Rooted in aporia, the Ancient Greek idea— literally meaning a lack of egress—that only through intellectual impasse or doubt can one reach new understanding, Vassar’s academic model, like many liberal arts courses of study, relies heavily on confrontation. Students are challenged to face the unfamiliar and, in turn, learn to rethink and question the familiar.
Few courses, however, offer a glimpse into this crucial underpinning of our touted curriculum. One course, though, was designed more than 30 years ago specifically with this holistic approach in mind. After a five-year hiatus, College Course 101: Civilization in Question— cross-listed in Greek & Roman and Medieval & Renaissance Studies—is back on offer for the upcoming fall semester.
Civilization in Question began in 1982 as a year-long course with around 120 students, and was team-taught by six professors who collaborated on a syllabus incorporating seminal texts drawn from each of their respective areas of expertise.
It came about as part of a push in the early ’80s to regroup the curriculum into specific modes of study between which students were expected to spread their course loads. Civilization in Question was conceived as a required class that would bridge the various modes, Vassar’s answer of sorts to the “Great Books” courses taught at other institutions such as Columbia or Bard.
“While this curricular plan seemed to be fulfilling many important goals of a liberal education, the Vassar College committees thought that students lacked courses that would integrate and unify their knowledge,” wrote Professor Emeritus of Political Science Peter G. Stillman, one of the original six professors, in an article about the course.
“Their education tended to be too fragmented,” he continued, “to lack emphasis on crucial relationships among disciplines, in short to evince in some important ways a weakening and a fragmenting of the humanistic vision” (The Journal of General Education, “The College Course: Civilization in Question,” Vol. 36, No. 1, 1984).
In the original form of the course, the professors rotated, each of the six taking turns lecturing on their chosen texts, and also led separate discussions in smaller groups once a week, a model reminiscent of the introductory ART 105- 106 course.
Unique to Civilization in Question, though, was the presence and active involvement of all of the participating faculty during the lecture periods, drawing on discussions at weekly faculty seminars that prepped them for discussing texts that were often far from their areas of expertise.
No matter who was teaching or what texts were being presented, what was always at stake was the very idea of a canon, of questioning if there are works so vital that they transcend their contexts. At the heart of the College Course is the view that great works are great because they take a critical stance toward the civilizations and eras in which they originated, and that by reading and comparing these texts one can both broaden one’s thinking and challenge one’s perceptions. “‘Civilization in Question’ is an open theme; it poses a problem rather than setting limits to exploration or presuming answers…” Stillman continued, describing the main crux of the course.
In the course’s newest permutation this fall, Associate Professor and Chair of Greek & Roman Studies Rachel Friedman and Professor of History and Director of Medieval & Renaissance Studies Nancy Bisaha, who have both taught Civilization in Question before, will be joined by Assistant Professor of Philosophy Christopher Raymond.
They will be focusing primarily on pre-modern texts, with Ancient Greek works by Homer and Aeschylus covered by Friedman, thinkers including Plato and Augustine reflecting Raymond’s work in ancient philosophy, and texts by Italian humanists Machiavelli and Pico della Mirandola and a Medieval romance by Chrétien de Troyes taught by Bisaha.
Retired Professor of Greek & Roman Studies Rachel Kitzinger, who took part in the original iteration of the College Course along with Stillman, spoke to some of the challenges of teaching a course like this, but also to how enriching it was for students and faculty alike.
“The difficulty, quite honestly,” she said, “was that…you’re not resting on your expertise; you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself in front of students and also your fellow faculty…” By seeing professors in a more vulnerable light, the hope is that students feel more comfortable raising questions and working together toward understanding.
While it is true that intellectual or pedagogical disagreements have arisen among faculty in the course from time to time, all of the professors affirmed that this only indicated yet another benefit of Civilization in Question, namely the development of conviction through debate and the commitment to conveying one’s ideas while still communicating them through difference.
As Friedman noted, “The freshness of the perspective, having a colleague process what you’re teaching with you is incredibly productive … It keeps you engaged and excited as a teacher.”
Over time, though, it became clear that the six-professor structure was too lofty, its “talking heads” model proving inconsistent with the original intent of a guided yet open discussion. Besides, the curricular redesign plan had fallen to the wayside—Civilization in Question and the language requirement are its only surviving components—and the NEH grant funding the weekly faculty seminars dried up after four years.
The course was scaled back to one semester and eventually settled on an ideal balance of three professors. Friedman explained, “[Many students are] used to a different model of learning and teaching, where there’s one expert at the front of the room and that’s who they have to listen to. Here we’re saying, ‘Well, here are three different takes on this text. What do you think?’”
