Can you judge a course by its title?
That’s exactly what Asya Sagnak, current sophomore at Barnard, did the summer before starting her first year of college. She came all the way from Istanbul, Turkey (via Singapore), excited to study texts from her region and culture. She chose Legacy of the Mediterranean as her First-Year English—now slightly altered into First Year Writing—course, but was disappointed by the dearth of Mediterranean texts.
“A lot of people were feeling these things,” Sagnak says of her frustration when looking at the text offerings. “It was just more potent for me because I was just really excited about it. It was the first class I chose!”
Looking at her syllabus, the discrepancy between where the texts that she read were written and where the Mediterranean lies on a map became even clearer to me. Required authors included John Milton, Mary Shelley, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and some secondary sources to put the author readings in context. The current modified First-Year Writing spring syllabus includes a smaller collection of the same texts.
I took Legacy of the Mediterranean as well during the fall of my first year. We read Homer, Dante, Virgil, and Chaucer. My class focused more in Greco-Roman texts, but that is not to say that we covered the entire Mediterranean. We never discussed the Ottoman Empire or North Africa or anywhere in between.
Starting in fall 2016, every Barnard first-year is required to take a First-Year Writing course and a First-Year Seminar course. Students can choose which one to do for each semester, but they must take one course that satisfies each category. First-Year Writing is supposed to help all Barnard students become college-level writers through analyzing literature and there are only three themes available: Legacy of the Mediterranean, Women and Culture, and The Americas. First-Year Seminar, on the other hand, focuses on students’ speaking abilities, among other things. There is a much wider range of classes offered, tailor-made by professors.
The program went through a shift this year from First-Year English to First-Year Writing. Nineteen years ago, in 1998—the year many current Barnard first-years were born—First-Year English was created by then director Margaret Vandenburg. The development of the program is more than just a change in name: Wendy Schor-Haim, the current director of First-Year Writing and lecturer in the English Department, helped changed the course in order for students to dive deeper into fewer texts.
Schor-Haim explains the purpose of the course Legacy of the Mediterranean: "Our job in Legacy of the Mediterranean is that we critically interrogate the canon and that we critically interrogate it in ways that are meaningful to students now." She speaks to the name of the course: "It does start in Ancient Greece and Rome, you read the Aeneid, you read The Odyssey, but then it's where is that legacy being perpetrated and where are the classic canonical texts inheriting that legacy, interpreting it, and perpetuating it?"
But it still seems difficult to argue that the entire legacy of the Mediterranean can be linked to these texts. Like Sagnak, current first-years Sally Tuszynski and Madeline DeZee, came to Barnard with certain hopes for their First Year programs. DeZee enthusiastically anticipated taking The Americas in order to study all-encompassing American literature. Tuszynski, meanwhile, wanted to embrace going to a women’s college immediately and begin her college career by studying many feminist texts in Women and Culture.
The truth, however, is that, of the first-years I interviewed, many are disappointed by their First-Year Writing courses when coming to Barnard. Sagnak describes what her class ended up being: “It really just felt like we were going through a list of accomplished writers in canon without necessarily paying attention to any overarching theme.” She explains that she wanted to study texts about the Ottoman Empire and famous female Greek writers like Sappho.
While the title “Women and Culture” suggests a feminist take to literature, Tuszynski, who is taking the course currently, wants to be exposed to a more diverse collection of texts in the class; instead, the syllabus focuses primarily on texts written by white authors from England or the U.S. The required texts come from the authors Emily Bronte, John Milton, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily Dickinson, and Sigmund Freud. The outlier authors are Popol Vuh, JaHyun Kim Haboush, Luisa Valenzuela, and Yvette Christiansë—most of whom are not read in full, only in excerpts.
Tuszynski notices an inherent irony in her class. She describes discussing problems of the canon in class, and how many students are limited to the canon in high school, but want to explore more diverse works in college. With a sigh Tuszynski tells me, “And then we turned around and did that same thing in class.”
While students expressed concerns with the content of their First-Year Writing classes, they had some positive takeaways from their experience. For instance, DeZee and Tuszynski could not stop raving about the quality of their professors and that they felt lucky to have been taught by them. Despite the three students’ dissatisfaction with the literature, they were still engaged during class.
Ultimately though, the goal of First-Year Writing is to help students become college-level writers.
Schor-Haim further articulates the approach: “One of the hallmarks of the way that we teach here at Barnard is that we teach writing through engagement with really meaningful content, and that content is literary texts.”
If this is the purpose, do the texts that the students read really matter?
But perhaps the question at hand is whether it is important to study texts that are traditionally considered fundamental to cultural literacy, or texts that are relevant to students now—and whether those are even the mutually exclusive binary they’re often made out to be.
Barnard first-year Tania Giordani, who took The Americas in her first semester, argues against the canon’s value in the class, suggesting that many students have already had a traditional, white canon centric education. “I think that this course would have been a really great opportunity for this school to have combatted that narrative.”
Giordani calls for a class where all of the authors are people of color: “I don't think it would be misrepresentative about the Americas,” she explains. “They aren't voices that are heard or are given platforms very often.”
