LENS Glare

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Episode 1: << There, there Odyssey fans >>

Lauren Cho, Eva Brander Blackhawk, Nathaniel Ijams, Sophia Abrahamson

There there, Odyssey fans…

What would happen to the world if the Odyssey disappeared? More importantly, what would happen to the promising youth of Columbia’s Literature Humanities classes?! More shockingly, what if we added the first male author of color and first Native American voice to our syllabus? Call it the 8th miracle, but Sophie and Nate realize they alone, along with two esteemed Core Curriculum scholars, Eva and Lauren, hold the last remaining memories of this keystone epic. The four literature pioneers meet to discuss how to grapple with this loss, and more importantly what should replace it in Columbia’s renowned Core Curriculum. Our core four propose books such as the Lord of the Rings, the Remains of the Day, Tortilla Curtain, and There, There as they contemplate the relationship between individual and community. 

But what is the role of the Core Curriculum? Sure students might make friends, private chat each other on zoom, but at its core (hehe) the class emphasizes the “value in the entire community of undergraduates reading the same works of literature.” The literature we read fundamentally shapes us, so the stakes are high for whichever work gets added. It is also worth noting that a key element of reading these books is to not just garner appreciation for the texts, but also level equally important criticisms. Ideally, Lit Hum “encourages students to become critical readers of the literary past we have inherited

Historically the Core has expanded after women were admitted to Columbia, and after racial violence on campus: “Changes in the curriculum come after a particularly contentious year of discussions surrounding the Core. Last December, questions surrounding the diversity of authors and texts available in the Core reached a new height when Julian von Abele, CC ’21, harassed a group of predominantly black students with a white supremacist tirade.” Similarly, it was only after the violence of summer 2020 that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was added to the summer reading assignment. It’s also worth noting that black students at Columbia actually predate the Core Curriculum by about 25 years: “African American students began to matriculate at Columbia in significant numbers by the 1920s, but they remain all but invisible in the university’s archival records. This erasure can be attributed to a pervasive climate of racism, punctuated by a cross burning that occurred on campus in 1924.” Speaking of literary masters, Zora Neale Hurston went to Barnard in 1925 as the first black woman to attend Columbia University. In some ways the disappearance of the Odyssey allows us to proactively change the curriculum for the first time.  “bUt ChAnGiNg tHe CoRe MeAnS wE lOsE oUr “TrAdItIoNs”. Actually one of the very first changes to the Core Curriculum was shifting the modern language requirement from Greek to Latin, signifying a shift from the old to the new (the notion of Latin being new tells you just how old this curriculum is). After all, now that our university is committed to admitting at least 50% students of color, shouldn’t we alter our curriculum to meet similar standards? And maybe ask ourselves why we ever thought women and people of color couldn’t create “great masterpieces” in the first place…


Episode Transcript

Melodic music playing…

NATE: Hello, and welcome to another episode of LENS Glare. Here from Columbia University, taking you all over.

Melodic music continues playing…

Crashing sound! 

NATE: What was that? No one remembers the Odyssey?!

SOPHIE: Hello, and welcome to our first ever podcast, the LENS Glare. My name is Sophie, and I am joined by my co-host Nate (Hey). Today, we will be investigating what appears to be a fascinating case of collective amnesia on a massive scale. The Odyssey, which is a text written by the ancient Greek poet Homer, has disappeared, not just from bookshelves but also from people’s memory. 

SOPHIE (continued): Although The Odyssey has all but vanished from history, its memory, shockingly, remains alive in only four people. Those four individuals appear to be myself, two other Columbia scholars, Eva and Lauren, as well as Nate. Which means that, as strange as it might be to say, all our listeners have to take our word for it that the Odyssey really did exist and, until very recently at least, had a profound effect on Western Civilization. We will discuss what this means for Columbia’s Literature Humanities’ course, and what text might serve as a substitute in the curriculum. 

NATE: Yeah, and particularly impacted by the Odyssey’s erasure are Columbia students and faculty. Approaching the 75th year celebration of Literature Humanities, the Odyssey has been a constant presence on the syllabus. And its vanishing has left a baffling gap in their Core curriculum. We have invited Lauren (hi) and Eva (hello) who are historians of the Core and who have agreed to walk us through the Literature Humanities’ course of action. 

LAUREN: Hello, thank you for having me Sophie and Nate! While the Odyssey’s sudden disappearance is both concerning and baffling, especially as this work has been ingrained in the Literature Humanities curriculum for so long, Columbia is currently focusing on a replacement.

EVA: Exactly, Lauren. The book list for Literature Humanities was never meant to be permanent. First established over a century ago in 1919, the course was constructed with the expectation of variability. Just as Pride and Prejudice was incorporated into the Core in 1985, which marked the first time the course had ever included a narrative written by a woman. We are seeing this as an opportunity to diversify the curriculum to better reflect more of Western Literature. Western literature, as you know, is incredibly vast. And, even at the pace with which students cycle through texts, many underrepresented voices are still missing from the curriculum.

