First-year students reflect on failures of conferences and lectures
This is the third year since the introduction of the Harlem Renaissance into the Humanities 110 (HUM 110) syllabus. Students in the class feel that the Humanities faculty is still having difficulty adequately addressing the racial and political content of the authors and artists studied in the class. The Quest reached out to students in various HUM 110 conferences to hear their thoughts and experiences trying to navigate the class during this unit, a task which can be tense and confrontational, especially for students of color in the largely white Reed population.
Students in HUM 110 repeatedly reported that the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance unit marked a shift in how lectures were put together and presented by faculty. Lectures on Harlem feel, to students, as if they are lacking the necessary context and avoid touching on the blatant political messages of the readings. Kes Vounzi, a student in HUM 110, described the lectures as only touching the “surface level” of the pieces. Vounzi went on, saying “it feels like we’re not really deeply interacting with, like, the topics in their contexts.”
The lack of context was a common thread among students. Many felt that the lectures focused too much on the form of pieces in order to avoid having to talk about the broader political arguments the texts make. This was frustrating to students like Riley Ruff, a first year taking HUM 110, who said that the lectures often focused deeply on “the mechanics of English,” and avoided talking about the actual meanings of the texts that are crucial for understanding them and discussing them in conference. “Not having that is just incredibly frustrating,” Ruff said. Kokoro Kageyama, another HUM 110 student, stated that many of the professors “just tend to ignore the topic of race.” Kageyama pointed out the lecturers’ general ineptitude in discussing matters of race, saying, “This kind of avoidance is not beneficial in any way, and it would just create another generation of people who are scared or frustrated and just not able to properly discuss race, which is not helpful.”
She went on to describe how she was “very disappointed” in the quality of the lectures for the unit, citing in particular one lecture that talked about very little other than “the use of color.” An first-year student in HUM 110 who wished to remain anonymous noted how little the lectures talked about race, saying that the lecturers “hopped over it to talk about other things.” The content of the lectures was also revealing of how the faculty tries to mesh the disparate racial histories of America. According to Vic Dudek-Tipton, another first-year student in the class, the lectures are “made for the perspective of a white student, and now that we have moved away from white-centric material, often feel demeaning. More than once I’ve felt that the Harlem lectures just serve to place Black American history in white American terms and don’t actually teach anything about it.”
One lecturer, Jan Mieszkowski, began his lecture “Poetry and Politics” with a lengthy preamble about student complaints that HUM 110 lectures focus too closely on the form of pieces and not about content. His argument was that content only arises through form and, as such, it is only possible to access the political arguments of a piece through an analysis of their form. Ruff said that “this is total bullshit.” Ruff understood that “the reason an author chooses a poem as a medium is because their content resides in their form,” but they also felt that “you don’t get to talk about similes and metaphors to avoid talking about the topic of racism, especially in a unit about the Harlem Renaissance.” Ruff felt that student frustrations with lecturers’ insistence on interrogating form are not fueled by a disdain of close reading and formal analysis. Instead, Ruff felt that students are frustrated by lecturers’ tendencies to hide behind discussions of color theory and rhyme schemes to avoid discussing the racial arguments of the HUM 110 syllabus. “Form is not a shield,” Ruff says.
HUM 110 students have felt that their conferences don’t often do a good job of engaging with the readings and being helpful places to learn about race, with Kageyama saying “I feel like a more welcoming, or like a safer environment could definitely be fostered by the professor who’s leading the conference.” Vounzi added a similar sentiment, saying “guiding the conversation in a way that’s sensitive to [issues of race] instead of just treating it like, just like any old text.” Dudek-Tipton said that “it seems as though most conference leaders are content to let their white students treat non-white people as lab animals to be observed.”
Vounzi commented that watching their non-Black peers in Hum conference “felt like a performance.” They added, “I’m the only Black person in my class… but it felt like the vibe shifted in terms of like, ‘Oh, here’s a Black person, we have to overcompensate with how we’re discussing.’” Vounzi also spoke to the insensitivity of some of their peers when it came to speaking about modern instances of racist violence, saying “it’s not fun as a Black student to be reminded of things, if I don’t need to hear it.” Vounzi made a suggestion saying, “I think a really good idea for HUM would be to have a lecture on how to talk about race.”
The anonymous source complained that many white students and conference leaders try to compare their experiences with those of the Black people and characters they study in HUM 110, but that, “there’s a fine line I think between, like, having empathy for an experience, and thinking that you understand the experience in its entirety.” The source shared an episode from an especially tense conference… saying “The entire conference was literally in tears afterwards it was so stressful… [the professor] was like, ‘I propose that we say the [n***o].’ And we were all like, ‘mmm ma’am, no,’ and then she kept saying things like ‘the Blacks’ and like just classic, not-quite-right terminology and we like confronted her about it and she has not stopped since and it’s just been [uncomfortable].”
Kageyama spoke to her experience as a person of color in HUM 110 and “feeling uncomfortable and not wanting to be there. Especially in the past few weeks I’ve definitely struggled to get out of my room and convince myself that it’s worth going there.”
Students generally seemed happy with the selected readings and artworks on the syllabus for the second semester. Vounzi said of the current syllabus that “‘Humanities’ should be more inclusive of different cultures and ethnicities; like, Mexico and Harlem are good starts, but there needs to be more diversity.” Dudek-Tipton also felt like the second semester readings offered good starts, but said that it “feels like they’re trying to cram as many ‘diverse’ readings into the curriculum as possible without ever intending to actually cover all of them.”
Kageyama said she “definitely has enjoyed the new readings,” but also mentioned that the readings this semester often deal with more difficult subjects, saying “they’re definitely scary, and some readings are hard to get through, but I believe it’s necessary.” Overall, students feel more or less happy with what the Harlem and Mexico City sections of the curriculum look like right now; they’re just hoping their professors would engage with the issues of race that the syllabus seems to have at its forefront.
Student frustrations with the state of HUM 110 speak to a broader, slower burning change in the only common class that Reedies take. The Harlem Renaissance and Mexico City units were born from student activism decrying the eurocentrism of the class in a political context that was increasingly discussing race. The aim of the units was, broadly, to tackle the humanitarian crises of our own time, specifically the racial dynamics of an industrialized world, rather than focusing on the form of ancient lyrics. Now, student opinion seems to be that the HUM 110 faculty is succumbing to the trap of eurocentric, neo-white-supremacist thinking that does its best to ignore any potential political argument that could be its downfall. That the lectures hollow out the arguments of the readings by focusing solely on their most trivial aesthetic aspects.
Ruff condemned the lecturers: “There’s racism going on here. And having my conference leader talk to me about how distressed, and how alone, and how frustrated he feels with everything… It’s just, it’s supposed to be a place of learning. And right now, due to the atmosphere, due to the curriculum, due to the lack of addressing very prominent issues, it has been, it has evolved into a really distressing and apathetic kind of situation.” Ruff explained why they thought the lecturers seemed so apathetic towards the issue of race, saying, “It’s difficult for white people to talk about race because we are privileged and that we don’t suffer the consequences of being non-white. We benefit from the system of oppression.”
The apathy was also felt by Dudek-Tipton, who said, “It feels as though Reed is keeping race-based discussions in the shallow end of the pool for the comfort of their white students, not at all pushing for more critical conversations.” Vounzi spoke to an unwillingness on the part of the faculty to change HUM 110 saying, “students want to propose changes, or like have their voices heard… [Faculty] should definitely be more willing to listen and actually implement these changes.” Kageyama finally asked, “Please just, like, pay attention, it’s important. Don’t let this curriculum go down the drain.”
Some quotes edited for clarity.