LH@75: Literature Humanities in the Digital Age
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog sent Literature Lover Zach Hendrickson to check out LitHum’s 75 birthday party.
LH@75 (otherwise known as #LitHum75 #technology #coreofmyexistence #giveusyourmoney #we’re hip #hashtags) was an event that simultaneously acknowledged the frailty of a liberal arts education in today’s world while affirming its position as a vital institution at Columbia and the world at large. “Low may crumble, Hamilton may be turned into an office building…but we will still teach the Core.” These were Deantini’s words before the panel began on Friday afternoon. A bold claim, but one that he intends to back up.
Friday afternoon was about more than just celebrating Lit Hum. It was also very overtly about making money. During his opening remarks, Deantini officially announced the university’s plan to establish an endowment for the Core – proof that administrators might actually be listening. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my friends say that they would never consider giving money to the college, but they wished that they could give money to the Core. Well, now you can!
As this was going on, a diverse group of alumni, students, and faculty members struggled just to pay attention. Framing the audience on either side were two large screens. The left displayed Lit Hum trivia and quotations, and on the right was a live display of tweets coming in with #LitHum75. The persistently distracting encroachment of the digital world on the event was most certainly the point. Panelists Jacki Bryk CC ’13, Huey Han CC ’16, Jessamyn Conrad, Julie Crawford, Gareth Williams, and James Mirollo all addressed the effects of a changing world on Lit Hum, which is so often seen as a sort of static monolith of a course. Efforts were made to show off the new Lit Hum website, to discuss the presence of Google searches and Wikipedia in the classroom, and what it means for a single class to have existed this long. This was all great, of course, but it didn’t really seem to warrant the grandeur of Low Rotunda. It wasn’t until James Mirollo spoke that things became truly interesting.
James Mirollo was a professor of Lit Hum for nearly 50 years. He has had a lifelong relationship with the course in a much more tangible way than the whole “lifelong friend” spiel that PrezBo so often gives. For instance, did you know that the first woman to teach Lit Hum was Susan Sontag? Did you know that the first Lit Hum syllabus (then called Humanities A) had 5 texts from Shakespeare and required students to read both Don Quixote and Tom Jones in their entirety over Spring Break? Mirollo actually tracked down a member of one of the first classes of Lit Hum and asked if they really did all of their Spring Break reading. He said he didn’t remember. Neither do I.
Perhaps most interesting was the way the first syllabus was actually crafted. According to Mirollo, it was the product of a number of late night meetings between Columbia’s top minds at the time. They would get together over heavy food and drink before
drunkenly trading texts like Pokemon cards wisely discussing each text’s literary value and it’s interaction with other texts that had already decided upon. “You want The Golden Ass [actually taught at one point]!? Only if I can get Midsummer’s Night Dream and Medea!” Needless to say that after a few years of ridiculousness, the Lit Hum syllabus settled into something that is much more reminiscent of what we read today.
In the two hour breakout discussion sections that followed the panel, around 20 student leaders led discussions on texts in the Lit Hum syllabus and what the value of the Core is. These discussions were made up of current students, alumni, and faculty. What struck me about my particular section was the solidarity in opinion. There was a strong consensus among the people in my group that for all its flaws Lit Hum was a large part of what made Columbia great – a pinnacle of a liberal arts education. We might not be able to put our finger on exactly what makes it so incredible, but we each come away with a respect for it’s role in our lives. In the words of Director of Core Curriculum Development Roosevelt Montas, “(Lit Hum) unites us across viewpoints, across generations… gives us a common ground.”
Still, the feeling I came away with was one of an absurd reverence. It’s like Lit Hum is our noble Don Quixote. We all know that it’s absolutely insane. It excludes all non-Western voices, it reaffirms its own value every chance it gets, it’s entirely out of date, and no one has ever done all the work required to really make it work. Despite all of this though, by the end of the class we are all loyal squires. We are Sancho Panza in Book XLI. We have seen the absurdity of this man’s crusade, his quest for righteousness, his need to bring honor and chivalry to the world. But we go along with it. We indulge in the fantasy because it means something to us now. We don’t want Quixote to die – or the Core to crumble. Keep on going. Keep fighting the good fight. For all it’s flaws it has marked us in some way. We define aspects of ourselves based on the philosophical theories discussed around our little wooden tables. It has helped make us who we are. It has made Columbia.
So here’s to you, Lit Hum! It’s a little late, but I hope you won’t mind. Happy 75th! I hope that you keep shaping lives for at least another 75 years.
(Now if we could just take a second to talk about my final…)