“You frantically do the reading, then you go to lecture and frantically take notes, then you frantically go to precept and then try to talk about everything in an hour and a half,” Haigh said. “We don’t go into very much depth because we cover everything extremely quickly.”
The pace of the course has frustrated Haigh and some of her classmates, Haigh explained. While 43 students were enrolled in the sequence last semester, only 26 students are enrolled in the second portion of the sequence this semester, according to the Registrar’s website.
Ming Loong Chng ’12, who took the sequence last year, said he was also disappointed by the sequence’s lack of depth.
“I can’t see much difference between taking the class as a survey class and reading many, many Wikipedia articles,” Chng said.
Chng added that his disappointment with the sequence and other humanities courses led him to concentrate in electrical engineering after originally considering a philosophy degree.
Jessica Christy ’13, who is continuing with the sequence this semester, said that some students “actually liked the material so much that they couldn’t stand going over Aristotle in a day.”
But Christy didn’t find this problematic. “That’s what a survey course has to be,” she said. “It can’t go in that much depth. It’s an opportunity to know later what you want to go back and study.”
Visual arts professor P. Adams Sitney, who was one of six instructors for the fall semester, said that a disconnect between students’ expectations and the sequence’s actual nature may have led an unusually high number of students to drop the sequence’s second-semester course. He added that the “narcissistic wounds” of students who encounter equally smart classmates and teachers who aren’t overwhelmed by their achievements also contributes. Some of these wounds, he said, don’t heal.
Does HUM live up to its goals?
The sequence covers Western history, philosophy, literature, religion and art from antiquity to the 20th century. Students must apply for the course and are expected to have read Homer’s “Iliad” by the first day of class.
In addition to a demanding schedule comprised of three 50-minute lectures and two 80-minute precepts a week, students in the course go on “strongly recommended” trips to museums, plays, concerts and art galleries.
“[The sequence’s] goal is to present the major achievements of western culture, particularly literary, philosophical and historical, in a highly condensed form,” Sitney said, “and to give some very eager, extremely intelligent and masochistic freshmen — occasionally sophomores — an intense but necessarily superficial overview of the great achievements of the western tradition.”
Some students, however, left the sequence unsatisfied.
Sean Chen ’13 said in an e-mail that, though the first half was useful in teaching close reading and understanding, he was frustrated by its design.
“Every single work would be analyzed at great length with great insight,” Chen explained, “but the works were never connected to make a thread about Western culture.” He added that the sequence is best for students who “have fun analyzing or discussing any work without any general aim at getting a glance at major points in Western culture.”
Chng also said he struggled to see the connection between the works. “In the end, what it turned out to be was ... ‘Oh I’ve finished reading this book, I have to move on to the next and the next,’ without really knowing how they connected to one another,” he explained.
Sitney, however, said that the works were naturally interconnected.
“Whether or not we like Dante’s ‘Comedy,’ it is part of the definition of poetry for everyone after Dante, and Dante couldn’t have written it had he not read Virgil’s ‘Aeneid,’ and Virgil couldn’t have written the ‘Aeneid’ if he hadn’t read the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey,’ ” he explained. “So there is an organic transition.”
Other students felt that the course achieved its aims in spite of its fast pace.
“There was always sort of the exhilarating sense that you could read something at the end of the semester and understand all the influences that led up to it,” Jason Kaplan ’12, who took the course last year, said. “You shouldn’t take it with the expectation of having exhausted all there is to discuss for each of the works that the course covers.”
Olaf Sakkers ’11, who also took the course as a freshman, noted that, though each work could have been analyzed in greater depth, such a goal would be unrealistic for the course. “If you’re really interested in a subject, you can study it in depth in another class,” he said.
Haigh, meanwhile, said the course should be made more challenging. “This is going to be unpopular, but I think they should go back to the stricter grading and be more insistent that we do the reading more carefully,” she said, adding that precepts should be extended in order to discuss the works in greater depth.
Sitney noted that previous iterations of the course had required students to submit six papers and a long term paper each semester and complete more reading. They are now required to write only four papers.
“There was a lot of student pressure to diminish the amount of reading,” Sitney said, thought he said he disagreed with the decision. “There’s greater satisfaction when you feel that you’ve read all of Plato’s Republic than if you’ve read five books of Plato’s Republic,” he explained.
What they learned
Students had mixed thoughts on the overall value of the HUM sequence.
Christy said her experience was positive. “I don’t think I’d be as happy at Princeton as I am had I not taken it,” she said. “But it’s definitely not a course for everyone, and I wouldn’t like it as much if it were.”
Haigh, who plans to become a Classics professor, said the breadth of the works covered in the course will be valuable as she continues in academia.
Chng, however, said he left the course without achieving his goal of understanding each work’s importance in the Western canon. “One of the questions that I had before going into this class was to understand why these books are the books that all of us should read,” he said. “What makes them so special? I’m unconvinced.”