A Brief Overview of the Barnard Course Catalogues

When Barnard College opened on October 7, 1889, the College offered six courses of study: Greek Language and Literature, Latin Language and Literature, English Language and Literature, Mathematics, and Botany. Parts of the syllabi of these subjects were the “Seventh Book of Herodotus,” “Higher English Grammar,” or “Latin Prose Composition.” Today, the curriculum for each major is not so standardized, giving the Barnard student more room to pursue their specific interests. This, and the fact that there are more classes offered now than there were 30 years ago, makes the process of choosing classes a long one. With the end of the semester approaching it is again that time of year to craft our new schedules. Out of curiosity, I delved into some of the old Barnard Course Catalogs in the Barnard Archives to create an overview of the highlights.

By the 1909-10 school year, the curriculum had expanded considerably since the College first opened. Barnard now offered classes in physiography (considered synonymous with geography by the college examination board) and music. The pre-requisite for the music appreciation class was having a “general knowledge of the lives and environment of at least ten composers.” Classes expanded even more by the 1925-26 Announcement, but still left something to be desired. The history department offered sixteen classes about European (French and English mostly), Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and American pasts. Only one class, “Nationalism and Imperialism in the Near East,” strayed from the study of ancient or Western worlds. Departments continued to expand and by the 1934-35 school year the Anthropology Department was well-established, showcasing two classes that caught my eye in the announcement: “Primitive Social Life” and “Problems in Anthropology.” The first class would make modern anthropologists cringe and the second would make them nod their heads knowingly. Ah, the still unresolved problems in anthropology that make me question my major every day. At the same time the physical education department offered this class: “Sports, games, rhythmic fundamentals, dancing, individual gymnastics, and other activities.” The 1934-35 Announcement states that the activities vary according to a student’s “health grade [and/or] her defects.” The Announcement of 1944-45 does not present many more classes, however, the class “Problems of Race,” seems to promise to shake things up. Part of the course description outline says: “The nation and the melting-pot. Composition and distribution of world populations and their significance….The basis of prejudice.” Professor Gladys Reichard taught the class; in fact she taught all the anthropology classes at that point, making the department somewhat of a one-woman show. Also noteworthy is the music class “Harpsichord Instruction.” 

We continue our look through the Barnard course catalogs with 1954-55. Now, the anthropology department no longer offers “Primitive Social Life,” instead of offering one class that lumps together “Oriental Art,” the Art History Department taught several covering “Persia, India, and Indonesia,” China, and Japan. A hygiene class entitled “Modern Living” is mandatory for all Freshmen and transfers. Transfers have the opportunity to take an exemption test; however, I wonder how one would be tested in hygiene and “Modern Living.” In the 1970s, the Anthropology Department lost its “primitive man” terminology, offering classes on “Peoples of the Pacific” or “Peoples of Europe” instead. In 1974-75, the history department offered “Afro-American History” and “Black Urban America.” Other intriguing courses that year included the particularly melancholy class “The Concept of Death” and “Electronic Music: Its Evolution and Techniques.” I hope no student overlooked the P.E. department’s offering of beginning and intermediate classes in “European Folk Dance” that year. The classes offered in the 1984-85 Announcement show the great range of studies present at Barnard: “History of Mental Illness and its Treatment,” “The Invisible Woman in Literature: The Lesbian Literary Tradition,” “Religious Ethics: War and Peace in Jewish and Christian Thought,” and even “The Art of Medieval Manuscript Illumination.” We now jump to the 1994-95 Catalog that offers classes in the Pan-Africa Studies Program, now Africana Studies. In the category of “classes with appealing titles” are the first-year seminar “The Teratological Text: Representations of the Other as Monster” and the history class “Telling about the South: Southerners and Southerness in History and Literature.” As far as I know “southerness” is not really a word, but a town in Scotland, however it does add a wonderful whimsy to the title. Finally, we come to the last course catalog of our survey: 2004-05. It offers such varied (but possibly not very useful) courses such as “Mafia Movies: The Godfather to The Sopranos,” “Chivalric Narratives in Popular Oral Tradition: Sicilian Puppet Theater and the Tuscan-Emilian Maggio,” and “What is Philosophy, Anyway?” I must admit that I have not mentioned any math courses because I would not know an engaging math course from a dull one. For example, the class “Differential Geometry” sounds quite benign to me, but I understand little from the description: “Local and global differential geometry of submanifolds of Euclidian 3-space. Frenet formulae for curves. Various types of curvature for curves and surfaces and their relations.” 

One can really get a feeling for the evolution of Barnard by looking through the course catalogs. The offered majors have grown from botany, Greek, and Latin to Jewish Studies, Race & Ethnic Studies, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Physics & Astronomy, Neuroscience & Behavior and that is just to name a few.


-Alice Griffin, BC ’15