Let Us Compare Mythologies

Exploding the Canon, Episode 4

Reedies Against Racism
Reedies Against Racism

Reedies Against Racism’s protest of the Humanities 110 curriculum at Reed College reached a turning point in the 2017–2018 school year. After a year and a half of debate, dozens of faculty members voted on a revised syllabus, the second semester of which introduced brand new material from Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance. But in September 2018, an entire department voted not to teach the spring syllabus—and as the years passed, discontent with the syllabus grew, among both faculty and students.

Quest articles and op-eds about Hum 110:

Reed magazine coverage of Hum 110:

Headlines about Hum:

Featured voices in this episode: Addison Bates, Eden Daniel, Mary James, Libby Drumm, Roger Porter, Jan Mieszkowski, Pancho Savery, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Peter Steinberger, Nathalia King, Kritish Rajbhandari, Nigel Nicholson, and Albert Kerelis.

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

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We left off the 2016 timeline in November, when Reedies Against Racism occupied the admission office in Eliot Hall for a week, just as the Black Student Union had occupied the president’s office for a week in the fall of 1968. Neither the timing nor the tactic was a coincidence. Addison Bates was a junior at the time of the occupation.

ADDISON: It was at some point during this time I met with Ron Herndon, one of the activists in the Black Studies protest in the ’60s. One of the things that we talked about was that everything we ask for, it’s too much, it’s too fast … and that’s why it’s really important that when you ask for something, what you deserve is immediate attention. I remember specifically an administrator at the time telling us, um, look, you know, students, you, you guys are thinking on this like four-year, the short-term plan, but the institution thinks in this very long-term way. You guys only see like us moving at like a snail’s pace. But that’s just because you’re here for such a short amount of time. And while technically this is true, that’s also like a way that institutions, um, that’s a way that institutions undermine the voices of the  students that flow through them.

The trees, as Steve Engel put it last episode, to the students’ breeze. For much of the 2016–2017 school year, things look much the same from the outside: protesters still sat silent at the front of Vollum lecture hall, professors continued to lecture. The Student Senate had sent a letter in support of the protesters’ demands in October—“Many feel that the content and the mandatory nature of [Hum 110] is alienating for underrepresented minorities and marginalized groups”—and I’m pretty sure this is the period when (full disclosure) I signed an alumni letter in support of the protesters. In spring, the Student Senate and a faculty committee passed an Anti-Racism Statement that would be adopted by the full faculty in the fall. Another faculty committee approved the creation of a new position in Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, finally making concrete an interdisciplinary major that had first been proposed in 2013. Mary James, then Dean of Institutional Diversity, spent a lot of time behind the scenes talking to students, talking to professors, talking to the administration.

MARY JAMES: I was trying to bring down the temperature as best I could. The students were pretty united in their efforts. The faculty, there were almost as many different responses to the student activism as there were faculty members in the Hum program. So what I was thinking about all the time, whether or not I was able to accomplish it, was: this is all painful for everybody, but can we come out of this without the kind of scars that we came out with in the ’60s? Can we come out of this actually a better institution rather than a more divided institution?

Meanwhile, all through the spring, that small group of students and professors continued to meet weekly, or every other week, for much of the year, to hash out just what a new Hum curriculum might look like, though that number dwindled to four students and four professors—a four-by-four. Eden Daniel, then a freshman, was one of the students.

EDEN: Being in the four-by-four, we were like essentially consultants <laugh>  and I did feel like we had a little bit more say in things, like they were open to hearing us, but at the same time, I didn’t really know how much of what we were telling them would actually be taken seriously. And then also I was taking a class, and so I felt a little bit like, okay, what is my role here? Because maybe I don’t have the knowledge of all of these texts. You know, I’m not an academic <laugh>. I’m literally 18 years old, um, like, how can I contribute here?

All this time, Eden and her 300-odd classmates continued to meet, three times a week for  lecture, two times a week for conference, in two dozen groups led by two dozen professors, to discuss Plato and the Book of Genesis, then turned with the seasons to Josephus and the rest of the Romans.

Libby Drumm is professor of Spanish and Humanities.

LIBBY: I mean, here was a group of students sitting in the lecture well, with signs with Zora Neale Hurston, <laugh> and taking notes, still at lecture, still doing the work. They were raising very good questions and asked us to consider them. It got our attention, and we certainly did. We sat there for a full year and a half and really worked through it and considered all sorts of different options.

That clock started in January 2017.

