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  • Nicole Kohut and Claire Schweitzer

The Antiquation of Antiquity

Updated: Feb 19, 2021


New challenges rock the Core Curriculum’s staunch traditions.

By Nicole Kohut & Claire Schweitzer.

While the Core Curriculum may advertise itself as the immovable benchmark of the Columbia experience, it has yielded to widespread pedagogical and curricular transformation in recent months and years. Initiatives to expand Core syllabi beyond the Western canon and other hegemonic discourses by including more works by women and people of color have been accruing for years. But the pandemic and a summer of mass mobilization against anti-Black racism pushed the organizers of the Core to make rapid alterations to their teaching styles and content. These decisions have effectively redefined the status of the Core while leaving students and faculty wondering about the future of Columbia’s academic cornerstone.

As the only required full-year class for Columbia College first-years, Literature Humanities is meant to foster intellectual and social collaboration, which is perhaps why its syllabus often faces heightened scrutiny. As Professor Jessica Stalnaker, the Program Chair for Literature Humanities put it, “The syllabus has often been criticized dating back quite some time for the lack of diversity—whether it be the prevalence of male authors, the emphasis on Greek and Roman antiquity, or the lack of authors of color and Black authors in particular on the syllabus.” She explained how the department has tried to contend with these issues: Toni Morrison was both the first Black and the first living author to be added to the syllabus in 2015, and in the 2018-2019 academic year, Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home From the Wars was added. According to Professor Stalnaker, adding a contemporary work was a way to “encourage students to think dynamically about how contemporary authors pick up on, revise, subvert, and even undermine the traditions [they] are reading in fall semester.” A more rapid alteration was made to the syllabus after this summer’s national reckoning with racism—the addition of the poem Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. 

Professor Zachary Roberts, a veteran Literature Humanities instructor and Core Lecturer, understood Citizen as a vital opportunity to integrate more discussions about race into the virtual Lit Hum classroom. He did, however, struggle with its placement to the very beginning of the syllabus. He recounted a brutally honest conversation with his students regarding the new material in which he told them, “I found it fascinating and perplexing, but I didn’t know what to do with it as a poem or book, which is good—you should be bewildered by something and that’s what this semester is about.” His decision to return to the poem at the end of the semester, he hopes, will give them “the opportunity to examine the text with the tools we develop by reading epic, lyric, and tragedies.” He hasn’t welcomed every change, though: he noted his disappointment that Herodotus, a LitHum staple, was removed from this year’s syllabus. To him, it’s “the only place on the syllabus in which you got to discuss ethnicity, cultural difference, empire and race.” While the recent additions to the syllabus exemplify a more inclusive Columbia community, Professor Roberts reminds us that such changes cannot stand in for close reading, critical thinking, and good teaching. Ultimately, it is up to the professors to maintain a discourse throughout Zoom classes that meets expectations for diversity and inclusivity at Columbia, regardless of which texts remain on the syllabus.

Other Core programs have also undergone changes in pursuit of inclusivity. The Contemporary Civilization curriculum now begins with five texts on race and justice in America by authors including David Walker, James Baldwin, and Angela Davis, rather than Plato’s Republic. An overwhelming majority of the CC faculty supported this change. Professor Emmanuelle Saada, the Chair of Contemporary Civilization, explained that in creating the adjustments, instructors “wanted to frame the year with those texts to show the students that CC is really a reflection about the present—it is, afterall, called Contemporary Civilization.” Contemporary Civilization was first integrated into the Core Curriculum to encourage students to think historically and philosophically about contemporary problems, and according to Professor Saada, “racial justice is one of the most important of those problems.”

