Changing the Lens

Exploding the Canon, Episode 5 (Finale)

Reed College thesis parade, 1986 (J. Quarles/Reed College Special Collections and Archives)
Reed College thesis parade, 1986 (J. Quarles/Reed College Special Collections and Archives)

Over the course of our miniseries Exploding the Canon, Smarty Pants host Stephanie Bastek has examined Reed College students’ efforts in 2016–2017 to fundamentally transform a mandatory freshman humanities course. Now, in the final episode, Bastek looks at how much has really changed since that time. The protestors were ostensibly successful—the Humanities 110 syllabus underwent significant revision. But though the college has bolstered several support programs for students of color, in the last decade Black, Latino, and Indigenous student enrollment at Reed has not increased. Some professors are satisfied with the current humanities program; others would like to see more change. Perhaps the fundamental lesson to be gained from Reed’s upheaval is that the work is hardly finished—and a way forward might be found in how classicists have radically reimagined their discipline in recent years.

Featured voices in this episode: Salim Moore, Brittany Wideman, Paul Marthers, Mary James, Nigel Nicholson, Kritish Rajbhandari, Pancho Savery, Milyon Trulove, alea adigweme, Mary Frankie McFarland Forte, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, Sasha-Mae Eccleston, Jan Mieszkowski, Colin Drumm, Albert Kerelis, Peter Steinberger, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, and Addison Bates. Thanks to the Reed staff, faculty, and students—past and present—who made this series possible.

Produced and hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Original music by Rhae Royal. Audio storytelling consulting by Mickey Capper.

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We began this miniseries with a question: how much did Reed College change in response to the student protests of 2016–2017? I’d like to answer that question in two parts, looking first at how Reed responded to the non-curricular demands, and then at the Hum 110 curriculum.

If we compare Reed today to Reed a decade ago, the support systems available to students of color—and, really, students more generally—are much better, including more peer mentors, more multicultural resource center hires, and more support aimed at students from different backgrounds. My friend Salim Moore graduated in 2011, and he remembers what it was like to be one of the few Black students at Reed. When he arrived in 2007, only three percent of the student body identified as Black—and only a further 16 percent identified as any other ethnic minority.

SALIM MOORE: When I applied to Reed, the word on the street was that Reed in terms of diversity, they had really, really good initiatives and support groups for queer students. But anything else outside of that, they did really badly. I was actually a part of one of college’s diversity efforts, which was called the Peer Mentor Program. And so the Peer Mentor Program had all of these students who are first-gen, low income, students of color, international students in one program, which is kind of wild to think about because what you would generally do is maybe have a program like that, but also have individual programs or affinity groups. So my mentee was a student from South Korea. I could tell him a lot about entering Reed and becoming an upperclassman, but could I speak to him in Korean? No. Could I talk to him about visa issues and just traveling into a different culture? Not so much. So in some ways it was kind of great because it brought a lot of people together, but in some ways it wasn’t so great because it didn’t meet people’s needs.

Brittany Wideman graduated in 2013, the same year as me, but she’s worked for Reed’s office of the registrar since February 2022. Even though she isn’t a student now, Brittany is extremely involved on campus.

BRITTANY WIDEMAN: So before I came to Reed, I was one of the students that participated in the multicultural preview days where they bring students of these marginalized identities together, the preview campus before turning in their applications and stuff. And I think that institutional practice is phenomenal and great because it builds solidarity even before you matriculate at Reed if you choose to come here. That preview day played a huge role in my decision to come to Reed. And I’m still friends with a handful of people from that group.

One of the people who initiated the fly-in program and encouraged the Peer Mentor Program was Paul Marthers, who became Reed’s Dean of Admission in 2002. By the time he left in 2009, the number of Black students on campus had gone from 12 to 50 students—a more than fourfold increase. The number of Latino students nearly doubled from 54 to 103; likewise the number of Asian students doubled from 61 to 126. And it wasn’t just the student body that was changing.

PAUL MARTHERS: Over time, we built a staff that generally had at least two people of color at all given times. And I’m really proud that by the time I left, we had on the staff an African-American Reedie, a Latino Reedie, and a Native American Reedie. And so we were probably at that point, representationally, one of the most diverse offices you could find at a liberal arts college. The second thing we did was we made it clear when we had functions, fly-in programs, or events for underrepresented students, that it couldn’t just be the admissions office doing this work. It had to be the community. So we looked for our allies and partners on the faculty, within the student life area, all across the campus.

One of Paul’s allies was Mary James, professor emerita of physics. From 2014 to 2021, Mary served as the second-ever Dean of Institutional Diversity. But she also worked closely with her predecessor, poetry professor Crystal Williams, who was the first person appointed to the position in 2004. You can see the kind of floor that people like Paul and Mary were working from when these efforts began in the early aughts.

