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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

A Farewell to the Iliad

Next semester, Hum 110 will begin with the Odyssey instead.

Next fall, students in Humanities 110 will not begin the year with the Iliad (as they have for over 40 years), but with the Odyssey, and will end the spring semester not with Augustine’s Confessions, but with the Satyricon of Petronius. These changes, reflecting a far-reaching reconceptualization of the aims and materials of Humanities 110, result from the third major syllabus revision that the course has undergone in my 35 years at Reed.

A little background may be in order, beginning with the deep history of our unusual requirement. As most readers of this magazine know, Humanities 110—or the curricular philosophy embedded in that course—has been a central part of Reed College since the presidency of Richard F. Scholz (1921–24). In 1943, the two required courses of that earlier era were combined into one, with a pair of instructors (from history and from literature) directing each conference. When in 1949 the staff decided that a single instructor would lead each conference, Reed’s humanities program attained a pedagogical structure that has not changed in any essential feature, even though the materials of the course—and more importantly, the approach to them—have undergone considerable challenge and revision.

Two years before I arrived at Reed, the unified course had been divided into three parts, each with a fall semester on ancient Greek materials, succeeded by a different focus in the spring: a continuation of the Greek materials (an option that lasted for one year, being replaced the next year by a focus on “The Middle Ages and Renaissance”), a focus on the Italian Renaissance, and a focus on late medieval and early modern England. In 1979, the staff of the course proposed to take the further step of asking the Faculty to permit it to disband the common course, replacing it with a set of small, team-taught interdisciplinary seminars in subject areas of each team’s choosing. After extensive debate, the faculty rejected this proposal, instead reaffirming its commitment to a “unified Freshman Humanities course required of all freshmen, with a common intellectual experience, beginning with the Greek culture.” Responding to that directive, the staff developed a new common syllabus, beginning with the Iliad and ending with Dante’s Inferno.

That syllabus, first taught in 1982–83, proved unwieldy and unfocused, so was replaced in 1993 with a syllabus beginning with Homer and ending with Augustine. Subsequent to the events of September 11, 2001, and at least partly in consequence of the way in which this event dramatically altered one’s sense of history, the Humanities 110 staff felt the need to examine the possibility of alternative syllabi for the course, but after lengthy deliberation, decided to keep the syllabus more or less as it had been. A new round of institutional program review, commencing in 2006, provided the framework of discussion that resulted in the new syllabus to be offered for the first time in the fall of 2010.

A committee of 12 members of the staff—drawn from a range of disciplines, representing the full span of generations, and including two Reed graduates—worked throughout the summer of 2009 to draft this syllabus. We had a general mandate from the staff as a whole—indeed, from what we call the “extended” staff, potentially made up of everyone who has taught the course over the last decade—which set broad parameters, and committed us to teach for a three-year trial period whatever the summer committee developed. Having chaired that committee, I can testify that we vigorously debated several options—among them a couple of different configurations that would have incorporated Islam into the course—but in the end, we decided in favor of a more tightly integrated syllabus focused on ancient Greece and Rome within the larger Mediterranean world.

If you take a look at this syllabus, available on Reed’s website, you’ll see that while the course looks familiar in many ways, much has changed: about half of the texts and artifacts are new (though two-thirds of the authors have stayed the same). Let me quote the headnote describing the new syllabus, then make a few remarks about why we changed the course, and why, in the course of our changes, we stopped here.

This syllabus, although divided into five areas of focus, provides for a unified look at the ancient Mediterranean world as a poly-cultural environment from the archaic period to the first century of the Common Era. We decided both to expand the geographical and cultural parameters of the course and to limit the chronological parameters in order to meet goals for the course which were expressed in various ways by faculty in the course, program reviewers, and students. The course continues to provide possibilities for a unified historical narrative that has now been extended into the second semester. It charts strategies of cultural assimilation and resistance, and does so with texts that are (1) aesthetically rich, (2) susceptible to multiple interpretations and disciplinary approaches, (3) thematically connected, (4) significant in the history of Western culture, and (5) eminently teachable. The syllabus also has significantly increased the amount of attention paid to material culture and urban environments. The syllabus, moreover, does not conclude with the “triumph” of any particular culture or historical institution. Rather, it concludes with a Vanity Fair, a genre in which one continues to witness the contestation of values and identities.

Reed library’s oldest copy of the Iliad, printed in Paris in 1554.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010