This article is part of the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series. Click here to view the full project.
In my experience of the Western Humanities Sequence (WHUM) so far, I have been thrilled by ancient Greek plays and poetry, begun to explore deeply my relatively new interest in philosophy, and analyzed closely how the politics of ancient Rome and medieval Italy reflect great truths about human nature. Expressions of this type of intellectual growth are what one typically hears from a WHUM student and are a main goal of the sequence, a team-taught set of double-credit courses that spans two semesters, 2500 years of the Western world, and at least five disciplines: history, religion, philosophy, literature, and the arts.
What you don’t typically hear from students, however, are the moments of discomfort. But this has also been a part of my experience in WHUM. I felt unimportant when Sappho’s sexuality was not discussed in our lecture or my precept. I felt disappointed when Mahatma Gandhi was not on the spring syllabus this year, as he was last year (it’s one of the reasons I signed up for the course.) I also felt targeted when a student asked me personally about how Gandhi might fit into the Western canon. I was deeply disturbed when the Decameron detailed sexual violence against women, and it almost wasn’t discussed.
I know I am not alone. When three of the four Black students in this year’s class dropped the sequence before the spring semester, and I increasingly felt the tokenization of the three Black writers we are reading in the spring, I decided someone needed to investigate the experiences of marginalized students in this class, beginning with Black voices. In order to understand the situation better, I talked to current and former WHUM students and faculty as well as facilitators from a fall 2020 optional discussion series.
These conversations reveal that while WHUM has evolved to reflect the times it inhabits, there is much more left to do. Students of color often dropping the course after fall semester, lack of diversity in faculty, and anecdotal mishaps all point to this reality. In order to serve all students with a comprehensive education of Western culture, especially in a way that makes Black students feel welcome, WHUM needs to radically improve.
At first glance, the problem with WHUM appeared to me to be its syllabus, a monster of dozens of writers and texts, with just a handful of women writers and writers of color. But the culture and pedagogy of the course have much to do with the student experience as well, beginning with the concept of the course itself.
Questioning the canon
The official title of the sequence is “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture.” But students find that that may be a bit of a misnomer, given the particular focus on European writers with a handful of Americans sprinkled in.
“I think that's because the invisible word that's in front of ‘the Western sequence’ is ‘the White Western HUM sequence,’” KiKi Gilbert ’21, a former WHUM student, said.
In fact, the word “Western” is often invisible as well. This sequence is commonly referred to as “the HUM Sequence” while the other humanities sequences offered — the East Asian Humanities sequence and the Near Eastern Humanities sequence — are unintelligible without their regional qualifiers. While “the HUM Sequence” certainly caters to the convenience of avoiding saying “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” repeatedly, it suggests that the entirety of the humanities, perhaps even the entirety of the world, is captured within the course. The course certainly does not do that, and the common abbreviation “HUM” for this course implicitly refuses to acknowledge that. That is why I will be using the abbreviation WHUM, even while the label “Western” is dubious.
As the course stands, a more accurate title might be “European HUM Sequence.” Inevitably, these texts and ideas influenced the broader Western world, particularly through colonialism. But the myriad of peoples of the Western hemisphere had their own cultures before Europeans arrived and continue to maintain unique identities that are under-represented in the course, particularly in Central and South America.
“I think that if the course were really to take up its own challenge, the premise of the West writ large, supposedly, then it necessarily would have to be a lot more diverse,” Gilbert said.
Creating alternative spaces for conversation: Thursday and Wednesday discussions
I first heard these ideas from Gilbert last semester, in the last of what became colloquially known as the “Thursday discussions.” In the fall, professors Beatrice Kitzinger and Ben Morison, as well as graduate students Adele Watkins and Paul Eberwine, hosted a series of HUM, Service, and Social Justice conversations.
These were the first of their kind formally, though the idea grew out of a student reading group run by Gilbert and Yousef Elzalabany ’20 when they were enrolled in WHUM. This fall, WHUM students were invited to six optional meetings every other Thursday, where students could discuss topics not normally covered in class, including philosophers’ problematic views, the representation of women and slavery in WHUM texts, the idea of the Western canon, and more.
In addition to Thursday discussions, this year’s WHUM sequence also featured “Wednesday discussions.” These grew out of the desire to make up for the lost in-person instruction as well as field trips to places such as the Princeton University Art Museum and the Met.
“The college wanted us to have a rough equivalent of contact hours,” this year’s coordinator Denis Feeney said.
These “Wednesday discussion” activities range from watching excerpts of ancient Greek plays’ modern adaptations, to examining different translations of the same text, to, most recently, professors presenting on how canons and traditions are formed.
These two unique events happily occurring in the same year have given students the groundwork to conceive of a combination between the two, in which discussions centered around race, gender, and more can be instituted formally in required class meetings.
“I don't think this is something that should be cordoned off or shunted to these discussion groups. But that's not to say that the discussion group is redundant, even if it were the case that this were integrated more fully and effectively into the core curriculum,” Watkins said.
