Instructor: Billings, Dolven, Eich, Muller-Werner, Rentzou, Reeves
Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
The Humanities Sequence is a challenging double-credit course that aims to give students a rich understanding of the development of the western intellectual tradition across time and discipline. Through working with five professors, each from a different department, students gain familiarity with the ways that particular disciplines read and interpret texts, while also developing a sense of the interconnectedness of literature, philosophy, and religious texts over time. The syllabus changes each year based on the expertise of the professors, but staples include Don Quixote, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, a Shakespeare play, Freud, and Marx. In aggregate, about 30 books will be covered, typically the ‘classics’ of the Humanities disciplines. The course spends one lecture and one precept on each text, but the texts of most importance will be cross-referenced in other lectures, so be aware of these connections. The course is chronological, with five papers and a final exam. In terms of content, the professors are interested in students gaining a sense of the place of each work in the western canon, as well as the ability to close-read a text and write critically. There are five papers on passages of your choice, and this is a good opportunity to develop the close reading and analysis skills that the course is based on through workshopping your ideas with professors. The HUM sequence also requires that students be able to read vast quantities of text and sort through the information to identify passages of importance. This is a learnable skill; focus on style, pay attention to the passages that professors quote in lecture, and keep up with the reading, as it is almost impossible to catch up after falling behind. Put simply: do the reading, and give this class the time it deserves.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
Primary texts are the core of HUM. Each week includes about 400-600 pages of reading. I don’t think the course is worth taking unless you spend significant time doing the readings to get a sense of each text. Read them closely, annotate them, perhaps even re-read sections that you mark as important during a first reading. Do not skim. The course values close reading, attention to detail, and critical analysis. Professors will fill in the context during lecture, so while you read, focus on what point the author makes and how the author makes that point. What literary devices do they use? What is the arc of their argument? What passages are particularly striking to you? All of this is worth noting through annotations or taking notes on the reading. These notes will also come in handy as you study for the final, which involves quote identification. Your own notes about the text will be more useful than your class notes in reviewing for the exam. Aside from the texts, the two main components of the course are lecture and precept. Lectures occur three times a week, with each session focusing on a different work and taught by a different
professor. Lectures usually provide historical context for the work, and the professors draw out central themes or imagery by using specific passages as examples. Students are expected to come prepared by having completed the reading, ready to listen and at times ask questions. HUM lectures are generally artful, as the professors attempt not only to make a point but to do so with personal commentary on the place of the work on the cannon. Proper note-taking should focus on the passages that professors mention and the themes that they emphasize. I recommend that you use the lectures to get a sense of the work’s main themes and then come prepared with questions or comments at precept, as the lectures are not very participatory. Precepts, on the other hand, are small and hands-on, with the purpose of furthering students’ close reading ability, as the class close-reads several passages together. Sometimes professors will send out a list of questions or passages to focus on in advance, and I recommend taking your time with these prompts, perhaps even outlining your thoughts on the passage in advance to come prepared to share with the class. Precepts are an excellent opportunity to ask clarifying questions about passages that confuse you, or to delve into conceptual issues (like understanding Kant or Hegel’s argument). The professors usually direct the precept to particular passages they would like to talk about, and these passages often end up on the final exam, so take notes!
