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Literature and Action Will Intersect in the Fall 2016 Newberry Seminar

Published: December 3, 2015

Go to ACM Notes

History, archival research, and the city of Chicago are passions shared by Cornell College professors Tori Barnes-Brus and Rebecca Entel.

Put those interests together, said Barnes-Brus, and "the Newberry Seminar seemed like a perfect fit." That's where they will be next fall, when they lead a group of students on a semester of research and discovery as Faculty Directors of the ACM Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities.

Rebecca Entel and Tori Barnes-Brus

Cornell College professors Rebecca Entel and Tori Barnes-Brus looking at historic posters at the Newberry Library.

The topic of the fall 2016 seminar, Novel Action: Literature, Social Movements, and the Public Good, will focus on social reform and the relationship between "words and deeds" — literature and action — using Chicago as a case study.

Chicago-based writers such as Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, and Lorraine Hansberry will play prominent roles in the seminar syllabus, which pulls together a wide range of materials to trace the intersection of literary and social movements in Chicago from the late 19th century through the Progressive and Civil Rights movements and up to the present day.

While the seminar's activities will center on the unparalleled collections at the Newberry Library, one of the world's top independent research libraries in the humanities, Entel and Barnes-Brus also plan to have the students explore Chicago, visit historic sites, and meet with neighborhood activists involved in social issues to gain a broader perspective.

"We're excited about students being in the archives and doing intense research, and connecting that to what they're learning about the city during the seminar's field trips," said Entel. "That's what the authors that we'll be studying were doing. They were all involved not just in literary movements, but in social movements as well."

The two professors have collaborated in their teaching on various occasions, most recently when they co-taught a course earlier this fall on Reading and Writing the City: Literature and Social Justice in Chicago.

Walking tour

Newberry Seminar participants take a walking tour on Chicago's Northside.

Photo courtesy of Bridget Draxler

Since Cornell is on the block plan, they could bring their class to Chicago for nearly three weeks in October. The course — in their words, "a slice of the Newberry Seminar" — emphasized the work of social reformer Jane Addams and Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle.

Barnes-Brus and Entel said they are looking forward to the chance to settle into Chicago and the Newberry Library for a full semester and to mentor students in their major independent research projects. The first six weeks of the program will be structured with readings, assignments, and field trips to explore the seminar theme, introduce the students to the Newberry's collections and staff of research librarians, and guide the students as they begin to formulate their research topics.

"The seminar is really scaffolded in a way that is going to step students through the process, taking into account the messiness, the challenges, and the excitement of research," said Barnes-Brus. "Students should come in ready for a scholarly inquiry and ready to ask questions."

During the second half of the semester, the students will concentrate on their individual projects, with regular one-to-one meetings with the professors. Entel and Barnes-Brus have been considering ways that the students can engage with each other in a workshop-type setting to share drafts of their projects and talk over the stumbling blocks and successes they are encountering.

Newberry Seminar students

Newberry Seminar students gather outside the entrance to the library.

Photo courtesy of Bridget Draxler

"At that point [in the semester] we will no longer be the experts leading the students," Entel said. "They really are going to be a community of scholars, because they will be looking at [archival materials and subjects] that we might not really have looked at before. So they will be coming to the group as the expert or expert-in-training, and having to think about how to present their work and share it with the group."

"To be able to take what someone else has done and constructively critique it and provide feedback is a skill that students need to learn," Barnes-Brus said. "It will be a really important skill to have, no matter what job or profession they go into."

Newberry Seminar participants typically present their research in an academic paper. Given the nature of the fall 2016 seminar topic, though, Barnes-Brus and Entel said they plan to encourage students to think about other possible avenues for presentation, such as well-developed websites and podcasts, or using digital tools that blend mapping, narrative, and interactive components.

"I'm really interested in public sociology," Barnes-Brus noted. "How do you present what you've learned to the public in a way that doesn't lose sociological imagination or the concepts and theories, but that shares research with the public? That's what Jane Addams was doing."

"We certainly don't want to lose the in-depth research component," she added. "It's making something that can be accessible and showing students how their research can reach a broader audience."


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