And, while I agree that these discussions need a place in the core of the class, there were still shortcomings. Collin Riggins ’24 pointed out that the fact that white professors were organizing the discussions made the conversations about race fall flat at times. Riggins is a Black student who dropped the class after the fall. He is an Opinion columnist for The Daily Princetonian.
Lack of diverse faculty
Yes, there is a structural issue of a largely white professoriate at Princeton. And, the course is a big commitment for professors. Feeney told me that some professors would like to teach but simply don’t have the time. For example, the chair of the English department only teaches two courses as part of the job, which are always a standard intro-level lecture and a senior seminar. Yet, there are still ways to address this issue now.
Riggins brought up the idea of having an AAS faculty member guest lecture on Toni Morrison or James Baldwin rather than having a white professor speak on them. In response to this idea, Feeney noted that guest lectures are typically used for music and art content when there is not an art historian or music professor on the core team.
Still, there is precedent for a content-specialty guest. The spring 2018 WHUM syllabus lists a “guest lecture from the East Asian Humanities Sequence.” Furthermore, last semester, religion professor Moulie Vidas lectured on the Old Testament as a guest speaker.
Stretching the syllabus: Morrison and Baldwin join the conversation
The effort to capture Western culture in a syllabus is by itself an arduous task. “It’s such a monster of a thing. It's like trying to catch Niagara in a coffee cup, you know?” Feeney said. Still, I think there is room for improvement, especially if diversity and representation are appropriately prioritized.
For one, the lack of diverse faculty in terms of both identity and expertise leads to syllabus shortcomings. Gandhi and Frantz Fanon are notably missing this year. Students from last year have spoken about how the lecture on the texts of these two men tied their ideology directly to the Black Lives Matter movement and gave them a framework for understanding the surge in documented racism witnessed the summer after their class.
Understandably, there are fewer Black voices to draw from for the fall semester, which focuses largely on ancient Greece and Rome. (Conversations around race in the texts and the legacy of these texts can still be explored in precept and lecture, of course.) However, the spring semester still leaves much to be desired.
Professor Joel Lande, current professor in WHUM and former coordinator, noted that the shift toward including more from the 20th century in recent years brings a lot more room for diversity in the syllabus. He said that previously, the syllabus would not touch the 20th century, except perhaps with one or two texts.
This year, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are brand new to the syllabus. We will be reading Morrison’s novel “Jazz” and Baldwin’s article “The Uses of the Blues.” Maya Kronfeld, a WHUM lecturer from the comparative literature department, is lecturing on Morrison and Baldwin this year, and chose the texts. She is also a jazz pianist.
While students are excited to read these writers, there are certainly different directions the text choice could have gone. “One of my favorite texts by Toni Morrison is her lecture series that she did that she turned into a book called ‘Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.’ And that, I think, is very relevant to the U.S. and talking about how the Western canon doesn't exist without an acknowledgement of the importance and the impact that Blackness has had on it,” Max Jakobsen ’24 said. Jakobsen is another Black student who dropped the class after the fall.
Watkins agrees. “That’s bananas to me that you're reading Toni Morrison, and she's written so much relevant text on the canon itself, and you're not reading Morrison on the canon. That's my frank, unfiltered response to that inclusion,” Watkins said.
A general concern of tokenization also rises. “I was really excited to see James Baldwin because that's my favorite writer of all time, but I just worry that with three books, like, does that encompass all of what Black literature is, what all Black thought has been for the Western canon? Not even close, and I guess I just worry that maybe that's how it would be construed,” Riggins said.
Kronfeld explained her choice of the texts to me. “Acknowledged or not, jazz, blues, and Afro-diasporic music in general are foundational for critical thought and artistic innovation globally, not to mention a condition of possibility for transnational modernism in literature, art, and music. But it’s important not just because the Western canon has at times raided its margins to revitalize itself. It’s important on its own terms.”
She also noted the potential danger in misinterpreting the texts. “Baldwin writes that ‘Americans are able to admire [Black music] only to the extent that a protective sentimentality limits their understanding’ of what the music is actually saying and the resistance in it. The numbing effect of that sentimentalizing embrace is something we have to consciously work against when we bring the music into the classroom.”
Besides expanding what is included in the syllabus, Elizabeth Poku ’24 also noted that deficiencies in the syllabus can be partially remedied by optional reading lists. “I know professors do already give books suggestions now. We're going to end up talking about colonialism in some way or another, so perhaps offering a reading list of other texts that we won't get a chance to get to, saying ‘this is not a comprehensive list, but here are some texts that address this topic,’” she said.
Lack of diverse student body
For a variety of reasons, students of color are under-represented in WHUM, and students of color tend to drop the course disproportionately more than others. The third Black student who dropped the course, for example, dropped only due to scheduling reasons. As a result of such drops, regardless of the reason, and also initial registration, the dominating voices in precept tend to be from dominant groups in general.
