Sing, Muse

Exploding the Canon, Episode 1

Dale Cruse/Flickr
Dale Cruse/Flickr

At Reed College in 2016, a student group named Reedies Against Racism began protesting the syllabus of the mandatory freshman humanities course and the college’s perceived failure to support Black students. After a year of sustained action, the students won the largest-ever revision of Humanities 110—but half a decade on, emotions are still raw. Smarty Pants host Stephanie Bastek graduated from Reed in 2013, and she returned last year to find out how much the culture had really changed.

 

  • Humanities 110 Syllabi: 2009-10, 2016-17, 2023-24
  • This graph, created by Skyline College professor Mick Song, depicts the regions represented by Hum 110 syllabi from 1944–2015 (omitting years where data are incomplete or lacking from the archives altogether):

Mick Song

Featured voices in this episode: Nigel Nicholson, Jan Mieszkowski, Peter Steinberger, Nathalia King, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Pancho Savery, Libby Drumm, and Eden Daniel. Reed College documentary audio from Give Up Steam (1991) by Daniel Levin. Newsreel commentators: Michael Jones and Jennifer Kabbany.

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Transcript:

A few years ago, I was surprised to see my alma mater making headlines—a lot of headlines. You see, I went to Reed College, a tiny liberal arts school of 1450 undergraduates in Portland, Oregon. A fellow Reedie once described it as something like a cult film: few people have heard of it,  but those who have debate it fiercely. It’s a little weird, a place split between a weekday devotion to “the life of the mind” and a weekend propensity for letting loose. Every senior writes a thesis that they have to defend in front of an orals board, then celebrates by ritually burning the drafts in a barrel set outside the library; they’re crowned with laurels and doused with champagne. The weekend that follows is called Renn Fayre, a wild party that started as an ode to Humanities in 1968, and was immortalized in a 1991 documentary by Reedie Daniel Levin:

GIVE UP STEAM DOCUMENTARY VO: Started by then-senior Linda Howard, Renn Fayre was to be a recreation of the past, bringing the Humanities curriculum to life. Today Renn Fayre has according to many lost its roots, becoming a mere party, an empty, mindlessly repeated ritual of hedonism and depravity.

But that’s matched by a rigorous curriculum, with no grade inflation and sweeping course requirements both inside and outside your major. In lieu of disclosing grades, professors provide lengthy course evaluations in writing and during office hours. This is what I thought Reed was famous for. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came a story in The Atlantic called “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country.” Suddenly, mainstream newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, joined by plenty of far-right and libertarian outlets, began weighing in with opinions about my alma mater.

THE COLLEGE FIX VO 1: So it started with them protesting a class because it was too white, too Eurocentric …

THE COLLEGE FIX VO 2: Instead of telling these young people, “Hey! You don’t come to college and tell us what to teach you. You come to college and we tell you what’s important to learn, what’s important to understand, including the underpinnings of Western civilization.

And all because of a student-led push to change the curriculum of Reed’s mandatory freshman course, Humanities 110, and the work of a student group called Reedies Against Racism, which formed in the fall of 2016. The students alleged that the course—which at the time they took it focused largely on Greece, Rome, and the Hebrew Bible, with a smattering of the wider ancient Mediterranean—was too Eurocentric, that it prioritized a whitewashed curriculum that erased the contributions of Black and brown cultures. They spent the entire 2016–17 school year silently protesting with signs and slogans during the Hum 110 lecture, organizing teach-ins, and meeting with faculty and staff. Spoiler: the students won, and Reed debuted a revised Hum 110 course in the 2018-19 school year. Everyone had an opinion about the protests while they were happening and about the changes when they were announced, from the alumni Facebook group to the faculty to the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, with its headline, “Reed College Bows to the Bullies.”

It’s been five years, so I thought I’d check in. Not just as a nosy alumna, who wants to see whether any of her pet critical  theorists made their way onto the syllabus, but as an evangelist for the importance of the liberal arts and for righting historical wrongs that continue to shape our society. The years of the student protests, 2016 and 2017, overlapped with a lot of other Trump-era reckonings with racism, patriarchy, Euro-centrism, and many other isms. It’s worth investigating, in the aftermath of those fights, just how far institutions like Reed College actually went in addressing the root causes of these social illnesses, not just their symptoms.