MARY JAMES: Crystal and I initiated putting a resolution on the faculty floor—so this was spring of 2004, so 20 years ago now—that said that Diversifying Reed should be a goal in the next capital campaign. So I was asked to actually present it to the faculty. So the first thing I did was I googled diversity at Reed. Nothing came up about Reed College. But on about page three of the Google search—and who ever goes to page three of a Google search?—there was Plant Diversity 332. That was the only reference to diversity at Reed College that I could find. So I shared that with the faculty. Then I talked about the resolution. And the smartest thing I said that day was that I compared Reed College to a country club. What is great about country clubs is that everybody’s the same, and so everybody’s comfortable, right? You wear white on the tennis court, you wear golf shoes on the golf whatever. And there was definitely some people not loving that analogy, but the most important thing I said that day was, if we become more diverse, we will become less comfortable. And what was so savvy about that was then people couldn’t stand up and say, this makes me uncomfortable. But I think the institution as a whole has gotten so much better at just accepting that discomfort is part of this. And that the goal is not for everyone to be comfortable all the time.

The resolution passed, in the end, by a two-thirds majority. Things are very different now, in large part thanks to the efforts of Reedies Against Racism not only to push the institution further, but to make the work that Reed was already doing much more visible.

BRITTANY: At least a decade ago, I don’t think Reed did a very solid job of raising awareness about the resources that they had. And I think that that is, I’m not going to say it’s done a complete 180, it’s maybe done a 120 in the right direction? So there’s a lot more outside lecturers coming in that are people of color or people of marginalized identities. There’s more committees and affinity groups, at least six or seven affinity groups—anybody can join them. Faculty, staff, even students I believe can join them now. And the charge of each affinity group is basically to collectively figure out what resources are missing on campus, have a group that people can come to and network with. I mean it’s in the word, right? Affinity.

One of those initiative was Reed’s Center for Teaching and Learning, or CTL, which opened in September 2014. It took on even more importance during and after the protests. Nigel Nicholson, professor of Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Mediterranean, was dean of the faculty during this time, and he helped set up the CTL.

NIGEL NICHOLSON: I’ve only been in higher ed for 30 years, right? But a lot has changed. And one of the big things that has changed is people have come to a much more lively recognition that teaching is a kind of series of learned skills, not a kind of, well, you have it or you don’t. And if that is true, then we need to help people learn those skills, right?

MARY: When we started, we were doing very basic things. Interestingly, there were white faculty members—now, these are people who were coming to the trainings, they were interested—who couldn’t actually say out loud that they were white. Yeah, it’s really hard to get those words out. And I’m not saying that they didn’t know their race. I’m saying that they were in the process of going, oh, they fact of my race affects every interaction I have with everyone. And that’s actually a realization, that’s not something that we all know.

But as time went on, I really was very impressed by how the faculty really engaged with this, they really did learn. And as the years went on, the conversations got more and more sophisticated. And we were hiring younger faculty who, for the most part, not entirely, but part of their identity as a teacher was inclusive practices. So whether the students can see it, there’s been a lot of progress.

One program the CTL runs is with student consultants, inspired by Bryn Mawr’s program of the same name. Kritish Rajbhandari is professor of English and Humanities.

KRITISH RAJBHANDARI: I participated in that program for a different class, and then for Hum 110. And through that program with my student partner, we came up with different strategies for addressing those issues in class and for preparing the students to talk about it. So one thing that I did was to have students talk about their concerns. Okay, we are going to talk about race. What are you afraid of? What do you think might go wrong? So I have them write them down and give them to me, and then I make a list of that, and then I have a discussion with them. together with the class, we come up with ideas on how to deal with such situations and that helps with students. And that really made a big difference in how that conference went compared to my previous year’s conference.

Reed’s small community of color, especially its even smaller Black community, does a lot of heavy lifting, and did a lot in those early years on the staff and faculty side. One of the student demands from 2016 was to hire more faculty of color. And there certainly are more than when I was at Reed. Pancho Savery is no longer the only Black professor in Hum 110, but last year he was one of two. There were two more non-visiting faculty of color, out of about two dozen.

PANCHO SAVERY: I think you could count the people of color on one hand.

When I was at Reed for reunions last summer, one thing I noticed was a giant full-color poster of new faculty hires in the campus building near the mail room.

BRITTANY: I think the cohort that came in for this academic year, if you solely are just looking at the poster and you’re like, okay, I’m making assumptions about who identifies as what. Anybody as the outside observer looking at that poster would be like, okay, this is 90 percent white. And it is. The institution is making a concerted effort to hire more people from these groups. I don’t think that it is from a place of “We need to fill a quota,” if that makes any sense. I really do feel that they are trying. I haven’t been involved in any faculty search committees, but I’ve been on staff search committees, and a lot of the candidates for the positions that I’ve been involved in have been people of color.

As for students of color, the total percentage of Reed’s domestic enrollment hit 22 percent by the time Paul left in 2009, and hit 29 percent by the time that Milyon Trulove, Reed’s current Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, started in 2014. It’s increased steadily ever since, to 35 percent in 2023-24 of all domestic, non-international students. That’s the denominator I’ll be using when I talk about percentages. It’s a big change—doubling in less than 10 years, and more than tripling in 20—and one for which Reed should be commended.

But for all that, something has remained stubbornly stagnant. And that’s the percentage of Black students enrolled at Reed in any given year, which has hovered at four to five percent since the year after I graduated—meaning that, for the past decade, there has been no significant increase in the number of Black students on campus, with an average of 66. I asked Milyon about this.

