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Reading List of Flagship Humanities Course Evolves

The Barker Center houses many of the University's Humanities departments.
The Barker Center houses many of the University's Humanities departments. By Grace Z. Li
By Annie C. Doris, Crimson Staff Writer

Humanities 10a and 10b, Harvard’s intensive literature introduction courses for freshmen, have gradually evolved from their one semester predecessor—which was arranged around James Joyce's "Ulysses"—to a year-long class that includes a wider variety of authors.

The original team-taught Hum 10 course, offered only for a single semester, was expanded into a two semester series starting in the fall of 2014, according to Stephen J. Greenblatt, one of the course's professors. In extending the length of the class, the professors added a wider selection of books to the syllabus, which they tweak slightly each year. Authors that have been added in recent years include Frederick Douglass, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Gabriel García Márquez.

Professor Davíd L. Carrasco joined the course two years ago to teach Castillo’s “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain” and Márquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude.”

“What I think has been happening in the last couple of years is that the course is also paying attention to a kind of world humanities approach,” Carrasco said. “I brought in Latin America; we’re having this semester people teaching on China and Japan.”

“But there’s always been a kind of diversification, it’s just becoming more diverse,” he added.

Greenblatt said the change in the reading list was not part of an intentional effort to diversify the texts. He said he likes both the new and old versions of the course.

“One of the wonderful things about having Gabriel García Márquez or Frederick Douglass in the course is actually not because they suddenly diversify what was a group of writers all of whom came from the same background. That wasn’t true,” Greenblatt said. “But because you actually are encouraged to take in how in fact varied, how wildly varied, all of the readings that we’re doing are.”

Some students who are currently in the Hum 10 series said they have mixed opinions on the course and reading list. Alden E. Fossett ’21, said he is “ambivalent” about the course and sees the syllabus as reflecting the “Western Canon” even though it is not advertised as such.

“Right now the description is that it’s a great books class. But when you say it’s a great books class, you inherently say these books are better than other books,” he said.

Fossett said he recognized that the course topics are restricted by limited class time and professors who are available to teach and said he has learned much from the books he has read and from relationships with professors. Fossett also said he wishes the course could be further improved, but that he was not sure how to go about fixing the course’s “problems.”

Carrasco, referring to a group of Mediterranean texts taught in the course, said he thinks it is unfortunate that all the texts have been grouped together under the term “Western Canon.” Within the Mediterranean, he said, there is a wide diversity of religion and ethnicity.

Greenblatt said the authors on the syllabus in previous years were never part of a “cozy little club,” but in fact were quite diverse in background.

Ryan Zhang ’21, another Hum 10 student, said he has enjoyed the comparative aspect of the course.

“It focuses not necessarily on each individual book in its own right, but it emphasizes how the publication of one book has inspired the minds of later thinkers and authors.”

Zhang said he thinks the faculty has done an “amazing job” of including authors of varying geographical backgrounds. He added, though, that he thinks there is some room for improvement in expanding the reading list.

“I think one area where we could do a lot better is including women’s voices,” Zhang said.

—Staff writer Annie C. Doris can be reached at

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CollegeHumanities DivisionAcademicsFreshmen

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