Comparing Notes

The differences between Lit Hum and Yale’s Directed Studies

By Channing Prend

Iliad, Odyssey, Oresteia, Medea, Aeneid. Sound familiar? These are some of the texts taught in the Literature class in Yale’s Directed Studies program (DS).

Founded in 1946, DS is a selective humanities program that enlists freshman in three yearlong courses: Literature, Philosophy, and Historical and Political Thought. This “broad-ranging basis in classical works” is not so different from the intellectual foundation promised by Columbia Admissions’ literature.

Unsurprisingly, Yale’s program and Columbia’s Core have a lot in common. In particular, the Literature class has a nearly identical reading list to Literature Humanities. “There can only be so much variance to the Western Canon,” Yale professor Joshua Billings noted.

Given the parallel syllabi, there would seem to be a natural affinity between the two programs. “I have a feeling things aren’t that different in Morningside Heights and New Haven,” Yale professor Timothy Robinson remarked.

Robinson may be giving too much credit to the Columbia student body, however. Although the curricula may be similar, entirely separate student cultures surround the two courses. For the 125 students in DS, taking the class is a privilege. For most at Columbia, it’s just a requirement.

The application for Yale’s program requires students to submit an essay and personal statement. According to Howard Bloch, the Director of DS, about 50 percent of applicants are accepted. He cited commitment to the program as one of the primary traits they look for among their strongest candidates.

Emma Clarkson, Yale ’17, said that most students in the program are motivated to apply by a genuine desire to engage with the texts. “I decided to do DS because I looked at the syllabus and I wanted to read all of the books,” she added.

Columbia’s Core is the opposite of exclusive; people come to Columbia with all sorts of goals and academic interests, and for many Lit Hum amounts to merely a stipulation of their acceptance.

Jonathan Sun, CC ’17, a prospective Physics and Computer Science major, admitted that he wasn’t even aware of Lit Hum while applying. “When I saw the list of books after being accepted, my first thought was that it looked like a lot of reading.”

There is a disparity in the level of enthusiasm for Lit Hum harbored by incoming students. Lit Hum preceptor Olivia Moy put it politely, calling the spread of students “a mixed bag.” Some, like Jennifer Yu, CC ’17, said they were “really excited to take the class.” While others such as Richard*, CC ’17, complained, “I’m just trying to make it through.”

Whereas in my Lit Hum class, only three students said they would have independently chosen to take the course, everyone opts in to DS. This key difference has a major effect on the classroom environment. Because the program is self-selecting, it seems that our Yale counterparts are more motivated to read the texts. “How much you can get out of DS is really limited by how much you put in,” Joyce Guo, Yale ’17, said. “I think most people do the readings, or at least as much of them as they can.”

Some Columbians even pride themselves on reading as little of the texts as possible. Lit Hum Chair Christia Mercer noted that a culture has developed around evading the readings. “There’s a tradition of older students telling freshman that they don’t have to read anything,” she said. This “tradition” is exemplified by Benjamin, CC ’17, who boasted that he hasn’t touched a single book for the whole year. “How much money can you get if you sell them back to the bookstore?” he asked. “They’re basically brand new, and I haven’t written in them or anything.”

Teachers also noticed the discrepancy in class preparation between students at the two institutions. Bloch, who is currently teaching a section of the Literature course at Yale, said his impression is that most students do all the readings. Lit Hum professors are either more jaded, or more pragmatic. “You’d have to been an idiot to assume everybody’s doing all of them,” Columbia professor Michael Rosenthal said.

So should Lit Hum be voluntary? Billings said that because of the intensity of DS classes, it makes sense for them to be optional. “There are obviously benefits of having a range of perspectives,” he mentioned, “but I think the quality of discussions would suffer.”

And Billings is right; the quality of the discussions does suffer. “I’m very aware that people aren’t doing the readings,” Jennifer Yu, CC ’17, lamented. “It just seems like they don’t care at all, which is sad.”

Or, as Benjamin said more bluntly, “A few people are laying shit down and the rest of us are just sitting by like, ‘Fuck this.’”

The reality is that out of 22 students in a Lit Hum class, you’re never going to get 22 people who do all readings and are passionate about the texts. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. No one ever claimed that Lit Hum was a high-level literature class. Moy called it a “crash course to run and bump into as many moral universes as you can.” The purpose of Lit Hum is precisely to expose these texts to the people who aren’t thrilled to be reading them.

The problem with a self-selecting curriculum like DS is that people choose what they know, when really—at the risk of sounding like a Columbia brochure—everyone can benefit from taking a class like Lit Hum. As Moy pointed out, “There’s a moral undercurrent to the course that doesn’t just apply to the bookish student.”

Lit Hum classes benefit from a range of perspectives precisely because of the fact that many students aren’t thrilled to be taking it. Mercer noted that there’s a lot to learn from the students who aren’t necessarily the “eager beavers.” She pointed out that one of the biggest challenges about teaching Lit Hum is figuring out how to engage people who don’t like literature. “But even if the science nerd only reads half of the assigned books, that’s still more than they would be introduced to at other institutions of this sort.”

The value of our educational model doesn’t necessarily change the fact that DS students seem more satisfied than Columbians. Guo said she was happy with her decision to do DS. “It was very challenging but it’s been intellectually rewarding and I’ve discovered some interests that I want to pursue next year,” she stated.

Columbia freshmen are decidedly less enthusiastic about their Lit Hum experience. “I’m just relieved that its almost over,” Richard sighed. Perhaps that’s because it takes time to realize the benefits of the course. “Obviously you can’t deeply grasp everything from Homer up to Virginia Woolf in one year,” Luke Foster, CC ’15, said. “But what you can internalize is the knowledge that there’s so much more out there than you ever realized.”

Rosenthal noted that alumni are some of the staunchest defenders of Lit Hum. “I think if you left it up to the faculty it very well might be gone,” he mused. “Who knows, maybe if President Bollinger could wave his magic wand, it would all go away and we’d have a global something or other.”

Lit Hum is no doubt a universally shared, if oft-maligned, experience at Columbia. As Rosenthal noted, “The nice thing about talking to Columbia alumni is that they’ve all forgotten the same books.” But maybe we can try to do a few more of the readings.

*The person quoted sought to remain anonymous and the name has been changed 

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