MILYON TRULOVE: If you take a look at that the last decade that I’ve been here, absolutely the largest enrollment of African-American students at the college of seen. And you can see that last year, if you look at the four year average was still in the top three years in terms of African-American proportions of students.  And I would absolutely expect that those numbers go up and down. We have to be really careful about commodifying students and sort of, I’m not in the business of purchasing Black students and saying, I got to get more. I got to get more. That’s not really treating people as humans who have to make choices about where they want to be. But it’s really us signaling to students that we want them here and it’s up to them to take advantage of it. And some years fewer students take advantage of it and some years more students.

So I’m taking a look at the same data from institutional research. I see an increase in almost every year for the past 10 years if you’re looking at the trend line. So while it’s incremental change, it is indeed change. And that shows that we’re about 35% students of color on campus among the domestic students for whom we know ethnicity. The year before that we’re 35. Then year before that, 33. Three years before that 31. And then if you take a look at 2012, which is a little bit more than a decade ago, we are below 30%.

But that 35 percent is due almost entirely to increased enrollment of Asian students. Non-Asian minority enrollment has been largely unchanged since 2014. To get really into the math of it all: the percentage of Hispanic students has vacillated between eight and 10 percent for a decade; it actually declined from 2015 until 2022. Ditto, Native American students—under three percent for more than 10 years. There have never been more than seven Pacific Islander students on campus, which rounds to zero percent.

For a decade, the number of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students on campus simply hasn’t increased, raising interesting questions about why this is the ceiling at Reed College. Why is the Black student population stuck at four or five percent?

PAUL: I think going beyond that level, financial aid was part of it. I’m not saying Reed should offer merit awards, but for example, there is a program called QuestBridge, and we looked at QuestBridge when I was there. It was just getting started. And you have to be willing to look at those QuestBridge students apart from the rest of your applicant pool and to commit to giving them full funding. And there was a principal at Reed at the time that was like, no, we’re not going to separate anybody out and say they deserve full funding and other students don’t. And so I respected that decision, but I also see it now as a kind of missed opportunity that probably stands in the way of reaching up to a higher number of, say, African-American students.

MARY: There are a lot of forces at play, so to speak. Just to put some things in perspective, our sister institutions in this Pacific Northwest, so we are part of a consortium of five small liberal arts colleges. The last seven years, a number of those schools have struggled to meet their enrollment goals, period. The demographics are changing rapidly. Interest in small liberal arts colleges is changing and not for the better. And so I think Milyon finds himself in an entirely different admissions environment than his predecessors.

The landscape in 2024 is obviously even more different, with the Supreme Court striking down race-conscious admissions entirely.

BRITTANY: The admissions office offered town halls before a decision was even made about that to just be like, “Hey, this is potentially going to happen.” A couple of people from the admissions office talked about data at Reed, what was going to happen if the Supreme Court ruled either way, and what the institution could do legally, not legally, kind of under the radar. And I feel like those types of conversations were pretty much kept under lock and key when you and I were students.

The admissions office is clearly thinking through what to do to ensure that Reed continues to diversify, even after the death of affirmative action. So are other groups of Reedies, like the alumni board, where alea adigweme is active.

ALEA ADIGWEME: Reedies tend to do the small E engagement in spades. But the transition from that small “e” to that big E, I think necessitates making students who are wronged by the institution feel like the institution that exists now is different from the one that wronged them. And that the institution is willing to reflect—openly, publicly—and make amends for the ways that, you know, it wronged students in the past and needs to show evidence of the fact that it’s not wronging students from similar demographics in the present. And that it cares about attracting even more students from these demographics in the future as well.

I think back to what Mary Frankie McFarland Forte told me at the end of our conversation about her time in the Black Student Union, during the 1968 occupation of Eliot Hall.

MARY FRANKIE MCFARLAND FORTE: My grandson was just asking, “Nana, where did you go to college?” First time he’s ever asked me that, but he’s 13 going on 14. And I said, “I went to a college called Reed.” “Well, what was Reed like?” We’re driving because I’m taking him to karate class. And I explained, he said, “Did you have a good time there?” I said, “Well, it was okay, but there wasn’t a lot of Black students there.” And you know, I said, “I worked hard,” and dah, dah, dah. And then he says, “Oh, well, I’m going to look at that school when I’m applying to schools.” I said, “No, you’re not.” And he jumped and looked at me and said, “Woah, you were quick to say that!” And I said, “Oh no, that would not be any place for you.”

I would never recommend Reed to a Black person. I never would.


I wonder whether this moment might be an opportunity for the faculty to think through whether Hum 110 can further change to make Reed more attractive to underrepresented students. And I think one place we can look to for inspiration, perhaps ironically, is the field of classics, which around the same time as the Reed protests began to have a reckoning of its own with institutional racism.

