APR. 13, 2018 7 min read

At a faculty meeting on Monday, April 9, Chair Elizabeth Drumm announced the outline of the new Humanities 110 syllabus set to start in the fall of 2018. As a result of the course’s decennial review process, accelerated due to pressure from the activist group Reedies Against Racism (RAR) during the 2016–2017 academic year, the Hum faculty have significantly revised the curriculum to extend beyond the ancient Mediterranean in both time and space. The new syllabus will be structured in four modules, each module centered around both a specific location and around some thematic element of the course.

Fall 2018 will include two modules composed of material from the existing syllabus, beginning with a module titled “Exile and Return.” This unit, which is based primarily in Jerusalem, will retain the Epic of Gilgamesh and books from the Torah, as well as other current texts. Notably, first year students will now read Homer’s Odyssey instead of the Iliad. The second module is titled “Governing the Self and Polis” and will focus on ancient Athens and Athenian democracy with texts including Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Spring 2019 will introduce two modules composed entirely of material that has never been taught before in Hum 110. The first of the two is “Constructions and Reconstructions: Mexico City 15th–20th centuries.” This radical modernization of the Hum syllabus will cover, among other topics, the culture of the Mexica, which we now know as the Aztec empire, Spanish colonialism, and the Zapatistas, a revolutionary community that began in the late 20th century and still lives autonomously in Mexico today.

The second of the two more modern modules is “Aesthetics and Politics, Race and Democracy: Harlem, 1919–1939.” The module is set to focus on the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the early 20th century and the Harlem Renaissance, as well as “other minority discourses in New York during this period,” according to Drumm. Though the texts for this section are still being decided by the Hum faculty, it is likely that it will include modern novels by black authors who emerged at the time. According to English professor Pancho Savery, who drafted the Harlem unit, it is currently entirely comprised of authors of color.

The Hum faculty believes this change has addressed some of the issues with the current course. Drumm commented, “it de-centers the material it presents, with no one module privileged over the other [and] it focuses on different historical time periods and places, allowing us to include a greater diversity of authors.” Savery also supports the new syllabus and believes it appropriately addresses student concerns.

Even with the significant broadening of the cultural scope of the course, Drumm explained at the faculty meeting that the basic philosophy of the course is maintained with the new syllabus. The class will still consist of lecture and conference components, and it retains the emphasis on multi-disciplinarity essential to Hum 110 and to Reed education more generally.

The idea is, then, that the new course will allow students to discuss and consider some of the same ideas the current course explores without the implication that those ideas (about death, government, morality, etc.) only exist in the texts of the ancient Mediterranean. Rollo Brandon ‘21 spoke to this idea in an interview with the Quest, saying, “I think the problem was never the readings per se but the implications of the class: that the readings themselves were the embodiment of humanity.”

This process is, however, an ongoing process. The Hum faculty will review the new syllabus in the spring of 2021, and the modular structure of the course is designed to make it easier for the course to change and adapt to the needs and desires of both faculty and students over time.

The new plan has already been met with both praise and criticism. Since the announcement, which was also sent to the entire Reed community on Wednesday, RAR has hung posters around campus criticizing the new syllabus. The posters read: “Humanities 110 Faculty: Include Islam and Africa in the ‘Four Cities’ Curriculum.” The cities RAR proposes for the fall are Jerusalem and Cairo, with Mexico City and Harlem remaining in Spring. In a Facebook post describing this proposal, RAR commented, “We’re calling for the Humanities 110 faculty to pick different cities from the old syllabus for the first two semesters. We feel that these cities should be outside of Europe, as reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people.” The post claims that “all of the non-white texts in the course will be taught after the Greek and Roman content, during the second semester.” However, the first unit is already based primarily in Jerusalem and will include the Epic of Gilgamesh, a text in particular that RAR has fought for in the past. Rome is not one of the four cities in the current model.

Other students have voiced positive reactions to the new course. Gatlin Newhouse ‘19 remarked, “I think the syllabus change will make the course more engaging for first-year students in addition to better prepping students for future courses. The potential inclusion of contemporary novels and philosophy will better reflect literature courses, which are balanced between literature and theory.” To Newhouse, this is a marked difference from the current course, which “as currently taught, is taught about the classics by professors who are mostly not classists by training.” Student Rollo Brandon added, “I think the new structure of the syllabus had potential to be something very valuable, but not in and of itself. It will only be good if students see the actual value in it and hone in on them.”

Faculty have also expressed concern with the change. Savery expressed his concern with the shorter length of the modules, saying, “With the new syllabus, we are only spending six weeks on each section, and that doesn’t allow you to go into as much depth as the current syllabus does.”

Earlier in the process of designing the new curriculum in February 2018, the religion department released an announcement that they were not willing to teach in the new course because they believe it compromises their rigorous approach to religion as a practice of study. Ken Brashier, chair of the religion department, told the Quest, “If Hum 110 had focused on only [for example] the Mediterranean, Africa, or South America for an extended framework, religion would be fine with full participation […] because the extended framework offers a critical density of time and space that allows us to understand what religion actually is. […] The problem isn’t the particular cities, it’s modularity of here, then here, then here, then here.”

Brashier said that in the months following this announcement, the religion faculty were able to reach a temporary compromise: “Religion will teach in Hum 110, but only in the fall where there will still be a tighter focus on time and place,” he explained, emphasizing that as the course continues to change, the religion department will continue to evaluate its relationship with the new humanities course as well as with the upper-level humanities courses. With regard to religion’s absence from the spring course, Savery told the Quest he believes “it’s problematic to not have religion in the course, and the people in the religion department were hired just like everyone else, to be religion and Hum, and I think it’s a loss for students.” Savery added that when he asked the religion faculty about their decision, they assured him there was no racial motivation.

This new syllabus was developed after a review process that included student feedback last spring, multiple syllabus proposals from faculty, and feedback from the external review board earlier this semester — and the review process is still continuing. The Hum faculty will be hosting a forum for students and other members of the community to ask questions on Wednesday, April 18 from 4:15–5:30 p.m. in GCC B–D.