First years reflect on the Iliad and the syllabus
The Humanities 110 (HUM 110) curriculum is constantly undergoing changes and revisions, and the latest consideration by the faculty is to remove Homer’s Iliad from the syllabus. The Quest bent a listening ear to the student body, and collected interviews from a handful of current HUM 110 students asking about their experiences with the Iliad and HUM 110 more broadly.
The general consensus among the students interviewed was that the way HUM 110 deals with the Iliad is not working. Students agreed that right now, the Iliad is not worth the squeeze, but whether this was the Iliad’s fault or not wasn’t universal. Some students felt that the Iliad is too limited of a point of view from which to understand the broader truths that HUM 110 should be speaking to. Current HUM 110 student Guido Gonzalez asked, “like, what really was the Iliad, right? Wasn’t it just a bunch of stories of this one person, and like this one empire, like, you really don’t get to see the history.”
Some students cited the translation that is assigned. Current HUM 110 student Beau Crawford said that reading the Iliad “would suck way less if… we didnt read the fucking LATTIMORE TRANSLATION…. [sic] I mostly stuck to reading the Robert Fagles translation and that made my experience much less hell.” Another HUM 110 student, Cleopatra Devialier-Vazquez, recommended the Emily Wilson translation, but also had similar laments about Richmond Lattimore. From students familiar with various translations of the Iliad, the consensus is clear and the confusion is universal: why are we reading the Lattimore translation? Its cumbersome language makes it difficult to read and understand, and for all the effort that goes into reading it, it’s not even a particularly faithful translation of the original Greek. The result is that classics mavens get annoyed and students not previously familiar with the text struggle to get through it, often abandoning it altogether and not getting the most out of their lectures and conferences.
It wasn’t all criticism, however. Crawford felt that the Iliad does have useful things to tell us, if only students were given the time and support necessary to understand its more fundamental points. Crawford and Devalier-Vazquez both felt that the Iliad was far from the most despicable piece of the curriculum, with Crawford saying that “I think if they’re gonna cut something they should cut Plato’s Republic.” Devalier-Vazquez asked why students read Hesiod: he’s “grossly misogynistic and for what? What did we learn? What context did he provide?”
Parallel to the discussion of the place of the Iliad in the syllabus has been the discussion of the direction of HUM 110 more broadly. An important question that came up when considering the Iliad’s importance was what it would be replaced with. The syllabus has gone through some major changes in the past few years, incorporating a much wider timeline from which texts are pulled from. Some students believe that HUM 110 should be expanded even further. Carver Buchanan, a freshman in Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics and Humanities Laura Zeintek’s conference said, “there’s a danger of eurocentrism,” when a class like HUM 110 focuses so narrowly on texts like the Iliad over other texts from less studied cultures. Buchanan, a fan of the classics after years of studying them in high school, questioned the necessity of the Iliad for every single Reed student: “there are classics courses you can take if that’s something that really interests you.” Guido Gonzalez, a student in the same conference, wondered about the nature of HUM 110 as a whole: “I thought humanities would be more about the humanity of the whole, rather than like, sticking to the Western idea of what humanity is.”
Students were not always in agreement as to what specific texts and cultures HUM 110 should broaden to include, but the call to broaden and expand was clear. Buchanan advocated for more content from Africa besides the section on Egypt that seemed, to them, like it was “looked at in the same way as the classics, like it isn’t relevant anymore, when it really is.” Gonzalez, Buchanan and Beau Crawford commented on a distinct lack of content that originated from Asia. Crawford even said that Reed has an “infatuation with ancient Greece” and lamented over the small amount of time devoted to Persia. Devalier-Vasquez advocated for some amount of the syllabus to be devoted to Native Americans. Gonzalez summed up students’ attitudes towards the syllabus by saying, “the world wasn’t just all fucking Europe.”
Devalier-Vasquez, a self-described linguist, also claimed that the syllabus’s eurocentrism extended beyond just the sections on Greece. Devalier-Vasquez said, “we are consistently presented with these old ass texts of very different cultures translated by white men with strong contemporary biases and almost no focus is put on understanding the culture, the original text, or how to read for bias in a translation.” Translations in the HUM 110 syllabus were a sticking point for Devalier-Vasquez, who claimed the problem ran much deeper than just the Lattimore translation of the Iliad, citing The Tale of Sinuhe: “The fact that the HUM curriculum presents it to us without any notes about how biased [translator Richard] Parkinson is — that’s the real problem.”
HUM 110 began as, essentially, a celebration of whiteness, an ode to the glories of the mediterranean predecessors to Western Europe. Now that students have decided that’s not what they want from their only common class to be, a question remains as to what HUM 110 should be. Gonzalez asks, “why should we conform to the ideals of whiteness, just to feel valid in this world? That’s, like, so stupid.”