DAN-EL PADILLA PERALTA: The abiding interest of students at Reed and elsewhere in revising these curricula, enrollments in ancient history classes and literature and translation classes, speaks quite persuasively to me of the felt urgency of humanistic encounter. And that is something really, really important to hold onto in this moment. This can’t really be taken for granted, not in light of recent news concerning that dismantling of humanities programs at West Virginia University

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is a classics professor at Princeton, whose work on reimagining the discipline I’ve admired for a few years. I didn’t realize, though, that Dan-el actually lectured at Reed on November 1, 2016, after the protests kicked off, on “Black and Brown Classics.” He was a fellow teaching in Columbia’s core curriculum at the time, and engaged in conversations in publications like Eidolon or academic conferences about questions of race in the ancient world and racism in the discipline. And I was stunned to learn that the reception of this lecture at Reed pushed his own thinking on canons and canonicity.

DAN-EL: I would say that one of the more sort of intriguing bits of conversation emerged during the Q&A, and continued after the Q&A. The suspicion was raised by one of the students that I was not at least, to judge from the content of the lecture itself, hellbent on dismantling the curriculum in its entirety that rather I was interested in a kind of expansion. And I was initially uncertain as to how best to reply to this because while it did matter to me that we think sort of expansively about the possibilities of Hum 110, or Columbia’s core curriculum for that matter, much of me did instinctively rally to the side of that student. I thought, well, we don’t need this. And to repurpose that much-warped and much-discussed Audre Lorde line, it’s not at all clear that the master’s tools will actually dismantle the master’s house ever.

But I wasn’t entirely wedded to that position at that moment of facing up to the questioning from students. In the aftermath of the conversation though, it became clear to me that actually I wasn’t super interested in compromise either. So to give credit where credit is due, it really was the exchange that nudged me away from a certain form of intellectual complacency that held that I could just remain comfortably ensconced within a form of reactivating cannons without seriously undertaking the work of, well, exploding them.

What does that look like, to the professor popularizing the term? One could take the route of focusing on the reception and reappropriation of ancient texts—what the academy calls “reception studies,” which took off in the 1970s and ’80s and hit classics a while later. It’s also what Kambiz GhaneaBassiri was doing in his Hum conferences on the Old Testament, talking about how the Bible has been interpreted by Muslims, for example.

DAN-EL: So traditionally, when thinking about the kinds of lineages that are charted in core curriculum style setups, the tendency is to vault from this moment in the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean to another moment in the early modern North Atlantic to then the modernity that styles itself as the heir to that. But one could engage in these forms of fictive genealogy and other contexts too. One could think about classical Chinese traditions and the reception, one could look to, classical Indian texts, one could do this with oratories and literatures and the African continent. One could do this even in a Mesoamerican context.

But the Mesoamerican example brings me now to what is a hurdle to be cleared in this kind of work. One of the spectacularly destructive feats of early modern Euro-American colonialism is that it did effectively overrepresent a specific form of classics and classicism to the exclusion of many other forms of knowledge. And that has to be addressed quite explicitly.

The problem at the beating heart of all of this is that the categories of philology or classics or even antiquity are rooted in an early modern moment of imperial and instead colonialist enslaving violence. And that one has to teach that moment.

Reed’s revised Hum curriculum, to its credit, does address race in the ancient world—an excerpt from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, a hugely influential work in Black studies and specifically Afro-pessimism, is on the syllabus. And they’re reading a chapter from Saidiya Hartman in the second semester now. During the Harlem Renaissance, a number of artists engaged with ancient texts, whether Egyptian, Greek, or Roman, so there’s some reception studies too. But nothing on the syllabus reckons with the advent of “humanities” as a discipline.

One place that does reckon with this is Wake Forest University, where T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is a classics professor. In the wake of student activism in the spring of 2019, he co-organized an extracurricular series, and then a course, called “Classics Beyond Whiteness,” which addressed critical race theory, race in the ancient world, and the reception of classics both by non-white artists and in racial politics. In the summer of 2020, the classics department voted unanimously to make the course mandatory for all majors and minors.

T. H. M. GELLAR-GOAD: People think that if they can quote Aristotle or Plato or Homer, then they’ve proven their point. People love to make appeals to the Roman Empire when talking about American empire or American government. When it comes to racial politics in particular, Greek and Roman ways of thinking about race and ways we think about race in ancient Greece and Rome are both going to inform the way it plays out. One of the big examples of this is Confederate defenses of enslavement in the United States, before, during, and a little bit after the Civil War. They were appealing to Aristotle’s theory of enslavement, which is that if you’re a slave, you’re a slave by nature, that enslaved people have some internal characteristic that makes them “slave-ish” and therefore justifying it.

I have little interest in or time for Aristotle, but this was a very powerful argumentative point for intellectuals in the American South in the 1800s. And that’s the other thing, is the 19th century is such a sort of roiling time politically, and especially racially, not just in the United States but elsewhere. Europe was often struggling with antisemitism and treatment of status of Jews in various countries. That’s a racial question in that period. This is when the university system, the modern university system is really forming in Germany and elsewhere. And so you have philologists, classical philologists who are specialists in Latin grammar and Greek grammar who are also making big, bold claims about what race was like in the ancient world and how race should be in the modern world. And they’re very influential on philosophers, on politicians, on states persons.

