The Seminar Journey
By Komozi Woodard, history faculty
Studying history is like taking a yearlong journey into the past, and at Sarah Lawrence students learn to take that journey by the best means: the seminar. To study history here is truly an invitation to “do history.” The students bring their own questions, issues and concerns to the table, to find out what answers or wisdom history might provide. In a seminar, as many as 15 students sit at the table, and each of them is working on a conference research project—in years back, called a contract. I can teach and they can do the class work, but their own conference projects help the seminar take shape.
Our students read history books— and then they look into archives and study primary documents, examining them through what they have learned of the society, politics, economics and culture of a given time. They learn to become skeptical and to ask questions about the authenticity, the biases and the interpretation of these documents.
In other words, they begin to do the work of historians.
This year, my class read Blues People (1963) by the poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and decided to organize a national two-day symposium on the subject, “Blues People: 40 Years Later.” Students and experts from various colleges and universities—including Baraka himself—joined us for a conversation about how the blues and jazz developed and how scholars are interpreting that experience today. Now we are planning a book of essays on the subject. And a number of the younger professors said that they would like to teach at a school like Sarah Lawrence, where the students are so serious about their studies.
Through the seminar format, students can join a community of artists, historians, authors and experts on the subjects for study—all of which informs their own thinking and research. We study how history is written: based on what kinds of evidence, what ideas, what processes, what logical arguments and what kinds of conclusions. The purpose is not simply to know history, but to be able to “write history,” based on the research undertaken in the seminar and in conference.
They learn—and I learn.
In many ways, taking the seminar is just the beginning of the path to lifelong learning. At times, when their passions coincide with scholarly areas that have not been researched before, students can make new discoveries that shape a developing field of inquiry. Sometimes, I have cited their research in my own work.
So many of my students study history and then “make history” by working as informed citizens of the world. As their teacher, I coach them, challenging them to think critically, to learn various ways of discovering the truth, and to articulate their own ideas around the seminar table and in conferences. You know that you’ve been doing this quite a while when you see your former students come back to the College as artists, lawyers, doctors, researchers, experts in public health, documentary filmmakers, writers, teachers and professors. Once they study at Sarah Lawrence College, they go out and make their mark in the world; their accomplishments are among the most rewarding aspects of teaching.
By Komozi Woodard, history faculty
You know that you’ve been doing this quite a while when you see your former students come back to the college as artists, lawyers, doctors, researchers, experts in public health, documentary film makers, writers, teachers and professors. That is one of the most rewarding things about teaching. Once they study at Sarah Lawrence College, then they go out and make their mark in the world.
Studying history at Sarah Lawrence College is very much like taking a yearlong journey into the past. In the seminar, students are learning how to take that journey. They learn how historians have interpreted the past, what kinds of questions they asked, and what evidence they found. But most importantly, studying history at the College is an invitation to “do history.”
The students come to the study of history with their own questions, issues and concerns, and they want to find out what answers or wisdom history might provide. For instance, when they are looking at African Americans in Philadelphia around the time of the American Revolution, they might ask: Were they enslaved or emancipated? What was it like to be a slave in an early American port city? Why was there slavery in American cities? What was the life of slaves like? What work did they perform? What were the difficulties of beginning a family? How did they feel about each other and their world? In what ways did the American Revolution change all of that? The class read Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom for that discussion.
Beyond the books
In addition to the reading history books, students look into archives and study primary documents, trying to make sense out of them with what they have learned about the society, politics, economics and culture of that time. They learn to become skeptical and to ask questions about the authenticity, the biases and the interpretation of those documents. In other words, they begin to do the work of historians.
In line with the work of the seminar, each student is doing a “conference” research project of her/his own. The conference is a one-on-one tutorial in which a student and the professor meet either every week or every two weeks. This year, one of my students, Kelly, is interested in public education as public policy and she is studying the urban education crisis and how that came about. After reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, she read some of the latest policy research prepared by experts at the Russell Sage Foundation. Right next to her at the seminar table, Natalie is examining programs that recruit people of color into elite prep schools; she wants to know about that experience and about those social dynamics.
Still another student is looking at the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi; she is reading both autobiographical and historical material on the Mississippi Movement. To help illuminate this, we decided to bring a civil rights worker to talk to our class, and we invited Willie Ricks, who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962, when he was 17 years old. Ricks worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Georgia, with Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, and with Stokely Carmichael in Alabama. After his lecture, students asked questions and then took him to dinner and asked him about his history and experiences until about midnight.
