Enriching Introductory Humanities Courses

Collin Hughes and Michael Delahoyde

The intention of the project is to demonstrate multiple ways that the material in Humanities courses is relevant and therefore of interest to teachers and students, reaching out in particular to teachers, teachers-in-training, and those students planning to major in education. The model of this resource website is collaborative and would be readily shared with and expanded to other campuses.

The Title

The Orpheus of myth serves as an inspiration to teachers. His lyrical talents are inspirational and the miseries of the underworld grind to a halt when he is en forme. He has been to hell and has returned. Even torn apart and decapitated by mindless bacchanals, his music continues to sweeten the lives those who would listen.


The discipline needs to address a variety of different learning styles. Therefore, the material needs to be presented through a variety of engaging activities, classroom and otherwise (not just text, but also film, images, etc.). Classroom activities and assignments must be designed to provide a variety of opportunities to different kinds of learners. Most of all, the material presented in these classes needs to be shown to have relevance to our lives today.

The Problem of Relevance

The objectives of the introductory Humanities courses might be said to include these goals:

-- to gain exposure to some of the major artistic works which have shaped Western culture and the way we think.

-- to increase intellectual maturation and clarification of our own values through examination of ideas and attitudes in cultural contexts.

--to develop skills in verbal analysis through reading, discussion, and writing about literature and other artistic media.

In essence, the courses are designed to acquaint students with a body of material with which cultured people of the Western world have been familiar for millennia. Through readings and exposure to other works of art, learners can come to know some of the world's most influential mythology and ancient works in more thorough and meaningful ways than these materials' contemporary reduction to cheesy vestiges and obscure trivia questions. Teachers can encourage students to see and to make connections between ideas, attitudes, and cultures in classroom discussions, and to keep track of similar ideas (or myths) currently circulating that interest them.

For example, one can introduce stories as the primary way we, as homo sapiens, define our relationships with "other as live encounter," the people around us, our to relationship to the natural world and all species living, and our relations with the cosmos.

Ancient texts and images mix with modern in thematic organization.

For instance, in the context for studying "our relationships to each other," one can include John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961. [Paraphrase: Each generation of Americans will have to define for itself its degree of loyalty to the state.] This can be treated as a basic heroic question. Ancient and modern narratives mediate basic dualisms: community / individualism, savage / civil, etc. We can measure one intention of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest text of antiquity, by looking at the transformation of a king's consciousness; Gilgamesh the tyrant, defined by his own individual lusts, and Gilgamesh the king who is capable of altruism and social responsibility. This transformation represents an initial pedagogical perspective (having students see their lives in relationship to others) and therein is useful in understanding the plot of the story. Once again, the goal is to show students how they can live inside stories. We also discuss examples in literary film: Gilgamesh's transformation is somewhat identical to the transformation of Rick Blain in Casablanca (1943): Rick goes from an isolationist position of "sticking his neck out for nobody" to sacrificing his truest love for a national cause--defeating Nazi Germany. The film is allegory. Rick Blain represents changes in American sentiments in general about isolationism and interventionism and the sway of rage; also consider these stories as propaganda; just as Virgil's Aeneid is written to reshape Rome, some films are obviously and consciously designed to influence public attitudes and opinions.

The dramatic tension surrounding Sophocles' character Antigone can be used with the writings of Henry David Thoreau. I say "break the law." We consciously place the gadfly along side heroes like Aeneas to underscore the dramatic tension between individual rebellion and duty to the state, as evident in the Aeneid. In hard core ways, the Roman mind-set is consistent with Freud'scritical fear of individualism in Civilization and its Discontents. In all cases, clarify this basic heroic question by providing helpful categories: The Mythology of State and The Mythology of Self. This seductive and simply division of the mythic tradition is explained more fully in Stephen Ausband's Myth and Meaning, Myth and Order.

Other connections and relevance include, in shorthand form:

--Necessary points of convergence between the Sciences and the Humanities. We will develop ways of teaching "the natural world" while introducing thoughtful definitions of critical thinking.

--Perspective on war: primary text, ask students reading the Iliad which side they support and why. Homer's decentering of war motivation makes for challenging discussion.