In contrast, the semester-long Core class Art Humanities has undergone a two-and-a-half year reform process rather than immediate changes. Women and people of color, who were previously not included in the curriculum at all, were finally added, including Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This year’s students will also be exposed to the curriculum’s first induction of non-Western objects: a Kru mask from West Africa. Professor Noam Elcott, the Chair for Art Humanities, described the change as necessary because “women and people of color pervade both the artworks we study and the types of questions we ask.” When asked about why he thinks this change has taken so long, Elcott reasoned, “Change is hard. There are only about 50 institutions that have existed continuously since the year 1500, and the reality is that they change slowly.” Art Humanities’ counterpart, Music Humanities, was modified this fall, with the addition of Black musicians including Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.

These alterations in content appear to be igniting new, valuable conversations in Zoom classrooms. Meanwhile, changes in methodology may threaten the very identity of the Core Curriculum, the aspect that precipitates both stress and bonding among classmates: its tests. Literature Humanities, which used to have a mandated program-wide final and a class-specific midterm, now has neither, allowing individual professors to choose the assignments and grading metrics for their own classes for the first time ever. This is a substantial shift for Lit Hum, whose testing relics have literally gone down in the Columbia College history books: Professor Benjamin VanWagoner, who is in his second year as a Literature Humanities instructor, described a “terrifying and hilarious” archive hidden in the trenches of the Core office that contains quizzes and tests dating back to the 1960s, all of which serve as testaments to the Core’s traditions. The fact these annals were meticulously preserved is perhaps why it was so surprising to hear that Professor Larry Jackson, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Core Curriculum and Undergraduate Programs at Columbia College, has noticed a “lot of excitement about the alternative forms of assignments that [teachers] have come up with.”

It wasn’t just the pandemic that made Lit Hum shift its gears, though. For years, faculty have already engaged in debates over whether to have a department-wide final exam when instructors were allowed to focus on different material throughout the year. For instance, Professor Roberts has been implementing alternative midterms for years, having students create art, memes, dances, and games to express what they’ve learned from the course. For those like Roberts, then, Zoom simply presented an opportunity to explore the creative ends of the Core more fully.

Despite the enthusiasm for creative assignments, some professors worry that expectations for students may become looser than the Core’s norm. VanWagoner said, “I sense that I have to find other ways to encourage students to do the readings, because there is not the same pressure to do them.” This anticipated fear seems to be reflected in concrete changes for CC, including Saada’s proposal that colleagues assign a smaller amount of reading for their classes—“not to be less demanding of students in terms of intellectual conversations, but rather to understand the material difficulties that students face now.” Additionally, Jackson explained the trimming of assignments as an acceptance of the challenges of focusing and having productive discussions in a virtual classroom.

The fear that students might slack off when it comes to the integrity of their coursework isn’t unfounded. Last spring, while Columbia was in virtual turmoil, Frontiers of Science was shaken by a significant infringement of academic integrity. In an email sent to the entire class—half of all first-years in Columbia College—after the final exam, Professor Ivana Hughes revealed that instructors had found “clear evidence that a number of them engaged in the sharing of information that was not consistent with our academic honesty policies.” Professor Hughes explained that she was aware when designing the exam that it would be easy to cheat—she just didn’t think students would even attempt it considering the cushion provided by the universal pass/fail mandate. And, while Hughes mentioned the violation of Columbia’s honor code in her email, the ramifications for those who cheated on the final did not parallel Colombia’s typical protocol. Students who cheat normally face suspension, expulsion, or an automatic fail, but the Fro Sci class of Spring 2020 simply had to write a reflection email to their seminar leaders discussing what they did and why they won’t do it again.

But how will all of these transformations affect students’ long-term academic experiences? Core classes are meant to form the foundation of a Columbia student’s four undergraduate years, so what happens if the foundation students receive from a Zoom curriculum doesn’t continue when classes resume in person and the teaching methodologies shift once again? Stalnaker explained that the continuation of changes made to syllabi and alternative assessments “will be open to debate” when and if Columbia reaches a post-COVID norm. “The use of most of those online resources won’t end after we return,” Professor Elcott predicts. “Breakout rooms are hugely successful, and we will try to replicate that when we go to in person classes. For online annotations of texts, we will never go back to doing it by hand.”

