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As humanities flounder, the HUM sequence faces a reckoning

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The number of American students earning humanities degrees has declined for eight consecutive years. That shift has particularly affected low-income students, more wary of living off a philosophy major’s salary than their more privileged counterparts. And in a moment of national reckoning, traditional curriculums centered around white, cisgender, and male perspectives are coming under fire for their exclusionary nature.

None of this bodes well for HUM 216–219: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture, Princeton’s long-revered Humanities Sequence. Fondly known as “HUM,” the yearlong, double-credit behemoth of a course spans 18 centuries and includes 60-odd texts from Herodotus to Sophocles to Machiavelli to Marx. Eleven professors drawn from disciplines across the humanities and social sciences team-teach the sequence each year. 

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Yelena Baraz, Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature, Professor of Classics, and Berhman Professor in Humanistic Studies, has led the sequence since fall 2019. She cited listening to her colleagues’ lectures as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job.

“I really love being a student,” she said with a laugh.

The feeling is mutual. Most students who complete the sequence are so passionate about their experiences that they return as HUM Mentors, a program that pairs alumni of the course with current students for advice and guidance. 

Despite its rave reviews, HUM does not evade criticism. The Daily Princetonian spoke to two former students and two former heads of the sequence. All are reconsidering which students feel welcomed in the sequence, how professors can approach ancient material while considering modern perspectives, and how a traditionally restrictive area of study can become more diverse at every level. 

Not the tradition, a tradition: Inclusion in an exclusive canon

“I want to underscore that the humanities sequence is not all the humanities. It’s not everything,” said Efythmia Rentzou, Behrman Professor in the Humanities and Associate Professor in the departments of French and Italian. Rentzou directed the sequence during the 2018–19 academic year.

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“It’s specifically the Western tradition. It’s a tradition among many,” Rentzou continued. “And ‘attempt’ I think is a very good word choice. Even this one tradition is not definitive; it’s something that changes very much according to … our cultural preferences and our values, and even, in a more mundane sense, according to who teaches it.”

The first semester begins with Homeric epics and continues through the Middle Ages. There is limited flexibility to represent diverse voices in the syllabus; white men simply wrote the bulk of the work that prevails from the ancient, Western world. Still, the leadership of the sequence in recent years has pushed for more discussions of gender and inclusion of female voices in the class. 

“Last year, I saw how important it was for the students to have discussions of gender, because of the #MeToo movement. Within one year, the whole conversation has changed completely,” Rentzou said. 

There might exist limitations to an entirely gender-balanced curriculum, but Baraz underscored that texts written by women are not imperative to discussions about them. 

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“The texts are not there for us — I can’t go back in time and write more texts by ancient Greek women — but there are other ways of really engaging with the importance of gender for these texts and for these societies,” Baraz said. When female authors are not available, the class can study texts centering female characters and amplify the voices that do exist.

Even so, Julien Alam ’23 found it difficult to reckon with the overwhelming presence of the male perspective in what they read. Alam, a prospective English major from Boston, completed the sequence this past May.

“The professors throughout were very honest about how HUM is by no means a feminist course, and I struggled a lot with that at first,” he said. 

For him, this difficulty was ameliorated in part by professor engagement with diverse readings and voices. In particular, Natalie Prizel, lecturer in English and one of the six HUM professors in spring 2020, introduced him to queer readings of many texts.

“In the way that she presented feminist and queer studies,” he said, “it wasn’t revolutionary — it was just a part of the text.”

Alam’s experience with HUM this past year reflects what he saw as positive changes in the course’s approach — the types of changes that Natalia Arbelaez Solano ’22 found necessary when she took HUM the year before.

Solano, a comparative literature concentrator from Pittsburgh, Pa., was drawn to the HUM sequence for its distinct structure and intensity, as well as the prestige of the subject material. The descriptions of HUM as “life-changing,” as a course that will transform the way one sees the world, convinced Solano that the class was worth the workload. 

Solano recognized the limitations of a Western-focused curriculum coming in: She didn’t assume that there would be many voices of color available to include, particularly in the first semester. What she didn’t expect was the absence of conversations about race as they entered the modern era in the spring.

“The whole point of the class is to show you how things connect and how something that was written a long time ago influences the literature now. And not just the literature, but the thought processes,” Solano continued. “It’s super important to think about how Western thought influences the good and the bad.”