In the same class, Eric is studying the general history of the baseball’s Negro Leagues and is writing his own biography of the historic slugger Josh Gibson. Right next to Eric, Rajath has finished a study of two major figures, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, as a part of his larger inquiry into the changing role of African American athletes in American popular culture. And while Arielle studied the development of several important black dance groups in the United States, including Katherine Dunham and the Nicholas Brothers, Jade examined the development of African American poetry.
Similarly, after the class read Blues People (1963) by the poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), the students had further questions – so we decided to organize a national symposium on the subject, “Blues People: 40 Years Later,” held in February, 2004. We invited students and experts from various colleges and universities to join us in a conversation about how the blues and jazz developed and how scholars are interpreting that experience today. The symposium took two days, with panel discussions ranging from Blues Women, Black Dance, and Musicians on the Music, to the Poetics of Music and the Political Economy of the Music Business. With all those students and experts on campus, we learned a great deal from each other. The students had tons of questions and the panelists were extremely generous with their knowledge and experience, explaining how to do those kinds of research.
On the first night of the symposium, my students had a chance to talk to the professors over dinner; a number of these students are doing research in dance history, cultural history, and on the experience of blues women. At the end of the second day, the students helped Amiri Baraka and his band, Blue Ark, set up for their performance of music and poetry. Since we heard from some of the leading experts in that field, we may edit a book of essays on the subject. A number of the younger professors said that they would like to teach at a school like Sarah Lawrence College where the students are so serious about their studies.
So as all of this illustrates, Sarah Lawrence College students are invited to join a community of artists, historians, authors and experts on such subjects. All of it informs their own thinking and research as they begin to “write history.” We study how history is written: based on what kinds of evidence, what ideas, what processes, what logical arguments and what kinds of conclusions. And the purpose of that is not simply to know history, but so that they can write history based on the research that they are doing for the seminar and in conference.
Windows into historical process
Another dimension to “doing history” at Sarah Lawrence College is historiography: how and why history is written, and how interpretations of the past change over time with new research and new ideas. Because of this, the books that students read are not meant simply to teach them the facts of history, but also to provide them with windows into the historical process. Consider two examples.
In one course, A History of Black Nationalism in America, one of my students became fascinated with the subject of a little known figure during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance: Hubert H. Harrison. Harrison was a working-class intellectual, known by many at the time as the “Socrates of the Harlem Renaissance.” He migrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean when he was a little boy, supporting himself as an elevator operator until he graduated from high school. He wrote at least two books, but as a ghostwriter perhaps he wrote another five. My student was just captivated by the subject and made him the subject of her conference research: who was he and why did we know so little about him? She read everything that was published by and about him, including his book The Negro and the Nation. Then she read several dissertations on the subject. When she found out that his papers were at the Schomburg archives in Harlem, she made several trips there – and then she lured me into her research and I caught the bug as well.
After looking at several boxes in his archives, we made contact with the author of the most comprehensive study, Jeffrey Perry, who was in the midst of writing a book on the subject. We invited Dr. Perry to speak to the full seminar class, and he provided rich detail that brought this figure to life for our students:
Hubert H. Harrison, they learned, was a self-educated postal worker, who developed an encyclopedic knowledge of history. He wrote book reviews for a number of newspapers including The New York Times. He edited a number of newspapers, including Marcus Garvey’s Negro World. In fact, it was Hubert Harrison who introduced Marcus Garvey to Harlem politics. Harrison was also known as the “Father of Harlem Radicalism” because of his formative influence on Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, Cyril Briggs of the African Blood Brotherhood, and so many of the other dissidents of that time. In addition to that specific work with African Americans, Harrison was also busy supporting the socialist and pacifist Eugene Debs for president and winning support for a number of the IWW strikes of that time. That tells us a great deal about Harlem in that period.
Harrison was part of a whole intellectual and cultural world of writers, artists and radicals in New York in the early twentieth-century, a world that established discussion and reading circles at churches, libraries and other community spaces. He taught social studies classes at the Schomburg library for the board of education.
Moreover, Harrison helped develop the street-corner orator tradition that Malcolm X was to inherit in Harlem. Many experts on the subject believe that the new information on Harrison that Dr. Perry has assembled will trigger a reinterpretation of the Harlem Renaissance. On to way to publishing Harrison’s biography, Dr. Perry has already edited The Hubert H. Harrison Reader.
