Prof. Sameer ud Dowla Khan leads conference on linguistics, a discipline that was established at Reed in the 1990s.
Prof. Sameer ud Dowla Khan leads conference on linguistics, a discipline that was established at Reed in the 1990s.

The Dynamic Classroom

Reed’s curriculum is constantly evolving—and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | June 4, 2018

Many alumni look back at our education at Reed as a time when we first read the foundational books, encountered the influential ideas, and grappled with the big questions that shaped the course of history. Those books, those ideas, those questions launched us on a voyage of discovery that has, for some of us, defined our entire lives.

Because this experience was so profound—and because it has served us in so many ways—it is hardly surprising that many of us have come to think of the Reed curriculum as eternal, an island of certitude amid the treacherous tides, a safe harbor from the tempestuous wine-dark sea.

The metaphor of an unyielding coastline is misleading, however. According to a recent paper by researchers in New Zealand, islands are geologically dynamic formations that actively respond to changing conditions such the rise in the sea level. Sometimes, as you’d expect, they shrink. But the researchers found that many islands have actually grown larger, as waves deposit sediment on the shoreline. It turns out that coastlines undergo constant evolution—and the same is true for the Reed curriculum.

Consider some of changes to the academic program that have taken place in the last 30 years.

  • Linguistics. Birthed in the anthropology department, linguistics was established as independent major in 1992. Reed now offers two dozen courses in the discipline, from phonetics to sociolinguistics to morphosyntactic typology.
  • Chinese Humanities. Launched in 1995, the yearlong course takes Reed’s signature approach to the humanities and applies it to Chinese civilization through the study of art, literature, history, philosophy, religion, music, and politics.
  • Environmental Studies. This program gives students the opportunity to focus on environmental themes through the lens of biology, chemistry, economics, history, or political science. Almost 40 Reedies have graduated in ES since its inception in 2010.
  • Comparative Literature. You want to study literary questions that do not fall neatly into a particular national canon. You want to explore relationships among literature, film, and art. What do you major in? Comp lit! Created in 2015, this program has proven popular with students who want to apply literary analysis across boundaries.
  • Dance. Reed maintained an outstanding dance program for decades, despite grumbling in some quarters of the faculty that this art form somehow did not deserve its own major. Thanks to donors, Reed was finally able to marshall the intellectual and financial resources to support a standalone major in 2016.
  • Computer Science. Reed has a proud tradition of computing, but its approach was somewhat piecemeal; courses focused on the use of computers to solve practical problems in other disciplines rather than focusing on the theory of computation itself. Reed offered its first true computer science courses in 2007. These proved immensely popular; thanks to generous gifts, Reed was able to launch a full-fledged major in 2017.
  • Neuroscience. This emerging field represents a convergence of concepts, models, and techniques from biology, psychology, and chemistry. Reed created this major in 2017, drawing on deep faculty expertise and longstanding student interest.
  • Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. The study of race and ethnicity has been woven into the curriculum for many years, but never as part of a systematic, comprehensive program. After seven years of study and planning, the faculty voted unanimously to approve this major starting Fall 2018.
  • Hum 110. Since its first lecture in 1943, the geographical and historical range of Hum 110 has compressed and expanded like an accordion. In April, capping years of deliberation, the humanities faculty voted to adopt a new model for the course which expands its scope beyond the ancient Mediterranean to include materials from the Americas. Starting in Fall 2018, the course will be organized in four units:
    • Exile and Return. This unit introduces central humanistic questions by examining the motifs of foundation, utopian and mythic places, displacement, and wandering in the ancient Mediterranean. Readings will include the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, and texts from the Torah.
    • Governing the Self and Others. This unit explores philosophical, historical, and political models for understanding the self and society in ancient Athens.
    • Constructions and Reconstructions. This unit explores how Mexico City and its inhabitants have been represented through historical changes, starting with the migration of the Mexica and their foundation of Tenochtitlán, moving through conquest and colonialism, the creation of the Mexican republic, the Mexican revolution, and into the indigenous peoples and student protests of the twentieth century.
    • Aesthetics and Politics, Race and Democracy. This unit begins with the movement of African Americans from the rural south to New York City as part of the “great migration,” then focuses on the cultural and political flourishing that occurred in Harlem during the period between the two wars and its interaction with other minority discourses in New York during this period.

What stands out as we step back and survey this intellectual landscape? First, scholarship keeps evolving—not only in fields such as computer science and neuroscience, where discovery is fundamental, but also in the humanities, where new tools and new sources are constantly giving us fresh insight. We now know far more about the profound influence of Egypt on the ancient Greeks, for example, than when I took Hum 110 back in the 1980s. Digital technology has made it possible for students to analyze speech patterns in ways that were unattainable ten years ago. And so on.

Second, Reed is growing—slowly but surely. Since 1990, the number of students has risen by 11%, from 1,275 to 1410. The number of professors has risen by 32%, from 106 to 140. More professors mean deeper expertise, more courses, more majors, and more choices for students. 

Third—and most important—the world is changing. Our society today is wrestling with profound questions about race, gender, artificial intelligence, technology, globalization, sustainability, and the environment. I’m proud that Reed students still read Plato on justice. But shouldn’t they also read Beauvoir on gender? Shouldn’t they study the siege of Tenochtitlán as well as the Peloponnesian War? Ellison as well as Euripides?

In the final analysis, I would argue, a curriculum is a means to an end—it is an instrument whose purpose is not so much to fill students with knowledge as to launch them on their own intellectual voyage to destinations we can only guess at. That is the true mission of the curriculum, and that is why I hope it will always evolve.

Please join us at Reunions for an in-depth discussion of Reed’s curriculum, titled What We Teach and Why, featuring professors Nigel Nicholson [classics], Chris Koski [political science], Suzy Renn [biology], Kris Anderson [psychology], and Libby Drumm [Spanish and humanities].

Tags: Academics, Campus Life, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Editor's Picks, Institutional, Reed History