Giordani’s restructuring of the syllabus would include a refocus on modern texts. “I just don't feel like there is enough emphasis in education generally on contemporary art and contemporary readings,” she tells me. “They are just as important because they are directly applicable to the times in which we are living.”
But Anai Finnie, a Barnard sophomore currently taking Legacy of the Mediterranean as her First-Year Writing (for scheduling reasons), presents a case in defence of more traditional texts. “I actually 100 percent think that we should study the old texts,” she adamantly says. “History is there for one reason, and it's for us to learn from it.”
Adjunct English lecturer Linn Mehta advocates for the importance of the classics in order to put them into conversation with modern texts. Mehta, who previously taught Literature Humanities at Columbia College before teaching at Barnard, says she considers the Western tradition as “essential to understanding later texts.”
“You don't want to read and write in a vacuum,” she says.
Some students find the old texts offensive if looked at in an objective light. The most disillusioning part of Legacy of the Mediterranean for Sagnak was reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. “We spent all this time on this horrible book that is one of the most racist, close-minded, bigoted texts I've ever read or touched in my life,” she explains. “It was not only neglecting the regions I thought we were going to be talking about, it was also working against a broader cultural understanding.”
In addition, she critiqued studying Freud due to his misogyny and disproven theories. “Everything we learned—all the content we were consuming—seemed very antithetical to all of Barnard's values.”
In response to teaching Freud, Mehta argues that his texts need to be taught critically and in relation to other texts. “We need to make time to do that and an extension of that is, are we teaching enough critical [texts], and what is the balance between critical and primary texts?”
Each student I talked to had a text that resonated with her more than any of the others. Williamson enjoyed reading Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves by Angela Davis and The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir. She says she was most engaged in the course when discussing issues of intersectionality.
JaHyun Kim Haboush’s translation of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong was Tuszynski’s favorite reading in Women and Culture because it depicted a culture that was unfamiliar to her—one of a Korean princess in the late 18th century. Giordani found the text Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to be most captivating. However, she still felt as though de la Cruz came from a privileged perspective and thus, she would have rather read more texts written by people of lower classes.
But to what extent can these syllabi be fully altered to accommodate this want for diversity? Although each theme has common elements in its syllabus, it seems that professors who have spent more time at Barnard are more likely to tweak the syllabus.
Mehta and adjunct lecturer Barbara Morris have been teaching The Americas since 2000 and 2013, respectively. Over the years, both of them have become more comfortable changing the syllabus to make it more representative of South American literature. Morris explains that she is continually working to change her class of The Americas in response to student feedback: “I laughed about it with my students. I said you can't get on the syllabus unless you're a Nobel Prize winner. But I've tried to change that.” She wants to expose her students to authors of all different backgrounds.
In contrast, although Anne Donlon, who began teaching First-Year Writing this year, added some secondary sources to her syllabus, she kept it mostly the same as the original. “I guess the first time you teach a class it's always an experiment,” she tells me. “I relied pretty heavily on versions of the syllabus that people had taught, especially my first semester but this semester too, I drew pretty heavily on the syllabi that Wendy [Schor-Haim] shared.”
Both Morris and Schor-Haim acknowledged that the First-Year Writing courseis evolving, and Schor-Haim says she is interested in adding more critical sources based on faculty and student feedback.
Although the First-Year Writing class started in 1998 from student demand for a course similar to Lit Hum, student interest has changed overtime.
As for changes, some students have expressed a desire to see more primary sources that cover cultures outside of the western canon, along with more culturally diverse critical sources to put canonical texts in a modern context. There could also be a broader range of categories covered by First-Year Writing courses, similar to the options offered under First-Year Seminar.
What the First-Year Writing programs seem unable to do in terms of diversity, the First-Year Seminar feels adequately prepared for—there remains a stark contrast between the two programs. The latter offers a larger, more diverse, and specialized list of courses, in contrast to First-Year Writing’s aforementioned three options.
When I ask about her First-Year Seminar class, DeZee’s eyes light up. She shifts in her chair and lets out a wide grin. “We're in our black liberation unit right now. It's amazing.” She says the class is “exactly what I would have wanted from my first year writing class.”
Sagnak, who was in the First-Year English program before its transition into First-Year Writing, took Reacting to the Past as her First-Year Seminar, expresses a similar excitement for the seminar: “It was a wonderful experience. Not only did we look at a wide variety of local history, we looked at Athens, we looked at Greenwich Village, we looked at Japan.”
But more than just studying different places, Sagnak was fascinated by the mode of education. For her, it was “a different approach to learning history, which was exactly what I was looking for.” She found that her seminar discussed the history in a more forward-looking way by going through role play.
Ultimately though, First-Year Writing has left students wanting more in terms of echoing the diversity of the Seminar course options. Giordania argues that by not including more diverse voices in First-Year Writing, the college is not doing enough to demonstrate their importance. “By not including the narratives of people of color in a core curriculum, you are re-marginalizing their voices and re-marginalizing our voices. You are once again saying we are an elective.”
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