Students and Faculty Embrace Classic Readings, Modern Technology

Published: September 26, 2019

Literature Humanities can be described in many ways: ambitious, provocative, imposing, eye-opening.

It is the first class that freshmen encounter — embodied in the gift copy of The Iliad they receive during the summer from the Columbia College Alumni Association — and a formative experience, one whose influence extends well beyond the classroom. Its teaching methods have expanded with technology, and its texts and the conversations surrounding them have evolved with attitudes. Indeed, after 75 years, what may be most remarkable about Lit Hum is how what began as an effort to buck the academic establishment has proven itself an adaptable and indispensable pillar of the Columbia College experience.

The origins of Humanities A — as Lit Hum was called originally — go back to the first days of the Core Curriculum. Emboldened by a successful experiment with a “war issues” course during WWI, in 1919 the College launched Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West. A year later Professor of English John Erskine (Class of 1900), who had championed a “liberal” education against those who wanted more pre-professional training at the College, began his General Honors seminar, co-taught by two professors. This course, spread out across the junior and senior years, featured one “great book” per class, which was read in translation and discussed in small sections.

Erskine saw this effort as a remedy for what he and his colleagues perceived as “the literary ignorance of the younger generation.” But what was truly innovative was his approach, reading “The Iliad, The Odyssey and other masterpieces as though they were recent publications, calling for immediate investigation and discussion.” As much as it horrified some colleagues — especially those enamored of German-style instruction that emphasized memorization and rote learning — Erskine’s approach caught on, though its impact was limited to those students enrolled in the General Honors seminar.

Professor Gareth Williams teaches a Lit Hum course
Student in Lit Hum class
Student discussing Lit Hum text in Core class
Exploring Lit Hum in the Classroom

Gareth Williams, the Violin Family Professor of Classics and the chair of Lit Hum, says that to read the course's texts "is to introduce yourself to being unsettled about life. [The course] is intended to raise more questions than it answers and to nurture a curiosity about written human experience."

The seminar format, with no more than 22 student per class, is vital to Lit Hum's success.

Erskine was, and remains, a controversial figure in Columbia’s history. Charismatic, attention-grabbing and attention-seeking, he always had ambitions that went beyond being a college professor, including writing music, poetry and fiction. As his biographer Katherine Elise Chaddock has observed, Erskine became America’s first “celebrity professor,” recognized as much for his potboiler novels — such as The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925), which was made into a silent film — as for his educational achievements. These began pulling him away from Columbia, and by the late 1920s, when the College decided to require a second semester of Contemporary Civilization and abandon the General Honors course, Erskine was largely out of the picture.

But the seed Erskine planted had already taken root. In a few years, a handful of the College’s professors — including Jacques Barzun ’27, ’32 GSAS, Irwin Edman (Class of 1916, Class of 1920 GSAS) and Raymond Weaver (Class of 1910, Class of 1917 GSAS), who had been Erskine’s students — resurrected the General Honors course as the Colloquium in Important Books. The colloquium, which adopted both the scope and format of the General Honors course, was taught regularly, then sporadically, for decades.

More importantly, it planted the idea in some of the same faculty’s minds that this sort of course might be appropriate for all undergraduates, not just a select few who decided to enroll as juniors and seniors. Here the success of Literature Humanities’ older sibling, Contemporary Civilization, proved crucial. If the College’s freshmen could handle close reading and discussion in a small class format for CC, why not for literature?

The first College faculty meetings to draft a humanities course convened in 1934. The plan was to have a two-year humanities sequence in which undergraduates would confront literature, art and music, but difficulties in integrating music and art proved too much at first. Music Humanities and Art Humanities (together originally called Humanities B) became electives, but in fall 1937, the College introduced Humanities A as a new Core requirement.

In many ways, it’s striking how much of Erskine’s original vision lives on in today’s Literature Humanities. Classes generally still read one text per week, in translation. Students then discuss these texts in small sections, though there are a lot more of those sections now — about 65 — compared with only 20 when the course was created.

This format matters. “A student having book in hand each week makes a difference in conversation,” says Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, a former Lit Hum chair who will resume the post this fall. That’s why Lit Hum has never even flirted with the idea of creating readers, which were the backbone of reading assignments in Contemporary Civilization for decades and which have made a comeback at Columbia in recent years.

Lit Hum is a “course about problems people have never been able to solve.”

More importantly, the approach matters. Any entering first-year expecting a formal literature course is likely to be surprised by Literature Humanities, because the course’s ambitions are so much broader. As Dean James J. Valentini says, students in Lit Hum are expected to “engage with others in a broad way about big ideas specific to the human condition.”

It’s fair to say that this approach — what Valentini describes as “thinking in a broad way as a civilized person” — has puzzled many, both on and off campus. In the early 1960s, a College committee reviewing Lit Hum chaired by Professor Fritz Stern ’46, ’53 GSAS, now University Professor Emeritus, had difficulty understanding “the philosophical or pedagogical ends of the course.” While the committee didn’t suggest abandoning Lit Hum, it noted that the traditional justifications — such as thinking in a broad way about books — were “scorned by the committee.” Similarly, in a savage New Republic review of David Denby ’65, ’66J’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (1996) — in which Denby described retaking the Core in middle age — Harvard professor Helen Vendler bemoaned “Columbia’s tendency with literary texts, which is to fasten on the political and the moral over the erotic or aesthetic or epistemological; and such an emphasis is a standing invitation to correctness or incorrectness.”

