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An education from Reed College, where students’ sense of individualism is perhaps matched only by their studiousness, is anything but common. And recently one of Reed’s most distinctive experiences -- one designed, ironically, to bring students together -- has become one of its most divisive.
“We don’t ever want to repeat what happened that Wednesday -- we don’t ever want there to be shouting over one another and shouting people down,” said Kevin Myers, a Reed spokesperson, about escalating tensions over the college’s signature yearlong freshman humanities course.
He added, “I don’t think that was a proud moment, and we want to get past it.”
Debate on Hum 110
Three times a week, at 9 a.m., all of Reed’s 300-plus freshmen shuffle into a lecture hall for what’s known on campus as Hum 110. Starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ending with the Bible and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, the required literary and historical survey of the ancient world is supposed to lay the foundation for students’ future studies in the humanities. Freshmen also get a taste of different teaching styles and disciplinary perspectives, as classes are taught by two dozen faculty members across fields. Those lectures are supplemented by smaller breakout sessions, called conferences.
Hum 110 -- like virtually everything at Reed -- is rigorous. But alumni who took the course as far back as 1943, when it was conceived, tend to recall it as one of their most worthwhile. Things changed last fall, though, when Reed, like so many other institutions, faced student demands that it be more inclusive of people of color.
Among activists’ sticking points, especially for a group of students called Reedies Against Racism, was Hum 110. The course, which faces a curricular and pedagogical review every 10 years but has maintained a fundamentally Western orientation, is simply too white, too male and too Eurocentric, critics charged, especially for a course required of all students. Moreover, the student activists said, Hum 110 largely ignores how these works may have been used over time to perpetuate violence against people of color.
Reed takes a dialogue-based approach to conflict resolution and engaged the students about their demands. Regarding Hum 110, Reed promised to begin reviewing the course one year earlier than planned; a faculty group got to work last year and professors' recommendations are expected later this fall. But in the interim, throughout last year, a group of 12 to 15 students has occupied the class -- surrounding the lecturing professor in silent protest -- for each session.
On many if not most campuses, a yearlong, in-class protest wouldn’t fly. But at Reed, despite varying levels of faculty comfort with lecturing through a protest, it did. The general understanding was that the protesters would be allowed to continue as long as they didn’t interfere in the lecture period.
Cut to Aug. 28, the first Hum 110 lecture of this year. Reedies Against Racism had announced in a widely circulated email that they planned to continue their protest this year. They also asked faculty members involved in the program for class time to introduce themselves -- a departure from the agreement about not interrupting teaching time. Hum 110 program leaders denied the request and, according to Reed, polled one another on what they wanted to do if the protesters attempted to disrupt the first lecture. They decided they’d cancel the class if need be.
“I’m sorry, this is a classroom space and this is not appropriate,” Elizabeth Drumm, Hum 110 program chair and the John and Elizabeth Yeon Professor of Spanish and Humanities, told a small group of protesters when they attempted to talk during class. Members of Reedies Against Racism continued, saying they had created a supplementary syllabus. The professors at the front of the room got up and left.
Two days later, Hum 110 students met again, and again the protesters attempted to introduce themselves -- this time minutes before 9 a.m., technically outside class time. They talked about their objections to the class and were interrupted by faculty members who disagreed with their characterization. A group of freshmen also got involved, complaining that their lecture had been taken over, and the conversation became a shouting match. The scene echoed many that have played out on college campuses within the past few years surrounding inclusion. But for many present it was unsettlingly un-Reed-like: a violation of the campus norm of passionate and rigorous but civil debate.
When the clock struck 9 a.m., things seemed to return to normal, in the form of a 50-minute lecture on the Epic of Gilgamesh. But Friday, scheduled lecturer Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of religion and humanities, declined to lecture alongside students who, he said, equated the course -- and by extension him -- with white supremacy. He invited interested students to visit his office, and approximately 150 of them did so, Myers said, resulting in an impromptu lecture.
