When I ask professor Edward Mendelson, a veteran English literature professor and longtime Literature Humanities instructor, what he hopes his students take away from his Lit Hum class, he pauses mid-thought. A moment later, he reaches over to the overflowing bookshelf along one wall of his office. His eyes quickly bounce from left to right, scanning through the titles until—The English Auden, an early 20th century collection of writings by W.H. Auden. Instinctually, he flips to page 371 and reads the words of Auden: “I’m quite certain [the arts] makes us more difficult to deceive.”
This, in a nutshell, is what Mendelson hopes to show his students. He explains how he centers the narrative of his class around “the inner life” and the role that the self plays in decision-making.
“You can see in a work of literature what someone's telling you, and you see their motives,” he says. “That's worth teaching, it seems to me.”
In less than two months, the 2019-20 school year alone has seen the start of the Core Centennial, the introduction of a rotating contemporary text to the syllabus, and the unveiling of the Butler Banner. In other words, Columbia’s revered authors and texts are at once being celebrated, questioned, altered, and critiqued. Lit Hum, which is for many the first taste of the Core, has been a fundamental part of this conversation.
Rewind 82 years. It’s September 24, 1937, and the first-year class is stepping into their first session of Freshman Humanities—an early version of the course that many now know as Masterpieces of Western Literature and Humanities, Literature Humanities, or affectionately, Lit Hum. The course is not just new to them, it is new to the University. Freshman Humanities has just begun its tenure as a required course meant to provide students with an introduction to the "Humanistic Tradition.”
One year later, a report evaluating the course states that, among other things, undergraduates “learn that Rabelais and Montaigne and Machiavelli are readable; that these men have something to say even to the sophisticated creature like 20th century Freshman.” (Admittedly, the very same report would conclude that, for some students, the course was “a refined form of torture unmitigated by any tangible good.”)
Jump back to 2019. It’s August 26 and the incoming cohort of Columbia College first-years gather in the Roone Arledge Auditorium to witness their first Literature Humanities class. After an hour and a half, the first-years go their separate ways, dividing themselves by orientation group track, residence hall rivalry, and late night NSOP activities until they meet again in their actual Lit Hum seminars; most will begin by reading Homer’s Iliad, just as first-years did 82 years ago.
This is not to say all of these classrooms are the same. Every student’s experience in Lit Hum is shaped by their professor and classmates: how the professor guides the class, where students take the discussion, and what texts are included in (and excluded from) the syllabus.
According to Joanna Stalnaker, the chair of Literature Humanities, Lit Hum’s shared syllabus enables students to engage in broader conversations about the texts and their significance outside of the classroom. In her mind, the shared experience of taking Lit Hum is important, but so is flexibility in the class.
“There have been choice texts in the past sort of on and off over the years,” Stalnaker says. “I think it's nice because it gives instructors a little bit of flexibility to put their own mark on the syllabus.”
As a teacher, Mendelson tells me he likes to create a syllabus that tells a story. He emphasizes that the shared syllabus is valuable and well-designed, but that he wants to teach a class that he can teach well. In his mind, all teachers should have the flexibility to modify the syllabus to fit their own approach.
“I think that's always going to be different from what the committee puts together,” Mendelson says. “I really don't think that my syllabus is better than anyone else's, or that anyone else should be using the same syllabus. Seems to me all of us should be adjusting and modifying since everybody takes a different approach in the classroom.”
In past years, he has used different translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, reverted to Frankenstein rather than Pride and Prejudice, and swapped out Crime and Punishment for Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. He adjusts his syllabus often based on what—to him—works, what doesn’t, and what best speaks to the larger narrative he tries to construct for the class. For instance, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground is valuable for discussing what happens when individual freedoms go awry.
“[Notes from the Underground] makes so clear how simply having individual freedom in life doesn’t mean you’re going to make the right choices,” Mendelson says. “Individual freedom means that you’re free to make self-destructive choices as well.”
Henley Taylor, a former student of Mendelson and a junior in Columbia College, reflects on his first days in Mendelson’s class: a surprising, if not contradictory introduction to Columbia.
“It's tough because the man is insane and in a lovely way he is insane,” Taylor says. “It is kind of a shock with Mendelson, because from day one he talks about how he hates the ... structure of the [syllabi], but that he believes it's important.”