Protests make the news, institutions pledge to change, and then, usually, no one really follows up—and, in fact, promised reforms rarely take place. At least not for long, as new programs are quietly defunded and new diversity hires are let go, sometimes quietly, sometimes not. Before immersing myself in this story again, my hypothesis was: everyone from the alt-right to the New York Times made such a stink about these student protests, but the kids are all right. Reed listened, marginalized students got more institutional support, and the curriculum is certainly not perfect but the media response to these protests was out of proportion and often mean.

Then I returned to campus for my 10-year reunion, sat down with a few professors, and learned that all was not right in the house of Hum. Over the course of my two trips to Reed this summer, and in conversations with current students, alumni, and faculty, I learned that no one is entirely pleased with the new curriculum. The content of the course might have changed, but something about the way it’s taught seems to still dissatisfy students and professors alike—and by some accounts inadequately addresses race and imperialism, the original charges of the protests. It’s a story I’m interested in and close to as a Reedie, but one that I think parallels how a lot of the other “sea-changes” of the past five years might just have been ripples, or might have led to compromises that just end up treading water.

I’m not an unbiased party here—I graduated 10 years ago and went through a Hum 110 syllabus that was only slightly different from the one students protested in 2016. Most of the professors you’ll be hearing from this series were my professors—and, in keeping with Reed tradition, we’ll be using first names—and a couple of them changed the way I thought. And part of why I went to Reed was to get knocked around intellectually, to be told what I should learn in order to be a thoughtful person, and Hum 110 was certainly part of that. Reed’s divisional requirements and syllabi told me that reading about Greece, Rome, and the Hebrew Bible was important, so I thought it was important—and I still do. None of the criticisms raised by the protesters in 2016 even occurred to me at the time, and one reason they didn’t is because I came from an affluent white family. I definitely noticed that Reed, and Portland, was much whiter than my public high school in Rockville, Maryland, but by virtue of who I am, I didn’t have to think about why—and no one taught me to. But in the 14 years since I passed through that lecture hall, I’ve done a lot more reading of books that weren’t assigned at Reed, that didn’t come up in my required classes, and a lot more thinking, about how the idea of “the West” came to be and what it means. In the process, my understanding of the world and of the canon’s place in it has fundamentally changed. And I’ve learned a lot more about Reed’s own history, including parallel fights for a Black Studies program in the 1960s, and the history of Hum 110 construction and revision. I think it’s good that Reed changed the curriculum in response to Reedies Against Racism, but I don’t think they changed it enough.

Over the next four episodes, we’re going to use the Hum 110 revisions as a case study in how institutions respond to social change, and how the humanities are changing. The title of this podcast, Exploding the Canon, is inspired by the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, associate professor of classics at Princeton, whom we’ll hear from in a later episode, along with other classics professors who are reconsidering the way they teach Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Mediterranean amid a sea of white supremacy. We’ll also hear from professors who started teaching at Reed in the 1960s and those who started teaching in the 2010s. Core organizers from Reedies Against Racism will talk about why they fought to change Hum 110 in 2016, and members of the Black Student Union will talk about why they fought for a Black Studies Program in 1968. And we’ll hear from In some ways, Reed was ahead of the curve in addressing these issues before 2020, when the George Floyd uprisings scared a lot of institutions into hurried diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism initiatives. In a lot of other ways, as we’ll see, Reed was having a fight in 2017 that a lot of other schools had already had in the 1990s—and that Reed itself had also had before, with earlier generations of student protest, from 1968 to 2008. But those protests didn’t lead to an overhaul of the course. So what was different this time?

To answer that question, I first have to explain what’s different about Reed College.

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A lot of liberal arts colleges have “core humanities” programs, and a few have “Great Books” programs. Reed’s Hum 110 course has been around since 1943, though the number of semesters required, and the centuries and civilizations covered, has varied quite a bit in its 80 year history. It was originally modeled on Columbia’s Core Curriculum, but unlike Columbia, the school has declined to participate in college rankings for decades, it has no fraternities or sororities, and its most competitive sports teams are women’s rugby and ultimate frisbee clubs. I didn’t find out my grades in any of my courses until I requested my final transcript in senior year to apply for fellowships and grants; and there’s no grade inflation.

When I was accepted, I received an envelope full of glitter and a copy of The Iliad, which I was expected to read in its entirety before I got to Portland. The first day of my Hum 110 conference in 2009, I was greeted, as so many hundreds of students before me had been greeted, by a pantheon of upperclassmen dressed in dorm bed sheets and plastic laurels, pouring libations upon the steps of Vollum Lecture Hall …

GIVE UP STEAM DOC: Son of Kronos, our father, o lordliest of the mighty, we know already your strength and how none can stand up against it!