Sasha-Mae Eccleston is a classics professor at Brown and the co-founder of the project “Racing the Classics,” for which she and Dan-el just won a $1 million Mellon grant. (Incidentally, she also guest lectured at Reed in spring 2016.) For her, critical theories of race are an essential lens for looking at the ancient world—and the present.

SASHA-MAE ECCLESTON: I don’t want to touch on these issues. They’re not like garnishes that you put on a dish. These are fundamental ways of experiencing the world and therefore making my way through that emotionally, intellectually, and as an informed citizen. This is an intellectual foundation and an epistemology that I have invested in and direct experience of in different ways that I value—because of what it allows me to see and to think about and to think with, and who it allows me to think with.

There was one thing that struck both Sasha-Mae and Dan-el in looking at the revised Hum syllabus.

SASHA-MAE: I think at times where America is really proud of its imperialist heritage, that’s when they become Roman. That narrative about expansion and imperium without end becomes really convenient as a way to legitimize that power. But in a pose of consciously or unconsciously talking about the formation of a democratic society or even high culture … that’s when you get the Greeky stuff … So I just kind of smirk to know that Rome got the good old shiv. <laugh>

DAN-EL: I am very struck by effacement of Rome, not because I am all rah-rah for Rome’s inclusion, but because I am always intrigued when I see core curricula that make a gesture to greater inclusion as this one does, but that then for various reasons likes to sideline Rome. The decision immediately reinstates a logics of supremacy, even if this is disavowed, right? The Greeks are responsible for these cultural productions. They’re so outstanding, the Romans are derivative and all that. Now, in the case of Hum 110, I do appreciate that there is quite a robust effort to tackle the interaction between the Greeks and the Achaemenids as part of a much more interactive Mediterranean, one where there was an imperial formation subtly and not so subtly altering the trajectories of these Greek city-states. And that’s fine, but I mean, what can tell that story with real emphasis on the long durée histories of reception and contestation of these texts through the Roman Empire, an empire that is among other things continuously reimagining itself as an heir both to Greek and non-Greek forms of political and artistic practice.

Jan Mieszkowski is professor of German and Humanities at Reed.

JAN MIESZKOWSKI: Are we more self-critical since the protests? I’m not sure that the ancient model is as self-critical <laugh> as it used to be on paper. On paper. In other words, we try to enrich certain things. We teach Egypt a little—or we were, I don’t know right now—but we were teaching Egypt a little more richly, like narrowing the focus a little bit, trying not just to skip around so much, trying to go in depth more in certain areas. But I don’t know that that necessarily toppled the Greek miracle more than it used to be. Not on paper, anyway. I feel like if you look at the syllabus now, it’s not obvious to me that, that it’s self-evidently more critical of that tradition than the previous one was. The fall, the spring obviously is different.

Greece, especially without the long shadow of Rome, does feature prominently in the current Hum syllabus. But does the addition of Mesoamerica and the Harlem Renaissance really broaden the course beyond the West?

JAN: This is the other question, studying Mesoamerica. Are you just teaching “Here come the Spanish?” You’re just teaching European imperialism in a sense. And I think the answer is no. I don’t think we’re just teaching European imperialism. I think that efforts have been taken there to avoid that simply being the story. But then the Harlem unit is completely Eurocentric, if you want to think of it in that sense, you know? But so, I mean, so is a humanities class—that’s what I mean, on what level? Like the whole concept of this course is entirely specific to Britain and the United States, really more the United States than Britain, although there’s obviously heavy influences, but it’s completely an Anglo-American intellectual phenomenon. This is not just Euro, this is very specific to a certain kind of institution.

Colin Drumm graduated from Reed in 2011, and I talked with him and Salim a lot about the Hum protests at the time. Colin now teaches at the Mimbres School for the Humanities, an alternative education platform he set up after getting his PhD.

COLIN DRUMM: Reed could have taken the opportunity to develop a very serious curriculum that would have really prepared students to think about these issues. Really, if you can understand the Western tradition, and you can put that into dialogue with both Black studies and Indigenous studies, you are looking at the kernel of the problems that we have in the Atlantic world. That’s the curriculum that I wish that I would be put through if I were 18 years old again and were showing up to Reed College or and saying, come at me, throw me some books, I’m here to learn.

SASHA-MAE:  One of the responsibilities that anyone that teaches a class has is to think about what the stuff they’re teaching is for. I don’t mean in the limited way of going to college to get a job, though that’s really important in the labor landscape and the racial history of the United States. Are you interested, ultimately, in replicating power structures or not? Are you interested in teaching these students to think about things using this particular set of historical actors and facts and events as catalysts for that?

ALEA: If I had taken a class on the history of race at Reed, that would’ve blown my little mind wide open. But I didn’t get that type of education until I took a class in my second grad program, in the history department, on like race and gender in the 19th-century United States.

Remember the course that Peter Steinberger, professor of political science and humanities, recently proposed: Rome, medieval Islam, and the Harlem Renaissance? In 2016, Peter opposed any change to the old syllabus but is now willing to decenter the Greeks! It says a lot about how far the conversations at Reed have come in the intervening eight years, and how deeply Reed’s faculty—no matter how many decades they’ve been teaching—have heeded the call to think deeply about the way that Reed was failing to think about race. All the professors I spoke with have taken advantage of the Center for Teaching and Learning and initiatives like the student consultant program.

