Course: HUM 216 / HUM 217
Instructor: Katie Chenoweth; Jeff Dolven; Denis Feeney; Daniel Heller-Roazen; Ava Shirazi; Moulie Vidas
F 2017

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The HUM 216-217 Sequence is a course offered every fall, covering roughly the Western Canon of philosophy, literature and history starting with Homer and ending with Dante. The goal of the course is to introduce students to the fundamental writings, questions and ideas around what it means to be a human. The course more or less follows a chronological order, and intertwines the readings with historical and cultural background information. Generally, each week will focus on around 3 works, usually from 3 different authors but coming from a similar time period. Since the course is mostly chronological, the types of readings and topics can vary each day, and could include drama, philosophy, history, literature, and more. This makes the course fairly interdisciplinary, and sometimes harder to follow. However, since so many of the authors on the reading list relate to each other, it is possible to see connections between works that are centuries and cultures apart. Given the amount of reading, HUM 216-217 is a survey course that does not focus on any particular time, author or topic, but on the progression of Western thought and literature in general.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

Classroom instruction in the Humanities Sequence involves three lectures a week, and two precepts. Since there are six professors teaching the course, how to get most out of lecture depends on the professor. Some professors used visual tools or asked questions, whereas others simply talked. In general, I found it most helpful to think of lectures as arguments, i.e. as a professor’s reading of the text for that day. Accordingly, taking notes in a format that allows you to track different readings of the text will be most important. That may mean, for example, to make drawings and connect ideas rather than recording what the professor said. I used a single notebook for the class so as to have all lecture notes in one place, and believe that this strategy is most effective. In addition, the professors may ask you not to use computers etc. in lecture, forcing you to take handwritten notes. In order to be able to trace the professor’s reading of the text, it is crucial to have read the assigned reading before lecture. Whereas in some classes it may be useful to read some readings after lecture, in this class you may simply be lost in lecture. That means you will have to plan the readings in a way that you will be done with at least most of it by the time of lecture. That being said, to get most out of lecture, it can often be helpful to re-read some of the passages the professor may have mentioned. This will also be excellent precept preparation. Another way to prepare for precept is by noting a couple of specific questions that are not obvious, such as “What is the relation between the author’s conception of virtue and his use of language when describing the city state?”. Having an active awareness of the text and your own understanding of it will allow you to make more meaningful contributions during precept-   Precepts are essentially discussions about the texts for the week. Sometimes the professor may also use the time to explain some concept or historical background in more depth. During precept, active listening is key so that you can respond to your peers’ comments, ask probing questions and challenge someone else’s point of view. The professors do not expect you to talk often but rather that your contributions show genuine interest in the texts. In addition, it can be helpful to think about your own voice: what is it that you can see in the text that others cannot see? Sometimes, you may be in precept with people that have already read much more about the author than you have, which can be intimidating. However, the professors will not reward prior knowledge but originality and curiosity. In addition, as the semester progresses, you will find that precept becomes more and more fluent, and the differences disappear. Overall, the most important thing to get something out of precept is to come prepared with your own perspective of the text, and to be open to learn from everyone else in the room.

Learning For and From Assignments

The Readings:


The main task in this course is to read around 300 to 400 pages a week. To do so requires planning. The course syllabus will list each reading and when it is due. Read the syllabus carefully to see how many pages may be assigned, and how long reading it will take you, so that you can plan accordingly. Some weeks are more intense than others, and it is good to be aware of such weeks beforehand, so rather than seeing that three books are assigned, focus on how many pages are assigned. You will probably not have enough time to take detailed notes on every reading, but annotating, marking sections and questions, and highlighting will ensure that you are actually engaging with the texts, and remember details. They also make finding passages afterwards much easier. Whereas you are technically required to read everything that is assigned, not being able to finish the last 30 pages of a reading will not necessarily impact you throughout the course. Sometimes, the professor may specify key passages in which case it makes sense to focus on these first before reading the other ones. Finally, I personally sometimes decided to skim over readings I found less interesting – it may well happen that that one author just does not speak to you in which case I think you will save nerves and time allowing yourself to skim, and instead do other readings you enjoyed more more attentively.


The Papers:


There are 5 papers of 5 pages each, all of which will ask you to choose a passage from one of the readings and do a close reading of it. It is a good idea to select a passage early, since it takes time to develop ideas on how to interpret it. Oftentimes, it can be useful to handwrite the passage and just annotate it, identifying at first the more obvious aspects of the passage before noting some of the more intricate ones. Then, you can try to connect some of these features: how do they make sense in relation to each other? What meaning do they add? Once you have some ideas, going to at least one office hour will be helpful since the professor can give you feedback on your ideas, and ask you probing questions. After getting some feedback, go through the passage again and try to find examples or evidence for some of the possible readings of the text you discussed. Once you feel like you have found a compelling reading, start writing. Going to the HUM Symposium the weekend before the paper is due is another great way to get feedback, improve the structure of your paper and make final edits.