Myers said things have generally returned to normal in the week since -- meaning uninterrupted lectures, not the end of the protest. Ongoing concerns about the class disruption and the activists’ agenda are being addressed through community meetings and other processes founded on Reed’s semi-ineffable Honor Principle.
“Free speech is incredibly important at a place like Reed,” Myers said. “Because Reed has this sort of shared governance, people really do feel a sense of ‘We need to fix this together.’”
How the concerns raised by Reedies Against Racism impact Hum 110’s curriculum going forward remain to be seen. Drumm, the chair of the program, referred requests for comment to Myers.
GhaneaBassiri said via email that deciding not to lecture "while students hold up signs was a personal decision for me. I felt I owed my colleagues and students in the course an explanation and shared my reasoning with them, but I never intended it to go further than that."
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an assistant professor of English and humanities, was to deliver a lecture during the first, canceled class session. Interestingly, Reed Magazine’s blog posted a version of Martínez’s Valdivia's planned talk, with her permission. In it, Martínez Valdivia says she’s “female, mixed race, American and Peruvian, gay, atheist and relatively young. I study poetry that is basically the opposite of me: male, white, British, straight, God-fearing, 500 years old. And I love it.”
Saying that Hum 110 “perfectly captures the importance of origins and instability to what we do as scholars and students, regardless of the disciplines we pursue,” Martínez Valdivia asks students to “say yes to the text.” In other words, she says, one “should read things in good faith, understanding the distance, the strangeness from our own historical moment. If we get distracted by Plato’s misogyny or Lucretius’ imperfect mastery of physics, we miss the point, the bigger pictures of these works -- the way Plato structures his arguments, for example, or the fact that Lucretius was driven to theorize about the nature of the physical world when that just wasn’t something people did.”
Martínez Valdivia notes that the course is technically called Introduction to Humanities: Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean, not Western Humanities, “in part because much of it is drawn from geographic areas not traditionally considered Western areas,” such as Iraq, Iran and Egypt. She says she’d be hard-pressed to even define “Western” and that the concept is challenged through course.
Everything that is now canonical was once innovative, she adds. “This doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge problems, weaknesses, inaccuracies, that we can’t question these works; rather, it means that we should do so productively, in good faith. Don’t write Plato off as a misogynist. Instead, try considering how it is that misogyny is a logical result, for him, of his reasoning.”
Roger Porter, a professor emeritus of English at Reed who taught Hum 110 for some 20 years, said this week that he fully respected students' right to protest, short of disruption to the educational process. That includes the right to sit in on Hum 110 lectures, he said, though he added that he respects colleagues who “feel that students sitting behind the lectern with signs attacking the course and those who teach it -- especially students who call faculty racist for teaching that course -- have indeed interfered with the educational enterprise, and [who] are made uncomfortable by that presence.”
As for the course itself, Porter said it is “invaluable” and that “there is nothing per se racist about it.”
Learning about the origins of Western democracy “is vital, and even studying cultures which by nature may have been imperial, enslaving and what we would now call patriarchal, has its value,” he said added via email. And “studying even those aspects of ancient cultures should not nullify the value of learning how to understand and evaluate the civilizations of which they are a part. The course involves complex and sophisticated critiques of those cultures, and hardly unthinkingly celebrates all aspects of them.”
Porter, however, raised different concerns about Hum 110, saying that faculty members tend to feel conscripted to teach in the course for much of their careers at Reed, creating a “problem of faculty morale.” And while some kind of required freshman humanities course is good idea, he said, “I think that a number of different forms of such a course ought to exist, with students able to elect among a variety of options.” That way, he said, students who wish for a “more contemporary course with writers representing a range of genders, ethnicities and cultures could have that choice.”