NIGEL: I think it’s really important that students are kind of invited in. Tons about college is alienating if you’re a first-gen student, a student from a different kind of educational background, or minority groups of different sorts. I think it is incumbent on us as teachers to kind of identify, recognize folks who are struggling in that sense and, you know, make a place for them, make them feel that they belong.  We’re lucky because we have a high faculty-student ratio, right? We have that time built into our kind of teaching practice. I’m not saying any of this is easy. But I do think we have sort of thought hard about these questions. Hum may not be perfect, but I think it was a very genuine response to a large-scale series of concerns and worries about the way in which the education was being framed and the ways in which people found themselves kind of interacting with the institution. And frankly, I’m really, really proud of my colleagues for making it happen.

ALEA: The cultural conversation has shifted so dramatically, I feel like, that the kind of compromise that people came to after the protests would look, I think a lot different if people were trying to kind of make that kind of compromise right now. If only because post-2020, you know, people’s attention to race has kind of changed. At the same time, I’m a little bit hesitant to think that if the curriculum were scrapped now and then something new were to come and take its place, I don’t know if, even post-racial reckoning of 2020, if that curriculum would be grounded in a place of wanting to kind of critique of the relatively recent concept of the West.

COLIN: That’s an issue that’s not particular to Reed, but is particular to the whole construction of this intellectual history in the first place. Sometime around the early modern period, what’s called the Renaissance, the influence of Islam was repressed from Western intellectual history. And that’s a very interesting phenomenon. I mean, if you did want to teach the canon, you could frame the whole medieval, early modern European history from the perspective of Islam. You’d have an awesome class. I mean, you’d really be at the cutting edge.

Getting to another revision of Hum, of any kind, is going to take empowering young faculty to have a serious hand in shaping that curriculum. One of the perennial problems—as we saw in the 1968 struggle over Black studies—is that junior faculty lack the security of tenure, and thus are wary of rocking the boat. This makes curricular conservatism the default. Pancho has tenure, and has been the most outspoken faculty member on the current flaws in Hum 110.

PANCHO: It is certainly true that non-tenured faculty don’t feel empowered. I understand that. If you’re an untenured faculty member and you stand up in a Hum meeting and you say, the way you guys are teaching this material sucks, they’re going to remember that when you come up for tenure. And so untenured people tend to remain silent in most situations. I think that’s unfortunate, but people are afraid of losing their jobs, which I understand. On the other hand, if you spend six years being silent and then you get tenure and then you say, “Now the real me is coming out,” oftentimes you have spent too much time being silent and you don’t know how to open your mouth anymore.

Pancho has been boycotting Hum faculty meetings for years now. Meanwhile, Kritish is the only junior faculty member who agreed to speak with me; he’s also the only faculty member outside of the department who could explain to me why Religion left. I don’t think this is an accident: it speaks to the way that junior faculty were trained in their disciplines. Maybe dreaming up a new Hum requires rethinking how the course is governed. This is obvious from the outside.

COLIN: I think doing this would require there to exist a strong consensus among the faculty about exactly why they were doing that, and the logic of the things. And what I see in the current syllabus is a syllabus designed by committee in which there does not exist a strong consensus or a guiding vision about what it is that we’re trying to teach you. What there is the rump of a classics curriculum that has been padded out with various things in order to avoid the accusation that you’re being racist by teaching the canon.

T. H. M.: Leapfrogging is more efficient. But at the same time, if you’re just changing the content and you’re not changing the assumptions that you bring into the why—why teach these texts, why this culture over another, why this period over another—then you’re missing the point.

And from the inside—students and professors.

ALBERT KERELIS: I mean, ideally, I think that the lens through which we view Hum does need to change. I think that that lens should be one about contextualizing Hum to our current political moment, kind of leveraging historical texts and cultures and ideas to better understand and learn how to act within our modern time and place. But I don’t think that professors are going to be able to do that if they’re in disagreement over what Hum should look like or what it should be trying to do, right? You’ll get professors who either avoid contextualizing texts to modern politics, or you get professors who advocate for like, holding on to a bunch of the old Hum curriculum, sometimes I think needlessly so.

JAN: This is where you have to understand, there is almost no course in the country that would be governed this way. It’d be totally different if I and two other people sat down, we could change the syllabus. When 30 or 40 people can vote on it, you can’t do anything. And that’s a question that’s come up increasingly: governance. I was saying, like, let’s just have it pull a name out of a hat. Okay, that person’s now the czar. Let them be the czar for three years and do whatever they want. Now, pull a name out of a hat. Like, almost autocracy would be better than this kind of democracy we have because it can’t function.

Maybe a rotating oligarchy, drawn from a handful of disciplines, where one of the seats is set aside for a junior faculty member.

PANCHO: One of the problems is that when you change the syllabus, it really takes several years for people to get up to speed on the new material, whatever that happens to be. So you can’t change the syllabus all that often because I’m sure faculty would be very frustrated with, just when you feel that you are comfort able teaching material X, then the syllabus completely changes and you have to start the process all over again. Although, as I said, I’m not opposed to changing the syllabus every X number of years. I think it’s good to have to learn and master new material as opposed to just teaching the same thing over and over and over again every year.

