Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
This double-credit course is the first half of a team-taught, interdisciplinary, “intensive year-long introduction to the landmark achievements of the Western intellectual tradition” (from the HUM Sequence website). The full sequence, HUM 216-219, explores Western literature, philosophy, history, and occasionally art and music from antiquity to the 20th century. The first semester of the course, HUM 216-217, begins with classical antiquity and progresses through the middle ages (the reading list begins with Homer’s Iliad and ends with Dante’s Divine Comedy). The course examines over 30 key texts from this period in chronological order. While the reading list varies from year to year, the key readings generally include Homer, Greek tragedy, Greek philosophers and historians (including Plato’s Republic), Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, Roman philosophers and historians, the Bible, medieval Christian philosophy, medieval vernacular poetry, and Dante. All texts are read in English translations. Six professors (from the History, Classics, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, English, and other departments) co- teach the class to provide an interdisciplinary perspective on Western culture. While the course is principally focused on texts, it is supplemented with guest lectures and trips to museums and performances in New York City.
HUM is a SURVEY course; its goal is to provide an overview of the major developments in the Western intellectual tradition and give students a broad understanding of its key texts. The course is not designed to give students an in-depth, detailed understanding of each text; rather, it aims to expose students to the history and foundations of the Western tradition and its implications for modern culture. In exploring many texts in chronological order, students are encouraged to draw connections between the readings, track the development of recurring themes and ideas throughout the development of Western culture, and consider how each author’s historical context shaped his/her contribution to the evolving canon. The course is also designed to help students develop the ability to identify the major themes in a text, evaluate readings from multiple perspectives and disciplines, and engage in discourse with peers and faculty about key elements of the Western tradition. The purpose of the five papers assigned throughout the semester is to develop students’ close reading and textual analysis skills.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
Lecture HUM 216-217 meets for three 50-minute lectures each week. Each lecture focuses on one of the three readings that have been assigned for that week. Since the course is team-taught, the six professors take turns lecturing. Though each professor has a unique lecturing style, most lectures follow a similar format, beginning with the historical context for the text and information about the author, and ending with an overview of key features and themes from the text. In addition, professors will often include key quotes or analysis/interpretation of key sections of the text in their lectures.
Since the professors only have 50 minutes to provide as much information as possible about each reading, the lectures are often densely packed with material. Lecture is not a time for students to ask questions. In addition, professors rarely make any lecture slideshows available to students, so note-taking during lecture is crucial for documenting any information that is presented. Strategic note-taking should focus on filtering out and writing down information that will be useful for precepts and exams: historical context that informs how the text is read, notable stylistic features of the text, and key quotes or passages from the reading. Music, art, and texts not on the syllabus will not appear on the exam (and are often not eligible as sources for writing the HUM papers); therefore, note-taking is not required for these special and/or guest lectures. The HUM professors do not allow laptops during lecture, so all notes must be taken by hand.
Precept HUM meets for two 80-minute precepts each week. All the precepts are led by one of the six course professors, although the preceptor may not be the professor who gave the lecture for a particular text. Since three texts are assigned each week, one precept will cover one of the weekly readings, and the other precept will focus on the remaining two. As with lecture, each professor has a unique precepting style. However, the general format of the precept remains consistent throughout the course: precept is a time for students to explore and evaluate the text(s) in a discussion moderated by the professor. It is a space in which students are encouraged to apply what was taught in lecture to the text and to explore themes and specific passages in greater depth than in lecture. Precepts are also intended to help students establish connections between the course texts and to reflect on how the readings apply to or impact modern life. Precept is an excellent time for students to ask questions or clarify any points of confusion that they encountered during their reading or the lecture. Though professors may draw attention to key sections of the text or suggest topics as conversation-starters, HUM precepts are primarily guided by the students and their choices of what themes, passages, and literary features to discuss. Some professors may suggest possible precept topics during their lectures, but it is often the students’ choice whether to follow up on these suggestions or not.