… thereby inducting a new set of freshmen into Reed’s introduction to the humanities—which looked a lot like a classics course, with some unusual attributes.

Nigel Nicholson is a professor of Greek, Latin, and the Ancient Mediterranean, and the current chair of Humanities 110:

NIGEL: Basically then Hume was Greece, Rome, and the Bible —the classical and the biblical sort of put together. There were also some things that were sort of remarkable in the context of higher ed, that I really liked. The fact that it was a team taught class, the fact that the vast majority of the, the professors were permanent tenured or tenure track, right? Lots of senior people taught in the class, it clearly had kind of heft and centrality and status in the institution. It wasn’t just a sort of a dumping ground for adjunct faculty, people kind of placed on the margins in some ways. And I think people who weren’t in it felt that they were sort of missing institutional opportunities, which is really interesting.

Jan Mieszkowski is a professor of German and Humanities:

JAN: There was a kind of self-mythologizing. I mean, Reed itself has, you know, like all, like all institutions, but certainly like liberal arts colleges in particular, you know, Reed creates its own sort of mythology. And Hum was really good at that for a certain period of time. You know, the course had this kind of mythic cast. It was almost this epic event. And, and, you know, people would buy into it partly ’cause it’s useful, like to teach, it’s for the faculty, it’s useful if the students think it’s really, really important.

When I took Hum 110, and when a lot of professors I spoke with for this series first started teaching in the course, the first semester was all Greece: Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, the dramatists, the lyricists Plato, Aristotle. The second semester was Rome—Ovid, Plotinus, Livy, Tacitus, Augustus—then the Old Testament and St. Augustine. In 2010, the last thing we read was this riot of a text called The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, which has been called a proto-novel and shares certain characteristics with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Peter Steinberger, professor of political science, has been teaching in the course since 1977:

PETER: The beauty of Hum 110 in my view is that … we place the various disciplines in the context of one another. So we read Plato in the context of Euripides, we read, we read Aeschylus in the context of Herodotus. We look at the Parthenon in the context of Plato and Thucydides, et cetera, et cetera. So we get students to be able to understand the disciplines by comparing and contrasting one discipline, to another by looking at the same set of problems, same set of materials, for example, understanding the Peloponnesian War, understanding Athenian democracy or Athenian imperialism and so on and so forth. Um, and so that’s the basic idea of the humanities course, introducing students to notions of how to think, how to read stuff and how to analyze stuff.

A lot of that certainly takes place in other humanities courses at other liberal arts colleges. Hum 110 features three hour-long lectures Monday, Wednesday, Friday, every week for two semesters, and hundreds—honestly, probably thousands—of pages of reading over two semesters, along with the hours spent looking at sculptures and paintings and other forms of art.

Nathalia King is professor of English and Humanities:

NATHALIA: I think it’s absolutely crucial to Hum that there be components, that there be texts that are philosophical, historical, that there be art historical materials, elements of material culture, obviously literature. I think the intersection of all of those forms of expression is really crucial to what Hum does. So it opens apertures onto the way in which different aspects of a culture intersect. I think at the same time, in a very important way, Hum functions to resist the notion that we can, as intellectuals or scholars gain complete mastery of any period. Piercing the illusion of mastery, especially for students who are American in origin and potentially also for students who are relatively privileged, is to engage in a kind of counter-cultural intellectual activity.

Key to developing that intellectual humility, to piercing that veil, is Reed’s absolute devotion to the conference method, which puts small groups of students together in conversation with each other and a professor. To give you a sense of how pervasive this is, for the current school year, the only classes that are exclusively lectures are science courses—and Philosophy 201: Logic, which from what I understand of it might as well be a science course. Everything else in the course catalog is either conference only, or conference with a lecture component.

When Pancho Savery, professor of English, came to Reed in 1995, the word baffled him.