LIBBY: Lucky me. I was the chair of the course. And part of the issue is we really didn’t have a process in place for making a change like that. So in January, we had an all-day retreat scheduled for the Hum faculty. I ran into Hugh Porter on campus, and he said, so are you all set for this retreat? And I said, well, <laugh>, actually, there’s nothing planned. You know, I just stepped into this role kind of at the last minute. And so, uh, he goes, “Oh my goodness.” So he actually helped out, got us, hooked up with a consultant. … And it was incredibly helpful. So we had a retreat then in January, and we just started meeting and we worked through straw polls. How do we wanna proceed? And at the end of each meeting, the only thing I could think of was, you know, let’s just pause for a minute and this is what we’ll do next time. Are we all on the same page? And it, it worked pretty well until it didn’t. And then eventually, you know,  you make a decision and some people are unhappy with the decision. So that was unfortunate.

In the first episode, we talked about how one of the things that makes Hum 110 unique is just how many senior faculty teach in the course. That also makes it extremely difficult to change anything about it—it took years to move the Hebrew Bible from the second to the first semester. Roger Porter told me about a meeting in the 1960s where they spent two hours debating whether to read Thucydides before Sophocles or after Sophocles.

ROGER PORTER: You can’t imagine, I mean, there are arguments both ways, perfectly legitimate arguments, but you can’t imagine the, the kind of drain that has. I mean, you could say, well, it’s, it’s intellectually exciting to debate that. But, you know, it was done with the sense that if you didn’t do it the right way, that would somehow—the course would crumble or the semester wouldn’t piece together in the right way. I mean, it was a kind of madness I felt.

The 2016-17 school year ended, but conversations about the fate of Hum 110 continued among the faculty. And then, in the fall of 2017, came a turning point. What had to this point been largely a local story—confined to the student newspaper, Reed’s alumni magazine and blog, and various alumni Facebook groups—hit the national news. The first day of class on August 29 began much as it had every fall since 2015—with an introduction of all the conference leaders, to be followed by a panel discussion from a handful of faculty orienting freshmen to the course. But after the faculty introduced themselves, three protesters approached the mic to introduce themselves, and explain their continued presence in the lecture well to freshmen who were seeing them for the first time.

PROFESSOR: … And I teach in the English department.

LIBBY: Thank you. Let’s start.

ADDISON: Hi, we’re Reedies Against Racism, and this is—

LIBBY: I’m sorry, this is a classroom space and this is not appropriate. So we have allowed—

ALEX BOYD: We’d like to introduce ourselves as well. We worked just as hard on the syllabus as you all have. So—

LIBBY: This is a classroom space—

ALEX: This is a failure to give us credit for our labor. We’re Reedies Against Racism and we’re protesting Hum 110 because of its Eurocentrism—

LIBBY: Okay, so we cannot have our class if we have students interrupting the speaking. So we’re going to call the lecture. You can all just meet with your conference leaders and they’ll explain what’s going on. Thank you. We’ll see you all Wednesday.

LUCÍA MARTÍNEZ VALDIVIA: Sorry you missed the chance to learn!


ADDISON: It was a two-minute introduction …

ALEX: This is an important part of your education about Hum 110. If you want to stay and learn about the events of the past year, regardless of whether you agree with us, we would appreciate if you would stick around.

ADDISON: We were going to give a two-minute introduction and we talked to Libby about that yesterday.

ALEX: So if you want to hear what we have to say, if you believe that student of colors deserve a voice in Hum 110, I would encourage you to stay.

ADDISON: We’re just going to give the two-minute introduction anyway and you guys can still follow them. Where did they say they were going? … All we were going to say is that we’re Reedies Against Racism and this is a Hum 110 protest. We’re an anti-racist organization that was founded last year to address the issues facing students of color, especially Black students at Reed. We believe that the first lesson that freshmen should learn about Hum 110 is that it perpetuates white supremacy by centering whiteness as the only required class at Reed. Because of us, Hum 110 is currently under review so that it can be reformed. This work is just as important as the work of the faculty, so we were going to introduce ourselves as well. My name is Addison Bates …

TIFFANY CHEN: My name is Tiffany Chen, I was a freshman last year …

FRESHMAN: They cut the mic.


The faculty did not give the lecture. It sounds to me like the three protesters were kind of dumbstruck that the faculty walked out. That’s Libby’s voice you hear calling the lecture. The other professor you hear in the sample above, Lucía Martínez Valdivia, published an op-ed in The Washington Post on October 27th with the headline, “Professors like me can’t stay silent about this extremist moment on campus.” She went on, “The protesters seized our microphones, stood in front of us and shut down the lecture. … The right to speak freely is not the same as the right to rob others of their voices.” Four days later, The New York Times mentioned the incident in an October story; The Atlantic followed a week later with not one but two stories about Reed.

