicants also need to include a statement of purpose that gives the admissions committee a clear sense of your individual interests and strengths. Candidates for admission need not indicate at the time of application a precise field of specialization, but it is helpful to tell us about your aspirations and how the Department of Comparative Literature might help in attaining these goals. These statements are usually one to four pages long.