Opinion: The Future is Now, White Man

The HUM 110 curriculum originated as a celebration of whiteness. Because students found this curriculum untenable, it was changed to be a broader survey of cultures and look beyond just Greek and Rome, but HUM 110 is still woefully stuck in the past. Frankly, HUM 110’s failure is just as much the fault of the HUM 110 faculty as it is of the syllabus. From the syllabus to the lectures to the attitudes around conference, HUM 110 is struggling to find its way through a transition into a class that promotes equity and global mindedness in Reed students.

We’ve all heard, and probably repeated, that HUM 110 is really just a composition class. It teaches you how to write academic papers — a skill sorely lacking at a lot of high schools — and how to read texts critically. These are obviously valuable skills, especially to prepare students for their Reed career, and I honestly think that HUM 110 mostly does a pretty good job of teaching them. That being said, you have to read something to think critically about and to write papers about, and the HUM 110 faculty should be making the most of those readings. I would hope that they want the syllabus to be as educational, engaging, and relevant as possible.

HUM 110 is lost right now as to what that syllabus should look like. As it originated, the goal of the syllabus for HUM 110 was to familiarize students with the “classical canon,” something of a great books course. Obviously, this syllabus had massive problems with what it considered a “classical canon,” and more broadly, its conception of what a “classical canon” is. In and of itself, the syllabus was rife with problems. How do we decide which texts are the most foundational and important for students to read? How do you parse through the massive body of literature, writing, and cultural artifacts that surround us and produce something meaningful that can fit within a one year course for freshmen?

One of the frameworks that I’ve run into when considering how to reform HUM 110 is that the syllabus should be as broadly encompassing as possible. We need to represent texts from as many cultures, times, political moments, and perspectives as possible. I see this approach as far too idealistic. It would be phenomenal to learn about a great variety of cultures, but how do you really do that meaningfully? The Classical Greeks alone are full of cultural nuance, complexity, and idiosyncrasy that by the end of what is nearly a full semester on them, we’re barely scratching the surface as to who they really were. I think it’s important to really delve into the cultures and moments we look at, and I think broadening the curriculum would detract from that goal. I’ve also heard proposals to rotate the curriculum through a variety of cultures, but I don’t think that really does much for each class that goes through HUM 110. It might make the syllabus more diverse over time, but if one year there’s a heavy look at the Greeks and Romans, we’re right back where we started.

Instead of broadening HUM 110 to be a globe encompassing great books course, I think that the HUM 110 syllabus needs to create a new purpose for itself, one that actually reflects and achieves the goals of the Reed community. My proposal is that HUM 110 should be a class that, in addition to preparing students for scholarship and the world of academia, should prepare students for a multicultural world and help them understand our current political moment, situating our current culture in an historical and global context. The syllabus would be structured to help us understand where we are socioculturally and how we got here. Honestly, I don’t think the HUM 110 syllabus is all that far from this goal, if only it’s executed well.

The Greeks can be really useful and relevant to read if they are contextualized to help us understand how our current culture interacts with them and how they have influenced the cultural movements that led to the liberal ideals that subsume our political landscape. Learning about pre-colonial Mexico and its conquest can help us understand the rich cultural heritage that our current state violently destroyed. Learning about the Harlem Renaissance can help a predominantly white student body understand the way race affects Black Americans on a personal level, as well as how Black culture has been situated in the predominant American culture socially. Learning the precedents and templates for our current systems of oppression, how they were created and wielded, can help students be more mindful of those systems in the work they go on to produce.

But this positive cultural impact depends heavily on the professors that teach the material. The impact of HUM 110’s lack of focus and purpose is felt most strongly not in its often disjointed syllabus, but in the discontinuity between lecturers and the inconsistency of conferences. Many lectures in the second semester have shied away from discussing the issues of race and class that are central to a productive and beneficial understanding of the texts, cultures, and time periods we study. Lectures in the first semester often seemed disconnected from our current political moment, trapped in an ivory tower of Mediterranean and Near East scholarship. Often it seemed as though we read Hesiod to understand the Greeks in and of themselves instead of understanding the Greeks to understand ourselves. Persia and Egypt often felt like inclusions to make the curriculum seem more diverse without actually being all that connected to the central themes HUM 110 discusses. We should be looking at how African cultures have influenced future cultures and ultimately our present one, instead of just shoving Egypt into the closet of the past. All of the histories we study still live in the world around us, so why do we pretend as though the book has closed on all of these regions and cultures we study?

Lastly, the want for autonomy within each conference is understandable. Letting professors teach to their strengths is important, but often that means that professors insecure in their whiteness and socioeconomic status avoid talking about how the acts of violence perpetrated against marginalized people that we study echo loud and clear today. I’ve heard horror stories about white conference leaders using the N word in conference and encouraging non-Black students to do the same. I’ve heard of conference leaders stinting conversations and demanding strict adherence to conventions that make it harder for people not already familiar and used to academic texts to meaningfully participate in discussions where the voices of marginalized and disadvantaged people are some of the most important to listen to. I swear to god, some of these people need to read through Pedagogy of The Oppressed just one damn time. For an institution that wants to be the cool uncle of colleges and give students autonomy and nomilly aspires to equity and ideals of non-hierarchical, student focused knowledge production, Reed is severely lacking in the actionable changes that begin in its classrooms. As much as HUM 110’s deficits exist in its syllabus, the faculty also seems to have a lack of unity in how to execute a teaching style that avoids recreating the oppression it teaches about within its conferences. Students should be given opportunities to think about the biases and oppression that exist within the materials they read (a la translation bias and survivorship bias) and the institutions that surround them. Right now, that is sorely lacking.

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