--myth as metaphor (something Joseph Campbell made much of); ask students to finish the following sentences: "The worst time of my life was like ..." and "The best time in my life was like ..." (even, "In a past life, I died ..."), and watch their responses match up with stories from mythology.

--Ovid and environmentalism; in his case, it's not so much that that tree you're cutting down or that animal you ran over may be your grandmother (although Pythagorean metempsychosis is featured in Book 15); it's that each flower and bird has its own life story.--etiological myths; Western culture's insistence that it must pinpoint a first person, place, and authorized hierarchy, vs. creation myths of other cultures. (Consider Stephen Gould on the myth of the creation of baseball vs. the more realistic paradigm of evolution.)

Constructing a Teaching Resource

This website addresses the following, most ubiquitously anthologized, texts:

The Epic of Gilgamesh (2700 B. C. )
Creation Myths (cross-cultural: including Genesis, Popul Vuh, Native American creation stories. etc.)
Old Testament excerpts (Genesis, The Story of Joseph, Job)
Homer's Iliad
Homer's Odyssey
Hesiod's Theogony
Greek Plays [by Aeschylus, Sophocles (Oedipus Rex, Antigone), Euripides (Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae)]
Greek Philosophy (Plato, Aristotle)
Greek History (Herodotus, Thucydides)
Virgil's Aeneid
Ovid's Metamorphoses

Basic Organization:

Introduction: an explanation of the site providing the pedagogical philosophy behind it, its specific purposes, its uses, and an invitation for further contributions.

Texts: links to online versions of the ancient texts when available, bibliographical reference to the most available print and anthologized versions.

Further Readings: helpful and digestible shortcuts for an optional but better grounding and expansion of knowledge in each work.

Notes for Teachers: will include

Comprehension: an extensive list of basic questions about people, places, and events in each text. Teachers first make certain students know what happens before they can discuss what it might mean. Detailed summaries of the stories would be offered here.

Commentary: introductory comments on the texts and descriptions of general approaches to teaching in relevant categories such as heroism, travel, authority and power, deceit, revenge, love and romance, master/slave relationships, individual/ community or civil/savage dynamics. This section will suggest ways that teachers can renovate particular themes so they can be made applicable to contemporary life, and thus relevant to the lives of the students. This section of the resource would provide a body of knowledge in the form of commentaries on literature, philosophy, architecture, and art of the ancient world. As part of an ongoing conversation about Western civilization, we will discuss and evaluate the ways ancient texts continue to shape human consciousness and suggest ways that these texts may help us better understand the enigma we call life.

Connections: this section would introduce ways to utilize the reading and writing of scholars in diverse fields; from history to literary theory to science and psychology; again, here we are attempting to create simple metaphors that students can "see" and then apply to their act of making meaning through reading. The connection between science and the humanities is of particular concern. We will also include here a large section called Film and Mythology, showing teachers how Hollywood films can used as valuable reference points for discussing mythic concepts in the classroom. We will provide a list of films (that have discernible mythological plots) and teaching strategies for viewing these films.

Activities: this section would include straightforward advice for getting students to express their thinking out loud in front of others. We will include descriptions of what has worked and what has not. (This area will provide links that involve "teaching tips" from teachers around the Pacific northwest). We have a good deal of practical information and advice on teaching: how to use technology in the classroom, how to use images and art in the classroom, how to use poetry, how to use science. These facets would be applied to tips on how to guide a successful discussion.

Assignments: sample writing assignments, activities, and exams would go beyond comprehension to include analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and then application to contemporary life. We would provide diverse suggestions. The section will also provide suggested models for final projects and collaborative projects.

The project seems massive, but much of it emerges from knowledge, practices, and experience we each have already amassed in the teaching of these classes for the past seven years. In short, Project Orpheus targets clear pedagogical goals and seeks to generate a series of comprehensive choices for achieving these fundamental goals, providing guidelines for making connections to other disciplines and eras of history and prehistory. It is our hope that individual teachers will be able to select from a variety of ways to enrich the presentation of the Humanities in their own classrooms.