Despite the initial impression that Mendelson has on his students, Taylor goes on to explain that he really enjoyed the changes Mendelson made because they reflected a unique passion that Mendelson had for teaching every book on this syllabus. Tayor compares this to the experience that he had in Contemporary Civilization, where he recalled his teachers saying things along the lines of, “I don’t like this book but I have to teach it.” He never had that experience with Mendelson.
“Every text that we read he was very passionate about and there was an exact point and reason as to why we were studying that book,” Taylor notes.
Joey Rupcich, a junior in Columbia College, echoes some of what Taylor introduces about the experience as a student in Mendelson’s course.
“It was refreshing to see a professor who was like, ‘I enjoy every single one of these books that I'm giving you because I chose for them to be there.’”
Michael Deng, a sophomore in Columbia College, adds that the changes in the syllabus allowed more time to discuss each book—a change that Deng appreciated.
Mendelson provides one perspective, but many instructors pursue less dramatic changes to the syllabus, most commonly through the instructor’s choice slot on the syllabus, which was formally reintroduced in the 2018-19 school year. Instructor's choice allows instructors to pick any 19th or 20th century text and work it into the class, either in the designated space at the end of the semester, or earlier when time allows.
The purpose, Stalnaker explains, is to allow professors to evaluate the syllabus and how it fits the current social climate. She adds that it allows professors and students to share a dialogue on the content of the course.
“I feel students are hungry for that—to be involved in the conversation on some level,” she says.
Stalnaker points to one example of this: Instructor’s choice was discussed following an outcry of student voices. Last semester, after then-sophomore Julian von Abele harassed several students of color with a white supremacist rant outside of Butler, a series of op-eds revitalized longstanding conversations about the role that the Core, particularly Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization, plays in fostering or even promoting such ideologies. In an attempt to respond to and acknowledge the incident, Stalnaker spoke to other preceptors of Lit Hum about how a choice text could be used to address the issue now and moving forward.
Stalkner recalls asking, “What are you doing to address that incident, and what it means for courses like Lit Hum, and what it means for certain student statements that came out in the aftermath of that?”
Rosa Schneider, a former Lit Hum instructor, used instructor’s choice to address this question. One of her syllabus changes was the addition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, an autobiographical narrative of a slave and his experiences throughout Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The text was partially chosen to highlight American and European slavery, which would otherwise not be included in the syllabus. It also, she believes, introduced a new genre and perspective between Paradise Lost and Pride and Prejudice.
“I thought it was a really useful way of adding another voice as well as showing the way England changed from [the literary and historical movements surrounding Paradise Lost to Pride and Prejudice],” she says. “It was a really good way to show that there was something missing there.”
As we talk, Schneider recalls how current events have pushed her to alter her syllabus. In 2018, she and a colleague realized that graduate student teaching and research assistants were likely to strike in the last week of the spring semester for recognition of their union. In an effort not to overlook the only black female writer on the syllabus, the pair decided to read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon at the beginning of the semester, guaranteeing they would have enough time to teach her novel. The switch stuck, and the following year they continued to teach Morrison in January.
“Instead of a capstone to the entire thing, having Song of Solomon there at the very beginning provides a bridge to the second semester from the first semester that centers black female writers, especially black American writers,” she tells me.
Schneider continues to see the capacity for change as a positive. “The Lit Hum syllabus can be and should be a porous document where you can show that Western literature isn't just this ethnographic trajectory that only has a few stops, but is in fact malleable and can and should be changed.”
The University has since adopted a similar change, refocusing the first Columbia College-wide Lit Hum lecture on essays by Morrison and Virginia Woolf rather than the Iliad.
“We are making an effort to look for new approaches to these works, and new ways that they can be understood, that might speak to contemporary issues in various ways,” Stalnaker says.
Lit Hum, in other words, is a living, breathing course that is subject to change. Recent changes present a glimpse into future iterations of syllabi, introducing further questions about what the future might hold. But for now, we can look at the Lit Hum syllabus as a balance between shared student experiences and purposeful changes implemented by professors to highlight narratives and add to contemporary conversations.
“I want to continue to emphasize the shared experience, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing if there are some minor variations across sections … because that’s also what prompts change in the syllabus,” Stalnaker says. “If people are experimenting a little bit, and they’re introducing some new works, then that can become part of the conversation for the next syllabus review.”
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!