“[W]hat we’re also modeling is slow reading,” continued Friedman, who experienced firsthand the relentless pace of Columbia’s Great Books curriculum, which she found fostered rushed and superficial reading. “It’s not about… covering a particular time period or a particular genre, it’s about slow and deep engagement with texts.”
What was retained in the course was its format of two 75-minute lectures and one 50-minute discussion period per week, as well as its flexibility with regard to composition—professors of subjects as disparate as Greek and Roman studies, philosophy, math, French, history, chemistry, English and music have all taught in the course, with the material on the syllabus changing each time to fit their interests and knowledge.
“What remained was a conviction that hearing people from different disciplines talking about the same text…was extremely valuable,” Kitzinger reflected.
Raymond expanded on what remains present despite the constantly evolving nature of the professors and syllabus. As he explained, evoking the course’s title, “You read so-called canonical texts, but part of the aim…is not just to question the texts, but to show how the texts are questioning the civilizations [they were written in]. There’s no homogeneous canon; maybe, if anything, [what] makes something come into the canon is that it’s critical and that it’s doing something new.”
“[W]e had the belief that what would emerge in the course of teaching would be common thematic connections that would come out of the discussion and also the interests of the students,” Kitzinger added.
Bisaha and Friedman vouched for this, marveling at how in previous years, in spite of the difficulty of creating a unifying narrative to link the whole semester’s work, recurring themes would pop up from text to text and generate lively discussions about the connections between them.
Describing the unique aspect of the pre-modern concentration this fall, Raymond stated, “One of the advantages of this approach is that a lot of the texts are going to be directly in conversation with each other.”
Bisaha elaborated, saying, “[B]ecause we start at a certain point in the ancient period and then go forward, it also gives students an understanding and appreciation for how generations build on one another, that they valued these texts and they kept revisiting them and they kept coming back to the same ideas. And then it maybe also helps them understand how a lot of the ideas we think we invented really are so deeply rooted.”
Speaking to this last point, Friedman agreed that many students are exposed less and less to material from the periods she and her colleagues study, which she sees as detrimental to a true liberal arts education.
“[A] trend we see on campus is a kind of presentism among our students, where the value of studying pre-modern sources or material is not apparent,” she stated. “I think the three of us are all firmly committed to the study of pre-modern material as a way to give us more clarity and understanding of our own world.”
“The questions, in a lot of ways, are eternal questions,” Bisaha affirmed.
Another academic trend that makes this course stand apart is its presence among the emergence of multidisciplinary programs on campus. When Civilization in Question first began in the ’80s, Vassar had only four such programs; now, the College boasts a whopping 12.
“Multidisciplinaries, I think, have become more and more disciplinary in their approaches, whereas this remains open to almost any discipline,” Kitzinger expressed.
Civilization in Question always provided a space for professors who otherwise would not have been able to teach in this collaborative format, remaining relatively unchanged on a campus where multidisciplinary programs were developing and turning increasingly inward.
“Even now,” Friedman explained, “where we have team teaching and faculty coming from different disciplines, the [multidisciplinary programs] have an agenda about educating students in [their respective] discipline…”
Many professors have become frustrated with students’ increasing focus on fulfilling requirements, which can blind them to the actual content of their courses and the potential for rich dialogue between their areas of study.
According to Friedman, “This is a class that will not fit in any box, and I think that’s really important.”
Bisaha concurred, emphasizing how transformational it was to teach in this unique environment, especially early on in her career in academia.
As for students, she stated, “I hope it would encourage them to embrace debate as part of learning … It’s really good to engage; it’s really good to disagree … It’s really exciting to test your ideas and let them take shape in that way.”
Looking forward, Raymond stated, “We and the students are going to be reading texts that we’re distanced from in various ways and that are very hard to access, and in order to do that well, you have to be…humble about what you know and don’t know, and I think it really has to be a joint enterprise…”
This fall’s Civilization in Question is set to reinstate a proud Vassar tradition, a course characteristic of the bold academic values we constantly strive to reaffirm. It will be, as it always has been, an experience in the revelatory nature of aporia, of submitting to the unknown in order to gain a clarity of thought, an openness to difference and an informed perspective on the big questions of the world at large.
“I think it’s because the course is so unusual that there’s a sense that you’re doing something different,” Friedman summed up, “and also a sense—dare I say—that this is what college is supposed to be about … It’s about sitting in a room with your classmates and different faculty and just grappling with these texts … There’s an energy and an excitement that that generates.”