Because precepts are student-driven and the discussion of the text evolves based on students’ insights and reflections, it is difficult (and inefficient) to prepare extensive notes ahead of time. Students can best prepare for precept by bringing one or two questions, key takeaways, or interesting passages from the text to contribute to the discussion. Reading the text thoughtfully and purposefully ahead of time will allow students to generate these ideas and to maximize their involvement in precept, since a good understanding of the reading will allow them to adapt and contribute to whatever conversation emerges. In addition, precepts are best when students are judicious and thoughtful about what they add to the discussion, speaking only when they have something insightful and relevant to contribute—this ensures that there is space in the discussion for all students’ ideas. As the members of each precept get to know one another better, they can begin to build off of each other’s strengths in evaluating a text and learn from each individual’s unique perspective on the readings.
Strategies for Making the Most of Lecture and Precept
- Participate actively. Participation is 20% of the final grade and professors make a genuine effort to get to know each HUM student, so students should not skip any lectures or precepts. Also, since the commentary section of the final exam often includes passages featured in precept and lecture, active engagement in these areas of the course will better prepare students to recall and write about the ideas/interpretations that were discussed.
- Bookmark or make a note of passages covered in lecture and precept. These are the passages that are most likely to appear on the exam, especially in the commentary section. During exam review, it is impossible to reread the entire syllabus, so having a list of key passages enables students to create a strategic study plan that narrows down the volume of reading that needs to be revisited.
- Make review guides. Because the course and exam cover so much material, it is important to filter out the details that will be most helpful during review and most useful during the exam. Creating a review guide helps filter and organize the key pieces of information about each text in a format that is easy to read and places concepts learned from the reading, the lecture, and precept in one unified document. Effective review guides should contain the following information about each text: author, title, genre, historical context, structure, key themes, key characters, and stylistic features that will allow the book to be identified on the exam (this google doc is an example of a review guide template that was used by previous HUM students). Making the review guides on the same day as the lecture/precept for each text is an effective way to ensure that information is recorded while it is still fresh in students’ minds and that the review guides are prepared before reading period.
- Summarize the lectures. Since the lectures present a large volume of information in a short amount of time, lecture notes can often be unorganized or incomplete. Writing a summary of each lecture is a helpful way to identify the key points from each lecture and ensure that the material is preserved in a way that is readable and understandable for review during exam prep. Lecture summaries also make a good addition to the review guides described above.
Learning For and From Assignments
Readings HUM students are assigned three readings each week, with an average of around 400 pages per week. While it is possible to do all the readings, many students do not read every page (and since HUM is a survey course, this approach is not necessarily incompatible with the goals of the course). While doing [all or part of] the readings, students should focus on gaining an understanding of the writing style, content, and key themes/ideas for each text, as well as preparing one or two discussion points to bring to precept. It is not necessary to take extensive notes on each text, but many students find underlining, highlighting, or bookmarking interesting passages to be effective practices for engaging with the texts. Completing the readings before lecture is ideal, since the lectures are often more understandable when students are familiar with the text (professors tend to present interpretation and analysis of the texts during lecture, so it is difficult to follow these arguments without an understanding of what is in the reading). If not completed before lecture, however, readings should be completed before precept.
The course syllabus outlines when each reading is due and what parts of the text should be read. This allows students to plan their reading ahead of time, which is especially important since the length of the assigned texts varies from week to week. In addition to noting how many pages of reading are assigned each week, students should also consider what kind of reading has been assigned—for example, philosophy texts often take much longer to read and understand than a Greek tragedy. Creating a weekly reading schedule is an effective way to plan ahead and keep up with the readings. Getting ahead on readings before the semester and during breaks can help students compensate for weeks where they do not have as much time to read (such as midterm week). Since there are no breaks in the intense reading schedule (other than academic calendar breaks), students who fall behind should not attempt to catch up at the cost of neglecting future HUM readings.
Papers HUM students complete five papers throughout the semester, which are due approximately every 2-3 weeks. The papers are worth 60% of the final course grade, and all the papers are five-page close readings. Each student in the class is assigned two graders from the six professors teaching the course; students can choose which professor to give their paper to as long as they give three papers to one grader and two to the other.