NATE: That’s a great point, Eva. The Odyssey is set in the same era as the other centuries-old classics like the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, the Oresteia, and Antigone, all of which appear on the syllabus. I think the course has more than enough ancient Greco-Roman representation. And as I recall, many themes that had appeared in the Odyssey are picked up in the Aeneid, anyway, especially the principle theme of homecoming.

EVA: Right. In fact, in a syllabus that contemplates approximately 22 texts, Homer is the only author to appear twice. This redundancy does not seem fair to so many other important contributors to the Western literature canon missing from the curriculum. All things considered, we are relatively lucky that the Odyssey was the narrative to go missing. 

NATE: Lauren, you mentioned that you are focusing on finding replacements. Are you taking any suggestions?

LAUREN: As a matter of fact yes! Did you have something in mind?

NATE: Oh yes I do! What about The Lord of the Rings? This epic fantasy presents us with vivid scenes that bring us close to the most evil aspects of individualism, as well as to its most good. I mean we see the corruption of community, the fading away of community, as well as communities redeemed. I think this work is grounded in the past, but is undeniably relevant for a world in which the atom bomb exists— a world in which we are more connected but less communal than ever before.

LAUREN: That’s super intriguing, Nate. One of the key themes to the Core is the relationship of the individual versus the collective.

NATE: Exactly, Lauren! And consider the Aeneid. In Carthage, Aeneas almost gets carried away by lust with Dido before the gods cut in to remind him that it was time to move on and fulfill his prophecy. Like Frodo Baggins, to become the hero he was fated to be, Aeneas had to set aside his selfish desires and passions for the greater good. And perhaps the message here is that: Alone, we are subject to ourselves and all our flaws. To listen to others, then, might help us be moderate and a part of something bigger than ourselves. In this way, community is corrective and a force for good. 

NATE (continued): Also, we could pull upon Antigone. Or anti-gone, I always like the latter. When she argues with Creon about how her duty to bury her brothers is greater than her loyalty to her king, we can see Antigone here as striking out on her own as a passionate and fiery figure who seeks out her individual way in the world. But, I think quite the opposite and no insult is meant by it. Antigone is not an individualist, but a Greek of unyielding commitment to tradition, a tradition that demands that she prioritizes her rituals and her family above all other considerations, especially her duties as a royal subject.

EVA: The Lord of the Rings’ genre as modern fantasy, too, poses an interesting route not yet taken in the course. We may face an issue though with it being over 1000 pages long, if not a little over. We wouldn’t want too many narratives cut short like with what happens with Don Quixote.

SOPHIE: If length is an issue, Eva, would you consider The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro? 

EVA: Oh my gosh! Is that the story about the butler?

SOPHIE: Exactly. Stevens the butler. The story takes place in England, on the eve of World War II. It grapples with similar questions as The Lord of the Rings, with individuals struggling to balance their commitment to their community with their selfish urge to strike out on their own. The Remains of the Day wrestles with the sacrifices Stevens must endure to conform completely to his role in this society. In the end, he learns that all his lifelong sacrifices might have been for nothing. It’s actually a truly heart-breaking novel.

SOPHIE (continued): Also, picking up on Nate’s comment, this idea of personal sacrifice in The Remains of the Day would pair well with the Aeneid too. Aeneas’ destiny is to found the city that becomes the heart of the Roman Empire. But, this act cannot be blindly labeled as noble and heroic. For this community––for the Roman Empire––he literally loses his wife in the forest, hurts Dido, and abandons the city of Carthage, which remains aflame as he sails away for his chosen community. So not so easily deducible, the remaining stories in the class invert the prior trend of sacrificing the individual for community. Crime and Punishment as well as narratives like Pride and Prejudice and the Iliad have principle characters set apart from their societies, some more drastic than others. In each respective story, Raskolnikov, Lizzy, and Achilles face varying consequences and blame for standing out. Combining the messages from each story, the narratives culminate into a very interesting analysis of the pros and cons of being in a community for each individual.

LAUREN: You know guys, we could even look into the damaging prospects that ensue when it’s not just individuals who interact, but distinct communities. The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle does just that. The novel follows the lives of a wealthy white family and a family of illegal immigrants from Mexico and it uncovers just how destructive and inaccurate community-perpetrated stereotypes can be. In the final confrontation between these two groups, a terrible flood finally forces each family to recognize their shared humanity. The novel puts into perspective how individual values are shaped by community values, almost without question, and puts readers in the position of wondering about their own individual values and whether such a terrible event is really necessary to realize what those values are.

