Princeton's yearlong humanities sequence spans 2,500 years of major literary texts in the Western intellectual tradition, from the works of Homer (left) to Virginia Woolf (right). Students say the unique structure of this supercourse creates a powerful bridge between past and present, illuminating pathways to help them become curious thinkers for life.
Video feature: Text messages: 'HUM sequence' covers 2,500 years of civilization
Posted May 16, 2016; 12:00 p.m.
2,500 years. 12 professors. One yearlong course. No smartphones.
Digging deep into ancient texts — the book kind — at a clip of 250+ pages a week your very first semester in college may sound daunting. But students in Princeton's yearlong humanities sequence for freshmen find that the unique structure of this supercourse creates a powerful bridge between past and present, illuminating pathways to help them become curious thinkers for life.
"The humanities sequence is a yearlong introduction to the toolkit that you need to understand the building blocks of Western European tradition," said Denis Feeney, the Giger Professor of Latin, professor of classics and chair of the Council of the Humanities. "We begin with Homer in the first semester, and we end with Dante at the end of the first semester, and then we pick up at the beginning of the second semester with Petrarch and carry through to Virginia Woolf."
Students may enroll in one or both semesters of the humanities sequence, called the HUM sequence for short. Each semester — which counts as two courses — includes three 50-minute lectures and two 80-minute precepts a week. Students can also take additional courses to earn a certificate in humanistic studies. The Council of the Humanities also offers a yearlong, team-taught East Asian Humanities Sequence — an introduction to the literature, art, religion and philosophy of China, Japan and Korea from antiquity to the contemporary, including film and media.
The course is team-taught by professors from a variety of academic disciplines — ranging across literature, history, religion, music, philosophy, archaeology and art history — who each attend the lectures and lead their own precepts. This enables freshmen to get to know distinguished senior faculty beginning their very first semester at Princeton.
"It really is a team effort," said Yelena Baraz, associate professor of classics. "Going to each other's lectures really creates a kind of flow where [faculty] will pick up on each other's lectures and each other's texts in ways they might not otherwise think of. ... We're experiencing the course alongside the students."
No prior experience working with ancient texts is required. Freshman Crystal Liu said she was concerned that she didn't know Greek or Latin but that Baraz assured her that wasn't necessary, telling her: "We want you to learn — that's exactly why this course is here."
Each lecture and accompanying precept allows students to focus on a small portion of a text — such as one passage from Cervantes' "Don Quixote" or one play by Shakespeare — and learn to read it closely and discuss it from a variety of perspectives.
"You're not going to address every page of these books in detail. The point is to have a sense for what strikes you and what's important," said Esther Schor, professor of English and the inaugural Behrman Professor in the Council of the Humanities, a position created for professors whose role is to oversee the sequence. The council plans to appoint a Behrman Professor each year, with the goal of having three Behrman Professors at any one time.
Senior Jamal Johnson said taking the HUM sequence his freshman year helped him think differently about the past and its impact on the present. "I think really being able to historicize some of the ideas that are prevalent in the thinking not just of white males but of people from a diverse range of backgrounds is something that was really valuable for me," he said.
"We're listening to human beings across time and we're hearing difference across the centuries," Schor said.
Work in the classroom is enhanced by trips to museums, plays, concerts and art galleries on campus and in New York City.
Among the trips this year were visits to the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters in New York City, as well as the Princeton University Art Museum.
In the fall, the class read "Antigone" by Sophocles and saw a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Freshman Daniel Granberg said seeing the contemporary performance was an experience that helped him "connect 'Antigone' the play to our modern-day life."
Students who have completed the course are invited to take a trip to Greece or Rome during fall break of their sophomore year; costs for the trip are covered by the University.
Junior Claire Ashmead, who went to Greece last fall, said that the students who take the HUM sequence invariably form a community that lasts throughout their four years at the University, often gathering for informal discussions as well as humanities-related events and lectures. Some, including Ashmead, become members of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows and serve as Humanities Mentors to freshmen taking the sequence.
"The HUM sequence and the HUM community is something that's known on campus. It's something that other professors respect. It … tells them something about who you are," Ashmead said.