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Fall 2016 Seminar

Novel Action: Literature, Social Movements, and the Public Good

What is social reform? Who are reformers and what are their motivations? What is the relationship between "words and deeds," literature and action?

Sampling from the Newberry Library collections, including a poster from the Dill Pickle Club and issues of The International Socialist Review and Mother Earth. Courtesy The Newberry Library.

See these and many more examples in the Newberry Library virtual exhibit, Outspoken: Chicago's Free Speech Tradition.

The fall 2016 Newberry Seminar will operate at the intersection of literature, social movements, and the public humanities. In readings from America's "Age of Reform" to contemporary reform efforts, we will explore the relationship between literary and social movements that address multiple systems of oppression and discrimination.

Students will gain hands-on experience with the Newberry Library's unique collections and will trace Chicago's long history of social action through visits to historic sites such as Hull House and neighborhoods where activists are currently working to effect social change.

By connecting literature to context and to practice, students will investigate the complex web among writers, communities, social issues, and social change and will embark upon their own research projects as acts of civic engagement. Training as independent researchers, students will learn to share, test, challenge, and develop new ideas within a strong scholarly community of faculty, librarians, archivists, writers, and activists.

With its focus on the relationship between literature and society, the fall 2016 Newberry Seminar will raise questions about the social function of writing and how students' own archival projects can contribute to the public humanities.

Detail from Wage Map No. 1, from Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895), showing earnings of families living near Hull-House in Chicago. Map 6F G4104.C6E2 1895 .G7 sheet 1. Courtesy The Newberry Library. View the full map.

The Newberry’s resources

The course will draw on many of the Newberry’s core collections, including its unparalleled collection of manuscripts related to settlements, social action, and clubs and organizations; vast holdings on the library’s own history; and cartographic materials relevant to Progressive-era Chicago. Working with these collections will teach students about many activist-writers and organizations they may want to research beyond those in our case studies.

The Newberry holdings related to this interdisciplinary topic can lead to fascinating independent projects for students interested in literature, sociology, anthropology, history, urban studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, and even philosophy and religion. Secondary themes such as the home, immigration, and civil rights, will thread through all of the units and provide springboards for student projects, as well.

For information about the Newberry’s holdings, visit


Tori Barnes-Brus


Tori Barnes-Brus

Cornell College

Sociology and Anthropology

Rebecca Entel


Rebecca Entel

Cornell College

English and Creative Writing