Instead of learning about poet John Keats through photocopies of his poems or downloads of a textbook, Lehman College students like Georgia Manesis had a chance to see his work first-hand through visits to libraries which house his personal papers.
“It was different from all of the other courses in the English program because we were able to see everything, visualize what we were reading in class like the text, being able to touch it,” Manesis said. “We spent four months on John Keats, and I feel I know everything about him.”
The trips are funded by a $7,500 CUNY grant picked up by English professor Olivia Moy. Her goal is to encourage more students of color to consider a career in higher education, and depend more on archival research in their studies.
“In this age where there is a push to do digital learning or online classes, everyone is on their cell looking at screens and I think there is this assumption that students want the convenience of wanting everything online,” Moy said. “We do have this computer lab we can work out of. but students have said to me, ‘We want more real time with books.’”
Although many of her students are Latino and African-American, Moy felt they might find a kindred spirit with the Englishman because of his struggles to become a poet. His humble beginnings also made him an outsider in a class-based society.
Born in 1795, Keats gave up his career as a surgeon’s apprentice to pursue poetry. He wrote such works as “Ode to Nightingale,” “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Endymion.” It wasn’t until after his 1821 death that Keats’ popularity grew, later becoming known as one of the great English poets.
While it might be uncommon to see an Asian-American professor focusing on 19th century British literature, Moy said diversity includes people of color studying writings from all periods, extending beyond a person’s racial or ethnic background.
“Anyone should feel welcome to study” all areas literature, Moy said. “Diversity expands the conversation. It really improves the quality of the work.”
Of course, not all of her nearly 20 students will pursue careers in higher educations, Moy hopes those who are primarily planning to become educators will incorporate library research in their class curriculums and renew interest in seeing archival source materials.
“It’s not just that you are bringing them to see rare books,” Moy said. “All books (themselves) are becoming rare in the digital age.”
The highlight of the semester for Manesis — who graduated last fall, and is now enrolled in Lehman’s education graduate program — was traveling to Firestone Library’s rare book collection at Princeton University. There, Manesis and her classmates had the opportunity to see and touch some of the books Keats had in his personal collection of reading materials.
“I felt very special to be in the room with them,” Manesis said. “It was really nice to see everything he wrote, right in front of us. We were able to see Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I was able to see all the literature that I fell in love with (written) in the old style.”
Because of the course, Manesis is considering a second degree beyond early childhood education involving literature. She credits Moy for planting those seeds.
In the spring semester, Moy’s curriculum includes a trip to the Rare Books School in Virginia.
In a modern era where PDFs, Word documents and downloading readings are an everyday part of student life, Moy is working to prevent the original texts from getting lost to technology.
“I hope this is the beginning of getting back to the appreciation of books and historical material,” Moy said.