Once you received the grade for your paper, it is usually helpful to go to Office Hours again to discuss your paper and understand what your professor found compelling, or not, about it. This may be the single most important step to improve your performance in the papers, as it will help you understand what your professor expects of you. In addition, Office Hours are helpful since your professor might not give you comprehensive feedback otherwise.

After writing two or three papers, you will feel much more comfortable doing it, and may even find writing the last two papers much easier. Since the assignment stays the same whereas your skills have improved, you will be able to write a better paper faster.


The Final:

The final exam will involve quote identification and some short close readings. To prepare for quote identification, it will be useful to skim over the readings, make a list of all of them and note features that will help you identify a passage even if you do not specifically remember it. These features could be sentence structure, word choice, verse scheme, and many more. Having every reading on the syllabus present is important since it may happen that you forgot one reading and therefore cannot identify the passage. To prepare for the short close readings, it is useful to go over lecture notes and maybe identify three general readings of each text that may be applicable for most passages of that work. Having some sort of analytical framework with which to approach the passages will save you time, and also show that you paid attention on class.

External Resources

In my experience, the most valuable external resources are Office Hours, the Humanities Mentors and the programming they offer, and finally podcasts. Office Hours are particularly helpful for the Humanities Sequence since they will allow you to get to know your graders, and the kind of analysis they are looking for in your paper. Usually, going to Office Hours with a passage you want to write about will be helpful in getting background information on the passage as well as a brainstorm for possible readings of that passage.

Secondly, the Humanities Sequence works with Humanities Mentors throughout the course which are another helpful resource. The Humanities Mentors are usually Juniors or Seniors who took the Sequence, and offer Symposia during which they can read over your papers, discuss preliminary ideas, give feedback, or essentially provide any other form of assistance you might ask for. The weekends before the papers are due, usually several Symposia are offered and going to at least one can dramatically improve your performance on the papers. The Mentors usually offer a review session before the final as well that can be a good starting point for your own revision.

Finally, a helpful external resource for me were podcasts and audiobooks. Since you will read many texts that are famous within and outside of academia, there is plenty of material online you can use. I particularly liked audio tools since they provided a nice alternative to reading, e.g. while working out or while on the move. In particular, listening to podcasts sometimes provided me with useful historical background, or new interpretations of a text not covered in lecture. Thus, podcasts are particularly helpful when revising for the final exam.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

The Humanities Sequence is an equally challenging and rewarding course. Expect to spend a lot of time in this class reading. Given that this counts as two classes, I do not think that it requires you to spend much more time than two other intense classes would. However, since there is really only readings and papers, the time is less split between various assignments than might be the case in most classes. Thus, only take this class if you are comfortable with the idea of spending significant amount of time simply reading books. If you are, this class will be fun!

The latter was for me the biggest benefit of the course. The professors are incredibly kind and passionate, making lectures and precepts a usually engaging experience. In addition, they will provide enough help for anyone in the course to succeed who is willing to put in the work. The grading for the course is much more flexible and individualized than in any Princeton course I know of.

That being said, the Humanities Sequence does not teach you many specific skills. If you are looking for a course after which you can make a list of tangible outcomes, this course is not for you. However, many of the readings will reappear if you take course in classics, philosophy, history, politics, literature, and many others – it is essentially an introductory course to fundamental thinking and literature which will be a great basis for future coursework in a variety of disciplines, the Humanities especially. Even if you do not plan to continue with classes in such fields, the Humanities Sequence will make you a more well-rounded scholar, e.g. by allowing you to understand cultural references, understand the history of concepts we operate with, and open up new perspectives on what it means to be a human. On the more practical side of things, the course will improve your close reading and writing skills although not all of these skills may be applicable to writing in other disciplines.

One of the professors described the course as a breast-stroke: at times, the course dives deep, namely in precept and in papers, when you may zoom in to a single passage, and discuss it at length. Other times, you may look at readings from above, taking a general view rather than a detailed one. If you find the latter to be frustrating (i.e. the idea of spending a single lecture on hundreds of pages of text) then the course may be frustrating at times. On the other hand, this approach allows the course to cover hundreds of years of literature and thinking.


To enter the course, there are no technical skills really required, although prior courses in literature will be a helpful starting point. There were also few hidden expectations, maybe with the exception that the Humanities Sequence is much more of a grouo-experience than many other classes. The professors will encourage collaboration and exchange, and given that this is two classes in one, you will get to know your classmates well. This makes the course more fun and engaging, but may involve the hidden expectation of good citizenship: being an active part of the HUM community by discussing readings, going to Office Hours, contributing in precepts as well as being a good listener in precepts.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture I: Literature and the Arts / History, Philosophy, and Religion

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