Learning For and From Assignments
The central assignments in HUM are readings and papers. As outlined above, I suggest doing all the reading, annotating for themes you notice or areas you don’t understand, and even taking notes to help you remember the large chunks of content you go through each week. The reading can seem unmanageable, so it is important to plan in advance. Schedule chunks of time in your schedule for reading, and plan out a reasonable number of pages you can get through each day. If you know you are taking HUM in advance, I would suggest starting the reading over the summer or during winter break; even if you only get ahead on the first week’s reading, you can stay on top of the reading for the whole semester with that precedent. In parallel, do your best not to fall behind, as there is almost no buffer for catching up except reading period. Use precepts to ask questions about the readings and lectures to gain sense of what themes and stylistic devices the works are notable for, and if you are struggling with a text, go speak with tht eprofessor that lectured on it. In addition, HUM also includes five papers. Each paper is a five page close reading of a passage of your choice from a text of your choice. Note that you cannot write about passages discussed in detail in class! I would suggest thinking about which passages stood out from your annotations and why; what about their style helps carry the author’s argument across? How does the paragraph or line that you analyze support the larger work as a whole, whether through characterization, theme, motif, or imagery? Your professors can be a huge help in developing a thesis for your close reading and pointing you to translations that might support your argument. Meet with your professors in advance and come prepared to discuss your idea in depth. HUM also has course alums who will help you develop paper ideas last minute if you are in a pickle! Note that HUM papers are more about analysis than research, usually involving no secondary sources except other translations of the text. I would suggest choosing a passage, closely annotating it, discussing it with your professor, re-reading and re-annotating several times, and then outlining an argument. Make sure you have a thesis! Then get to work writing, providing context in your introduction and then delving in to close textual analysis in the rest of your essay. HUM has a final exam which includes 30 quote identifications and 5 essays. To prepare for the essays, I suggest really working on close reading throughout the semester, as the essays simply give a quote and ask for an interpretation. If you master the skill of understanding how one passage can exemplify the argument of a work, the essays should be extremely straightforward. As you study, perhaps practice writing a timed close reading so you understand the pacing and scope of the essay that will be reasonable during the exam. For the quote identifications, a solid review might include going over your
annotations and creating a study guide of important quotes. Try to understand the style of each author and the main themes, characters, and ideas they discuss. The professors aren’t trying to trick you; the quote identifications will include quotes they mentioned in class and even quotes from your papers. Practice is key here, so working with friends to create a practice test and identify quotes based on their style or content would be helpful. You might also want to create a pneumonic device to help you remember all 30 books, as the professors don’t provide a list on the exam.
Because the HUM sequence is a particularly intense course, the program includes a systematized mentorship association. HUM Mentors host workshops before papers are due for students to get one-on-one feedback on drafts or ideas; come prepared to explain your work and talk out your ideas.As you prepare for the final, the Mentors create a practice test that you should take under timed conditions.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
HUM is a great opportunity for developing an understanding of the western intellectual tradition and how authors influenced one another across time. This class is a foundation for further study in the humanities; you might take further courses on a book that HUM spent one lecture on, or realize that philosophy is your favorite of the five disciplines after working with professors from different fields in HUM. The class also teaches important skills—close reading, writing, critical thinking—that are essential to Humanities work. HUM218-219 assumes that students have taken the first semester of the sequence, which most have. That is to say, professors assume students are familiar with classical texts, and they often reference how the classics influence modern works. Coursework in classics would supplement first semester of HUM well and qualify students to take second semester. The professors are quite accommodating and eager to bring new students into the fold, so if you haven’t taken first semester of the Sequence, I suggest reaching out to them to discuss how you can prepare. Time-wise, the main strain of HUM is reading. HUM counts for two courses and takes seven hours of class time a week, which is typical for two Princeton classes. But reading the texts can consume far more time, especially for the philosophy pieces. I suggest starting the reading ahead of time and trying to plan out when you will complete it each week. The expectation of 600 pages a week is daunting, and you will learn to read faster and closer as the semester moves on, but it is key to set yourself up for success by not falling behind in the first few weeks and perhaps even reading ahead as a buffer for tests or assignments in other classes that will take away from your reading time. Schedule your reading with realistic goals and blocks of time in your daily schedule for completing it, and make sure to annotate along the way. HUM 218-219 gave me an appreciation for how authors across disciplines and time influence one another, revealing how the canon is a self-referential document that builds upon itself. The course teaches students how to appreciate writing, how to analyze closely, and how to delve into new disciplines with the help of professors. HUM is the start of a lifelong reading list, and an opportunity to explore interdisciplinary education before specializing in University. It can be the origin of new interests or the exposure you need to ascertain that a history or literature isn’t for you. I recommend talking to past students and thinking about whether a fast-paced, high reading load, survey course appeals before signing up. Would you rather read fewer texts in more depth? Or are you excited by the prospect of
looking for connections between works and covering lots of material? These are just a few questions to think about as you consider HUM 218-219.
Approaches to Western Culture from the Renaissance to Modernity