Departmental Distinction Guidelines


I. Departmental Distinction at St. Olaf College

Each department’s faculty may award “Departmental Distinction” to selected graduating majors at Commencement.  The department’s faculty determines the criteria for such distinction and the opportunities available to distinction candidates,­­ subject to guidelines established by the Special Studies Subcommittee and administered by the office of the Associate Dean of the College.

Departmental Distinction is granted to those students who exemplify the qualities most valued in their discipline.  The definitive criterion is the student’s demonstrated ability to produce, independently, work of the highest scholarly or artistic standard consonant with his or her training.

II.   English Department Policy on Departmental Distinction

The Department of English seeks to foster an understanding of, and appreciation for, the nature and function of language and literature; to promote knowledge of literatures written in English; and to teach the skills of critical thinking and verbal expression.

In the awarding of departmental distinction, the department recognizes those students who have maintained a strong academic record in the discipline and who have engaged in literary or linguistic activities of distinction.

Departmental distinction will be awarded on the basis of:

1)    the candidate’s overall record in the discipline, and

2)   a portfolio submitted by the candidate in his or her senior year.

III.   Procedures

A.  Eligibility

To be eligible to be a candidate for departmental distinction, a student must have completed a minimum of seven graded courses in the major, six of which must have been taught by St. Olaf College English faculty. The combined GPA of all graded courses in the major taught by St. Olaf faculty must be 3.8 or above. Only courses taught by St. Olaf faculty count in this calculation.

B. Path to Distinction

Step 1: In the second week of the spring term, the department will invite all majors with a GPA of 3.8 or above in the English major to apply to be candidates for distinction.

Step 2: Qualified students who wish to be considered for distinction will submit a portfolio representative of their very best written work in the English major.

This portfolio may represent critical or creative work, or a combination of the two. The portfolio should represent work from at least two English courses, taught by at least two English professors at St. Olaf.  For exceptions, see below.

  • Critical portfolios should consist of 2-3 papers with a total length of approximately 20-30 pages. At least one of the submitted critical papers must engage with secondary (literary and/or cultural criticism, theory) materials.
  • Creative portfolios should consist of approximately 20-30 pages of creative work. Among other qualities, creative portfolios must demonstrate excellence in craft.
  • Combined portfolios should consist of approximately 20-30 pages of creative and critical work.
  • Students may submit digital or multimodal work that is commensurate to the guidelines for creative/critical work. Such students should address how this work conforms to the relevant creative and/or critical guidelines in their reflective essay (see below).
  • Students are encouraged to submit work from courses at Level II or above.
  • Students planning to submit a portfolio must meet with the distinction advisor to discuss the contents of the portfolio at least two weeks before the deadline.
  • In some circumstances, a student might include in the portfolio work for which English credit is earned but which was not taught in an English course at St. Olaf (for example, work completed while studying abroad, a selection from the long paper completed at the Newberry Library Program, a paper from a Great Conversation course).  The candidate should discuss the appropriateness of such choices with the distinction coordinator.

Please note: Whether critical, creative, or combined, the portfolio should include excellent, polished writing.  The candidate should take into account that a piece of writing receives a grade as a sign of development within a course.  In contrast, the writing included in the portfolio must makes sense “outside” of a course context; it must appeal as a stand alone piece or selection of a longer piece, for the generally informed reader.  Hence, most work will some need revision.

Step 3: Candidates for distinction must demonstrate their ability to reflect upon their own work in literary studies and/or writing and media by including a short essay (up to 1250 words) that addresses how the pieces that make up their portfolio demonstrate their achievements as English majors.

Questions such as these might shape the reflective essay:

  • How did your experience in the major shape your world view?
  • How did your experience in the major shape your sense of self?
  • Did you develop any particular skills in the English major?
  • Did you pursue a particular thematic interest in the major?
  • How does the reflective essay orient the reader to materials included in the portfolio?

The reflective essay should be the first piece included in the portfolio; all pages within the portfolio should be numbered consecutively. In addition, the work in the portfolio should be edited, proofread, and error free.  Where citation is needed, the candidate should use MLA “new” style of documentation.

The portfolio will be submitted in April. The department will evaluate it to determine which students will be awarded distinction.

 C.  Evaluation

Distinction projects will be evaluated by a three-person departmental committee.  The department distinction coordinator, in consultation with the department chair, will establish this committee and name its convener.

The evaluation committee will receive the completed projects within a week of their submission. The committee, through its convener, should deliver its evaluation to the department. This recommendation must then be endorsed by the English faculty as a whole for a student to be awarded distinction.

IV.   Timetable

Distinction Coordinator for 2020-21: Professor Karen Marsalek (, RML 402)

Fall Semester: The Department will inform majors of the criteria, procedures, and timetable pertaining to departmental distinction. Any senior interested in distinction should speak to Professor Karen Marsalek.

Monday, March 1, 2021: Students who have met the eligibility requirements will be invited to submit a portfolio for distinction.

Monday, March 15 to Friday, March 19, 2021: Students planning to submit a portfolio must meet with the distinction advisor, Professor Marsalek, to discuss the contents of their portfolio.

Monday, April 5, 2021, 3:00 pm: By this date a Word file of the completed project must be emailed to Professor Karen Marsalek.

Monday, April 19, 2021: Evaluation Committee reports to the Department.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021: Candidates who are recommended for distinction are notified by this date, and the Department forwards its recommendations to the Registrar’s Office.

Monday, May 10, 2021: Candidates who are recommended for distinction must bring one complete, clean copy of their project and also an electronic copy to the English Department Office by this date.

Early submission option: Students who are planning to graduate in December are welcome to consult with the department chair about the possibility of early submission of a distinction portfolio and reflection. Students interested in this option should consult the chair no later than September of their senior year.

Spring 2021