CGS Syllabus: HU103 in the World

By Gabrielle Drillis

Boston is one of the most historically-rich cities in the United States. Alongside the various restaurants, unique shops, and endless fun experiences, Boston is home to 58 different museums. Consequently, one of the rewarding opportunities of attending a school in Boston is the ability to experience the museums which boast thousands of years of history in the arts, sciences, and natural history.

College of General Studies Associate Professor of Humanities Adam Sweeting used this abundance of local resources to his advantage, incorporating educational excursions into his HU103: Literature and Art from the Ancient World to the Enlightenment curriculum, to combine in-classroom learning with exploration.

Last spring, Sweeting launched an assignment called ‘HU103 In the World, ’co-developed by Sweeting and Megan LeBarron, a previous Pedological Fellow in HU103 working toward her PhD in American and New England Studies. The assignment, like the class,  aims to equip students with fundamental skills in historical research, analysis, and the ability to remain objective and open-minded when tackling any given task or situation.

Adam Sweeting (left) and Megan LeBarron (GRD ’20) (right) created the ‘HU103 In the World’ assignment to help students connect themes they explored in the classroom to works found in museums around Boston. Photos courtesy Sweeting and LeBarron

The Assignment

For the assignment, students choose a theme explored during the semester and then apply it to a region of the world that has not been discussed in class, such as Asia, Oceania, or South America. Once the theme is chosen, students are asked to visit one of the recommended local museums and select one or two art works that fit the theme. 

One of the main goals of the ‘HU103 In the World’ assignment is to encourage students to engage with local museums, such as the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The assignment is multi-modal and asks students to speak and write, rather than simply produce a written essay that summarizes their experience. 

The project is assigned later in the semester to give students a chance to explore the city before heading home for break, with Sweeting citing the importance of getting off of Comm. Ave. 

Through the semester, Sweeting’s class discusses the themes of family, traveling, the power of storytelling, different religious belief systems, gender representation in the arts, naturalism, and death and the meaning of life, amongst other topics. 

‘HU103 In the World’ allows students to delve deeper into any of the above themes and explore that theme through visual artwork, giving them freedom to focus on a specific sub-topic that may personally interest them. 

“Most of the work studied in the class is Eurocentric and this project is an effort to move away from that,” said Sweeting.

To guide their analysis through the rest of the project, Sweeting wants students to ask themselves “how [did] the representation of your chosen theme change when the location of its production changes?” This question ties back to the goal of pushing students to view art from different perspectives, especially non-Western art.

To showcase their final project, students produced an audio recording and wrote a brief essay to explain the correlation between in-class themes and the chosen art pieces.

Learning Goals

Sweeting’s personal inspiration for the assignment also came from his desire to rework the way assignments are viewed. Rather than display a block of information to students and then test students on their ability to memorize dates and names, or see how well they can summarize a topic in a standard five-paragraph essay, he thought extending the course curriculum ‘into the world’ would offer a more enriching learning experience.

“We need to rethink how we do assignments,” said Sweeting.

“HU103 In the World’ also served as a rewarding reminder to Sweeting about why he loves teaching so much. Interacting with students and watching their intellectual growth never ceases to inspire Sweeting. From the spring to the summer semester, Sweeting “notes changes…students become deeper thinkers and better writers.”

‘HU103 In the World,’ similar to the other assignments and activities in HU103, works toward achieving the goals set out by the HUB units, specifically Aesthetic Exploration, Historical Consciousness, and Critical Thinking. After completing the project, students walk away with a deeper understanding of artistic and historical themes, new perspectives, and skills they can apply in various aspects of their academic and professional lives. 

Approaching the Assignment

Tackling the ‘HU103 In the World’ project was multifaceted and required some planning ahead, especially for visiting the chosen museum. 

Patrio Marcus (’24, CAS’26) recommends that students who complete the assignment in the future outline their project goals beforehand to not lose sight of the primary themes they are searching for – and get to the museum early to avoid lines!

Carefully read the wall text for any object/artwork at the museum!” Marcus said. “The wall text can be very helpful in figuring out the context behind a piece and sometimes reminds you of themes in the course.”

Marcus explored artistic works from the Kingdom of Benin at the Museum of Fine Arts, and analyzed the roles of otherness and colonialism through the “Commemorative Head of a Defeated Leader” and “Portuguese Soldier” statue.

The “Portuguese Soldier” statue in the Art of the Benin Kingdom exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts inspired Patrio Marcu’s (’24, CAS’26) assignment. Photo courtesy of Patrio Marcus

The Museum of Fine Arts hosts an entire gallery dedicated to the Kingdom of Benin filled with “questionably obtained art” from the period. Marcus wanted to use the ‘HU103 In the World’ assignment to dive deeper into the presentation of foreign cultures in Western settings. 

His final project included comparisons of these statues to the assumptions of African art made by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, author of ‘Letter 27,’ and Michael de Montaigne, author of ‘Of Cannibals,’  which showcased a biased and inaccurate depiction of African culture and tradition. 

“European perspectives of foreign cultures as barbaric were often based on a lack of information or experience with the colonial process. That is why it is so important to put depictions of other cultures by a culture in the context of which they were made,” Marcus said. 

Mecca Lartigue (’24, Wheelock’26) was initially drawn into the ‘HU103 In the World’ assignment by the prompt itself, but found herself experiencing a bit of writer’s block halfway through. Taking a step back from the material helped her to focus.

“[In the] beginning, it was hard to see how I could thematically connect concepts that were so chronologically (and geographically) far apart. I had to pause and look over everything…Only then was I able to see the undeniable crossroads between these two artists and their work,” said Lartigue. 

Lartigue focused her research on the “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. There, she compared “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)” to a Face Jug sculpted in 1850. 

Her analysis revealed similarities between enslaved artists in the Southern United States and female artists in Italy, specifically in the way their work was often attributed to white men or undermined due to their racial or gender identities.  

Furthermore, Largtigue discovered a practical connection between the new perspectives she gained in HU103 and her Wheelock courses. 

Mecca Lartigue contributed the circled entry, her message to the world,  to the Wall of Pages in the Museum of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of Mecca Lartigue

The creativity of humans knows no bounds, and creation often comes from similar emotional situations,” Lartigue said. “Those connections are almost always there, and I believe that after taking HU103, I have become significantly better at making and analyzing them.”

Final Grades

‘HU103 In the World’ constitutes 15 percent  of the total final grade for students. Sweeting considers the quality of analysis, proper incorporation of course themes, and overall creativity and effort when grading the projects. 

“I learned a lot. The students absolutely rose to the occasion,” said Sweeting.

The skills learned in HU103 have helped students develop a more well rounded approach to their academics in general. Critical thinking and analytical skills are important in all majors and careers, highlighting the importance of an interdisciplinary background that is offered through the CGS curriculum.

“I was able to bring in ideas of intersectionality that we spoke about in class and other classes I was taking towards my Education and Human Development major,” said Lartigue. “My classes overlapped in a fascinating way, and it took humanities off of the page and placed it in the real world.”