Alam praised the presence of classroom conversations about race in his year. 

“In the spring [the professors] made a very conscious push to make it as inclusive as possible racially,” Alam said. “In the fall, it’s more complicated — race is never the centerpiece of any of the texts we read, because the concept simply didn’t exist back then. We would apply it, but it wasn’t inherent to what we read.”

In the last week of class, which covers the most modern texts of the course, professors have pushed to end with critiques of the tradition. Baraz called it “a site of experimentation” — a time to explore different and diverse ways to end the sequence.

“[Students are] often disillusioned, because what they see is all the problems with the tradition in the process of it. And I think it’s important to end in a way that honors the critique and the complexity, ” Baraz said. 

“This last week has really ended up being about the collapse of Western tradition in the 20th century, and the ways in which the tradition failed itself and its promises in the most horrific ways,” she continued. “It doesn’t necessarily undermine everything else we’ve read and what we’ve done, but it leaves the students with some really hard questions about the tradition that they’ve been devoting themselves to.”   

But to Solano, this ending felt like an “afterthought.”

“It was just all of these thinkers, people of color, scholars from different time periods, different countries, different situations, and I felt like grouping them all together was just kind of a disservice to each and every one of them,” Solano explained.  

‘Very intimidating, no matter who you are’: HUM and accessibility

The way the class discusses race and gender, if done carelessly, is one of the many factors that can exacerbate another important issue: whether students from a wide range of backgrounds choose to go into the humanities and feel welcome doing so. 

Alam recalled that there were no professors of color for either semester of the course this year. “That really affects what kind of students want to take the course,” he added.

Up until 2015, the sequence’s enrollment was by application only. When it became first-come-first serve, open enrollment that year, Baraz recalled an uptick in the popularity of the sequence, especially with students from more varied personal and educational backgrounds. With the elimination of the application came the idea that one did not need specific qualifications — a private school education and previous knowledge of classics, for example — in order to access the course. 

Now, HUM has no problem attracting students to the sequence, but it struggles with retention. Each year, a number of students decide to drop after the first semester’s conclusion. This trend can be attributed to a number of reasons: scheduling conflicts, advisors suggesting that students complete major prerequisites, and even just fatigue. 

“Students feel pressure in their schedules — they’re often advised that they shouldn’t be devoting so much time to the humanities if they’re not going to be majors, and I think it’s a real loss,” Baraz said. “I really appreciate the value of the whole year.”

So did Solano. After deciding to continue into the second semester, however, she noticed an apparent drop in the number of students of color in the sequence.

“It definitely had more diversity in the first semester than in the second. For example, when I walked into precept,” she said, “it really struck me that I was in such a white space.” 

Solano described a moment in the last precept of the semester while discussing Aimée Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” which in its English translation includes the n-word. “In this excerpt that the professor chose, the n-word was in it probably 11 or 10 times … and this is an all-white precept. Somebody raised their hand and they read it and they read the n-word over and over again,” she said. 

“This is a class that focuses on the power of language,” she said. “And on our last day, after a whole year of close-reading and looking at how a comma affects this or that, we’re just freely saying the n-word without discussing what that means.”

Though there is no longer a literal barrier of entry with an application, there may still be a mental one for many students. Alam called HUM “very intimidating, no matter who you are.” With its reputation of extreme difficulty and rigidly classical curriculum, both Solano and Alam noted the conception of HUM students as largely white graduates of elite private schools.

“I am brown and bi and I felt very included, but I also went to a prep school where I had the opportunity to take Latin, so that wasn’t a barrier of entry for me,” Alam said. “The texts we read have a really elitist history. They represent such painful areas of exclusion for so many people, that I understand how it’s not super welcoming.”

Solano expressed a similar opinion on the sequence. “There are so many perks to being in HUM and it should be something that people feel like they can do, that it’s not just for private school students, it’s not just for white people,” she said.

Still, both students ultimately found themselves loving the course; both are now HUM Mentors, and prefaced their criticisms with a recognition of the sequence’s importance in their academic paths.

Further, Alam views the HUM texts not only as a chance to learn more about the history and thought processes of the Western world, but also as an opportunity to change and reform it.

“In order to dismantle systems of oppression you really have to understand them in the most minute detail,” Alam said.

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