Nevertheless, this emphasis on examining the human condition, approached through powerful and resonant works of literature, remains central to the Lit Hum experience and to a Columbia College education. As Edward Mendelson, the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, says, Lit Hum is a “course about problems people have never been able to solve.”

Kathryn Yatrakis, dean of academic affairs and senior associate v.p. for Arts and Sciences, underscores Lit Hum’s value as a bridge: “It provides a common intellectual experience that binds students to each other, and to generations of alumni.”

Here’s the answer to the most common question asked about Literature Humanities: The Iliad, Oresteia, Oedipus the King and Inferno. The question: What are the texts that have been read in Lit Hum every year since the course was first required? That’s it — four texts. (King Lear would make the cut were it not for several years when the syllabus only required students to read one Shakespeare play, leaving it to the teachers of each section to decide which one.)

For those who perceive Lit Hum as a staid, inflexible “great books” course, four texts is not a long list. Indeed, anyone who looks to Lit Hum for a fixed canon that all educated people should read is likely to be disappointed. Humanities A initially used most of Erskine’s original syllabus, as had the earlier colloquium. But the course’s administrators have since adapted the syllabus regularly to reflect faculty and student interests. Molière and Voltaire were represented for decades but have fallen off; in the past 20 years, most students have read Cervantes, Austen and Dostoevsky.

Gareth Williams, the Violin Family Professor of Classics and chair of Lit Hum, speaks for many instructors in rejecting the idea of a fixed list of “classic” books. “As a classicist, I object to that sort of viewpoint. The course is not a museum-like visit. It’s about the interrogation of texts,” he says. “I ask my students, why on earth read that book now?”

Mercer puts it another way: “We need to get the students to read the books and feel the importance of them.”

The variety of texts that have appeared on the syllabus during the last 75 years distinguishes Lit Hum both from great books programs, such as President Robert Maynard Hutchins’ original experiment at Chicago and the successful program at St. John’s College (in Annapolis and Santa Fe). Lit Hum always has been flexible about which texts it uses, and remains so. Indeed, this flexibility calls into question whether “great books” is an accurate description of the course at all.

The books that make it, explains Mercer, are the “books that people keep commenting on,” just as Virgil mined Homer but adapted him to the exigencies of imperial Rome. Mendelson says Lit Hum embraces “books that people have been arguing about.” The point isn’t that everyone likes them or agrees about them, he says. “The point is they’re disturbing.”

Williams agrees. “To read these texts is to introduce yourself to being unsettled about life,” he says. The course “is intended to raise more questions than it answers, and to nurture a curiosity about written human experience.”

Non-Columbians often don’t appreciate the significance of apparently incremental changes. “What is astonishing about Columbia’s Core offerings is how little they have changed over the years,” says The Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, who surveyed the “great books” movement at Chicago, St. John’s and Columbia in A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (2008). (Beam is the father of Christopher ’06.) But the faculty who teach the course disagree. “The course has never been the same because the context has always changed,” says Williams. “The generation of WWII had a different experience from the first Humanities A students,” and the Cold War, civil rights and women’s rights, he says, all affected the context in which the course was taught.

“The books that make the syllabus are the books that people keep commenting on.”

“Every generation has to reinvent Lit Hum,” agrees Mercer.

That has never been more true than today. “The Lit Hum experience now is completely different from 20 years ago because our students grew up with the Internet,” Williams says. “Students’ minds work differently,” he adds, because they are used to easy and immediate access to information.

Paradoxically, that makes Lit Hum more valuable than ever. Lit Hum encourages the process of “slowly unfolding a steady stream of argument,” says Williams, for students “accustomed to nearly instantaneous communication.” He believes that “certain areas of the human experience resist the technological hand,” and in Lit Hum, students “learn to formulate, deliver and defend arguments, both in speech and in writing.” And they learn to listen. “The art of listening is a fundamental aspect of Lit Hum,” Williams says.

This is not to give the impression that Lit Hum encourages a community of modern-day Luddites, rejecting technology and the Internet in favor of dog-eared paperbacks full of scribbles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under Mercer’s leadership, Lit Hum has developed a rich online presence to supplement class readings and discussion.

The thinking behind the website, says Mercer, was to make Lit Hum more intellectually engaging for students, more a part of their lives on campus. “We wanted to present Lit Hum as edgy as it really is,” she says. The goal was to make the course “more alive, more vital.” Mercer wanted students to be able to explore the contemporaneous worlds and artistic interpretations of their readings.

