Diversifying the Curriculum in HUMS 3000

Heather Sutcliffe (October 6th 2020)

Last fall, as my HUMS 3000 class discussed the work of Laura Cereta and the place of women in academia, Professor White directed our attention to the back wall of the room, where a series of post-card sized portraits hung under the heading “Famous Men and Women of History.” Ten years ago, she told us, there was not a single image of a woman on that wall. She explained how it had been a group of students who had noticed the discrepancy and taken it upon themselves to rectify the situation, collecting portraits of women they felt worthy of a place on the wall. We went on to discuss the important contributions women had made to society and academia throughout history, celebrating the progress that has been made towards recognizing that work. Months later, however, our class’s attention was again turned towards the wall of portraits, and the conversation was far less celebratory: in the midst of a discussion of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, we realized that not only did Wheatley herself not appear on the wall, neither did any Black women’s faces. In fact, there were relatively few non-white faces at all, and we discussed how this disparity was also reflected in our syllabi.

The B.Hum. curriculum is very much rooted in a western canon which has historically centered white, generally male, voices, and so it is only natural that those voices are the ones most represented in our classes. The question then becomes whether these are still the most useful and relevant texts to today’s students of the humanities. It is a difficult question to grapple with, because while few of us would question that the works we read in our program are, as we so fondly call them, “great books,” it is unlikely that any could articulate a definition of  “great books” which excludes all those works left out of our curriculum – certainly, there must exist more “great books” than one could properly consider in four short years.

It was conversations with my peers such as these which came to mind when I saw the Students as Partners Program advertised, offering undergraduate students an opportunity to work in conjunction with professors to develop and improve class curricula. I reached out to some of my professors about the possibility of developing a project focused on diversity in course materials, and I was extremely pleased when Professor White responded, not only offering to partner with me for the project, but also having already identified sections of her HUMS3000 curriculum which she felt could be improved by considering a wider range of perspectives.

Professor White and I decided to focus on developing two new units which would be added to the HUMS3000 course. The first would branch off the class’s study of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and discuss the impact of European colonialism on Indigenous communities. The second unit would be designed to complement the class’s discussion of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry with a consideration of the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a survivor of the Atlantic slave trade and a prominent black abolitionist in 18th century England. Our goal in both cases was to focus our attention on the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous and Black individuals themselves, rather than on descriptions of their lives from an external perspective, and we hoped to provide materials in a variety of formats to help keep students engaged during the coming year of distance learning. This came to include, in addition to the standard reading assignments focused on primary sources, an accompanying PowerPoint presentation of contemporary images, a timeline of major events, and links to podcasts discussing relevant topics.

This process, although rewarding, was not without challenges. Condensing materials into a self-contained unit which connects to the rest of a course’s syllabus is difficult at the best of times – with limited time for students to consider the information, it becomes a careful balance to include enough information to connect the particular issues discussed to the broader themes of the course without detracting from the intended focus. In this case, we faced the additional challenge of finding primary sources which fall outside of the white, European narrative which has structured academic discourse for centuries, meaning the challenge was not only in preserving a certain focus, but also establishing that focus to begin with. While these and other setbacks were often frustrating, I came to find that working within those constraints would provide a valuable opportunity for reflection on the systemic problems within academia which can lead to a lack of culturally diverse content in course syllabi.

The more we study the work of certain authors, the richer and more rewarding the discourse surrounding those works become, in addition to becoming easier to find in academic publications. Conversely, when certain texts are ignored or excluded from these conversations, as is unfortunately common with the works of Black, Indigenous, or otherwise racialized thinkers, it becomes increasingly difficult to find and continue a discussion of these thinkers at all. In this way, the canon solidifies itself not necessarily based on which works are the most inherently valuable, but rather on what is most culturally accepted and thus most widely circulated. This problem is compounded when dealing with cultures whose primary modes of communicating information over time differs to our own – for example, many of the Indigenous groups who interacted with early European settlers operated under an oral tradition, rather than leaving written records as was common in many European cultures. With that oral tradition having been disrupted by colonial efforts to suppress Indigenous cultures over the course of centuries, combined with comparatively little focus on such issues from the academic community at large, the difficulty of locating accurate sources which record the attitudes and experiences of those individuals increases exponentially.

These challenges were much more apparent in my work on the unit discussing Indigenous cultures, where rather than starting with a primary text and developing connections from there, I instead began by making connections to the Shakespearian work in order to then find appropriate primary sources to consider. For example, it felt important for contextual purposes to include excerpts of a letter by William Strachey which details a disastrous British voyage to the Jamestown, Virginia colony, and which, in all likelihood, provided significant inspiration for Shakespeare’s Tempest. However, this letter was also clearly written from a colonial perspective, and as such it presents several characterizations of local Indigenous groups which we had hoped to challenge. Some of this work could be done with modern secondary sources, but as the focus of this course has always been on direct interaction with primary sources, our goal was to also include contemporary materials which offered the perspectives of those individuals, which proved difficult to find.

In fact, one of the only primary sources I was able to locate which purports to offer an Indigenous perspective on the events at Jamestown was a series of excerpts from John Smith’s The Proceedings and Accidents of the English Colony in Virginia. Smith records multiple conversations with individuals from surrounding Indigenous groups, including Wahunsenacah, the leader of the Powhatan alliance, and Monacan warrior Amoroleck. While these records are incredibly valuable, it is also important to approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism, recognizing that we cannot necessarily accept them as a faithful recreation of the subjects’ opinions. Even if we could trust Smith to provide an absolutely honest and unfiltered reproduction of his subject’s argument, this would only represent those positions they were willing to offer to him, a foreign official they were interacting with under largely adversarial circumstances. As a result, much of the discussion for this unit is focused on the idea of historical authorship, and the question of how we as scholars should address how the biases of individuals or cultural groups can permeate in historic narratives.

It is for these reasons that I feel it is important to recognize that a project such as this one could only ever be a small contribution to the work that needs to be done to ensure that our curriculum is as well-rounded and culturally balanced as possible, so it can in turn provide the most relevant and enriching education possible to students. In a program which relies to such a degree on an interdisciplinary approach, it should not be a far leap to recognize the potential value of drawing not only from a variety of academic approaches, but also a variety of culture perspectives in our studies, and as such it is important that we take the time to carefully consider the works we choose to focus our attention on and continue to discuss what we want this program to offer to its students. It is my hope that these conversations continue both inside our classrooms and out, with particular focus given to any insight which can be provided to us by our Black, Indigenous, and otherwise racialized colleagues, because it is only through this process that we can ensure our program continues to offer the very best to its students. So while it may only have been a small contribution, I am extremely pleased to have had this opportunity to ask the question which has been considered by so many hums students before me, and with all hope even more after: What are ‘The Great Books?’