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NEH grant to fund two-week seminar at Cornell

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Jeff Tyson

Shirley Samuels

Shirley Samuels, professor of English, has received an $80,160 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for “Situating Democratic Writers in Western New York,” a two-week seminar for 16 college and university teachers to study the works of significant 19th-century writers in the historical and literary context of western New York.

The grant is one of 10 NEH made for such seminars out of $43.1 million in awards for 218 humanities projects announced Aug. 8. The NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.

Samuels and co-director Sandra M. Gustafson of the University of Notre Dame will teach the seminar in June 2019; a call for applications from advanced graduate students, recent Ph.D.s and established scholars will be issued in October. Classes will take place on the Cornell campus and will draw on the resources of the Carl A. Kroch Library and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

The seminar aims to develop fresh teaching and research approaches to classic works by authors including Alexis de Tocqueville, James Fenimore Cooper, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, situating them in a region that made important contributions to American democracy, according to Samuels. Classwork will be supplemented by field trips to Auburn and Seneca Falls, as well as optional trips to Cooperstown and the Chautauqua Institution. The seminar leaders call this approach to literary analysis “situated reading,” a way to bring renewed life to printed texts.

“Western New York was a prominent center for 19th-century literary production as well as being famous for democratic reform, and these two things are intertwined in important ways,” said Samuels. “That’s the starting point for our approach in this seminar.”

As examples of the historical importance of the region, Samuels and Gustafson note in their grant proposal Joseph Smith publishing “The Book of Mormon” in Palmyra, New York; the Oneida Colony, founded in 1848, which practiced polygamous communal living and conducted experiments in spiritualism and mesmerism; and the model offered by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in democratic government.

Speaking at the seminar will be Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, a historian of the Haudenosaunee from the University at Buffalo, and political theorist Jason Frank, professor and the Robert J. Katz Chair of Cornell’s government department.

In addition to encouraging participants to publish and publicize their work, the seminar will address pedagogical questions, including how to incorporate noncanonical writings into courses and how to address central texts of American democracy in a manner that is inclusive and respectful of different points of view.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.