Illustration by Julia Lin

While professors can’t promise that their alternative assignments will prepare students for classes in the future, many are trying to maintain another facet of the classroom usually fundamental to yearlong courses like Lit Hum and CC: a sense of community. Professor Jackson explained that faculty conceived of certain structural changes to further this goal, such as encouraging virtual events to substitute for in-person field trips and designating sessions for students to interact with each other outside of structured class time.

Amidst these successes are key hurdles that students and faculty are struggling to overcome: Zoom fatigue and choppy classroom conversations. Professor VanWagoner explained how difficult it is to create the same dynamic of a Core class over Zoom. Between “two hours of everyone staring at each other’s faces” and the “challenge of keeping people’s energy high,” professors are having difficulty creating the spontaneous, dynamic discussions that they are used to. Additionally, he explained, the intimacy of the Core classroom has been stripped away by our new online rhetoric—22 students now feels like 100, and hesitance to participate is at an all-time high. The failed possibility for smaller class sizes comes as a major loss for those like Professor Stalnaker who believe that “the single most important goal of LitHum is that everyone is pooling their ideas and reactions as readers.”

Yet Professor Jackson has found that, for the most part, faculty “have found that being online has not compromised the quality of conversation in the classroom.” In fact, he cited that an added perk of online learning is that some students feel more comfortable speaking online than in a class environment. For example, he explained that in Frontiers of Science, lectures are viewed asynchronously with a live Q&A hosted separately, in which students participate much more actively than they had during a comparable in-person Q&A. He thinks that the added time afforded to students to consider the lecture and to prepare questions beforehand has contributed to this method’s success.

Several professors also expressed the plurality of ways their syllabi can continue to be reckoned with, especially to further consider the balance between works that speak to the present and those that engage with tradition, and how to increase the representation of the former without sacrificing the latter. As VanWagoner put it, “I think Literature Humanities is a valuable exercise so long as we realize we have the responsibility to change and react to the canon as we study it. It’s not a course just to absorb.” Opportunities to further reform the Lit Hum curriculum are plentiful, especially because the course is due for a syllabus review this year. Such events always mark chances for the Core at large to grow, but this year they carry new weight.

As the Core’s centennial celebrations occurred just last year, its endurance in this uncertain environment raises questions about what its near future will look like, as well as how it will evolve over the next century. Professor VanWagoner hopes that “the syllabus continues to recognize that not every valuable writer from before the common era was a Greek dude.” Additionally, he expressed his desire for it to become more interdisciplinary, reasoning that “there’s a danger to flattening LitHum,” wherein it is completely isolated from other courses. He hopes in the future, Lit Hum will provide more opportunities for students to embrace modes of analysis that connect to a wide variety of academic disciplines, not just classics or literature. “We will see the Core continue to reach into the past, but I think that we will also see it responding increasingly to changes in our world today,” Jackson surmised. “We will continually be thinking about what students need in order to go out into that world and to grapple with the problems that they are going to be facing.”

Conversations with faculty and students remind us of the tendency to idolize the Core. Stalnaker explained that when these texts were written, “they were often subversive and challenged existing traditions,” making them applicable to the type of intellectual and critical discourse that the core encouraged. But as time went on, they were plastered onto pedagogical pedestals. “If you just accept a syllabus, you can have a tendency to reify the ideas of value,” Stalnaker said. “These canons are constructed, and oftentimes with political stakes…and if you don’t examine the stakes and the way that the construction happened, then you are not really engaging with what literature is supposed to be, which I think is to challenge received ideas.” As this semester has proven, it is possible to modify course material with the modern student in mind.

Although it may have taken a global pandemic to stir dramatic change in the Core Office, instructors seem to believe in their collective capacity to connect ancient and contemporary discourses and values. And though many of the events that precipitated these reforms were unpredictable, instructors are responding and adapting by creating a new archive, both curricular and pedagogical, at Columbia.


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