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Great books, not textbooks

When first-year students at the University of Utah step inside the classroom of HUM 1500: Great Books in the Humanities, they will not only begin to explore seven global texts that have changed minds and influenced generations, but they will also learn how each of these books has been interpreted and understood by scholars from seven different disciplines. A team of leading professors from the departments of communication, English, history, world languages and cultures, linguistics, philosophy and writing and rhetoric studies will lead first-year students in close reading of transformative books from each of these fields, offering students a unique opportunity to engage across the humanities.

“We’ve designed this course with first-year students in mind—there are so many courses available; we wanted to offer one that would allow students to engage with and learn from our top faculty in all seven departments,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “Great Books is ideal for students who want a foundational humanities course that will provide an introduction to what we offer, and we hope to encourage them to explore majors and minors in a humanities field.”

Michael Middleton, associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Humanities, explained that students new to the U often take several general education courses, exploring multiple majors and departments before choosing their academic path. In the Great Books course, this exploration of humanities disciplines is synthesized into a single semester and Middleton noted, “the combination of outstanding lectures coupled with small discussion groups led by faculty and senior graduate students will provide first-year students with a learning experience often reserved for upper-division, or other major-focused, classes.”

The selected books for fall 2023 include four profoundly influential works that most students have heard of—Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859), Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” (1915), Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (1926) and James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1963). Also included on that list are three books that are more recently influential and more discipline-specific—Nora Ellen Grace’s “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” (1985), a key work for the field of Linguistics; John Durham Peters’s “Speaking into the Air” (1999), an influential text in Communication; and José Medina’s “The Epistemology of Oppression” (2013), the newest work on the syllabus, which has already proved itself influential in the field of feminist philosophy.

Scott Black, chair of the Department of English, is looking forward to being part of this team-taught course and has chosen “Mrs. Dalloway” because he believes it’s one of the greatest reading experiences a student will ever have. “Woolf’s book offers a vital and influential experiment in a new way of writing that captures how we actually experience consciousness, time and relationships. Her writing is absolutely gorgeous, her prose sings, and in expressing Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness so beautifully and fully, it broadens and enriches your own.”

Black believes Great Books offers students a chance to think in complex ways about complex challenges. He said it will provide an excellent foundation in the skills needed to succeed in any major and any career and added, “it will be a lot of fun, with interesting and engaging readings and a lot of opportunities to work closely with other students and professors from across the college.”

Robbins taught in the Great Books program at Johns Hopkins University for several years and was impressed by the students’ levels of engagement and passion for the texts. She is still in touch with several of her students from more than 10 years ago and it is that potential for lifelong connection that motivated her to suggest launching a Great Books program at the U. Although the course in the College of Humanities will be somewhat less traditional than the one at Johns Hopkins­—which began every year with Homer’s “Odyssey”—Robbins is excited to introduce U students to global texts and the ways humanities fields differ from and relate to one another.

“Each faculty member in this team-taught course will be teaching a book that has had a particular influence on the ways that the discipline has developed. Philosophy asks different questions than history; English asks different questions than linguistics, and they will all grapple with enduring problems and questions,” said Robbins.

Erin Beeghly, assistant professor of philosophy, will introduce students to what socially engaged philosophy looks like through the study of “The Epistemology of Oppression: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations,” which explores how oppression shapes knowledge of others and ourselves.

“Students will find it challenging and also relevant to their lives,” said Beeghly. “Though written in 2013, the book connects to classic questions in philosophy, such as Aristotle’s idea of living well, and asks how to create a better, more just world.”

In a very different learning experience, Joseph Metz, associate professor of world languages and cultures, will assist the students in analyzing one of the greatest books of the 20th century, Kafka’s “The Trail.” According to Metz, the book is practically synonymous with questions of guilt, innocence and justice, as well as with the attempt to make sense of the absurd modern world. He said the book also offers bizarre surreal humor, a deep exploration of the relation of the law to our bodies and moments of sacred mystery and transcendence.

“Not only can the Great Books course open a profound window onto where we are and where we have been, but it can also open new pathways to where we might go as individuals, cultures, humans, and one species among many on the Earth,” said Metz. “For a student entering university life, this course is the place to be!”

In addition to a disciplinary and historical survey of some of the key works and problems that have motivated humanities scholarship, students in the Great Books course will learn to analyze, apply and synthesize modes of inquiry and critical insights developed through lectures and discussions of the texts selected for the course.

“Developing new insights and applying critical perspectives to contemporary problems is at the core of the humanities skills that animate successful careers across myriad industries for alumni. Great Books offers a point of entry for students new to the U to begin to explore how a major or minor in the humanities can lend itself to their professional and intellectual aspirations,” said Middleton.