PANCHO: Everybody in the world uses the word seminar, why are you using the word conference? And I thought it was just a fancy Reed lingo, but it turns out that it wasn’t fancy Reed lingo. Seminar means there’s a small number of people in the room, but it doesn’t tell you what happens in the room. To me, conference not only means there’s a small number of people in the room, but it means that the primary educational energy in the classroom is coming from the students. It’s not coming from me. I’m not here to teach anybody anything. I am here to create the right environment such that students can both teach themselves and more importantly contribute to the educational experience of the other people in the room. … To me, the best classes are the classes in which I speak the least. … In the fall we study for some amount of time Greek democracy. And to the extent that Greek democracy was successful, it was successful because the citizens were all taking an active part in the process. And so what I am trying to do in the classroom is to recreate the notion of a Greek poli. And we are all citizens of this class. And the class is only be only going to be successful if everybody in the room takes on their share of the responsibility to make it good. Which means I want to hear everybody’s voice every time we meet.

The whole conference method, really beginning with Hum 110, emboldens you as an 18-year-old to start thinking independently, to start thinking of yourself as a scholar with something to contribute—even if initially it’s just contributing to the conversation. And I know this is going to sound horribly trite, but the conference method can be really mind-blowing—I can still remember puzzling over certain Kafka stories in my German classes, using conversation to work out meanings and debate the significance of a single word, figuring out collectively what a certain literary theorist was really saying in that word salad. Hum 110 is the Reed student’s introduction to being taken seriously like that—and to thinking in a certain way.

JAN: The great advantage of this class is that every first year student sees such a bizarre diversity of professors and methods. Now, again, I don’t know how much you get of that, but, but, but you are, you’re being exposed to, and, and, you know, you can see that sometimes, like, someone will give a lecture and some student will be like, something will, like a light bulb will go off. Like, wow, that’s how I want to think about things. You know? And, and, and you know, and it’s great when it’s you, like someone comes up after your lecture, they’re like, who are you? What do you teach? It’s like you connected, you know, that’s amazing.

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, professor of religion, became a scholar of Islam as a result of taking the course:

KAMBIZ: I did my first year of undergraduate studies at Reed. So I went through the Hum program as a student too in 1991 … and it was actually that class that made me wanna study religion and reading the Bible in that class that made me want to study religion.

But when Kambiz came back to the school as a professor in 2002, his perspective on the course had sharpened.

KAMBIZ: I thought of the course as being pretty Eurocentric. I saw my role, as the person who was hired to teach Islamic studies, as introducing fissures in that structure. And over time I learned that there was a lot of room for that, to be able to critique the curriculum as we are participating in it. The other lecture that I had given several times was on the Bible, and at the time when I started teaching, we read the Bible in the middle of the semester on Rome. And my lecture was essentially about like, why are we reading Genesis in the middle of the Roman Empire when the text is not actually contemporaneous with that? And the answer was like, well, because we were actually much interested in the rise of Christianity, and we were looking at Genesis, not on its own terms, but how it helps us understand the rise of Christianity. And then both critiquing that as a way of saying like, this is how a Eurocentric curriculum is being developed, and also saying, well, how would it make sense to read it in this context? And it makes sense to read it as a book in that context, because in the Roman Empire, it’s actually a book. So doing this thing of both showing how this material could be taught in a different way, even if we don’t change it, to bring in the rest of the world. And also highlighting for students that they’re participating in the construction of a Western civilization course, despite what the faculty were saying.

Ah, yes, the Western civ course. I don’t think you could really argue that the original version of Humanities 110 wasn’t a Western civ course, as conceived by the Anglo-American educational tradition in the 19th century and cemented in the modern era by books like The Clash of Civilizations or From Plato to NATO. Originally, in the 1940s, Hum 110 used to run from Homer through the French Revolution—and decade by decade bits would be cut off the  end. Homer to Thomas Aquinas and Dante. Homer to St. Augustine. For a brief period it featured two tracks—medieval and modern humanities. But it always began with the Greeks, ended somewhere in Europe, and it never, ever, crossed the Atlantic.

That was true in 1995, when Nigel Nicholson began teaching in the then-classics department, and it was true in 2009, when I took the course.

NIGEL: Even then, I think a lot of us worried about the content broadly looking a bit like a kind of a Greek miracle in a certain kind of equation, right? The sort of glory that was Greece grandeur, that was Rome plus some kind of Judeo-Christian element equals modern civilization—something like that. And, over the years, you know, we worked hard to really kind of chip away at that. And people had already been doing that with, you know, different kinds of revision to the syllabus on some level. The syllabus had been getting shorter and fat for many years. … Contextual material, more material was being added so that students were getting a more historicized sense of culture, which, I think was, you know, all to the good. But equally, I think, um, you know, it was a broad feeling that, that it wasn’t enough?

