Arts & Culture

Poetry unbound

4 min read

Professor enlists Nas, Gehry, and others to increase teachers’ reach

For Elisa New, teaching poetry to the uninitiated has been as gratifying as teaching English concentrators and confirmed poetry lovers.

Her Gen Ed course, “Poetry in America,”  attracts students from across disciplines. Now the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature wants to reach an even broader audience in a new course called “Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop.” The online offering — created, in part, with a new faculty fellowship from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning — aims to give secondary school instructors rich content and critical tools. The course, with key support from HarvardX and alumni, is a star-studded affair that includes hip-hop artist Nas reading Walt Whitman and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry reading Carl Sandburg.

“I really want to influence the way language arts is taught in American classrooms by providing high-quality professional development that’s very rigorous and fun,” said New, who is teaching the course through the Extension School in partnership with the Graduate School of Education.

The course is part of New’s Harvard Arts and Humanities Public Partnerships Initiative (HAHPPI), an idea designed to bring students, faculty, professionals, and alumni together to excite the “next generation of humanists” through a range of projects. This semester, in New’s other Bok-based course, “The Humanities Online Practicum,” students from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Ed School, and the Medical School are working in teams to create content suitable for a wide range of learners. Projects include podcasts on poetry of the environment, adapting college-level Shakespeare for high school, and creating and curating English humanities content for Chinese online learners.

Harvard professor, Nas, and Walt Whitman

“We created the faculty fellows program at the Bok Center to support faculty in exploring and developing impactful new ideas in teaching and learning,” said Robert A. Lue, Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Bok Center. “New’s work aligns beautifully with our commitment to social engagement through the fostering of an intergenerational learning community of faculty, graduate students, and high school teachers and students.”

Early in her first “Poetry in America” HarvardX course, in 2013, New realized that far from addressing a world indifferent to the humanities, she was finding a world hungry for them. Her class of 7,000 included homeschooling Lutheran parents, history buffs, and elderly students living in remote parts of the world.

“It was a crowd of passionate, spiritual types, and this material met their needs,” she said. “It kindled the intellect flame of a big audience I hadn’t expected.”

Her focus on teachers is one that crosses disciplines and demographics easily. The course, produced by the Bok Center, includes footage filmed in Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco. Big-name guests go deep into their chosen poem.

Gehry reads Sandburg’s “Skyscraper,” while journalist Andrea Mitchell takes on Robert Lowell’s Vietnam-era protest poem “July in Washington.” After his early Whitmanesque turn, Nas will return at the end of the course to perform and discuss “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “New York State of Mind” from his 1994 album “Illmatic.”

“Nas is in the long tradition of urban poets like Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. He comes as a great learner,” New said.

In April 2018, “Poetry in America” will make it to the small screen when it airs as a TV show on WGBH.

“My challenge now is: How at Harvard do I move beyond my own content on poetry to help other faculty, grad students, and others to create content for a wider audience?” New said. “My goal at Bok is to give the humanities a higher profile and more purpose. What drives me now, as Dean Robin Kelsey puts it, is the opportunity to bring what we as humanists do more vividly and vibrantly into the world.”