Undergraduate Program in Comparative Literature

Comparative Literature is the study of world literatures in their original languages. Towards this spirit of global thinking, Comparative Literature undergraduate majors work not only on literature in English but also on literature in a foreign language.

Within the department, you will encounter authors and texts from both the great world literary and cultural traditions as well as from American Girl stories to global science fiction, and explore such diverse terrains as law, comics and graphic novels, prison literature, comparative race, nationalism, or the work of J.R.R.Tolkien.

Working closely with professors and peers in small classes, majors learn how to read, discuss and write comparatively across and within cultures, refining their skills in analysis and critical thinking as well as in oral, visual, and written communication.


Comparative literature is the study of literatures in their original languages from a transnational, cross-cultural perspective. The program welcomes students with a diverse range of backgrounds and interests, and with literary reading competence in a language in addition to English. Literary fluency in a language other than English is the basis for work in the comparative literature major.

Comparative literature students and majors study texts from a range of historical periods, geographical and cultural areas, and literary and artistic movements. They learn to critically pose and respond to fundamental questions about the place of literature in society and in cultural and historical traditions.

Majors are introduced to specific modes of literary analysis as well as to general concepts of “literariness.” They explore the interaction of literature with other arts and disciplines as well as with the political, social, and intellectual contexts of literature. In this way, students acquire important intellectual skills in critical comparative reading, thinking, and writing.

The small size of most comparative literature classes allows ample opportunity for the discussion and exchange that are essential to the development of such skills. Comparative literature classes also offer challenging research and writing projects that can be carried out individually and in small groups.

A major in comparative literature is invaluable preparation for a career in a wide range of fields that demand careful analysis, clear writing, the presentation of logical arguments, and the critical assessment of the written and oral opinions of others—law, business, communications, politics and diplomacy, journalism, technical writing, or publishing. It is ideal for students interested in teaching at the secondary level or in pursuing graduate degrees.

To declare the major in comparative literature, students must have sophomore standing, have taken at least one 200-level course in the department, have a minimum 3.0 GPA, and have established the foundations of literary fluency in a language other than English.

Prospective majors are strongly encouraged to meet with the director of undergraduate studies to discuss the requirements in advance of declaring the major. Declared majors are strongly encouraged to meet with the director of undergraduate studies in planning their courses each semester. Juniors should arrange a meeting early in the spring semester to assess whether they will have met all requirements for graduation.

The major requires a total of 30 credits in Comparative Literature, plus 9 credits of coursework in literature in a single foreign language for a total of 39 credits.

Literary fluency in a language other than English is the basis for comparative literary work. 

The 30 credits in the Department must include:

  • 6 credits (2 classes) from the 200 level sequence (CL 201, 202, 203 or 205);
  • 24 credits at the intermediate and advanced levels (300 level and higher).


Courses in the major must also include:

  • 2 courses in criticism or theory (CL 310, 371, or 475);
  • the Comparative Literature Proseminar (CL 690, typically offered every other spring semester);
  • 9 credits of coursework in literature in a single foreign language with a grade of B or better. Independent study or literature in translation courses will not count toward this requirement.

The Senior Thesis (CL 691-692, for a total of 6 credits) is strongly recommended (though not required).

Introduction to Comparative Literature (CL 310) is strongly advised as a bridge between the 200- and the 300- and 400-level courses.

Work in the major must show a degree of continuity. The exact configuration of courses in the major will be determined individually for each student in consultation with the Undergraduate Advisor, Dr. Beatriz L. Botero. Majors are strongly encouraged to maintain an average GPA of 3.25 in the major.

All students are required to fulfill the L&S requirement of at least 15 credits of upper-level work in the major completed in residence. Any course in the department numbered 300 or above will count toward this requirement.

Requirements for Honors in the Comparative Literature Major

The Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies encourages students to consider graduating with Honors in the Major. Honors in the Comparative Literature Major provides students with an opportunity not only to deepen their understanding of questions of comparative literatures and cultures but also to develop and practice their skills in critical comparative reading, thinking, and writing.

Honors in the Major in Comparative Literature requires a total of 39 credits with an average GPA in the major of 3.5.

In addition to the general requirements for the major (please see Requirements for the Major), students who wish to qualify for Honors in the Comparative Literature Major must take 9 credits of Comparative Literature at the 300 level or above for honors credit.

Honors in the Comparative Literature Major also requires the Senior Honors Thesis (Comp Lit 681–682) for a total of 6 credits.

The remaining 24 credits are distributed as stipulated for all undergraduate comparative literature majors in Requirements for the Major.

Each spring, the Department of Comparative Literature & Folklore Studies offers the Maria Tai Wolff Award for an outstanding essay by an undergraduate major in Comparative Literature. The winner is announced and the award presented at the annual end-of-the-year departmental party.

The award was established in memory of Assistant Professor Maria Tai Wolff (1958-1996, BA, 1980; Ph.D. 1985 – Yale, Comparative Literature) by her former students. A wonderful and dedicated teacher and scholar of Spanish, Portuguese, and Lusophone literatures and cultures, Maria Tai Wolff had been a Fulbright scholar in Brazil and a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. She left U. W. Madison to pursue a law degree (J.D. Stanford, 1991), practicing law for five years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her illness, she was pursuing a return to teaching and writing in Comparative Literature, with an additional interest in law and literature.

All students majoring in Comparative Literature are eligible. The deadline for submissions is the third Monday in April.

By that date, please submit two copies of your essay to Diane Bollant, 2402 Sterling Halll. One copy of your essay should include a cover sheet indicating your name, email address, and a phone number at which you can be reached. The other copy of your essay should be submitted without the cover sheet to ensure anonymity in the review process. Please do not put your name on any of the pages of the essay itself.

Two departmental faculty members read all submissions.

Past Awardees and their Essays:

2017:     Alison Sharpless: “Why Misty Poetry?” Honorary award, Elena Livorni: “Tearing Walls of Womanhood:  Dorothea Tanning and the disruption of feminine ideals.”
2016:     Olan Munson, “Re-thinking the Fear of the Maternal: Parasites and Placentas”;
2015:     Sarah Rose Smiley, “Stagnancy, Memory and Trauma in Pedro Páramo and One Hundred Years of Solitude“;
2014:     Greg Mayzus, “Demons and its Demon of Irony: An Ironic Reading of Dostoevsky’s Бесы through Paul de Man’s The Concept of Irony“;
2013:     Francesca Erickson, “The Subversion of Fairy Tale in ‘Doctor Who’” and Alexander Potts, “The New Baedekers of Boredom: Anxiety and Flow in Scandinavian Crime Fiction” (co-awardees);
2012:     Anne Redmond, “Estrangement to the Highest Degree: A Reading of Dostoevsky’s Demons from the Perspective of Shklovsky”;
2010:     Alexandra Demet, “Paradoxes at the Threshold of Becoming”;
2009:     Holly Schult, “The Poet as Vehicle”;
2008:     Mark Eatough, “Mimetic Models of Identity and Protest: Intraracial Conflict in the Negritude of Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain”;
2007:     Megan Brown
2006:     Colleen Kartheiser, “The Power of Woman in the Search for Truth”;
2005:     Ian Brunswick, “A Homecoming Without Home”;
2004:     Brian Conant, “A Poetics of Misrepresentation”;
2003:     Madeline Gallo & Dan Doogan (co-awardees);
2002:     Rachel Naylor;
2001:     Katrina Brink;