LIBBY: My first day, you know, we had lecture, people were protesting in the lecture. I go into the conference room and there were three or four active protestors, signs and all, in my conference, and you should have seen their face when they saw me. Like, “Oh, great. My conference leader is the person in charge of this mess.” So it was hilarious. So we had conference, and then at the end it’s like, okay, now what are we going to do about this? And so we talked about it for a while and decided that we weren’t going to let the protests come into the conference, thank goodness. And that at the end of conference, though, if we wanted to stay and people had things they wanted to talk about, we could certainly do it then. And that worked pretty well. Well, people were pretty respectful. And I have to say, I’m thinking of one person in particular who was so forthright and such a great participant in the Hum conference. Such a leader, a strong voice, and then at the end would say something like, “But, pfft. That’s all dead white males. So who cares?” <laugh> It was, it just always made me laugh. <laugh>. I was like, okay, so you can do both. … Oddly, it was one of my strongest Hum conferences I ever had.

The full arc of the 2017–2018 protests goes beyond the scope of this podcast. On the anniversary of the 2016 September boycott, Reedies Against Racism reiterated their demands, but shifted their focus to a Wells Fargo divestment campaign. But it seems clear that when it came to Hum 110 reform, things got off on the wrong foot in 2017, despite the four-by-four conferences, and despite the real changes Reed made in response to the 2016 demands. The administration would, in fact, threaten those three students who went to the front of the first Hum lecture with suspension or expulsion if they attended again, and also emailed out a reminder about the dissent policy. Reedies Against Racism wrote up a satirical response to the threats, which pointed out that they were still waiting for the “predominantly white faculty to magically discover the key to a post-racial Reed in the footnotes of Plato’s Republic” and noted what the students had won by violating the dissent policy: increased funding for anti-racism internships, new job postings for students and staff of color, new counselors of color in the health center, alcohol and drug policy reform, more transparency, and Reed’s new status as a sanctuary school for undocumented students. It was an odd thing for the school to do—and an easy headline to avoid—given too that the Office for Institutional Diversity would go on to publish a lengthy progress report on the demands in November, showing that most of the ones Reed could legally meet from 2016 had, in fact, been met.

Not Hum, though. Not yet. Not until April 2018.


LIBBY: Eventually you have to decide. And if you’re doing straw polls then we’re still considering lots of things. But that’s a funnel. And eventually you have to come to a decision point. And I think there was some pressure to get to a decision point. … You know, after this decision, The Quest, the first article above the fold, as they say:  “Hum 110 Crosses the Atlantic.” …  Next week, The Quest, above the fold: “Hum 110 Enters the 20th Century.” And I thought, well, of course that makes perfect sense. Why not?

Jan Mieszkowski is Professor of German and Humanities.

JAN: Some people would tell you it was always changing. It would change a little, but the change would kind of reveal it wasn’t changing, you know, <laugh> Certainly in my lifetime at Reed, this was transformative that suddenly half of it would change.

Pancho Savery is Professor of English and Humanities.

PANCHO: So we went through many possible models of how to teach the course, and eventually it was decided to keep the first semester largely intact. So we did Gilgamesh and Homer and Persian material and Egyptian material. And the second semester, the decision was made to divide it into the first six weeks. We’re going to be on the history of Mexico City from right before the conquistadors arrived up until the 1960s and the emergence of Subcomandante Marcos. The second half, the decision was made to focus on the Harlem Renaissance. So we start in the late 1800s with what led up to the Harlem Renaissance, and then we end with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which looks back on many of the issues that arose during the Harlem Renaissance.

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is Professor of Religion and Humanities:

KAMBIZ: There were all these protests that were going on, and then a president that was leaving, and he wanted Hum 110 to have changed by the time he leaves. People didn’t have that luxury of being able to do something that was more long-term. The pressure to say like, something needs to be produced a particular time. And the faculty actually asked for that. And we were told that, no, like, we want this change now, it’s been long enough. To the point that like the first semester was kept as the first semester ’cause there wasn’t enough time to change it, but there was enough time to change the second semester. So that’s what got focused on.

I heard about quite a number of alternate courses, though:

JAN: I proposed a transatlantic study syllabus for the whole year. Basically it would start in the 15th century. It would sort of be the dawn of the slave trade. But the first book you would read would be A History of Capitalism <laugh>. And I was told it was too political. And one of the historians said it’s too historical <laugh>. It was intriguing. But it was designed precisely to not take any of those things for granted. Like capitalism—we know what that is. Do you? Let’s see. Slavery, you know, with the plantation system—we know what that was. Do we? Let’s see. It was really gonna introduce all those concepts in a very sort of systematic and historical way. It did not prevail.

Peter Steinberger is Professor of Political Science and Humanities:

PETER: I proposed a threefold model: one third on ancient Greece, one third on medieval Islam, and one third on Harlem. So the medieval Islam would start with the Quran. And then you would read materials originally written in Arabic—fabulous materials. Kambiz gave me an outline for how this might work. A lot of colleagues didn’t like it.