For each paper, students select a “single passage worthy of commentary” from one of the books they have read since the due date for the last paper. Though a paragraph is the recommended length, the passages can be up to one page, single-spaced—the only requirement is that the passage was not discussed in lecture or precept. The assignment prompt is to “provide a close reading of this passage, taking account of such matters as its structure, terms, rhetoric, and argument.” In a close-reading paper, students should not do any outside research (other than consulting alternate translations, which they may do if they wish). Instead, they should focus on examining the details of the passage and describing how those details contribute to the meaning of the passage, and in turn, how that passage contributes to a reader’s understanding of the text as a whole. Successful papers analyze the passage and present the student’s own narrative or argument about it, rather than merely summarizing the passage’s narrative or argument. HUM professors frequently encapsulate the central purpose of the assignment with the question “HOW does the passage mean what it means?”
Students choose passages for HUM papers in a variety of ways. These strategies include bookmarking interesting passages while doing the readings, flipping to random pages of the readings, discussing favorite passages with peers and professors, or choosing a passage similar to a past passage (for example, students who know that they enjoy writing about female characters, religious allusions, or natural imagery can look for another passage that fits that description).
As with the readings, all the paper deadlines are listed in the syllabus, so students can plan ahead for how they will complete the assignments. Creating a writing schedule in conjunction with a reading schedule can help students manage their time during weeks when papers are due. In addition, plenty of support is available to students through office hours and the HUM mentorship program (both of which are described in the External Resources section).
The Exam HUM has only one assessment during the semester: the final exam, which is worth 20% of the final grade. Although this means that students do not have to worry about preparing for midterms or other tests, it also means that the course has no graded progress checks before the final. The 3-hour exam has two sections: quote identification and commentary. For the quote ID section (which is approximately 45 questions and comprises 60-80% of the points on the exam), students are given 1-3 sentences from one of the readings and must identify the author and the title of the text. For the commentary section, eight passages (typically 1-2 paragraphs long) are provided and identified with the title of the text and its author. Students must choose five of these and write a “brief commentary” for each. Often, the passages are ones that were discussed in lecture and precept, so a successful response involves recalling the ideas and interpretations discussed in those settings. Commentaries should also include any relevant historical context for the passage, a discussion of its main literary features, and its significance within the work as a whole. Though the exam instructions suggest that students spend equal time on each section of the exam, most students spend between 30 and 60 minutes on the quote IDs and devote the rest of the time to writing commentaries.
Strategies for Preparing for the Exam
- Know the key ideas and stylistic features of each text. The passages on the quote ID section often describe a key theme from the text or provide a recognizable example of a literary feature that makes the text unique. Brainstorm these themes and features ahead of time.
- Know the passages mentioned in lecture and precept. These are the passages most likely to appear in either section of the exam; review them ahead of time.
- Make and take practice tests. For the commentary section, take practice tests to become familiar with the timing required for writing each response. For the quote ID section, exposure to as many practice quotes as possible will help students discover which texts they have difficulty identifying. In addition to taking practice tests, creating a practice quote ID test is an effective way to practice identifying the key themes and stylistic features of each text and finding quotes that demonstrate them—this strategy is a combination of predicting exam content and applying what has been learned from the course.
- Review with friends. Splitting up the reading list among members of a study group is an efficient strategy for reviewing the large set of books, and briefly re-discussing a text with a group aids recall of key topics from lecture and precept. Groups can also play a review game to prepare for the quote ID section where students take turns choosing a book and reading a random passage for the rest of the group to identify.
- Read the books and participate fully. Attending all lectures and precepts and being engaged is one of the best ways for students to ensure that they are exposed to all the information they need to write the commentaries on the exam. In addition, both the professors and HUM alumni consistently advise students that the best way to prepare for the quote ID section is to complete all the readings.
External ResourcesPapers and/or Exam Prep - these resources help students prepare for written assignments and exams; students should expect to make use of most (if not all) of them to be successful in the course.
