Focal Areas in Literary Studies

The English Department’s four graduate focal areas in literary studies offer special opportunities for intellectual preparation and innovation to groups of graduate students and faculty members with shared commitments. The focal areas support fresh approaches to traditional fields and concerns of literary studies as well as thoughtful ways of investigating emerging cultural forms and practices. Building on the period-based expertise of graduate students and faculty members, the programming and coursework dedicated to the focal areas enable participants to become expert about topics and problems that cross periods, nations, and regions.

In the academy and the rest of the world, ideas about literature and how it matters have been changing. Expanded canons, ongoing developments in critical theory and cultural studies, new forms of interdisciplinary exchange, and the important transformations wrought by digital culture have revitalized literary studies. Grounded in literature’s long association with the history of writing and print and the cultural value of art, the graduate focal areas also prepare scholars and teachers to examine literature’s life across media and language’s activity in the world. 

Pitt’s graduate focal areas are designed to be broad enough to accommodate a range of scholarly projects but specific enough to offer direct support for those projects in the form of coursework, programming, and intellectual community. Applicants to the English Department’s PhD and MA programs need not officially designate one or more graduate focal areas: we continue to be a department that encourages thinkers to follow important questions where they lead rather than trying to fit them into familiar academic containers. However, the department has made a commitment to support faculty and graduate student preparation and innovation in the graduate focal areas so that graduate students whose interests align with one or more of the focal areas can count on supports for their scholarship and teaching.

Each focal area is supported by at least one graduate seminar per year—and probably more, since many members of the graduate faculty work in more than one focal area and teach courses that contribute to more than one area. In addition, each focal area offers a rich menu of programming for each academic year: lectures, forums, mini-conferences, and reading groups. To learn more about each focal area and its upcoming programming, browse its webpage on the Literature Program site:

Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies   

Genealogies of Modernity: Medieval and Early Modern 

Media and Material Practices  

Race, Poetics, Empire 

Additional Information about the graduate focal areas:

  • Applicants to the MA and PhD programs need not commit to participating in one or more focal areas. Participation in the focal areas is optional.
  • The focal areas are based in the literature sector of the English Department’s MA and PhD programs, degree programs that also serve students working in comp-rhet, film, or combinations of these fields. However, the focal areas welcome faculty members and MA or PhD students who are based in comp-rhet or film as well as MFA students and Writing Program faculty. The focal areas also extend beyond the department, building on relationships with particular other programs and departments at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • The department mandates that each focal area offer at least one graduate seminar per year, in addition to a variety of graduate seminars organized around periods, theories, and topics. Beyond that, each focal area establishes its programming and infrastructural supports (reading groups, lecture series, conferences, etc.). Graduate students and faculty members in each area work together to determine its programming.