Co-authored by Claire deVroede and Lydia Mead
On Thursday, February 10th, we gathered in the GCC to discuss an upcoming Humanities 110 paper. We, a freshman Humanities 110 student (Aakash) and a senior writing tutor (Claire), reviewed the prompts, one of which shocked us:
Some scholars argue that the Tira de la Peregrinación remains unfinished, while others argue that it does come to a conclusion. Drawing on patterns in the visual detail, craft an argument for one position over the other. Make sure to respond to the evidence against your position as well as the evidence for it.
As we dissected the assumptions latent in this question, we recognized our mutual frustration with the imperialist nature of this prompt, which asks students to argue whether another culture’s work of art is “finished.” The only resources Humanities 110 students were given to answer the prompt were a single lecture (i.e. Nathalia King’s lecture) and several secondary sources; this deficiency of context makes this prompt feel inaccessible and inappropriate. Because the prompt asks students to consult the Tira’s “visual detail” and no other sources, the prompt breeds arguments that center the students’ own perspectives and Western understanding. This prompt encourages Reed students – members of a Western-educated group – to decide if the Tira is finished or not. The term “finished” holds in it many assumptions about time, the Tira’s intention, and its meaning to its creators.
This question of completeness insults the agency of the creators themselves and suggests that we can approach history objectively. Without extensive knowledge of the Mexica people’s society, culture and beliefs, Humanities 110 students would inevitably impose Western frameworks for art and narrative onto a work made by a Mesoamerican civilization to a harmful extent. This imposition disrespects the Mexica. This framework is the one in which the majority of Reed students understand themselves, and it is the one they have used to engage with the preceding Humanities 110 curriculum; thus, they necessarily impose this framework upon the Tira.
It worries us, as well as other Reed students who have helped craft this article, that Reed professors consider it appropriate to teach first-years that they can impose their interpretations upon other groups’ expressions of their own histories and identities without the careful interrogation of their own positionalities. It also assumes that Reed students know the Mexica well enough to understand the intention behind the Tira. It assumes that the Mexica’s mode of expression is legible to us. This imposition of interpretation, and claim to knowledge that the prompt requires is an act of power that harms the civilization and its people. This prompt is imperialist.
At the end of King’s lecture on the Tira, she states, “if interpretations can be more or less accurate, an aspect of interpretation can be acknowledging that it is speculative and provisional.” This acknowledgement is a necessary and inherent element of interpretation, not just a possible disclaimer that “can be” included. King’s consideration of interpretation within a scale of accuracy – “more or less accurate” – already treats all interpretations as accurate; which is antithetical to the inherently incomplete nature of interpretation. Furthermore, the incomplete nature of interpretation is only a small part of the issue. From a purely literary perspective, it does seem that the only rift is the ever-present rift between author and interpreter: the inevitable rift of textual interpretation. King’s comment does not recognize the gigantic cultural, temporal, spatial, historical, and religio-political differences that make us – Western-educated peoples in the 21st century – unable to determine the intention behind this work and its meaning.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, professors at Reed hold racial prejudices and biases that often go unnoticed and unchecked. For years, students have pushed for racial bias training for faculty. Students have fought to have the Humanities 110 curriculum include non-Western societies since the 60s. It was not until 2018 that Reedies against Racism and protests by the student body made these necessary reforms happen. By comparing our experiences in Humanities 110, we (Claire and Aakash) realized how little the curriculum has changed in four years when it seemed apparent to Humanities 110 professors in 2019 that the new Humanities 110 pedagogy was problematic and confusing for students. Perhaps we as a student body are no longer fighting the old Humanities 110 monolith, but also the more subtle forms of imperialism and racism that arise from the way the faculty is teaching the new Humanities 110 curriculum. Another prompt for this same paper topic read:
The “Birth of Huitzilopochtli,” Theogony and “Horus and Seth” emphasize the sexual generation of the gods and violence among them. Compare the Aztec origin myth to one of the other two with attention to similarities and differences in how they treat competition and alliance among the gods.
This prompt asks students to analyze non-Western “mythologies” (an imposed classification) through their comparison to Western mythologies, which further centers Western history and tradition. When Aakash confronted his Humanities 110 conference leader about the prompts, the conference leader responded by saying that my sentiments were the product of “the people you hang around” and asked if Claire was a religion major, referring to the friction between the Religion department and Humanities 110 after the former left the course in 2018. This separation likely resulted in this egregious prompt which rips these texts from their context and assumes the comparability of “gods” from distinct cosmological and social orders. Aakash’s conference leader’s responses were incredibly dismissive of the active harm caused by Humanities 110 and the actual stakes of its pedagogy. Changing a prompt is such a small request. If professors don’t recognize that the prompts they’ve written and sent out to a class of some 500 students are imperialist, how can we trust them to produce an entire curriculum that is respectful and anti-imperialist? If professors are resistant to small-scale reforms, how can we trust that they will change Humanities 110 on a structural level?