Move over, Mediterranean: liberal arts course turns to Harlem

Reed College responds to student complaints that its flagship module was too white, too male and too Eurocentric

April 16, 2018
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A leading US liberal arts college has announced major changes to its signature humanities course, months after student protesters charged that the course was too white, too male and too Eurocentric.

Instead of focusing on the ancient Mediterranean, the team-taught course at Oregon’s Reed College – which all first-year students take together, at the same time – will now consist of four different time- and place-based modules.

Students will still study the humanistic traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and Athens in the first part of the course. But, in the second half, students will engage with history and texts related to Mexico City in the 15th through 20th centuries, and Harlem from 1919 to 1952.

The changes to Hum 110, as the course is known, take effect next academic year.

Like many institutions, Reed has faced student demands that it make its curriculum more inclusive of ethnic minorities and non-Western traditions. But those demands took a distinctly Reed-like turn when a group of students staged a months-long sit-in of Hum 110 lectures, through the autumn.

The protesters, associated with a group called Reedies Against Racism, reached a kind of agreement with the Hum 110 faculty that they could be present as long as they didn’t disrupt class. It worked for a while, but things came to a head at the beginning of last semester, when some protesters insisted on using lecture time to introduce themselves to incoming first-year students.

The dispute resulted in a cancelled lecture and soul-searching for Reed, which prides itself on its flat organisational structure and dialogue-based approach to conflict resolution.

Change was already under way, however, as the faculty had previously committed to beginning Hum 110’s decennial review one year early. The new format announced, recently approved by the programme's faculty, marks the end of that review.

Members of Reedies Against Racism have previously said that they targeted Hum 110 for criticism, in particular, because it is required of all students – meaning it not only grounds their future studies but also communicates what matters at Reed. They've also said the course ignores how some of the works studied have been used over time to perpetuate violence against ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, defenders of Hum 110 – which currently begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ends with the Bible and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass  have argued that critics err in transposing modern notions of race into the course, or even misunderstand it altogether.

“The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me,” Jay Dickson, a professor of English, recently told Reed Magazine. “It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an assistant professor of English and humanities who was to deliver the cancelled Hum 110 lecture at the beginning of the year, had planned to tell students 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.

In a version of the cancelled lecture that has since been shared online, Dr Martínez Valdivia said it’s hard to even define “Western”, and that the concept is challenged throughout the course.

Elizabeth Drumm, the John and Elizabeth Yeon professor of Spanish and humanities at Reed, oversaw the more than 30-meeting review process as Hum 110 programme chair.

“We are not saying that the ancient Mediterranean is not important,” Professor Drumm said, asked how she might answer those humanists who believe that Western civilisation-style courses deserve a permanent place in liberal arts curricula. “We just recognize that there are other questions we can ask that are vibrant and important to humanities, as well.”

Nigel Nicholson, dean of the faculty and Walter Mintz professor of Classics, Greek and Latin literature at Reed, said there are many similarities between the current and new Hum 110 class, but that the latter could be even more “successful”.

“What we’re trying to do with the material was not pedagogically effective for a lot of students,” he said. “The [new] class will still be tremendously demanding, as it was before. We’re maintaining a lot of what we have but exploring some new areas to create some new intellectual dynamics.”

Professor Nicholson added: “I’d invite people who think we’re watering down this course to come visit and see the class for themselves.”

Reedies Against Racism responded to the Hum 110 revision in a Facebook post, saying that the college’s announcement failed to sufficiently recognise the role of students and ethnic minority faculty members and their allies in forcing change. The group also expressed concern that some of the more diverse texts currently offered in the course – specifically those relating to the Middle East and North Africa – would be cut to make room for the Mexico City and Harlem modules. 

“Reed freshmen will still receive the message that learning about white culture is more urgent and foundational to a college education,” the post reads, asking faculty members to look beyond Athens and Rome, specifically to Jerusalem and Cairo, in the first half of the course. 

“In short, we're calling for the Humanities 110 faculty to pick different cities from the old syllabus for the first two semesters,” the post says. “We feel that these cities should be outside of Europe, as reparations for Humanities 110's history of erasing the histories of people of colour, especially black people.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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