The student who brought all of this to our seminar is now a documentary filmmaker, long since graduated, but I put her back in touch with Dr. Perry because she is interested in making a documentary on the world of Hubert H. Harrison.
Scholarly passions – new discoveries
At times, when their passions coincide with scholarly areas that have not been researched before, they can make new discoveries that inform a developing field of inquiry. For example, in a course on civil rights, a young musician was interested in doing research on the Black Panther Party. After reading a number of the published sources, he examined The New York Times microfilms and came up with a startling discovery.
According to the received wisdom, the Black Panther Party began in Oakland, California, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in October, 1966, and then spread from there. However, my student found several newspaper articles about Black Panthers organizing in Harlem a few months earlier – in March,1966. When I asked Bobby Seale about that, he did not know what to say! The student had stumbled onto something very important, demonstrating the difference between oral traditions about the civil rights movement, and historical evidence. In fact, the research shows that there were several Black Panther parties before the dramatic surge of the Oakland group eclipsed the rest of them. Actually, the first Black Panthers were in Lowndes County, Alabama; it was their example that inspired people in Oakland, as well as Harlem, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, to establish such organizations.
I have cited my student’s research at several conferences, and it still stands up because he did his homework. Back then this young musician had a specific interest in the “free breakfast,” “free clothing” and “free clinic” programs of the Black Panthers, and today he is finishing a master’s degree at Yale in public health.
Individuals engaged with history
Thus, from that standpoint our curriculum offers students the most recent interpretations of American history and then invites them to become engaged in their own passionate interest in the subject. They want to know American history because they are trying to understand the world they live in. They also want to know how people tried to change the world, and they are deeply interested in figuring out what they might do themselves. Can they do a better job than the people in the past? Their research projects may find expression in their art, in their dance, in their drama or in their writing. But that “past” has special meaning for them, and they articulate it in a conference project that makes sense of what they learned and what they have to say about it.
You know that you’ve been doing this quite a while when you see your former students come back to the college as artists, lawyers, doctors, researchers, experts in public health, documentary filmmakers, writers, teachers and professors. That is one of the most rewarding things about teaching. Once they study at Sarah Lawrence College, they then go out and make their mark in the world.
Knowing all that, I take the students very seriously as individuals. Some I’ll never forget: Christian studied with me as an undergraduate and then he went on to write a very important study of American prisons, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. Travis was another of my students, and now he is one of the leading experts in musicology at the University of Chicago. Sarah studied with us, and now she is finishing her law degree so that she can fight for social justice. Nana Okuzawa was another student interested in social justice, and she will work on those the inner city issues in medical care when she finishes medical school. Similarly, Dawn did her conference research on revolutionary artists like Katherine Dunham and Paul Robeson. She is now dancing and choreographing around the world—in fact, she is on tour in Japan right now. In my Slavery & Emancipation seminar, Abbi wanted to study slave spirituals; for her conference research, she examined 500 songs, then went to Harlem on Sundays to hear how choirs interpret them now. She works in the music industry and on Sundays she sings in the choir. Another student, Crystal, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and is now doing social science and public policy research at a New York think tank.
In other words, many of my students study history—and then “make history” by working as informed citizens of the world. As their teacher I coach them, challenging them to think critically, to learn various ways of discovering the truth, and to articulate their own ideas around the seminar table and in their individual tutorials that we call conferences. But, ultimately, they are in preparation for the real world where they will be running their own marathon. They are about the business of choosing their own paths. My role is to create the educational environment that lets them understand that this is their race and that they can run it.
Komozi Woodard is the author of A Nation Within A Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) and “The Making of the New Ark,” (University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D., 1991) and editor of The Black Power Movement (2002), Freedom North (2003) and the forthcoming Groundwork (New York: New York University Press, 2004). He teaches modern American social history and public policy, U.S. urban history, African American history and Africana studies. Some of the courses he has taught are The American Political Tradition, Urban Poverty and Public Policy in America, The Urban and Ethnic Experience in the City, The Comparative History of Slavery & Emancipation, Introduction to African American History, The Civil Rights Movement in America, History of Black Nationalism in America, The Black Revolt and the Urban Crisis, and currently, The African American Experience in the City.