DS students view old canon with new lens

Unsatisfied by the scope of discussions in mandatory Directed Studies sections, a few DS students are meeting on their own to hash out less-explored angles on the Western canon.

Several students have augmented Directed Studies — an intensive year-long program intended to introduce freshmen to many of the most famous works of Western civilization — with a series of weekly meetings dubbed “Diversified Studies” in an effort to explore multicultural and feminist issues related to their class readings. Although many professors involved in the DS program praised the students, the effort has sparked a passionate debate within DS circles, with some students claiming the effort detracts from the entire purpose of Directed Studies.

Freshmen analyze classics with a more modern angle in student-led discussions. Organizers aim to enlist grad students in the future.
Nick Bayless
Freshmen analyze classics with a more modern angle in student-led discussions. Organizers aim to enlist grad students in the future.

The meetings began last month when Rhiannon Bronstein ’11 and Elisa Gonzalez ’11 e-mailed all 125 students enrolled in Directed Studies to organize the first discussion. They estimate that about 20 freshmen have participated so far.

Bronstein said she and Gonzalez wanted more time to engage the works in the DS curriculum and discuss them in a more integrated context.

“We do what we do because we want to especially engage in a cross-sectional analysis,” Bronstein said.

Diversified Studies meetings follow the format of standard Directed Studies sections — except students, not faculty members, lead the discussion. So far, Bronstein and Gonzalez have facilitated the discussions, though they said they hope to have guest facilitators and graduate students involved in future meetings.

On Tuesday evening in the Pierson College common room, a group of eight students discussed Aristotelian democracy and its applications to the modern world. Students were quick to ask for clarifications when needed, and laughter punctuated their analysis of the philosophical text.

With some students sitting on the floor and others lounging in chairs around a coffee table, the mood was more relaxed than that of a traditional section.

“We mean to examine not just in the sense to comprehend, but to evaluate,” Gonzalez said. “[In mandatory section], we go through things to figure them out and we don’t always take the time to ask if they are things we should be accepting.”

Five professors interviewed who are involved with the Directed Studies program said they appreciate the initiative of the students involved. The additional discussion allows students to broaden their understanding of class material, they said. Almost all of them said they would be willing to lead a discussion if asked.

Directed Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Jane Levin said she has never heard of a similar initiative among students. Though the Directed Studies syllabus could be characterized as dominated by “dead white men” — the only woman included is Hannah Arendt — Directed Studies readings can serve as a basis for students to launch into other areas, she said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of human achievement, of human culture that is not included in our syllabus,” Levin said. “I’m delighted when people are using what they’re doing in Directed Studies as a foundation to begin looking in to different conditions.”

Some Directed Studies sections already include discussion about how the material relates to some historically marginalized groups. Professor Norma Thompson, who teaches a history and political thought section in Directed Studies, said her class spends a lot of time discussing issues such as exclusion and the role of women, and she expects the same of all sections.

“The issue of women or other marginalized peoples certainly comes up in every single text that I’ve taught in Directed Studies,” Thompson said. “The works that we read in Directed Studies lend themselves to these questions of religion or exclusivity. Frankly, it would surprise me if they weren’t being discussed in all the sections.”

But Thompson said the brevity of section meetings limits how many issues can be discussed. Outside discussion sections could bring more topics into the fold, she said.

Professor Kathryn Slanski said the Diversified Studies initiative proves that Directed Studies is achieving its goals.

“If students are meeting to talk about it outside of class, that shows to me that we’re doing our job as instructors to help make these works accessible,” she said.

Slanski said that though the DS curriculum is constantly reviewed, the importance of most of the current works in the continuity of the Western tradition make it unlikely there will be any drastic changes.

“The [syllabus] … doesn’t change much from year to year because the classics don’t change much from year to year,” Slanski said. “DS doesn’t set out to be diverse. I don’t think anybody teaching in Directed Studies would say that these authors are the last word on any of the themes that we study.”

Not all Directed Studies students agree with the purpose of Diversified Studies. On the “Directed Studies Class of ’11” Facebook group, students wrote lengthy posts defending and questioning the value of the initiative.

“I took D.S. specifically to avoid discussions of ‘the role of women, portrayals of class, issues of race and ethnicity,’ ” Matthew Gerken ’11 wrote on the group’s wall, quoting the e-mail Bronstein and Gonzalez first sent to DS students.

Gerken said in an interview that feminism, multiculturalism and Marxism are inappropriate lenses through which to view classic texts because they ignore the intent of the authors.

Gonzalez and other students involved in Diversified Studies said despite what some professors and other students think, they are not trying to change Directed Studies. But they would like for Diversified Studies to continue next year.

“What we do is really in the spirit of intellectual curiosity,” Bronstein said.

The Directed Studies program celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year.

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