I really liked Libby’s idea, from way back in the 1990s when she first came to Reed:

LIBBY: Boy, I was a very junior faculty member, and I thought it would be a great idea if we changed the curriculum and taught—I don’t know if you know Al-Andalus, but it was a period in Spain where the Muslim people were basically in charge. They call it the Convivencia or the Living Together. They allowed for the Christian and Jewish communities to flourish for, you know, for a century. And so I thought we could do Al-Andalus, and  then we would get the three cultures of the book. We would learn about Islam. We could do Averroes, it’s all this great material—the romance tradition … And I got shot down.

What ended up getting passed in 2018, though, has turned out to be a compromise that doesn’t wholly satisfy anyone, though they might like some parts of it.

PETER: I don’t like the second semester. I voted against it. I enjoy teaching it tremendously. The materials are great. We have wonderful conferences in there. Students profit tremendously from it. I don’t think it’s the best thing to do, but we’re doing it.

JAN: You know, the syllabus that passed, I mean, it passed. I think the vote was what, 60-40? Those 40% walked around then saying they’d been disenfranchised, which is not what the word means. I mean, they voted … how would you do it by not having a vote? Someone would have to decide. You’d have to empower some group of three, a troika or whatever, like have a little group of three people who run the chorus. I almost think that would be preferable in a way.

Nathalia King is professor of English and Humanities:

NATHALIA: In some sense, the weakness of the curriculum now has been a weakness in the course from the get-go, it’s a paradox at the heart of the course. And that is this constant tension between breadth and depth … the new syllabus, <laugh> has not resolved that problem any more than prior syllabi have resolved it.

Kritish Rajbhandari is assistant professor of English and Humanities, and actually graduated from Reed a year before me, in 2012. He’s been teaching in the course for four years now.

KRITISH: The Greek part, it’s still a major component of the syllabus, although it comes after Egypt, right? Sort of slightly decentering Greece in that way instead of starting with The Iliad. I enjoy teaching it. It is challenging, because one drawback of the current syllabus is it feels more scattered, right? Because the old was basically a classics syllabus. It was centered around an idea, although kind of maybe a problematic idea. The new one … I would say it’s a still a work in progress. The faculty are still trying to bring these various strands together as a course.

Nigel Nicholson, professor of Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Mediterranean, was Dean of the Faculty from 2013 to 2020, so he only taught the second semester once in that time, as a one-off. He’s now Chair of Hum, and this year marks his third run through the entire course.

NIGEL: I really like it. And, and I dunno how much of this is informed for me as a classist, but I really like the Greek stuff being part of a much larger kind of panoply of materials. I find each year more and more ways to kind of talk through similar conceptual issues in different ways, in different parts. … I think it helps students move away from thinking, “Well, what I’m learning about is Greek people.” So much as, “What I’m doing is I’m becoming a humanist. I’m becoming somebody who can think through human culture.” So I really like that. On a personal level, I feel like I’m much better educated. I feel like in an odd way, the old syllabus sort of deprived me of the kind of width that everyone else was getting by teaching somebody else’s stuff, right?

The Hum faculty received a $1 million grant from the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation to support revamping the course in 2018, including hiring a new professor and running summer seminars with specialists in both the Harlem Renaissance and Mexican history. And a group of faculty visited Mexico City to see, in person, many of the artifacts and artworks that would be on the new syllabus.


In September 2018, the first year that the new course was to be adopted, the Religion Department unanimously voted not to teach the spring syllabus of the course. In February, they’d released an official statement expressing concern that the way the modular curriculum was conceived “runs diametrically opposed to how religion works” as a discipline. This was a big deal: never before had a department voted not to teach in Hum 110—and given how teaching Hum can boost the number of faculty a department has, when a Religion professor retired a few years later, no tenure-track replacement was approved by the relevant committee. Ken Brashier, then chair of the department, told The Quest in an interview: “If Hum 110 had focused on only the Mediterranean, Africa, or South America for an extended framework, religion would be fine with full participation.”

KAMBIZ: Before the faculty voted, I was there at the meeting, so I had said that if they vote for this four cities model, we wouldn’t be able to teach it. But the faculty voted for it anyway. And then, so afterwards we said, okay, so we said we can’t teach it. Can we introduce changes in that model that allows it? So we said, for example, and instead of having Greek in the first semester, Athens and Jerusalem, why don’t we look at the Persian Empire as this first sort of empire that connected these diverse regions of the world, focus rather than on borders and cities, on roads that connect the cities. But it got voted down, and at that point, I’m not sure it got voted down out of spite because it was coming out of the Religion Department, or whether people disagreed with it. I remember one, one faculty member saying that they thought it was too complicated for a first-year class to do something of that sort. But if we’re completely honest, it has to do with the fact that our faculty’s not trained that way.

