Though Literature Humanities is intended to serve as a unifying course for Columbia undergraduates, instructors’ divergence from set teaching guidelines sometimes causes students to miss out on key aspects of this central experience.
Columbia College describes its Core Curriculum as a “necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major,” a main draw for prospective students, and a determining factor for why they choose Columbia.
As one of the quintessential Core Curriculum classes, Lit Hum is designed to be standardized across its 60 sections. To provide uniformity, there is a predetermined syllabus of eleven texts in the first semester and twelve texts the second semester, supplemented by a common final created by a select committee.
Despite these efforts to maintain uniformity, professors frequently remove texts from the standard syllabus, and as a result, amend the final exam to reflect the unique topics and books covered in their individual classes.
However, when classes omit texts that most other sections read, students lose out on opportunities to connect with their peers.
“I feel like Lit Hum or the Core is a good way to have conversations with other students and go through it together,” Sarah Fleiss, CC ’21, said. “If we’re not reading the same works, then I feel like there is missed communication or something I’m not doing.”
When professors stray from the standard booklist, students also miss key aspects of literary history that the Core intends to provide.
“I think it’s foolish to cut these works, because they have such a prominent place in history,” Sofia Montrone, CC ’21, said. “I think it is hugely significant that ‘Paradise Lost’ is the first English language epic, just as I think that ‘The Decameron’ is the first humanistic story. I think it is a shame that these works are sacrificed.”
One of the ways administration attempts to increase uniformity in Lit Hum courses is through weekly, expert-led lectures, hosted by the Center for the Core Curriculum, which provide useful information on how to teach the texts and their historical contexts to an unfamiliar audience. However, these guiding presentations are not fully attended by professors.
“They are really heavily attended by first- or second-time Lit Hum teachers, especially the grad students who have gotten the [Core Preceptor] fellowship,” Slavic Languages Professor Margo Rosen said. “Once you have taught Lit Hum a few times you might go to the lecture[s] less often.”
English Professor Julie Crawford, the chair of Literature Humanities, said that a majority of teachers do attend the weekly lectures, but agreed that the instructors who have been teaching the class for a while are less likely to attend. Yet, she emphasized the importance of these lectures for understanding and teaching relevant information about the texts.
“Scholarship changes, conversations change and the demographics in the room change,” she said. “The conversations people are having about how to teach and teaching strategies or what has worked or the kinds of questions that they have? Would everybody benefit from that? Yes.”
Crawford also pointed to the required texts as the commonality between all classes.
“What the shared commitments are of Literature Humanities is that everybody teaches the same syllabus,” she said, “with some understanding that some people are going to make the odd substitution or omission because people find it’s simply too much. Or they think that there is some nice chunk of culture that they want to introduce their students to, but that everybody is committed to the shared syllabus.”
However, Italian professor Humberto Ballesteros expressed concern that the common practice of excluding certain books and manipulating the standard syllabus detracts from the expectation of a standard experience from the Core.
“In another student’s section, they had discussed doing away with Boccaccio, and that for me is appalling,” he said. “I do think that students who do not read Boccaccio are losing something from Lit Hum.”
In addition to changing the syllabus, some professors also modify the final exam, after its components have been established by by Lit Hum faculty.
After a seven-person committee of professors headed by Crawford creates the final exam, a meeting is held during which all Lit Hum teachers vote for what content and texts to include on the exam. While the attendance at this meeting is higher than at the weekly lectures, not all professors are present.
Additionally, instructors often change the given directions and the weighting of specific parts of the exam in order to fit their adaptation of the syllabus. With this unchecked freedom, some teachers modify the passage IDs outlined by the committee, while others even reveal the answers to these IDs in advance.
Despite the standardization sought by the Center for the Core Curriculum, the lack of uniformity across sections leaves the essence of Lit Hum in question, both for students seeking a Core education and for the professors providing it to them.
“Perhaps,” Dhananjay Jagannathan, an assistant professor in the department of philosophy, said, “the problem is that there aren’t enough campus conversations about what Lit Hum is, [about] what it is supposed to do.”