JAN: Historically, the time I’ve been in Hum 110, there’s always been all sorts of self-critical gestures. I think it would be hard nonetheless for students to come away not thinking, well, the course says the Greeks are really important, and it didn’t say someone else was really important. You know, that’s just a fact. And it’s the nature, it’s the problem of a first year class like this that’s required. Whatever I put on it, I automatically make the jewel of the canon it, I could go grab a Doonesbury comic and put it on it, I have now canonized that for this college, for this community, intellectual community that’s just a given. Doesn’t matter what you put on the syllabus in that sense, that will happen.

Not everyone on the faculty kept their quibbles with the syllabus quiet, though. Pancho Savery came to Reed as a professor of English in 1995, and for far too long—for 25 years!—he was the only Black faculty member teaching in Hum 110.

PANCHO: I can’t begin to tell you how isolating that was for all of that time. … When I came to Reed, there was one Black faculty member, uh, who was Mary James in physics. And um, I was led to believe that in hiring me, uh, Reed was making a statement that it was going to make a sufficient effort to do a better job in recruiting more Black faculty. So even though Mary James came here a couple of years before me, it turns out that I am the first Black tenured full professor in the history of Reed College. And that is incredibly embarrassing.

There weren’t very many Black students in the classroom at that time, either, and there certainly weren’t any Black people on the Hum 110 syllabus. When I took the course, we didn’t read anything from the Egyptians, and all we heard about Persia was filtered through Herodotus—clearly an unbiased party. No Gilgamesh, no Mesopotamia. There are very few Hum 110 lectures I remember—but one of Pancho’s lectures is seared in my memory.

PANCHO: In the first year that you teach in the course, you are not required to give a Hum lecture. So my second year, I had to give one and I decided to give one on Herodotus, and I decided to do that because in his Histories, Herodotus says that the Greeks got all their ideas about art and religion and basically everything from the Egyptians. So in my lecture, I basically asked the question, if Herodotus is telling the truth, why isn’t Egypt part of the syllabus? And I had a long bibliography attached to my handout. I gave specific ideas of things that they could do. For example, when somebody was giving a lecture on Greek lyric poetry, why couldn’t they mention the fact that there was an older tradition of Egyptian lyric poetry when they talked about Greek poetry? Why couldn’t they talk additionally about the fact that that form is borrowed from the Egyptians? I gave that lecture for more than 10 years. And in that time period, absolutely zero happened.

Mine was the last class to hear that lecture, actually, because Pancho announced he was tired of giving it to an unhearing audience—and that very year, 2010, was the year that the faculty made one of those incremental, chipping changes that Nigel mentioned. Instead of mailing freshmen copies of The Iliad, Reed sent out … The Odyssey. Egyptian poetry like “The Tale of Sinuhe” is added to the syllabus. Aeschylus’s The Persians appears, and Genesis jumps into chronological place among the Greeks. The line “Various readings on Ancient Greece are available on library e-reserves” is replaced by “Various readings on the Archaic Mediterranean and Western Asia.”

And yet, the students were still not satisfied. Libby Drumm, professor of Spanish and Humanities, was Chair of Hum 110 in 2016 when Reedies Against Racism formed.

LIBBY: I think the question for us is, what does it take to change a curriculum that works well, that has allowed for great teaching over decades, really? What does it take to make a change like that when there are so many competing issues in, in views and perspectives? And it was fascinating. … we had, every 10 years, a decennial review of the department and of the humanities program. We moved up our review in response to the protests. And so a colleague and I were preparing the report for that, you have to have a study. And I was doing the history section and looked back at the previous review. And colleagues, mainly junior colleagues were saying, so don’t we wanna do something different? You know, have we thought about recently about changing this curriculum? And they didn’t get very far, but it made it into the report. I mean, this was all in the air. And so, um, well end of story, you know, what does it take to change a curriculum that’s so embedded in the history and culture of a community? A bunch of students protesting on the stage.

Next week, we’re going to talk about what those changes looked like—and talk to the protesters who made them happen.

EDEN: As a Black person at Reed, I just felt so invisible. I just felt so erased in a lot of ways.

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This episode was produced by me, Stephanie Bastek, with original music by Rhae Royal. Audio storytelling consulting by Mickey Capper.. Thank you to Nigel Nicholson, Jan Mieszkowski, Peter Steinberger, Nathalia King, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Pancho Savery, and Libby Drumm for taking the time to speak to me about events that still feel raw on campus. 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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