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Several texts removed from Western HUM syllabus amid changes in program leadership

Leaves are falling in front of East Pyne.
Leaves begin to fall as the weather becomes colder.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

Several texts were removed from the syllabus for the upcoming spring semester of the Western Humanities (HUM) Sequence, including “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “The Complete Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass, and “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft. The sequence focuses on key works in the Western literary canon. 

Nine works were added to the syllabus since last year, including “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, “Utopia” by Thomas More, and “In Praise of Folly” by Desiderius Erasmus. Some of these texts may have been read in past iterations of the course.

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For at least the past three years, works by Morrison, Douglass, and Wollstonecraft were taught in the spring semester of the HUM sequence. On the Spring 2023 syllabus, Morrison was the only woman of color, Douglass was one of two Black men, and Wollstonecraft was one of four white women. There has been significant diversification in authors since spring 2013, when there was only one woman and no people of color on the syllabus.

Other works removed from the syllabus include “Survival in Auschwitz” by Primo Levi, “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro, and “An Account of the Destruction of the Indies” by Bartolomé de las Casas. Two additional works were removed, including “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant and “Utilitarianism” by John Stuart Mill, for a total of eight books removed. All of the additions to the syllabus were written by white men.

The spring-term HUM sequence coordinator, Michael Wachtel, an associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, told The Daily Princetonian that changes in the syllabus are not uncommon. 

“There is no single set syllabus for the class, which constantly adapts and changes shape with the new faculty team each semester. The course regenerates itself anew each year, and texts are chosen to draw out narrative threads determined by the group of faculty who are teaching,” he wrote. 

Wachtel took over this spring for Associate Professor of French Katie Chenoweth who has taught in the HUM Sequence since 2017. She was originally supposed to coordinate the sequence for the 2023–24 academic year, but had to step down due to personal circumstances.

She told the ‘Prince’ that while the syllabus varies each year, HUM instructors try to maintain a certain number of texts from previous years to retain continuity.

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“The syllabus does change year to year based on lots of different factors, including the faculty who are slated to teach in a given semester and also the wishes of the coordinator, who generally has the final word –— though the coordinator generally consults with the entire faculty team and takes their input into account; it’s usually a collaborative process,” she wrote.

She added that the decision to remove the texts may not be permanent. 

“The good news is that if a work doesn’t appear on the syllabus one year, it may very well be back the next year. The HUM syllabus, like the tradition itself, undergoes a constant process of revision and evolution,” she said.

Founded in 1994, the two semester, double-credit survey course is designed to “introduce students to over 2,500 years of the landmark achievements of the Western Intellectual tradition,” according to the course website. Typically 12 different professors in a variety of humanities departments, including literature, history, religion, music, philosophy, archaeology, and art history, teach the sequence each year. 

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The sequence is broken up into fall and spring sections, with the former covering a wide variety of classical texts and the latter delving into the Renaissance through the modern period. Students can choose whether to continue the HUM sequence in the spring, with enrollment typically decreasing from the fall to the spring.

This year’s changes to the syllabus mean that there are now only three women, one black man, and no black women on the syllabus. Many students taking the course said they understood the composition of the readings going in. 

“If you sign up for a western humanities course, you are not signing up to take a course that is primarily inclusive of minority voices or representative of the world as it is today,” said Talia Czuchlewski ’26, a Humanities Mentor who took the sequence in 2022-2023 and currently helps students in the sequence with their papers.

“I know that the libraries of the west are filled with the words of typically dead, mostly European men, as that is where power has unfortunately been concentrated for thousands of years,” Calvin Grover ’27 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Grover is a contributing photographer for the ‘Prince.’

Xander Constantine ’27 felt similarly. “When you’re looking at what literature in the ancient canon that’s been preserved, it’s not [inclusive]. It’s just not. And that’s not the fault of any instructor.”

Some students told the ‘Prince’ that they had been looking forward to engaging with some of the texts that have been removed from the spring syllabus. 

Muntara Singh ’27 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that she was disappointed that authors such as Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro had been taken off. “I feel that Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ in particular is a text which is extremely important in surveying the Western experience into modernity,” she wrote. 

She attributed the syllabus changes to the fact that Morrison and Douglass are often covered in other English courses, and the coordinators may have wished to cover authors students were less likely to see later on. 

Singh will continue with HUM in the next semester, and she said that she is excited to see the interdisciplinary aspects brought by Associate Professor of Art and Archaeology Carolina Mangone and Professor of Music Simon Morrison, who are both teaching in the HUM Sequence this spring. Typically, there is either an art or music professor teaching, not both at the same time, which should lead to less required reading this semester, according to Chenoweth.

Elizabeth Kunz ’27 also expressed disappointment with the syllabus changes. 

“I think there is something to be said about this connection between the intensely academic nature of the class, the lack of inclusivity on the syllabus, and the lack of diversity within the class itself,” she said.

“I have no definitive answer of how to fix the syllabus, but I think not nixing the only Black female author would be a great start. Wherever there’s an opportunity to increase diversity, in any form, I think that the professors should take it,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’

Wachtel addressed the diversity of the students who take the HUM sequence, saying that the diversity of students in the program has increased since 2015, when the application process was eliminated

“Since we opened this formerly selective course to all comers, we have seen a more diverse and proactive cohort who form strong bonds with each other during the course and beyond, whether as Humanities Mentors and Symposiarchs, or as co-travelers on sophomore study trips,” he wrote.

Chenoweth also reflected that there have been efforts to increase the diversity of scholarship in the sequence. 

“My sense is that the course was originally intended to study the ‘great books’ of ‘Western civilization,’” Chenoweth wrote. “To my mind, we’ve continued to study that tradition in a meaningful way while also making the course increasingly inclusive and diverse — which only makes it better. For example, I’m inclined to doubt that HUM in its earliest instantiations would have done what we did last week, namely, reading three medieval women authors.”

Constantine agreed. “For what they can do with the Western Canon while staying true to it, they’ve done a marvelous job this semester of incorporating or at least bringing awareness to other ideas and perspectives even if they’re not directly addressed in the texts we’re reading,” Constantine said. He will be continuing with HUM in the spring.

Chenoweth also has ideas for how to increase inclusivity of the course.

“In general, I think the HUM sequence can only benefit from being more inclusive. But that’s not just limited to the question of what is on the syllabus (though that’s obviously very important); it’s also a matter of how we teach even the most canonical texts — how we open them up to critical readings and not just reverence, how we make sure as many students as possible are included in the conversation even (or especially) when the works themselves are not inclusive,” Chenoweth wrote. 

She continued, “If we keep doing things exactly the same way, we’re not really taking on the task of inheriting these works and passing them on; if we just repeat, we’re not really reading or teaching. This tradition has to be creatively reinvented by new readers, or else it dies — I think that’s the actual lesson of the HUM sequence.”

Hannah Gabelnick is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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