It didn’t turn out at all the way they thought it would. Being asked to quickly leave campus and return home last month amid the mushrooming coronavirus outbreak was painful and disappointing. But the experience gave the students taking “The Harvard Novel” an additional personal, if unplanned, connection to what they were reading.
The narratives in the course often “describe what happens after someone gets to Harvard, both the exhilaration and the disillusionment that can occur with the realization of a new set of struggles or challenges that confront a person once they have actually arrived,” said Beth Blum, an assistant professor of English who created the class this year. “That ties in to [the students’] own feelings of having their expectations subverted by this experience and trying to manage that.”
Even before the evacuation there were already lots of touchpoints in the texts, which include Henry Adams’ 1907 autobiography “The Education of Henry Adams,” Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel “The Idiot,” and W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1960 essay “A Negro Student at Harvard.” Not so long ago students taking the course were living in the midst of landmarks such as Warren House, Widener Library, and the Adams House Senior Common Room, all of which served as settings for the literature they were studying about life at a storied University with a history of excellence and exclusivity.
“One really special thing about taking the course on campus was that we could read a text as we were literally living in the settings of those stories, [and] it was easier to be in the headspace of a lot of those characters just by being on campus and seeing how interactions at Harvard sometimes mirrored or diverged from their literary depictions,” said Kristine Guillaume ’20, a joint concentrator in history and literature and African and African American Studies, who is taking the course. “From a distance, that’s not possible. But it certainly is a way to stay connected to campus even from all of our different locations, so I’m happy to have a class that situates me in Cambridge whenever I’m reading.”