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The Humanities and the Pandemic

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Published Date

June 22, 2020

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In the 25 years since the Humanities Sequence was established at Princeton, those who have taught and studied the course have singled out its close-knit community for its transformative power. HUM Sequence cohorts make first-year bonds that grow long after the course is completed, and many students maintain their connections beyond Princeton.

With this sense of community so strongly part of the HUM Sequence experience, how would the isolation of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic affect the teaching and the discussions that are the lifeblood of the course?

When faculty were directed to take their teaching online, they initially suggested shortening online discussions and introducing discussion boards as a supplement. This was not well received by students. “Can we at least see how it works? We want to keep talking,” they said. 

Kate Lee ’23 was one of them. “When the university announced that we would be going online for the rest of the semester, one of the first things that came to my mind was the HUM Sequence. It had been such a transformative experience throughout the first semester, and I had been really looking forward to it coming full circle with the second. I knew I was going to miss it desperately as not only an intellectual community but a kind of family at Princeton, and I think most of my peers felt the same way,” she said.

The transition to online learning was challenging. The HUM Sequence thrives on face-to-face interaction. On campus, the regular structure of lectures and precepts were often supplemented by conversations in dining halls, dorm rooms, and the time spent chatting outside the seminar room, before and after class. All of these chance encounters were lost with the pivot to remote learning. There were technical challenges of reading texts digitally and initially, the awkwardness of video conversation. Faculty also had to pre-record lectures to accommodate different time zones.

Being in lockdown gave rise to additional challenges for some students. Anna Allport ‘23 explained, “Zoom learning inevitably comes with challenges: WiFi issues, time-zone complications, and the distractions of home life. Online learning was an adjustment for me, as I balanced keeping up with schoolwork and taking care of the needs of my family during the pandemic. It was a challenge for everyone, in a myriad of ways.”

Despite the difficulties of transitioning online, the six faculty who teach the course found unexpected opportunities and a renewed commitment to the community. Lecturer in English Natalie Prizel, a postdoctoral fellow is the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, had 5 lectures still remaining when campus closed. She discovered that writing lectures from afar made her think more deeply about what she wanted to teach. “My goal was to help students think about this moment as informed by the historical moments and movements with which we were grappling in the course. The best part of teaching online, and one I didn’t expect, was that it made the students hungrier for intellectual community and contact,” she said. Prizel ended up teaching several extra “precepts” in which students furthered the conversations.

Professor of History Yair Mintzker recognized that crises come with new opportunities, and believed that no course in the humanities was better prepared to embrace them than the HUM Sequence. “Our subject matter is, and has always been, the human condition. In the HUM Sequence, we explore it through reading some of the most profound texts in the Western literary tradition. ‘Know thyself,’ that wonderful inscription at the entrance to Apollo’s temple in Delphi, continues to be the motto of our common teaching philosophy,” he explained. He too was able to add more one-on-one meetings with students online.

To read the rest of this article on the Princeton Humanities Council website, please click here.