Closer Readings Commentary

The National Humanities Center’s Online Seminars and Common Core State Standards

Richard R. Schramm is vice president for Education Programs at the National Humanities Center, where he has held executive positions since 1984. Before going to the Center, he taught American literature at UNC at Chapel Hill and served as a coordinator for the Program in the Humanities there. He has been a consultant to U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History projects throughout the country and has served as a reviewer for several National Endowment for the Humanities projects.

People familiar with the National Humanities Center probably know it chiefly as an institute of advanced study, and, indeed, since 1978 its fellowship program has supported the work of over 1,400 scholars from this country and abroad. But for twenty-nine of its thirty-five years it has also sponsored education programs for high school teachers. Begun as NEH summer institutes, these programs have evolved into live, online professional development seminars and a rich array of online resources in American history and literature. Together the seminars and the resources march under the banner America in Class.

Since 2009 we have offered 144 online seminars (OK, they’re webinars, but we prefer the more academic “seminars.”) on historical topics such as first contacts between Native Americans and Europeans and the roots of the counterculture as well as on literary works like “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the stories of Flannery O’Connor: all conducted by Center Fellows and other distinguished scholars.

America in Class professional development

Over the last two years, to support the Common Core State Standards, we have organized seminars that focus on close reading, the key instructional strategy in achieving the Common Core goal of sophisticated literacy for careers and college. We undertook this initiative because, in discussions with teachers, we discovered that many are unfamiliar with close reading and unprepared to use it with students.

In addition to seminars on how to teach through close reading, we have developed seminars on texts drawn from the list of Common Core exemplars. Last year, for example, we explored Poe’s “The Raven” and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Our fall schedule features seminars on five exemplars: the U. S. Constitution; Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” selected poems by Emily Dickinson; selected poems by Robert Frost; and Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In the works for the spring are seminars on Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Wright’s Black Boy.

What to expect when you sign up

Participants gain access to seminar readings through a website. Prior to the program, in an online forum, they pose questions and raise issues they would like the seminar to address, and the leader incorporates them into the presentation. We try to replicate as closely as possible what happens in a well-run face-to-face seminar. Throughout the session the leader makes contextualizing remarks that lead into close analysis of key passages presented with relevant discussion questions. Some questions point to broad issues, while other text-dependent questions highlight content, structure, and language. Teachers all over the country—in front of computers in living rooms, classrooms, bedrooms, offices, and dens—respond to the questions and exchange ideas through chat, which is brought into the conversation by a moderator.

An example seminar

The seminar on “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” offers a good illustration of a how a seminar works. Scheduled for November 14, it will be led by National Humanities Center Fellow James Engell, the Gurney Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard. He will establish the context of the speech by discussing genre, date, audience, and purpose, issues important to the study of any text. He will explore how Douglass made his case for abolition through the classic structure of persuasive discourse—exordium, narratio, confirmatio, refutatio, and peroratio—and how, along the way, he employed syllogistic reasoning and other strategies of argumentation. He will ask about the persona Douglass creates and the role it plays in his speech, and he will probe the subtle way Douglass compares the abolitionists of 1852 with the patriots of 1776. As with all exercises in close reading, the seminar will pay strict attention to language, focusing, for example, on Douglass’s startling use of “you” and “your”—“The Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”—and its affect on his audience, both in 1852 and in 2013.

We record the seminars and invite teachers to plunder the presentations for their own classes. At the conclusion of a seminar, participants complete a brief online evaluation. Having read scores of them, I will immodestly state that on the whole the seminars achieve their goals of introducing teachers to fresh material and concepts while modeling teaching through close reading and discussion. My favorite evaluation came from a teacher who participated in a seminar on Progressivism. He liked nothing about the seminar’s implementation but admitted that he encountered a new text, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management, and a new concept, the invention of “efficiency,” and was going to introduce both into his U.S. history class the following week. I will take a bad review like that any day.

The details—and a free offer!

The seminars run from 7 to 8:30 (EST), usually on Tuesday or Thursday evenings. All you need to participate is a computer with an Internet connection and speakers. Typically, there is a modest registration fee of $35, but enter the promotion code “Edsitement,” and we will waive it.