Heard this one yet? An Italianist, a philosopher, a
classicist and a professor of German walk into a room...
Actually, there's no punch line. These four do walk into
the same room, every week.
This fall, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
premiered an interdisciplinary course intended to expose
freshmen to the pleasures of reading and to spark their
interest in the humanities.
Great Books: The Western Tradition is a
three-credit writing-intensive course that examines texts
from the eighth century B.C. on up through post-World War
I. The class meets twice a week, once for a discussion
period and once for a lecture presented by one or more of
the four participating faculty.
Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies in the
Romance Languages and Literatures, championed the
effort. Stephens, who taught a similar course during his
days at Dartmouth College, said that what led to the
creation of Great Books was his "own wish to do it,"
coupled with the rising tide of undergraduates entering
Johns Hopkins with a bent toward the humanities. The
stereotype of the sciences-only Hopkins student is fading,
Stephens said, thanks in large part to an active effort on
the part of the Undergraduate Admissions Office to address
the imbalance between humanities and science majors.
Once they're here, students need to know what's
"There are not enough courses out there that get the
word out about the humanities, but we're finding out that
there are a considerable and growing number of students
interested," Stephens said about the need for this
offering. In addition, "it was felt that there were not
enough courses out there for undergraduates that were
interdisciplinary, and that's our big calling card with
Philosophy professor Meredith
Williams leading one of the four discussion sections. On
Fridays, the professors and their groups convene for a
PHOTO BY HPS/WILL KIRK
Stephens said he and his colleagues "kicked the idea
for the course around awhile," but the real opportunity to
add it to the curriculum arose after the Center for
Educational Resources received a significant grant from the
Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to develop Web-based
resources to enhance students' critical thinking skills in
the humanities. The grant already had helped spawn
Introduction to Art History I and II, and Introduction to
Fiction and Poetry I and II. Great Books, too, became a
In addition to Stephens, the three other participating
faculty are Matthew Roller, associate professor in the
Department; Meredith Williams, professor in the
Philosophy; and Ruediger Campe, chair of the
Each faculty member picked two or three texts for the
syllabus. The selection of works includes Homer's The
Odyssey, Jane Austen's Persuasion, Friedrich
Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and Franz
Kafka's The Trial.
"These are not just great books," Stephens said.
"These are books we are excited about and love to teach,
and the students, hopefully, feed off that enthusiasm."
The discussion groups are held in four separate rooms,
with each faculty member assigned a group of 11 or 12
students for the entire semester. For the Friday lectures,
however, all 45 students and four faculty come together in
one classroom to discuss a work. The faculty alternate
leading the lectures, with the others playing the role of
The classicist Roller said that part of the joy of the
course has been teaching outside his specialty and
dissecting books previously unknown to him.
"One of the great things about a course like this is
that the profs get to go back to school," he said. "We're
reading things that maybe we haven't read since we were
freshmen or, in some cases, never read at all. The lectures
have been wonderful. It's fun to see how others respond to
these texts. Everybody sees something different."
Stephens said that for the discussion groups, the
faculty moderate rather than lead.
"We don't legislate discussions at all. They really
begin where [the students] want them to begin," Stephens
said. "We try to make it as much as possible their
discussion, shepherding it only when needed and giving it a
nudge if it starts to lag."
An ancillary objective to the course is to create an
increased interest in the humanities among science-oriented
undergraduates. Stephens said that Great Books came about
partly in response to the university's Commission on
Undergraduate Education, one of whose recommendations was
to encourage efforts to broaden the mix of academic
interests and to match student enrollments more closely to
To that end, the course relies on the efforts of three
academic departments, the
Center for Educational Resources and the
Program. For their first several papers, students are
required to get help from tutors with the Expository
Writing Program. Students also interact closely with the
course's Web site, where they submit papers electronically,
read posted assignments and memos, participate in
discussion boards and learn more about the authors and the
The pilot course will be offered a second time next
spring, again only to freshmen. Should it continue beyond
that term, Stephens said that the course could be opened up
to sophomores as well, but the current design of Great
Books makes it inherently more valuable to those beginning
their college experience.
"What we are going for is a general appeal. We want
Hopkins students to have an opportunity to do something
that doesn't necessarily fit into a major," Stephens said.
"This course might open paths to a major, or it might open
paths to an interest that a student doesn't know he or she
Stephens said he is cautiously optimistic that the
course will become an institution at JHU. Roller said one
factor in its favor is the growing clientele of students
who are primarily interested in the humanities.
"Those of us in the humanities have always wanted to
be fed more undergraduates. Well, guess what — they
are coming," he said. "This [course] is a way for us to
show off all of our disciplines. Students certainly get a