- HUM Mentors: The HUM mentors are a group of students who have successfully completed one or more semesters of the HUM sequence. On the weekends before papers are due, they host symposia where mentors meet one-on-one with HUM students to read drafts of their HUM papers and provide suggestions for improvement/revision. Before the exam, the mentors also host a review session and compile practice tests and other study materials for the HUM students. In addition, the mentors are available to offer advice about the class, studying in the Humanities Department, or life at Princeton in general.
- Office Hours: At office hours, students can ask any additional questions they have about lecture or precept, explore a text in greater depth with a professor, or get academic advice. Many students also go to office hours to discuss the passages they have chosen to write about for their HUM papers with their graders. This latter use of office hours is especially important for students who want to learn more about their individual grader’s expectations, check that they have chosen a good passage, or brainstorm ideas to write about.
- HUM Paper Info Session: Before the first paper is due, the professors host a one-time, one-hour information session where they provide an overview of the prompt for the papers and suggest strategies for writing them. Though it is described as an “optional” session, this extra meeting is NOT optional. This is the only time the professors will review the assignment expectations and hand out information sheets that provide guidance for the writing process. Students who miss this info session will be at a disadvantage in writing their HUM papers.
- Past HUM Papers: A sample of exemplary HUM papers is available in the Humanistic Studies office. This resource is most useful if accessed before the first paper is due; the papers can give students inspiration for how to address the prompt and provide examples of how to close-read a passage.
- Writing Center: The Writing Center is an excellent resource for having HUM papers peer-reviewed before the due date; several of the Writing Center Fellows are also HUM mentors.
- HUM Excursions: These trips are led by HUM professors and sponsored by the Humanities Department (they are free for students). The excursions vary between years and semesters but typically include a trip to the Met/Met Cloisters and/or a trip to see a performance of a Greek tragedy in New York City.
- HUM Lunch: Once a week, HUM professors host a lunch table in one of the dining halls as a time for informal conversation and to build a sense of community between the HUM students and faculty.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
Students considering HUM216-217 should note that the course is double-credit (two classes) and that it is only the first half of a course that is designed to be a full-year experience. Also, the course cannot be audited or taken with the P/D/F option (which makes HUM a course that is difficult (and inadvisable) to drop), so students who enroll in the course should be willing to commit to it for a full semester. Students with questions or concerns about taking HUM can consult the course webpage and FAQ list on the Humanistic Studies website.
To enroll in HUM 216-217, students must complete a brief application for a seat in the course; this application can be found on the Humanistic Studies website. Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis, although the department also maintains a waiting list if the course fills up.
HUM216-217 comes with a substantial summer reading assignment: students are expected to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid before the first day of class.
HUM 216-217 fulfills two distribution requirements, LA and HA (students who take the spring semester will fulfill two more, LA and EC). The fall semester of HUM fulfills the two prerequisite course requirements for the Humanistic Studies Certificate. In addition, students who complete the full sequence (fall and spring semesters) are eligible to apply for a trip to Greece or Rome during the fall of their sophomore year (see the Humanistic Studies website for more details).
No background courses or experience are required for students interested in taking HUM216-217; the course is designed for any freshman or sophomore. Though several students enter the class with experience with the classics, Latin, or another European language, many students enter the course without any background knowledge and are not at a disadvantage (experience with the classics or a foreign language is useful primarily for the close reading papers, but is not necessary).
Students can expect to finish the course with a broader understanding of Western culture and history and its development. Students will also develop the skills needed to critically read and discuss texts from an interdisciplinary perspective, and they will gain exposure to the different fields of study within the humanities at Princeton. In addition, students should expect to build connections with their peers in the class and with the professors. The professors are very willing to talk and meet with students and are genuinely interested in what students have to say in precept—the professors occasionally remark that HUM is a learning experience for them as well. Additionally, HUM students often develop close friendships with each other and continue discussions about the readings, precepts, and lectures outside of the class. Most of the students in this course are dedicated to engaging with the readings, contributing to precept discussions, and building connections with their HUM peers and professors. This means that students who are willing to commit the necessary time to this course will emerge not only with reading and writing skills but also with a cohort of friends and authentic relationships with several professors.