Today’s guest post comes from Isaac Zinda (HMC ’20), who is a computer science major with a concentration in literature.
Harvey Mudd’s humanities, social sciences, and arts (HSA) department offers a high concentration of unique upper level courses focusing on special topics, often focusing on timely issues (see the HSA courses for a list of 179E-level classes like Water, Culture, and Technology or #MeToo Shakespeare). How has the department avoided offering the trite “101” classes which typically take up professors’ teaching horsepower? Although Mudd’s second biggest department is our HSA department, we offer no majors in this department. If students at Mudd want to major in one of these fields, they must do so off-campus. The lack of majors empowers professors to teach the classes they want to teach, not courses on various tracks that the school requires them to teach.
I’ll write about a particular favorite class of mine: the class “Zora Neale Hurston” focuses on the atypical life of the famous author. Hurston is well-known for her book “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which is frequently taught in high-school English classes. What you may not know about Hurston is that she grew up Eatonville, the first an all-black community in America, and she did research with Richard Boas, the pioneer of modern anthropology. She quickly rose to become a fairly famous author in the 1920s, and parlayed with the likes of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. However, her fame waned over time and near the end of her life she worked as a maid. When she died, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Her work was almost completely forgotten until the 1970s, when novelist and activist Alice Walker fell in love with her work and published an article called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”. Walker gave Hurston a proper burial and made her a topic of national discussion once again.
“Zora Neale Hurston” was a fascinating class thanks to the depth of analysis we were able to reach. This was the first class I’ve taken which focuses on a single author, and it was remarkable how a better understanding of Hurston’s life made her work more engaging and impactful. The brief overview which I’ve given of Hurston’s life barely scratches the surface of the analysis and investigation that we performed in class. We read nearly all of Hurston’s novels and poured over their contents in student-led discussions. As the course came to a close, students authored a series of blog posts and gave a presentation on some facet of Hurston’s life. My group wrote and presented on how folktales encode community values.
I’m grateful that Harvey Mudd’s HSA department empowers professors to teach very focused courses. Although I’ve generally enjoyed intro classes that I’ve taken, these classes rarely leave a strong lasting impact. “Zora Neale Hurston” did leave a strong lasting impact. The class proved to me that even thoughtful, insightful writing can be doomed to obscurity because of societal values at the time of writing. Hurston’s work was more focused on depicting life and love than on solving the “race problem,” which her fellow black authors saw as a weakness.
If you do come to Harvey Mudd’s campus, I would highly recommend sitting in on one of our HSA courses! Most likely you will discover lively discussing and interesting subject matter and walk away with a new perspective.