It came out in the way that the other departments handled the Religion Department’s decision.

KAMBIZ: The thing we would often hear was like, we don’t understand what your problem is. Like you’re saying, like, you don’t know enough about Mexico City to teach it, but like, did you know about Rome? Why, why were you comfortable teaching about Rome? Well, I wasn’t teaching about Rome, and I was teaching about the Bible, and there’s also different stakes between teaching about Mexico City and teaching about the Bible! So we have like Catholic students—not many of them, but devout Catholic students— coming into the department complaining about the way in which the Catholic church is being represented as the hegemon that comes and, you know, <laugh> colonizes the Americas. And so I can’t see like how we could responsibly and ethically participate in those structures unless we are actually given some sort of level of platform to be able to introduce changes in them.

It’s absolutely true that other professors said they didn’t understand where the Religion Department was coming from. I asked every single professor I spoke with why the Religion Department left, and with one exception, they all told me they didn’t get it, or if they did get it, that the department’s criticisms didn’t hold water, or that they wouldn’t teach their own disciplines the way it’s taught in Hum, so why should Religion insist on the point?

KAMBIZ: I think the reason, the reason why the study of religion is a bit more radical in these regards, is because we have had to pay for the mistakes that we made. So like, going into other people’s religions and misreading them and misunderstanding, and misrepresenting them. And how dangerous that could be if you don’t have enough information, enough training in those fields to do that. So there was a lot of discomfort among a lot of our faculty who didn’t have that training to expand it to other traditions, right? And then the other thing is that we had developed ways of thinking relationally because of that. So while we could say that, like, scripture in Hinduism is not the same thing, we could also say pretty confidently that the idea of scripture in Hinduism changed after Europeans came and said, “Where’s your scripture?” <laugh> And so we have developed ways of thinking about comparison, not in terms of like, “Here’s a category, here’s a category. What are their similarities and differences?” But rather how it is that by talking to each other, people bring different concepts. And then those concepts change in relationship to one another, to give us new concepts.

In a lot of ways, it sounds to me like the way that anthropology—as conceived in the 19th and 20th centuries—has had to reckon with its own existential origins as an academic discipline, in a way that English, for example, has not. Sure, English has had its own post-colonialisms and structuralisms but it’s still entirely possible to look at literature in a vacuum (in fact some forms of literary theory demand it). Even a text like Edward Said’s Orientalism assumes a certain Eurocentric position, even as it critiques it. (Anthropology professors, not incidentally, do not teach Hum.) The danger of comparison, to Kambiz, comes out in the papers that each student has to write over the course of the year. Usually, a couple of different prompts are given, and students turn in papers of their choice to their individual conference leaders for feedback.

KAMBIZ: There was a prompt that was given for one of the essays that actually said, like, “Compare the way Athena talks to Odysseus in the Odyssey to the way Yahweh talks to Moses in Exodus.” And immediately I was like, I don’t want you writing on this. These aren’t the same things, <laugh> just because gods are talking, they’re not the same gods. They’re not saying conceptions of god, divine speech does not equate these things or make them commensurable in any way. So that those types of comparisons that seem like from a literary perspective to be totally fine, from a religious studies perspective are gonna lead to complete misunderstandings of the Bible, what’s happening in these places. …

Students made that criticism, too—in April 2022, three students co-wrote an op-ed in The Quest about an essay prompt from the third module. Students were asked to argue for or against the position that the Tira de la Peregrinación, from the Mexica people, is “finished” or not, using the imagery and one lecture and a handful of secondary sources. “It worries us,” the students write, “that Reed professors consider it appropriate to teach first-years that they can impose their interpretations upon other groups’ expressions of their own histories and identities without the careful interrogation of their own positionalities.” Another prompt asked students to compare mythologies—an Aztec origin myth to that of the Greek gods or Horus—“with attention to similarities and differences in how they treat competition and alliance among the gods.”

KAMBIZ: There was another incident where one of my students from that class was so excited about the paper she had written for the Harlem unit. It was a poet who had essentially written a sonnet about, God, why have you made a Black man into a poet, when Black people can’t speak. And the example that he gives is like, why did you make the mole and then make it blind? Why did you make your son and then sacrifice your son? Anyone who is familiar with Christianity would know that that’s a reference to Jesus. So the poet, by comparing himself to Jesus. The student had never read the New Testament or was not familiar with Christianity, but had read the Hebrew Bible ’cause that’s what is taught in Hum 110. And so she thought this is a reference to Adam. And so she came to write this paper that was beautifully written about what a self-loathing poet this person is who’s adopting a European model of the sonnet to talk about his experiences, which completely leads to a misunderstanding of what was going on, right? <laugh>. And that he’s actually drawing on the most valued redemptive suffering and existence in Western civilization to elevate his suffering, right? To show like, what could we learn from it? So I actually mentioned this to the Hum 110 faculty, and instead of rethinking the structure of the course, they just took out the poem <laugh>.

