Students and instructors in the field, usually called "comparatists," have traditionally been proficient in several languages and acquainted with the literary traditions and major literary texts of those languages. Some of the newer sub-fields, however, stress theoretical acumen and the ability to consider different types of art concurrently, over high linguistic competence.
The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that comparatists typically exhibit some acquaintance with translation studies, sociology, critical theory, cultural studies and history. As a result, comparative literature programs within universities may be designed by scholars drawn from several such departments. This eclecticism has led critics (from within and without) to charge that Comparative Literature is insufficiently well-defined, or that comparatists too easily fall into dilettantism, because the scope of their work is, of necessity, broad. Some question whether this breadth affects the ability of Ph.D.s to find employment in the highly specialized environment of academia and the career market at large, although such concerns do not seem to be borne out by placement data that shows comp. lit. graduates to be hired at similar or higher rates than their compeers in English.
Since World War II, there have been four major international conferences in Comparative Literature: in 1965, 1975, 1993, and 2004. The published notes from each conference reveal the contested nature of the field, and deal largely with disputes over theoretic rigor, linguistic incompatibility and the fundamental goals of the field.
During the late 19th century, comparatists such as Fyodor Buslaev were chiefly concerned with deducing the purported zeitgeist or "spirit of the people", which they assumed to be embodied in the literary output of each nation. Although many comparative works from this period would be judged chauvinistic, Eurocentric or even racist by present-day standards, the intention of most scholars during this period was to increase the understanding of other cultures, not to assert superiority over them (although politicians and others from outside the field used their works for this purpose).
Prior to the advent of the American School, the scope of comparative literature in the West was typically limited to the literature of Western Europe and North America, predominantly literature in English, German and French literature, with occasional forays into Italian literature (primarily for Dante) and Spanish literature (primarily for Cervantes). One monument to the approach of this period is Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis, a survey of techniques of realism in texts whose origins span several continents and three thousand years.
The approach of the American School would be familiar to current practitioners of Cultural Studies and is even claimed by some to be the forerunner of the Cultural Studies boom in universities during the 1970s and 1980s. The field today is highly diverse: for example, comparatists routinely study Chinese literature, Arabic literature and the literatures of most other major world languages and regions as well as English and continental European literatures.