Bernadette Murphy started her Literature Humanities class Monday night by saying that she found the assigned reading from Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” so boring that she had her son read it aloud to her.
Most undergraduates enrolled in Lit Hum don’t have children, but Murphy is a member of one of two sections made up entirely of General Studies students—and shaped by the various perspectives they bring to the texts.
The school now offers two GS-only sections of both Lit Hum and CC, including Murphy’s Lit Hum section, which is taught by English graduate student Joe North. North has taught Columbia College and SEAS students in University Writing before, but said he especially enjoys teaching GS students.
“They often have this sort of twist in their life story,” North said. “A 45-year-old person who’s been through a lot can really bring a lot of things that I never would have thought of to the text.”
North seemed particularly aware of those “twists” Monday night, beginning the class by asking who wanted to “opt out” of the discussion—in other words, who wanted to use a pass admitting they hadn’t done the reading. This system recognizes that these students have a lot more to juggle than just schoolwork, like families and full-time jobs.
“People approach the text in different ways. Sometimes you can hear very clear ideologies,” Raphael Peterson, a GS student in North’s class, said. “It allows you to reflect on your own personal experiences and recognize that all these other people have their own personal experiences.”
A few members of the class are military veterans, giving some of the class discussion on war in Thucydides a personal dimension.
“It’s striking to know that people who have actually been fighting other human beings are here,” Nick Logan, a student in the class, said.
And while students in most Lit Hum classes are younger than their teachers, several of North’s students are older than him. Students said this hasn’t caused any problems.
“In GS, there’s no presumption that you’re the authority on anything,” North said. “It’s nice to have more of an equality.”
GS students must take two literature courses, but Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization are not required for them. At a General Studies Student Council town hall last week, GS Dean Peter Awn said that Lit Hum and CC will eventually be required, but they aren’t mandatory yet due to insufficient funding and faculty resources.
“I feel as if the CC people get more institutional support,” North said. “Most of the course are set up for people in the college, and everybody else sort of has to tag along on their coattails.”
Several students in North’s class expressed disappointment that Lit Hum is not yet required for all GS students.
“All the books we’re reading are things I’ve always wanted to read but never did,” Murphy said. “To get the most out of these books, you need to read them with other people and discuss them.”
GS student Sebastian Crisan agreed. “We want to feel like we’re part of it, like we belong just like the CC students do,” he said. “Our goal is to eliminate as much distinction as possible.”