Using the theme of “explorations,” the website allows students to delve not simply into the context of Lit Hum texts but also into the conversations that have flowed from them. For The Iliad, for example, the website includes ancient depictions of the Trojan War from classical pottery and sculpture, examples of ancient arms and armor, and Renaissance depictions. But it also includes modern works, including streaming music — Bob Dylan’s “Temporary Like Achilles” (1966) and Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” (1976) — as well as a clip from the blockbuster film Troy (2004), starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Other texts are accompanied by materials ranging from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a 2001 musical about a rock ’n’ roll band with a transgendered German lead singer) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), a somewhat irreverent artistic response by Seth Grahame-Smith to Jane Austen’s masterpiece.

The website, says Williams, contextualizes readings and connects students to the history of discussion about them. “The website frames the texts,” he says. “It provides supportive picturing.”

Mercer sees this as an aid to instructors as well. “Teachers have to finesse how much time they spend on context in class,” she notes. The website makes this an easier task. It also provides additional resources for instructors such as secondary readings and classroom materials. 

“Each generation brings new tools to the course,” says Mercer. “Why shouldn’t we use all the tools available to us to make Lit Hum more engaging for students and easier for teachers to teach?”

The Lit Hum website has another motive: building connections among the Core courses. “I don’t want the whole to be less than the sum of its parts,” Mercer says. She envisions links between the Lit Hum website and its sister websites, say with the Lit Hum exploration of Montaigne linking to the Art Hum website’s information on Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “We want to help students see the connections between the parts of the Core,” she says.

“The value of technology is to expand the experience, to extend the interaction that students have in the classroom to out of the classroom,” Valentini says. “It is something that expands and enhances, not replaces.”

These sorts of educational enhancements wouldn’t have been imaginable 25 years ago, and not just because the Internet was in its infancy. The growth in the size of the College since the 1980s — along with the large number of engineers and, now, General Studies students who take Lit Hum — makes administering the course (indeed, all the Core) more of a challenge than ever. But the College’s commitment to the Core Curriculum has enabled it to meet the course’s obligations as well as implement a host of improvements.

In the late 1980s, the primary administrator for Lit Hum and CC was a junior administrator who presided over two cramped offices on the seventh floor of Hamilton Hall that were packed with filing cabinets stuffed with decades of records and old syllabi, shelves of Core books and a chronically malfunctioning photocopier. The course’s instructors had to wedge themselves into an East Campus conference room for their weekly staff meetings with the senior professor who served as the course’s chair.

Austin Quigley, dean emeritus of Columbia College and the Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature, made enhancing and institutionalizing the College’s commitment to the Core Curriculum a central thrust of his administration in the last half of the 1990s and the first years of the new century, and Lit Hum clearly benefited from this push. To recognize and support teaching, he created a set of eight Core chairs for senior faculty who taught Core courses and also established incentives for junior faculty who taught in the Core. In addition, the College instituted a Core Lecturers program, so today the Lit Hum and CC staffs are augmented by a handful of postdoctoral scholars who receive highly competitive two-year appointments with faculty rank and teach two sections per semester.

Valentini is working to take this to the next level. For the past year, he has been making plans to start an endowment for the Core — a financial foundation that will propel and enrich the Core’s future. As indicated in the Dean’s Message in this issue, this multi-year campaign is beginning now, and the first focus of the campaign is to provide the resources to enhance and enrich the experience of faculty and students in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization.

Lit Hum, CC and the other Core courses now are housed in the sleek, burnished Witten Center for the Core Curriculum, made possible through the generosity of former University Trustee Richard E. Witten ’75. Located off Hamilton Hall’s main lobby, the center is a vastly improved resource as well as a clear testament of the Core’s central place in the College.

“The value of technology is to expand the experience, to extend the interaction that students have in and out of the classroom.”

According to Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Roosevelt Montás ’95, ’04 GSAS, the center’s director, the center has become a vital meeting ground for the Lit Hum faculty. “It is a space where conversations happen,” he says.

The College has sought to expand conversations about the Core in other ways. The most dramatic has been the Core Scholars Program, another Mercer initiative, which was launched in the 2010–11 academic year. Each year the program invites any student who has completed a Core course to create a Core Reflection. The program encourages students to analyze, question, dramatize and interpret materials they encounter in the Core. Authors of exceptionally creative, well-executed reflections — as judged by a student-faculty committee — are honored as Core Scholars, with their reflections posted on the Core Curriculum website. Last year’s winners included a “Triptych For Ovid” by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan ’12 and “The Ecstasy of Sonya” by Marian Guerra ’14, a reflection on a scene from Crime and Punishment.

Other efforts to enhance the Lit Hum experience include staging a classical Greek play every fall and having Art Humanities instructors give guided tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to students.

Despite these enhancements, at its core, Lit Hum remains about small groups of students reading and discussing books that have stood the test of time. “The texts remain front and center,” says Williams.

“The course will thrive as long as those texts are animated by bright 18-year-olds arguing about them,” says Yatrakis, adding, “It’s a wonderful foundation for the work they’re doing for the following years.”

Mercer puts it more simply. “Lit Hum is awesome,” she says.

Students and Faculty Embrace Classic Readings, Modern Technology originally appeared in the Spring 2013 Columbia College Today issue.

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