Interestingly, Pancho had that same critique.

PANCHO: In the Harlem Renaissance section, we used to do Jean Toomer’s Cane, which I personally think is the most important text to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. People found it difficult to teach. And so after we did it for two years, maybe, they voted to cut it off the syllabus. And I was incredibly upset and I made that very clear. People made the decision not based on intellectual reasons, they made the decision based on their own comfort.

Pancho’s criticisms of the new course run even deeper, and they relate particularly to the way that the Harlem module is taught. Not the syllabus—he designed it.

PANCHO: And before we started teaching it, I led a seminar for faculty members that lasted for a week, at least four hours each day for an entire week. And I went over every single thing we were going to read and talked about how to teach it, what were the issues that were coming up, et cetera, et cetera. Very early on it became clear to me that there was a problem. At this point I was and had been the only Black faculty member in Hum 110 for the entire existence of the course, which goes back to the 1940s … And the conclusion that I came to was that the faculty was uptight about talking about race. And that manifested itself in various ways. Most prominently people would talk about form and not talk about content. And I was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt the first year because it was new material. I knew they were uptight about it. Second year, third year, fourth year, and basically nothing changed. I constantly asked my students to talk to their friends in other Hum conferences and find out what’s going in them. And my students universally reported to me that their friends were all very frustrated because faculty members were not really talking about race. I find it interesting that they don’t have any problem teaching the Mexico City material because it’s not as close to home.

Albert Kerelis is one of Pancho’s thesis students now, but they were also in his Hum conference.

ALBERT: I remember there was a lecture on W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, and the lecturer was clearly far more into their European literary theory than they were their  African-American studies. And they spent their whole lecture just talking about Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, and like barely any time contextualizing it to the U.S. There was another one on like the series of paintings about the Great Migration and almost no discussion of the historical context of why the Great Migration happened. And there was a lecture that was certainly academically interesting about like color theory,  but it didn’t really feel like it was contextualized to the politics that we were told these modules were built to address.

Albert isn’t the only student dissatisfied with Hum 110, nor—like some professors suggested to me—is it only students in Pancho’s conference.

EDEN: I took Hum twice. I took Hum again after taking a leave from school. And it  was because my freshman year I wasn’t really able to manage taking the course <laugh> on top of activism, everything. So  overall, I would say I had a positive experience. I think I was better able to engage with the text, um, especially knowing how much effort was put into thinking through what this course would look like. There were some things I was kind of disappointed in, in the way that the conference leader approached talking about it. Because I think there is this sense that we had to make these texts somehow relatable. Um, because it’s like, how do we get, you know, freshmen <laugh> who may or may not have ever seen these texts before, to be able to relate to the text? And maybe that’s not even the  necessary pedagogical approach. Yeah, the syllabus is technically a little bit more diverse, but being a Black student, oftentimes the only Black student in the room in conference, um, engaging in, you know, The Souls of Black Folk or reading Zora Neale Hurston—I mean, I don’t know. I think just, I just kind of felt a sense of, like, I had to engage with the text in a very particularly meaningful way. Um, I just felt like maybe sometimes it was hard to fully be a student. Like I felt like I had to also be a representative <laugh>

In March 2021, when Albert was a freshman, they co-wrote an article with Mud Bentley that surveyed classmates about their views on Hum 110. You can’t really get more Reed than this article: it opens with a bunch of students suggesting better translations of the Iliad to read. But students continue with other critiques. Cleopatra Devalier-Vasquez said, “Almost no focus is put on understanding the culture, the original text, or how to read for bias in a translation.” Beau Crawford bemoaned the short role that Persia plays. Carver Buchanan said Egypt is “looked at in the same way as the classics, like it isn’t relevant anymore, when it really is.”

Albert and Mud followed up that article with a second, specifically on race and Hum 110, in April 2021—the third year of the revised syllabus. Vic Dudek-Tipton said: “It feels as though Reed is keeping race-based discussions in the shallow end of the pool for the comfort of their white students, not at all pushing for more critical conversations.” Kokoro Kageyama said professors tiptoe around race: “This kind of avoidance is not beneficial in any way, and it would just create another generation of people who are scared or frustrated and just not able to properly discuss race.”

This survey opened the floodgates. At the end of the month, Olivia Hicks asked, “What was the point?” “The content of the HUM 110 syllabus is so random that the cultural literacy that the original hum syllabus attempted to give is being lost,” Hicks wrote. “However, that by no means is an argument to bring back the original syllabus (which had a frankly racist and eurocentric tone). But tacking on Mexico and Harlem in the second semester is a duct-tape fix.”

