If you like poetry readings, getting lost in used bookstores, and asserting that the book is always better than the movie, then pursuing a major focused on reading and writing might be the path for you. While majoring in English might be the obvious choice, Comparative Literature is another great way to explore these passions. But what, exactly, is the difference between the two programs? 

To grasp the difference between the two, it’s important to break down the mission statements of each department.

“A Dynamic Traversal”

NYU’s Comp Lit program has an interdisciplinary approach to the field, which they refer to as a “dynamic traversal.” The curriculum infuses literary criticism with a variety of theories and disciplines. It is common for Comp Lit majors to incorporate anything from philosophy to linguistics to music theory into their criticism. These approaches are typically framed through a transnational lens. Course offerings include Life in Chinese Lit and Film and Middle Eastern Anglophone Literature.

Because of this international and, yes, comparative, approach to literature, Comp Lit majors often align their studies with translation work and cultural analysis. Graduates often go on to pursue academic careers in graduate studies. Other Comp Lit students work in positions ranging from online poetry journal start-ups to news outlets. 

The Next Great Novelist or Critic

The English department, on the other hand, investigates how we classify literature and the methods we use to analyze it. English majors immerse themselves in close reading, archival research, and the digital humanities. While English departments tend to focus more on historical and archival approaches, English majors are hardly traditional. As with Comp Lit students, English majors like to push the boundaries of how we classify “literature.”

The department’s mission statement explains that they see literature as “writing in all media.” Students investigate “all the ways in which texts have been produced, reproduced, circulated, and read.” In other words, English majors ask how we classify, write, and publish literature across history.

If you are less of a critic and more of a creative writer, then the English department’s concentration in creative writing might appeal to you. The concentration offers seminars and workshops focused on peer review with top writers. You can finally finish that novel or poetry collection you’ve been drafting in your phone’s Notes app.  

Comparing the Course Catalog

Whether you end up in Comp Lit, English, or something else entirely, NYU has ways to satisfy your inner bookworm. The comp lit department sponsors the student-published brio literary journal to showcase undergraduate talent.  The English department houses reading groups where students with similar research interests share resources and texts. Finally, the Creative Writing Program hosts the ever-popular Reading Series. These “salons” give students the chance to hear from their favorite writers in informal discussions. 

Ultimately, both Comp Lit and English majors have too many books to read and not enough time. Pick the curriculum that’s most exciting to you so you actually read what you want. That way, you (hopefully) avoid the conundrum depicted below. 

Comicstrip of girl adding books to her to-read list.

David Querusio is an Assistant Director with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at NYU. He especially loves sharing stories of how NYU students think outside of the box to define their own academic paths. When he’s not on the road meeting with students or in grad class at NYU Steinhardt, he can be found searching the city for the best cup of coffee.