LAUREN: Also, the Tortilla Curtain picks up on the illusionment and disillusionment of individuals and communities throughout the Literature Humanities course. Take, for example, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Unlike the Tortilla Curtain, where the community fools its people into believing inaccuracies, Don Quixote has a personal fantasy that everyone else in the community is immune to. This dichotomy raises questions about one’s ability to break through stereotypes and biases when the illusion is being cast by a greater society versus one’s own self. 

NATE: That’s really interesting, Lauren. It could also factor in with Pride and Prejudice, right?

LAUREN: Yes! That’s actually what I was thinking! Pride and Prejudice touches on class distinctions in a very class-conscious culture. Austen shows just how skewed 19th century society’s perspectives were in that even well-off middle classes were expressly treated as social inferiors by the true aristocracy. The Tortilla Curtain makes abundantly clear that centuries later, those community divides still exist. The differences now between insiders and outsiders are similar, except that the degree of antagonism between these different communities has grown exponentially worse.

EVA: Our discussions have all, in some way, been connected to “community.” But, throughout each of the narratives, this community remains most often as a broad, nondescript entity. I wonder what would happen if we consider a novel by Tommy Orange called There, There. Within this novel, the reader gets the opportunity to personally witness the multiple mindsets of different characters in Oakland, California, as they all venture towards the same Powwow in the end of the book. These individual voices come together to show a myriad of different urban and contemporary Indigenous experiences and identities. As a result, the established community among the characters becomes a group of complex, insightful people as opposed to a block of bodies making up the “other.”

EVA (continued): Even beyond the comparison of the self versus community, I think this novel builds particularly well on the Bible in the ways it explores how Christianity and Christian images have influenced native culture in a way that changes the way we view the Bible. My favorite part about the book, though, is the way it’s deeply poetic in narrative, theme, and style that really mirrors Sappho. And the consistent imagery of blood reminds me heavily of the Oresteia. Most importantly, though it builds on all these traditional western stories, it does so from a drastically different but equally as traditional, and valuable, western perspective that is all too often discredited; it forces us to reconcile with the ways our education and curriculum perpetuate violence and racism in a way that keeps us all ignorant.

NATE: There, There is a great suggestion, Eva! The novel definitely seems to factor in well with the existing curriculum. And the storytelling framework strikes a nice balance of being unique while also building upon the other stories with multiple narratives like Plato’s Symposium and To the Lighthouse.

LAUREN: I have to agree with Nate. There, There seems to be the perfect fit.

Melodic music playing…

SOPHIE: Great! I will be joining the chorus as well in support of There, There. The novel sounds like the right substitution. Thank you to Lauren and Eva for joining us today. Hopefully this conversation has not only been helpful for understanding our new world without the Odyssey but also in rethinking Literature Humanities. We wish you all the best. Thank you all for tuning into LENS Glare and we’ll see you next week.

Melodic music continues… 

NATE: The next episode will be about The Lord of the Rings. Ahhhh!

Melodic music continues… 




Works Cited

“About Literature Humanities.” About Literature Humanities | The Core Curriculum, www.college.columbia.edu/core/lithum/about. 

Aeschylus. Aeschylus II: the Oresteia. Translated by David Greene and Richmond Lattimore, 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, classic ed., Bantam Dell, 1982. 

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books. 

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. The Tortilla Curtain. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2015. 

De Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Translated by Edith Grossman, 1st ed., Ecco, 2005. 

De la Cruz, Sor Juana Ines. Poems, Protest, And a Dream. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Penguin Books, 1997. 

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, reprint ed., Vintage, 1993. 

“History of the Core.” History of the Core | The Core Curriculum, www.college.columbia.edu/core/timeline. 

Homer. Iliad. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 2011. 

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson, 1st ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. 1st ed., Pearson Education Ltd. in Association with Penguin Books, 2008. 

James, Emma. “Annually Rotating Student-, Faculty-Chosen Text to Be Added to Lit Hum Syllabus.” Columbia Daily Spectator, 3 Sept. 2019, 11:54pm, www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2019/09/04/annually-rotating-student-faculty-chosen-text-to-be-added-to-lit-hum-syllabus/. 


Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Translated by John M Cohen, Revised ed. ed., Penguin Books, 1993. 

Orange, Tommy. There There. 1st ed., Knopf, 2018. 

R., Tolkien J R, et al. The Lord of The Rings. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014. 

Sappho, and Anne Carson. Sappho. reprint ed., Vintage, 2003. 

Sophocles. Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by David Grene et al., 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

Stalnaker, Joanna. “Let’s Talk about Lit Hum.” Columbia Daily Spectator, 19 Dec. 2018, 5:49pm, www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2018/12/19/lets-talk-about-lit-hum/. Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Revised ed. ed., Bantam Classics, 1981.

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