Searching for More Inclusive Approaches
Assuming Hum 110 remains a Reed mainstay, and that Western civilization-style courses elsewhere do, too, are there ways to teach them that address student concerns about inclusion? Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, who has a strong -- and sometimes controversial -- record of public engagement, said yes. (Bond endured online harassment earlier this year after she wrote a popular blog post about how ancient Western artifacts were painted in varied colors but have, over time, faded to their base light marble color, giving the false impression that white skin was the classical ideal; Martínez’s lecture raises the same point.)
“We should acknowledge that Western civilization is a construct, for sure, and then try and make it as inclusive as possible,” Bond said. While the history of “Western civ” was cast as white when it was first developed, she added, there are now ample resources for diversifying it. She named a crowdsourced syllabus on race and medieval studies by Jonathan Hsy, an associate professor of English at George Washington University; the “Medieval People of Color” Tumblr account; and an article, “Using Diversity to Teach Classics,” by the late Sally MacEwen, formerly a professor of classics at Agnes Scott College, as some examples. Mark Humphries, a professor of ancient history at Swansea University in Wales, also has argued that what he calls conventional narratives about late antiquity can be challenged by adopting a "world-historical perspective."
Over all, Bond said, “We shouldn’t be afraid to revise syllabi and diversify them, particularly if certain groups have been erased or marginalized. I empathize with the students and support their desire to have a more diverse central course in their curriculum, but would also encourage both sides to sit down at a syllabus workshop and come to a compromise collectively.”
A number of institutions other than Reed require students to study what could be described as traditional curricula. Among them is Columbia University, which requires undergraduates to take two yearlong survey courses founded in Western literature and Western philosophy and social theory, respectively, and whose students, like Reed’s, could also be described as invested in issues of identity. Roosevelt Montás, a scholar of American studies, directs Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, and said that the issues at hand at Reed “are constantly debated” and “very much an integral part of the teaching of the core.”
The syllabi for the core’s two yearlong required courses undergo formal reviews every three years, but there is no program overhaul under way, Montás said. While some texts have come in and out of the required reading list, others have been constant, such as the Homeric epics and the Platonic dialogues.
The core courses offer a “chronological overview of important works in the Western tradition and therefore reflect a history of intellectual and artistic production that largely excluded women and groups that, in the American context, we call racial minorities,” he said. “The poor, the foreign and other nonelites are also absent, except as represented by the dominant voices -- again reflecting the historical development of the civilization.”
When courses reach the 19th and 20th centuries, though, the range of voices expands dramatically, Montás said, “reflecting new cultural configurations.” The current syllabus for the first-year literature course, for example, ends with Toni Morrison, and the syllabus for the second-year social thought course ends with Fanon and Foucault.
Montás said that the issues raised at Reed are “important ones and deserve to be addressed directly and honestly.”
“We live with a history of exclusion and exploitation of various groups," he said. “The Columbia core functions under the premise that understanding the history that brought us to where we are is the most effective way of learning how to overcome our moral limitations and improve upon the past.”
St. John’s College, with campuses in Santa Fe, N.M., and Annapolis, Md., has a curriculum based almost entirely on the Great Books, paired with a socially liberal student body. Asked about how the situation at Reed reflects any discussions at his institution, St. John’s President Peter Kanelos said that, generally, the category of “Western” in such debates is particularly unhelpful, since it implies something “narrow, provincial and triumphalist.” Put another way, he said, “Western” in current conversations often is used to describe a tradition that is actually “diverse, complex, multifaceted and multicultural” as “monochrome and monolithic.”
At St John’s, he said, students spend four years taking a “deep dive” into nearly 200 works written over more than four millennia in at least a dozen languages and representing multiple faith traditions as well as the secular, across disciplines.
“The works that form our program of study have been in conversation with one another for millennia and represent a radical diversity of experience and perspective,” Kanelos said. “There is little consensus or agreement between the texts we encounter. What we learn is the myriad ways that arguments are made, that truth is sought or rejected, that beauty is defined or denied. We understand that the four years studying these texts does not represent the end point of education, but rather the beginning.”