Columbia University to Add a New Text to Literature Humanities

Are their criteria acceptable?

On Wednesday, April 17, Columbia University faculty gathered to discuss changes to the syllabus of Literature Humanities for the 2016-2017 school year. Lit Hum (as it is often called by students) has been one of the staples of the Core Curriculum for more than 75 years. It is a year-long, discussion based class required of all Columbia College freshman meant to give them an appreciation for the Western canon.

The major decision to come from this year's meeting is the plan to add a more modern text (from the last 50 years or so) to the list of readings. Currently, the most modern book on the syllabus is Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse, which was added in 1990. Additionally, only 5 times since the course's inception has a book from the last 50 years been added, with each time it only lasting a year or two on the syllabus. What makes this plan most noteworthy, though, is the other criteria being used to select the text.

A source that wishes to remain anonymous has told me that a committee has been set to pick the book that ideally satisfies the following four criteria:

  1. The work is not a novel
  2. The author is a woman
  3. The author is not a U.S. citizen
  4. The work should engage with race

On the surface, these criteria seem to be a very token-esque way of choosing a literary work that is meant to represent the Western canon, and maybe they are. To be fair, the current syllabus is male dominated (only 2 of the 20 authors are female) and focused on fiction (only 4 of the 21 works are nonfiction), so a nonfiction text by a female author would help balance out the list. Even though these may seem like a large biases, one must remember that for the majority of recorded history, only men were able to create literary works, and that often, nonfiction is more temporally fixed than fiction.

The last two criteria are probably the most controversial. The criterion for a foreign author is interesting considering that none of the authors on the current syllabus are American. Surely, including one American author wouldn't make the course too nationalistic; if anything, this inclusion may help sway it away from the fairly Eurocentric position it holds now. Looking for a work that engages with race would adapt the course to be more relevant to today's issues, but is that the purpose of this course? The issues of race seem to be more suited for the other required class for all Columbia College students: Contemporary Civilizations. On the other hand, the current syllabus does seem to gloss over the issues of race that were obviously very important throughout history, with only a few of the texts touching this concept.

One of the reasons given for choosing this criteria is they wouldn't like for it to seem that the whole of Western canon is culminating with a white, male, American author. Is this a valid concern? Should the Literature Humanities syllabus be revised to provide a more balanced authorship and deal with more current issues? Is using a quota like system to choose the new text problematic? Is there even a respected work that meets all of these criteria? I am interested to see whether Columbia faculty will keep to these criteria, and if so, what text they choose to add to this historic class.

Published: April 18, 2015

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