Class Profile: Edgar Fellows examine the humanities through disaster

HONR 206/288: Humanities and the Experience of Disaster, an experimental course in the Edgar Fellows Program curriculum, offers students a creative alternative to HUMN 221: Western Humanities II, a required course. This four-credit class taught by associate professor of history Joseph Cope explores the traditional Humanities II course through a common thread of disaster and displacement.

“This course is basically a Humanities II course with a few slightly different texts or deviations from the humanities menu,” Cope said. “What I was trying to do was focus it around how various different great books engage with the problems posed by the human experience of dislocation and disaster.”

The focus adds clarity to a course that spans 500 years of history – an admirable feat that is not lost on his students.

“The idea of the common thread, especially in Humanities II, is very important … It gives a centralized purpose to the class,” sophomore Grant Kusick said.

The class is also unique with its open discussion format. The small class arranges desks in a circle and converses about the texts, a style very different from most traditional Humanities lectures.

As an Edgar Fellows class, the course is only open to those in the program, which adds another personal element because most of the students in the class have known each other since freshman year.

This course shares most texts with the original Humanities II, and Cope maintains that, despite the focus of a common theme, the course is not a radical or revolutionary experience. He has already taught multiple experimental and Edgar Fellows classes and served on the Edgar Fellows Committee for seven years.

Cope said he has taught classes in the past that “look at disaster from a historical perspective but also from an interdisciplinary perspective,” but this is the first time this class has counted as a western humanities core.

In fact, Cope only changed two texts from the original curriculum and added some additional readings. He said he wants to “keep in mind the overarching aims of the humanities classes in Geneseo, which is to give students a canonical understanding of these great books.”

His small changes give the class a more clear and modern focus. The group discusses not only ancient history but also contemporary disasters and displacements such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

“Contextualizing it with contemporary issues makes it easier to debate things,” senior Suraj Uttamchandani said.

The texts range from Voltaire to Sigmund Freud and help students “look backwards for answers,” according to Uttamchandani. Through these books and the class format, students are educated on the global, social and political contexts of various human disasters throughout history – which helps having a history professor for the course, Kusick said.

“We have a really great professor who makes sure we don’t get bogged down in a discussion that’s not relevant,” sophomore Sam Weinstein said.

Experimental classes are often used as a “laboratory” in which professors can learn along with the students and tweak a course before offering it full time, something Cope and his class agree improves the class.

Cope noted that it is difficult to turn an experimental class into a permanent one, but it is clear that this class has a lot of potential both within and outside the Edgar Fellows Program.