ALBERT: Another complaint that I heard from a lot of students of color is that Hum classrooms were not always the safest feeling places to them. ’Cause you get a bunch of rich white kids and tell them that they should talk about race at their leisure. And we’re not always the best at doing that without insulting people or hurting people’s feelings. When some student would say something out of pocket, um, it would go unchecked by professors and a lot of students that I talked to expressed a desire for professors to step in a little bit more often, um, because it’s exhausting to have to stand up for your minority viewpoint in a group of people that don’t always appreciate that. There were classes where people would bring up problems with how either lectures or their conference leader handled issues of race and conference leaders would respond really negatively and defensively at times when students wanted to have a more open conversation about those sorts of things. I’ve heard that echoed by some professors as well, that they don’t know how to talk about issues of race in the classroom, or that they feel like they’re going to accidentally say something problematic and get canceled for it, so they’re scared to teach second-semester Hum.

KRITISH: Talking about race in general is challenging in a Reed classroom, partly because Reed is a predominantly white institution. So in my class, most students are white and there would be a few students of color, and that itself creates an atmosphere where talking about race becomes difficult, right? … And not everyone had a classroom or a school or community that’s diverse, right? And so a part of the challenge in teaching the course is also teaching the students how to talk about it thoughtfully. And students are afraid of making mistakes because of the sensitivity of the issue, and that also results in them not engaging.

In February 2022, Eva Goeke wrote in an op-ed of the second semester of Hum: “My family crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico in the ’80s following the purposeful destruction of our indigenous village. … I have been expected to read texts about the systematic and intentional genocide of my ancestors and then come to conferences and discuss them as though these events are a thing of the past.. … Even the art used in the current curriculum was interpreted with a heavy western Christian lens which was not only culturally insensitive but had no academic backing for the assumptions made about our gods. Then there were lectures in which professors speaking with presumed authority mispronounced the few indigenous words included in the course and times when our art was called ‘scary’. …. Promoting non-western cultures through a western scope is not better than ignoring them.”

ALBERT: What I ran into a lot of in Hum was kind of trying to, um, abstract the humanities.  To, to look at specific instances as examples of like, broader archetypes or ideas. And I think that’s kind of how a lot of professors will justify moving away from discussions of race when we get to Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance is th at they have this belief that what’s most important isn’t the particular situation of the writers, but the kind of like broader human ideal they access, right? That’s the model that a lot of people have about the humanities.

I asked other professors whether they thought the Hum syllabus, or Hum conferences, were adequately discussing race.

NIGEL: You can probably find pretty much any position on Hum if you talk to, you know, a range of faculty members and a range of students. And what does “not adequately” mean? I guess all I can say is I, I think actually we do a pretty good job and we certainly do a much better job than we used to. And I would be surprised if there are many freshman programs out there that do as adequate a job. I think it’s really important that conversations around race and ethnicity are not just kind of hived off into kind of specialist subjects. Right, that, well, you might talk about race or ethnicity in sociology, right? It’s a central question in the humanities, it needs to be in there.

JAN: You know, people are aware it can look like a kind of token effort or something. That’s totally a possibility … And again, one doesn’t know what happens conference to conference. Maybe some of these things are avoided. Maybe these things aren’t explored. On the other hand, you know, sometimes things are happening where the students aren’t always aware that they’re happening. <laugh> I mean, I don’t know. I look at the syllabus, particularly the spring, and I’m like, I don’t know how you wouldn’t always be talking about race. Now, would the students think you were always talking about race—that’s a different question .

NATHALIA: I think one of the real challenges here is what has always been the challenge of a Reed conference, is getting people to use conference as a space in which they engage in conversation with others in this sufficiently open-minded way to question their own preconceptions. You know, that seems to be a really, really crucial aspect of what the work of conference is.

Students are reading different content. But are they being taught to read that content any differently? One of the most glaring examples of this, to Kambiz, is how the course once again overlooked the contributions of Islam to the West. And no matter that it broadens the idea of “civilization” and finally includes Black writers on the syllabus; the new course reproduces the very erasures that Humanities 110 had engaged from the beginning.

KAMBIZ: Often we talk about Islam and the West, we do this much less now, but we used to do a lot more of it. It completely ignores the fact that there are Muslims who have lived in the West. And immediately when you look at that history, you come to realize how integrated that Atlantic Muslims were in that making up the Atlantic world. Like, so we study Harlem, but we don’t study Malcolm X in Harlem, <laugh> as central as that was. And to study Malcolm X in Harlem means to remember that a lot of the slaves that were being brought from West Africa were either under Muslim rule or were Muslims themselves. Similarly you know, to look at Mexico City is also to remember that Columbus was really trying to look for trade routes that could get around Muslim-controlled territories to regain Jerusalem from Muslims. So when the idea of Europe was being constructed from “Latin Christendom” to “the West,” that relationship was something that they had to erase. The places in which we see Islam is present doesn’t fit into the narrative that we are producing. The narrative in the past was the triumph of the West, narrative now is the horrible imperialistic, colonizing things that the West has done, but it’s ultimately about the West. <laugh> And it’s ultimately about Europe.