“Who's dominating the conversation, and who's pushing the narratives? If someone who dominates the conversation frequently disagrees with your viewpoint, it automatically invalidates it, even if it's backed up by the text, which happened to me a lot,” Poku, the only Black student currently in WHUM, said.
While improvements can be made to the diversity and culture of precepts, some things can only be done in one’s own space.
“The professors should make a space for students of color in the course, I think, whether that's a group or a conversation solely for them,” Riggins said.
Rethinking the “HUM Paper” to make room for student perspectives
Besides a final exam and participation, the “HUM Paper” makes up a student’s grade in the class, occupying 60 percent of the weight overall. Students choose a passage, up to a page long, from a text of their choice recently read in the course and analyze the language and its effect on the reader. We are encouraged to stay focused on these few lines, not meandering to other parts of the text or broad themes. The idea is to learn the skill of close reading, which is essential to the disciplines taught in WHUM.
“I think it is a valuable skill to be able to look at punctuation and figure out what they're trying to say to you with it,” Julia Chaffers, a Black student who took just the fall semester of WHUM in 2018, said. “But I do think it limits you to only being able to think about things that specific writer is doing. And so, maybe you bring in criticism during the paper, maybe bring it in during precept or a lecture.” Chaffers is a senior Opinion columnist for the ‘Prince.’
Indeed, there is limited space in the assignment for students to criticize the ideas in the texts or explore their own perspectives on content. As the course stands, the only required places for students to speak on the texts personally are precept and the paper.
Given the issues previously outlined with the precept, in addition to its informal and conversational nature (valuable in its own right), there should be opportunity for students to criticize and deconstruct the arguments and even writers in the paper. This could look like one or two papers in the course being dedicated to this effort, or allowing greater flexibility in the close reading papers to be critical in an introduction or conclusion.
Chaffers herself took a summer seminar on Plato’s Republic with Morison, where she was able to explore race and critically engage the text in an assignment.
“Something I brought up and we discussed in class, and I ended up writing about in my paper for the course, was how fiction can allow people to encounter diverse perspectives they may not access in their own lives, and artists can use their books, movies, and television shows to imagine a more just world or expose inequality in the status quo in an entertaining and engaging way that people are more likely to accept. This is one example of how Professor Morison created space to talk about race even though that wasn’t present within the text,” Chaffers said.
Centering injustice and influence in lecture
In lecture, issues of injustice are rarely centered, if mentioned at all. An interpretation of the Decameron as sexist or misogynist was addressed in two sentences; Montaigne’s essays opining on the colonization of Brazilian and broadly South American Indigenous people were only addressed in the very last part of lecture.
Does the lecture always need to just talk about possible injustices or themes we now find harmful? No, but it should be a part of the conversation.
“It should be the case that everyone has to interrogate their reactions to the test texts, with respect to injustice, and that instructors should foreground the injustice,” Watkins said.
Another way to address issues of injustice in lecture is by looking past the texts themselves. Many of these texts and writers had an undeniable effect on our country’s history and our lives today.
“I think kind of taking a step back and thinking about these texts more holistically is where you allow these bigger themes of race to come in. And the context of these books, I don't think we really got any of that. Like, ‘Hey, this one was used to justify trans-Atlantic slavery,’” Riggins said, referring to what we learned about the influence of Aristotle’s concept of “natural slavery” in a Thursday discussion. This influence, among others, is significant enough in the “Western world” to teach students in a class attempting to explore Western culture.
Concluding thoughts: What comes next?
And that is one of the central tensions of this course: it upholds the place in history of certain texts, writers, artists, and ideas that have been harmful to marginalized groups throughout history and still to this day without always providing a clear and necessary safe space to explore those ideas.
With the expansion of student spaces and the acknowledgment that these texts have glorified harmful ideas throughout time, this course can become an essential tool to understanding race, among other complicated issues, the kind of course I desperately need it to be.
Not everyone agrees with me, but I think this course and efforts to teach some version of a “Western canon” are valuable. As we discussed Miguel de Cervantes’ destruction of chivalric fantasy fiction in Don Quixote today in precept, we realized Cervantes had to know those fantasies extremely well. “You have to study anything to criticize it,” Lara Katz ’24 said in my precept.
I came into this course expecting to get to know the writers, texts, and ideas that built the worlds we live in today and the institutions that dictate how we live. I hoped to deconstruct ideas I find harmful with the help of critical professors and students. I’m finding that I have to do a lot of that work myself with a few strong allies trying to do the same, but WHUM doesn’t always have to be that way. I believe we can get there, but there’s still a long way to go.
In fact, the lack of Black voices and community in WHUM is only the beginning. This piece will serve as the beginning of a series exploring WHUM from different perspectives, possibly going into LGBTQ+ voices, the treatment of women and sexual violence in WHUM texts, the privilege of entering the course with previous knowledge of Greek and Latin, and past syllabi of the course.
Mollika Jai Singh is a first-year prospective African American Studies major from Rockville, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: A former version of this article stated that there were originally three Black students, not four. The 'Prince' regrets this error.