Campus & Community

Great adventures

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‘Essential Works 2’ provided an intimate education in literary classics

This semester, students in “The Humanities Colloquium: Essential Works 2” (Humanities 10b) started with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (1953) and ended with Homer’s “The Iliad” (circa 760–710 century B.C.). In between, they read Wolff, Dostoyevsky, Shelley, Hume, Shakespeare, Augustine, Herodotus, and others.

The students also did the equivalent of playing outside. On class outings, they watched plays, pondered great art, considered medievalism, and peered at and paged through rare books at Houghton Library.

Digital natives may read “King Lear” on a Kindle, but to see it in print, in a fragile quarto from 1608, sends an archaic thrill through the brain. Seeing a 2,000-year-old papyrus fragment of “The Iliad” does the same. So does a lingering look at a tiny painted icon from 15th-century Russia, “Birth of John the Baptist,” propped up on a table at the Harvard Art Museums.

Digital natives may also scroll through yards of computer text on slavery and the Civil War. But watching the intimate tragedies of the era acted out on stage, as in “Father Comes Home From the Wars” at the Loeb Drama Center, is to feel and see as well as to read. Sudden insight leaps from the materiality of art: real voices, old books, and fraught paintings ― all meant to be experienced up close.

Professors Louis Menand (from left), Stephen Greenblatt, Katharina Piechocki, Emma Dench, and Ned Hall meet each Monday over lunch to discuss the upcoming weekly lecture for their class, “The Humanities Colloquium: Essential Works 2.”
Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Menand lead students to the seminar room of Houghton Library to see some of the treasures from the collections. Charlie Gibson ’18 (from left), Jane Chung ’15, Menand, India Patel ’18, Mitchell Edwards ’18, and Archie Stonehill ’17 examine a typescript of an unpublished play by Samuel Beckett from the 1950s. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
A fragment of one leaf of the first known copy of Homer’s Iliad, from circa 1050-225 B.C. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
In addition to sections and lectures, students sign up to attend plays and operas. This group recently visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In the courtyard, museum tour guide Katherine Fein (left) talks to students including India Patel ’18 and Sohyun Yoon ’18.
At the museum, students saw works by Rembrandt and Sargent.
The first stop was the iconic courtyard.
Lauren Kopajtic (second from right), a doctoral candidate and head teaching fellow for Humanities 10b, brought the group to and from the museum by subway.
Aaron Suduiko ’17, Claire Benoit ’17, and Nora Sagal ’18 discuss Dostoyevsky inside Greenblatt’s museum classroom.
Matt Ricotta ’15 (left) and Nora Sagal ’18 listen as Stephen Greenblatt talks about art.
Students get a close-up look at “Birth of John the Baptist” 1475-1500, and “Madonna and Child Holding Dove,” late 16th century, by unidentified artists.
On Mondays, the team meets over lunch. Professor Ned Hall (right) animatedly talks about his lecture topic, David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Teaching fellow Helen Cushman is on the left.
As presenter of the upcoming lecture, Ned Hall sits at the head of the table.