Academics Blog


Name: Ashley Hongisto

Year: Class of 2009

Hometown: San Francisco, CA

Major: English and International Relations


Most people are very surprised to hear that I am an English major at a seemingly science-driven school. I’m sure that the science programs are amazing – but it always irks me when people forget about the great humanities programs that Hopkins offers. The English major allows students to truly explore all of their interests, and even discover new ones too. I came to Hopkins already knowing that I wanted to be an English major, as I have always loved to read and I’ve always had a passion for British literature. It all started when I was in high school and opened my first ever Jane Austen novel. I fell in love with each and every character, and my further study of literature has never changed how much I love to read. That doesn’t mean that newcomers aren’t welcome though – there are many English majors who started off studying another subject and took an English course and loved the program.

The English major at Hopkins allows me to pursue the kind of literature I love, while simultaneously discovering new books I never thought to read. I took interesting courses such as, The Early Gothic Novel, where we read mostly British novels such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, where a crazed Monk defies his religious position and terrorizes young girls, or even the course British Literature in the 19th Century, where I thought I was an expert – but I was proven wrong. I was introduced to literature I hadn’t read, such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was one of the first detective novels, and it truly opened my eyes to the time period. I braved through the course James Joyce, where not only did I read Ulysses – but I actually understood it and could appreciate Joyce’s art!

I haven’t only pursued my passion, but I’ve also explored different kinds of literature that I had never read before. I challenged myself to read literary material such as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in my course, Heaven and Hell in Early America, and I realized that maybe I shouldn’t limit myself to my purely British fixation. One of my friends found her passion for African American studies when she took the course, African American Literary Traditions from the 19th and 20th Centuries. This course helped to inspire a new area of interest, and other English courses offered strengthened her interest and knowledge in the subject.

The classes offered in the English department are amazing – but I also chose the major because of the limited requirements. You have the ability to choose what English courses you want – but also you have time to take other courses outside of the department. I chose to pursue another major, international relations, because I had the extra time from not being overwhelmed with requirements and core courses. For the English major you have to take three courses that deal with material from before 1800 – but there are plenty of courses that make this really interesting, such as my course The Early Gothic Novel. I also had to take Principles and Practices, which is a survey class of all different forms of writing, from poetry, to literary criticism, to short stories, to novels. This class helps solidify your basic knowledge, and definitely helped me find my own literary voice and to be better prepared for the seminar classes I later took. You also have to study a language past the beginner level and take two introduction courses in other humanity departments – history, political science, philosophy, and sociology, which are easy enough to take at some point during your four years at Hopkins.

One of the great aspects about the English major is the small class size. There are lower level courses that are mainly lectures with a weekly section of around fifteen people. The lower level courses allow you to practice your writing skill and learn about literature, and the sections with a graduate student teaching student provides a setting to discuss the texts in-depth. There are also upper-level courses that are almost under twenty people and are conduced in a seminar-IMG_2626style setting. The course I am taking right now, English Literary Culture After 1945, has sixteen students, and we sit in a circle and have open discussion about our opinions of the reading. The small class size is an extremely important component of why the English major is so unique at Hopkins. Many other courses feature just lecture, lecture, lecture. When you discuss a book though your opinion is important – and the professor wants to hear it. Due to the small class size, each professor I’ve had has been very invested in my work and my progress. They always encourage students to come to their office hours with questions and thoughts related to the material.

The Special Collections department (in the picture above), which boasts a collection of approximately 80,000 old manuscripts and books, has made my study of English particularly IMG_2630 fascinating. Several of my professors have taken the class there to look at the first editions of the books we were reading for the course. While reading Jane Austen, I loved being able to go down and see the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and to see what the book looked like when it was first released. Students can also make appointments with the office and arrange individual research sessions, which allow the manuscripts to be available to students for various research projects. The Special Collections office isn’t only useful to English majors, but to all humanity students and book lovers alike. Not all schools have such an extensive collection as Hopkins – and the old manuscripts are helpful, but also make studying literature that much more interesting.

The Writing Center is also a great tool for both new and experienced students to perfect your papers. The Writing Center is open to all majors and after scheduling an appointment, you simply come in with a rough draft or some ideas and a volunteer will help you with your paper. As a freshman, it can be particularly daunting to write your first ever college paper, but the Writing Center helps ease your stress by ensuring you that at the very least someone more experienced than you has gone through your paper and helped you figure out what you want to express.

Outside of my studies, I’ve used my English knowledge in several ways. One of the most fun ways was my summer internship in New York City at a literary agency. I was lucky enough to spend my summer critiquing literary samples sent in by potential authors, and I discovered the world of publishing. It was really exciting to gain such insight to what is considered promising material (especially if you are an aspiring writer!), and I even got to go to a book release party thrown by Rolling Stone magazine. Now maybe the English major doesn’t sound too exciting to some people – but that was definitely proof that great things can come from it!


Click here to access more information about the English Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the English questions thread.