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Monday, December 9, 2013

December 9, 2013: Semester Recaps: Du Bois

[Wednesday is my last day of classes, so all week I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies takeaways from the Fall 2013 semester. Add your thoughts and fall recaps in comments, please!]

On one thing I already knew about one of my favorite Americans, and one I learned.
I wrote a whole series this past spring looking forward to my Special Author course on W.E.B. Du Bois, the man with a (now tragically lost) post on whom I began this blog more than three years ago and to whom I’ve returned in multiple other posts since. So it’s fair to say that this Du Bois class was the most-anticipated of my teaching career to date, and it didn’t disappoint. Oh, there were certainly texts that didn’t work as well as I had hoped; I love that Du Bois wrote three novels as part of his incredibly diverse career, but I couldn’t quite figure out the best way to get us talking about the best of those three, Dark Princess (1928). But the semester overall went and felt great, thanks in no small measure to a wonderful group of juniors and seniors who were very up for the many challenges that Du Bois and the course presented to them—but thanks also to two striking things about Du Bois himself.
The first is something I knew about Du Bois and that our semester of readings and conversations fully reinforced: his singular ability to think, write, and work in many different genres, professions, and communities. It’s not just that Du Bois wrote historical scholarship and op ed journalism, autoethnographic analyses of himself and biographical pieces on numerous other figures, novels and essays, sociology and speeches; it’s that in each and every case he clearly invested himself deeply and thoroughly in the genre and style in question, and in the many variations of perspective and voice, audience and purpose, structure, and other elements that constitute all writing. As a result, moving through Du Bois’s writings allowed us to think and talk and write not only about those specific texts and focal points, but also about both these different genres and general writing questions, making for a semester that was at one and the same time deeply informed by history and culture and centrally connected to writing and English Studies.
The second thing about Du Bois that made our semester’s work much richer and more enjoyable is something I hadn’t entirely recognized prior to this course: that Du Bois writes in a powerfully unique and engaging way about parenthood, family, and identity, folding poetic representations of and engagements with these deeply human and emotional subjects into his more analytical, cultural, and historical voice and style. The single best example of this style is the stunning “Of the Passing of the First-Born” chapter from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), but there are numerous other examples scattered throughout Du Bois’s life and career. Du Bois is of course not the only writer to engage with these subjects—but when located alongside his public stature and his work in all the other genres and forms I mentioned above, these compelling glimpses into his most personal and intimate relationships and identity added a layer to our conversations and class that, it seems to me, spoke to each and all of us in hugely affecting ways.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall classes, work, or other happenings you’d recap?


  1. As I mentioned in class, I really enjoyed the creative assignments that we were given throughout the semester. Instead of doing an arbitrary number of pages on traditional analysis, we were given the opportunity to create pieces similar to the work of Du Bois. Not only did these assignments significantly reduce my stress level, but they really put me into a similar mindset that Du Bois was in. Writing about my own experiences was actually really fun, as the narcissistic part of me was finally getting put to good use. What the assignments allowed me to do, however, was understand Du Bois's work much more effectively than typical analysis. While relating my own work to his, I legitimately had serious thoughts about the perspective that Du Bois was writing from. This type of paper was arguably more effective than the standard college essay, and was significantly less stressful to write. In my future career, I will absolutely consider these types of assignments, as they are almost the ideal method to instruct students.

  2. I think that Nicole from ENG4000 Major Authors class this past semester said it best when she made the comment wednesday (summing up the semester's work) about some writers in her experience as a student "hiding behind one way of authoring."

    Nicole was trying to make the point - which I think we can all agree on - that Du Bois was not simply another one of those writers.

    She could have even changed the comment a little and talked about some writers "hiding behind one way of THINKING."

    Surely the two have to be related - talking about the same trap, but in two slightly different ways.

    I want to find my own way out of that trap. I don't exactly know what that would mean for me all the time now or in the future, but I think as a goal it makes sense.

    The End... (or not)
    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.