Since the revision, there have been annual reviews of the Hum 110 syllabus. But it has been six years now, of essentially the same material—unless you count the texts that have fallen off. And there are supposed to be reviews every three years now to see whether the faculty want to undertake a big overhaul. Covid didn’t help things.

JAN: We taught the syllabus for two years and then there was Covid. And Covid has changed a lot of things too. And actually, when I think about these things now, it’s very hard to separate the two because until this year, when we had a couple in-person lectures, we haven’t had in-person lectures for several years. They’re all recorded. And so that used to be one of the arguments for some people for Hum, was that this is the community-unifying event. Everybody at 9:00 AM has to gather—at least sometimes—and be there. And that doesn’t exist anymore. You know, it’s podcasts, it’s little videos that the students play at double speed while they’re on the StairMaster. And they complain if the faculty talk too quickly that they can’t play it on double-speed or whatever. It’s the new world or whatever. That’s very different. And I think with the changes, with the protests, Hum lost its veneer of inevitability. You know, it was suddenly, if you can change it, why can’t you change everything? Well, you can <laugh> I mean, it’s no longer revered in the community in the same way. But then Covid, I think accelerated that Covid took more of the shine off just because you no longer had these large group events and so forth.

I didn’t really hear disagreement from the faculty I spoke with about this point.

PETER STEINBERGER: There’s an important issue that arose last year, and that is, should there be a unified course? And there is, I would say, a solid third of the teaching staff in the course that think there should not be a unified course and that we should get rid of it altogether. And I’m extremely hostile to that view. I think that’s part of what makes Reed Reed, is that we have a unified first-year course and I’m very, very unhappy with the notion that that might be done away with. And we had a lot of conversations about that, and there was a move and a vote, a vote to create a committee to study this, and we voted pretty solidly not to create such a committee. So right now the majority of the staff likes the idea of a unified course. I think students like the idea of a unified course. How about you, Stephanie?

Call me nostalgic, but I like it too. I’m not the only one.

ALBERT: I have come to really value having a common core class at Reed. But I think there are a lot of problems with it, and I’m pretty disheartened that it’s not more effective at providing students with something of real value to them. A lot of students come away from Hum 110 feeling like the majority of their readings were useless that they’re not gonna think about them very often anymore. Hum 110 … it felt like I was reading texts just to read them. And I thought that was a real shame.

But maybe we don’t have to start at the beginning, in antiquity, because that’s not how we encounter influence in our everyday lives. Maybe the answer is to free ourselves from chronology.

DAN-EL: I thought that one of the most rewarding moments I had with the Columbia core curriculum and with efforts to revision it came fairly early in the pandemic. And what they had done for the opening stretch of the core curriculum for sophomores is that, rather than start with Plato or with Aristotle, they were commencing with David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” Frederick Douglas’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And the idea there was to productively disorient by getting students to reflect on the significance of the summer of 2020 in its sort of historic perspective. But also to productively disorient by realigning the expected or conventional ordering of the core syllabus.

Maybe the answer is to really wrestle with “problematic” texts, instead of continuing the trend of taking them off the syllabus.

COLIN: What’s interesting is that the assumption that both sides of the debate share is that if something is bad and racist, then you shouldn’t read it. And so if you want to say we should read it, then you have to deny that it’s bad and racist. And if you say that it’s bad and racist, then you say, you shouldn’t read it. Well, I think we should read these things precisely because they’re bad and racist, because we need to understand how that stuff works.

Maybe the solution is putting those who’ve been repressed from the Western tradition at the center of a Western humanities course:

PETER: If you want to know what students ought to know—there are many things they ought to know—but one of the things they ought to know is the Quran and its implications for philosophy, for history. And, and there are major, major philosophical, historical, and literary texts that are written in North Africa and the Middle East. They’re hugely important stuff, and they’re great! And they would teach terrific, would really engage otherness and, and diversity in a really powerful way, it seems to me.

Maybe the solution is adding on a whole more year of requirements!

COLIN: Don’t cut things, just add things, make another year. Why not force everyone to read Greeks and Romans and then the next year force everyone to read Black studies? Why not double down on what’s right and good about having a core curriculum, which is in some ways a common reference point for an intellectual community.

Maybe the solution is to ditch antiquity altogether.

JAN: A year ago I taught a seminar, a sort of upper level seminar that had a large environmental humanities component. It was like the best class I’ve taught in so long. Like, the students were so engaged and, you know, it’s a topic that is real to them in so many different ways. Um, I think like freshman environmental humanities would be amazing, you know?

But for any of this to happen, the Hum faculty have to decide, collectively, to try something different.

JAN: So that would be amazing, but I say that almost wistfully because I’ve seen how hard it is to change anything, much less to change it how you want it. And it’s like even the notion of like, you know, Hum reform to say those words, like my heart sinks in a way because I’ve seen so many people spend hundreds and hundreds of hours of their life to make the smallest changes.