In 2020, Kambiz ended up issuing possibly the greatest subtweet of all time, in the form of a course called Religion 227.

KAMBIZ: I went and developed a whole year-long course to talk about the erasure of Muslims in Western humanities. Not a single person has come to me to say, do you think Hum 110 is erasing Muslims <laugh>? How is it doing that? Which suggests that people are not really thinking about the larger pedagogical issues that they have the opportunities to think about the structural issues. When I teach that course, we look at some archival material from Hum 110, some sort of old syllabi and also some reviews of the curriculum. And already in the 1970s, there were critiques about how Eurocentric it is and how it was not representative of the advances being made in the humanities in the 1970s. And already then there was a critique about how it excludes Islam and how it includes excludes women’s voices. And Reed’s response to that was to change the syllabus to cover Greece and Rome as opposed to what it used to do, which was Greece all the way to the Middle Ages.

In a sense, Kambiz and Pancho have identified the same problem from different angles: structurally, in the syllabus, and pedagogically, in the execution, Hum 110 isn’t dealing with the original charges of the protests. And it’s a problem that I think has come in all kinds of ways at Reed since 2016—and even before, and even at other institutions. Making big changes, but changes that don’t address the underlying problems, or that only do so at a surface level. Changing the content, but not changing the lens through which you’re looking at it—or at yourself.

JAN: So Classicists will say, our discipline is so self-critical. We are challenging all these things, da da da. And then they’ll go and say something, which it’s like, it betrays that entirely in my eyes, <laugh> you know? To give you an interesting example, alright, the classics department at Reed renamed itself “Greek, Latin, and Mediterranean.” And when they were presenting this on the floor of the faculty, a colleague spoke up and said, “You know, you say you’re, you’re doing this for some progressive reason, but to me this almost seems regressive because now what you’re doing is you’re foregrounding Greek and Latin as if they were the only languages. That’s, those are the ones you teach. Sure. But you’re now making it seem as though they are hegemonic in the ancient Mediterranean. So you thought you were improving it on a sort of ideological level, but you aren’t.”

KAMBIZ: Oh, we’re doing ancient Mediterranean, so are we gonna, are you gonna start teaching Hebrew and Arabic? <laugh> No one’s excited about teaching Hebrew and Arabic

JAN: And the person from the classics department who was presenting this, I’ll not mention their name, um, sort of blinked and said, “Well, this is what we do.” I mean, I don’t know if they even understood the criticism. Again, this is a public event. This is not, you know, something behind closed doors.  So, so anyway, that’s just to say like, everybody has a different standard of what is or isn’t self-critical. Um, sure. We have always made gestures, and I don’t mean gestures towards challenging the Greek miracle da da. But there’s a simple fact that by having a course that everybody has to take, that spends so much time on Greece, that you are privileging Greece, full stop. It does not matter if all you did was bash on Greece the whole time. You’re still telling every student who comes to Reed College ever in the history of the college, it’s worth our while to spend three months bashing these people. Wow. They must be really important.

So, is Hum 110 still all about the West? Can you talk about the Greeks for this long without putting them on a pedestal? Next week, we’ll talk to some self-critical classicists to figure it out.

T. H. M. GELLAR-GOAD: You can’t really understand the field of classics without understanding this history of its connections with white supremacy and its role in modern racial formation and some of the fascist and other eugenicist movements out there in the 19th and 20th centuries. … Teaching theoretical lenses, approaches, ways of understanding history, ways of understanding a text, is really vital. And I think that that necessarily points to discussions about what has been used historically to understand these cultures, these periods, these texts, and what are the shortfalls, what are the gaps that that’s left. 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.


This episode was produced by me, Stephanie Bastek, with original music by Rhae Royal. Audio storytelling consulting by Mickey Capper. Thank you to Addison Bates, Eden Daniel, Mary James, Libby Drumm, Roger Porter, Jan Mieszkowski, Pancho Savery, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Peter Steinberger, Nathalia King, Kritish Rajbhandari, Nigel Nicholson, and Albert Kerelis for speaking with me. Thanks also to the current students and very recent alumni who spoke to me on background about Hum 110, though tellingly, none of them wanted their names on the record. T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, the last voice we heard, is associate professor of classics at Wake Forest University. 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.


Correction: The original podcast misrepresented the faculty composition of the Religion department after it stopped teaching in Humanities 110; when the tenured faculty member in question retired, the relevant committee approved a visiting position rather than a tenure-track appointment.

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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