This past fall my students and I welcomed two guest lecturers to my class on African American History to 1865. Jeremy Williams (Johns Hopkins) led a session on Race and Revolution, while Dr Marcus Nevius (Rhode Island University) spoke on his award-winning book City of Refuge. Both visits were supported by a CfT mini-grant.
Jeremy Williams’s lecture on Race and Revolution was an opportunity to explore the following central focus questions: How has the American government, American broader society, and/or American people reconciled race and revolution? How does your knowledge of slavery in the United States affect the way you understand race? Do the history of slavery and African American people in the US affect the way that you view patriotism? Why or why not? What parallels do you see between the concept of race/revolution of the 1700s and our present-day state of race and politics? The class wrestled with these questions through the exploration of the 1619 podcast, small group discussion and participation in a spectrum activity.
Dr. Nevius’ presentation was based on his award-winning book, City of Refuge. The book is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. Petit marronage was a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The vast wetland in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in particular was tough terrain, considered uninhabitable territory at this time. Once in the Dismal, former slaves who had endured the difficulties of the Underground Railroad engaged in various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies and helped to create a sense of community.
In his examination of life, commerce, and social activity in the Great Dismal Swamp, Dr Nevius engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s early nineteenth-century extractive economy. City of Refuge is a close study of the ways that American maroons shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. It uses a wide variety of primary sources—including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letter-books and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies—to examine how American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants created and sustained communities under extraordinarily difficult geographical and social circumstances.
My seminar on William Blake was privileged to have as a guest Paul Yoder, Professor Emeritus from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Paul is the author of The Narrative Structure of William Blake’s Poem Jerusalem: A Revisionist Interpretation (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010) as well as a number of articles. He and I first met at a conference around 1996, and (as often happens when scholars work in closely related areas) we continued to find ourselves on the same panels over the years. The result has been a deeply rewarding intellectual friendship. We’ve read and commented on each other’s work, sometimes challenging each other in the best sense of Blake’s proverb that “Opposition is True Friendship.”
Since Paul retired from teaching a few years ago, we had discussed his coming to Sewanee to give a talk. By the time we got serious about it, the pandemic was upon us, but Zoom and the CfT came to the rescue. While the class did not read Blake’s 100-page illuminated poem Jerusalem (Paul’s particular specialty), we did read his shorter epic Milton, which casts the poet Milton as a character who returns from heaven to earth (by way of Blake’s left foot) in order to correct errors in his poetry, his theology, and his relationships with women. This is the last text we tackle as a class, and it’s always the most difficult, even for students familiar with Milton’s work. So my idea was not to have Paul give a lecture, but rather for the two of us to model how literary scholars talk through a challenging text and make arguments about it.
It worked beautifully. Since Paul and I already knew each other well, we were able to launch right into conversation about Blake’s relationship to Milton and to his readers as demonstrated on the opening pages:
The students were somewhat shy, but they did join in and ask questions. I had given them an article of Paul’s to read beforehand, which helped them get a sense of his voice and his interests.
In summary, this was a great way to boost a class toward the end of a long semester. As one student wrote later, ”It was very interesting to hear Dr Yoder speak as it helped to open up Blake’s poetry and lent a different point of view to the poem we discussed.” Another student added, “It was so fun to talk to Paul and get a chance to hear his take on a variety of Blake topics!” I’m grateful to the CfT for the funds to make this virtual visit possible.
As part of an expanded requirement in contextual education I was asked by Dean Jim Turrell to develop a new course to eventually be taken in conjunction with the third semester of contextual education. The course focused on what I call “Outward-facing Ministry,” that is, outreach and ministry beyond the parish walls, in and in partnership with the wider community, the real parish boundary. We read books and articles on leadership, community and congregational analysis, sociology of religion, and planning and evaluation, with enough theology to keep us well-grounded. The course was titled, “Leadership, Innovation, and Outreach: (Re)Shaping Ministry for the 2020’s.”
I chose to do three things that made all the difference:
The course was taught entirely online.
Because the seminarians were not able to be on-site for contextual education, I invited four recent alumni of the School of Theology to join the weekly class to share the wisdom of their experience as a way to “reality-test” the readings, presentations, and conversation. I requested and received a mini-grant from the Center for Teaching to purchase the course books for the alumni.
I invited every (living – Durkheim and Geertz were each a no) author to Zoom into the class for an hour or so. With the exception of Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), an admittedly big ask, each author said yes.
I told the class in the syllabus, the first meeting, and throughout the semester that the course was a work-in-progress, and an important goal was to learn how to teach the course more effectively when it transitions from an elective to a core requirement in Advent, 2021. We all embraced that role, sometimes with more gusto than the instructor might have liked, but I learned a lot and look forward to teaching it again, incorporating what the class taught me to make it more effective the next time around. I also learned that in this particular instructional environment authors are happy to Zoom in, even if the only compensation they receive is a boost in royalties because the class bought their books. I have taken that learning and applied it to my work on another project for the School of Theology, creating a pair of webinar series that will include an incredible array of voices we could not afford to bring to Sewanee even if we could get them to travel here. But for a modest honorarium and two hours of their time, the leading theologians, biblical scholars, preachers, and activists in the world will be with us this year.