KAMBIZ: What it does require is like, you know, incentivizing people talking to each other  and getting people excited about what they’re teaching in terms of, like, what they think that a course should be doing today, right?

The protests over Hum 110 did not result in the same lasting scars as the protests over Black Studies in 1968, because the administration and the faculty both took the demands seriously in 2016.

MARY: Well, I think there’s one big difference between what happened in the sixties and the seventies and what has happened in the last eight years or so. Wow, it’s been eight years. The rift in the sixties and seventies—it was absolutely campus-wide. So I got there in ’88, and this had all happened at least 15 to 17 years before. And like I say, things were still raw, and they were raw, like the biology faculty. So the sides, if you will, were campus-wide. I don’t think that’s true of this situation. But that’s in no way to minimize the rifts in the Hum faculty.

It’s clear, though, that there are still hurt feelings among the Hum faculty.

KAMBIZ: When people kept saying, “I still don’t understand your problem.” At one point I had to say like, “I didn’t know what this term ‘gaslighting’ meant. I learned it from students during the protests and that’s what it feels like. I just explained it to a bunch of 18 year olds and they understood it. I don’t know why you guys don’t understand it!”

But the fact that so many people who were directly involved in this debate were willing to engage with me says a lot, to me at least, about the hope of reimagining Hum 110.

PANCHO: I wouldn’t be opposed to that. I’m not sure what kind of agreement could be reached about what that new syllabus would entail, but I would certainly be open to having the conversation.

New approaches—whether it’s the environmental humanities program Reed started a few years ago, or whether it’s initiatives like Dan-el and Sasha-Mae’s Racing the Classics—are attracting huge numbers of students. Young people are hungry to understand the world they’re inheriting, and they’re more comfortable wrestling with complicated topics than we give them credit for.

The spirit of Reedies Against Racism lives on in all of the changes that their protests fostered. Reed no longer simply has a diversity statement, it has an anti-racism statement, and still puts out regular updates on how it is furthering that commitment. Many departments now do, too. I wonder whether that commitment could be extended to imagining what an anti-racist humanities might look like. It’s not about teaching ideology, but as Sasha-Mae said earlier, about thinking through questions of power. Part of that means acknowledging the power inherent in a course like Hum 110, and not skipping over the difficult parts. It means answering the question—in the syllabus—of why “Western humanities” didn’t always wrestle with questions of race and racism, why Egypt or Islam’s contributions were repressed, why Greece and Rome are still political weapons. Classics departments at places like Wake Forest prove that students are interested in these questions.

NIGEL: I think one of the great things about both Reed and Hum is that people do care, right? And that makes our lives very difficult. It means that students protest and faculty get angry. But of course it makes everything so much better. It means that the products we do put out are better. It means that the conversations we have are better. It means that things matter—and that matters. People are always saying that, so nobody cares about the humanities, you know, but that’s not my experience, right? They may not want to major in the humanities, but these conversations matter to people, they really matter.

Our histories are more interconnected than I was ever taught when I took Hum 110 at Reed. But it’s a framework that everyone, no matter their major, should take away from Reed, or from any liberal arts college, or from any study of the humanities. There are innumerable ways to draw the map from antiquity to today, and the fundamental lesson is that there are no straight lines. The world is complicated, the issues we face are complicated, but we can’t just throw up our hands and give up on untying that knot. The humanities should teach us to ask the questions that help untangle it. Reed has a beautiful opportunity on its hands with a mandatory class like Hum 110—and there are a lot of great ideas out there already.

ADDISON: A dream Hum 110 is extremely accessible and really honors all of the experiential knowledge that people bring to the table. And that’s why I love the idea of like resistance as a center of Hum 110, because folks who were not immersed in intellectualism, were oftentimes leading resistance efforts. It’s just important to engage young people in the idea of resistance and the idea that we don’t have to just subscribe to authority and to norms, that the lived experiences that people have, in themselves, are intellectually important.


This episode concludes Exploding the Canon. It was produced by me, Stephanie Bastek, with original music by Rhae Royal. Audio storytelling consulting by Mickey Capper. This series would have been impossible to create without everyone who spoke with me, both on and off the record, or who provided archival support and data. So thank you to the Reedies Against Racism, current students, and alumni: alea adigweme, Addison Bates, Eden Daniel, Colin Drumm, Albert Kerelis, Salim Moore, and Brittany Wideman. Thank you to the Reed staff and faculty, past and present: Tracy Drake, Libby Drumm, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Jolie Griffin, Mary James, Nathalia King, Paul Marthers, Jan Mieszkowski, Nigel Nicholson, Roger Porter, Kritish Rajbhandari, Pancho Savery, Peter Steinberger, and Milyon Trulove. Thank you to the classicists: Sasha-Mae Eccleston, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta. And thank you to the Black Student Union of 1968 and its allies: George Brandon, Steve Engel, Mary Frankie McFarland Forte, Stephen Robinson, Suzanne Snively, Martin White, and André Wooten. Rest in power, Ron Herndon and Linda Gordon Howard. This series, like all of Smarty Pants, is sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and published under the umbrella of The American Scholar magazine.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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