My Transformative Educational Experience
by Kris Burrell
NEH Summer Seminar
This past June I was fortunate to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar titled, “Rethinking the Black Freedom Struggle from the Jim Crow North to the Jim Crow West.” From June 15-26, I was part of an incredibly diverse group of scholars from all over the world that all write about different aspects of the civil rights and Black Power Movements outside of the former Confederate South. Including the two co-facilitators, Professors Jeanne Theoharis of Brooklyn College and Komozi Woodard of Sarah Lawrence College, twenty-one scholars at all different academic levels from advanced undergraduates to senior scholars came together to discuss emergent themes in the field and workshop our own budding research.
The seminar was held at Sarah Lawrence College and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Professors Theoharis and Woodard assembled a great cohort of scholars from multiple disciplines, including history, black studies, anthropology, and English; from all types of institutions, including liberal art colleges, public research universities, and community colleges; and with a vast array of topics, from the economic dimensions of the Black Power Movement, to biographies of understudied female actors in the struggle for civil rights, to my own work on black intellectual production in pursuit of racial equality in New York City.
Not only was the seminar comprised of a wonderful collection of scholars, but the syllabus for our two weeks together was intellectually stimulating, culturally enriching, professionally expanding and personally fulfilling. Seminar members read important recent works in the field by emerging and established scholars and discussed the new questions that these pieces raised for each of us. Some of those pieces have not even been published yet. Even more impressively, the co-facilitators brought in several of those scholars to discuss their pieces with us. In the course of those discussions (which always seemed to be too short because they were so interesting), we not only addressed the historical content of each piece, but also the historian’s process of crafting their books, and the current state of civil rights and Black Power studies.
In addition to reading the work of other scholars, seminar participants were able to workshop a piece of their own and get constructive feedback from everyone in the seminar. These hour-long workshopping sessions were perhaps the single most beneficial part of the seminar for me. Everyone was so engaged in helping to improve one another’s work, not by trying to poke holes in it, but rather by talking about what the person did well, helping them amplify the well done aspects of their work, and then offering other ways of looking at their topic and recommending other works that might be useful. These kinds of comments were transformative for me, coming from scholars in this field, yet who were there to learn and offer support to their fellow seminar-mates, first and foremost. Through these workshopping sessions I was built up, not torn down. I offered that same kind of support for my colleagues. As intellectually drained as we sometimes were, we were also buoyed by the optimism and good-nature of everyone else in the seminar.
Besides the academic work we engaged in, the co-facilitators also brought in history book editors from Cambridge University Press, NYU, and Oxford University Press to discuss the process of publication from proposal to press. The editors were also willing to answer any questions that seminar members had. We were even able to make individual appointments with editors to discuss our work and make professional contacts for the future.
In the evenings, seminar participants took in cultural events and ate dinners together. We took in the Jacob Lawrence Great Migration exhibition at the MOMA and the Basquiat exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. We also had dinner with Black Power activists and took in Middle-Eastern food together in Brooklyn.
Over the course of this intensive two-week seminar, Professors Theoharis and Woodard modeled for all of us that academia could in fact foster true camaraderie; when based in respect, collectivism, nurturing, and love. Those two weeks that I spent as part of the NEH Seminar: “Rethinking the Black Freedom Struggle from the Jim Crown North to the Jim Crow West” were two of the best weeks of my life. Since the seminar ended, I have continued to participate in a writing group with three other members. We call our group the “Northeast Freedom North Writers Group” and we come together every other month in Binghamton, NY. The writing group has been incredibly beneficial for my work already, and has been an extension not only of the intellectual rigor, but supportive spirit the seminar embodied. I expect that our writing group will continue for years to come and my future scholarship and teaching will be all the better for it.