Partners in Learning — How the Graham School and the Office of Civic Engagement’s Loom are working together to open the doors of UChicago


Though Nicole Bond completed the Basic Program of Liberal Arts Education for Adults at the University of Chicago’s Graham School over a year ago, the lifelong Chicagoan’s hunt for new learning opportunities remains as active as ever.

It’s why an announcement about an upcoming course at Graham caught her eye.

Shared by Erika Dudley, Director of Civic Leadership Initiatives in UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement (OCE), the email invited Bond to consider an eight-week summer course at Graham titled “Black Women Writing History: Slavery and its Afterlives.” The course attracted Bond’s attention for both Dudley’s personal recommendation as well as its curriculum spotlighting the writings of Black female authors.

“Approaching the history of slavery and slave narratives from the Black female point of view doesn’t happen in the Academy and just isn’t something you find in the traditional classroom, either,” Bond says.

The course was inspired by the Loom, a collection of curated community-building activities, opportunities, and networks led by Dudley, and represents the latest effort from Graham and the Office of Civic Engagement to collaborate on bringing lifelong learning opportunities to the broader community.

Highlighting oft-overlooked perspectives

“Black Women Writing History” explores Black women’s perspectives on the history of slavery and its aftermath through the reading and discussion of geographically and chronologically varied stories. The course syllabus includes titles such as the History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, an autobiography that helped galvanize the abolitionist movement with its eye-opening depictions of West Indian slavery, and Beloved, the acclaimed 1987 novel from Toni Morrison inspired by the historical experience of runaway enslaved woman Margaret Garner.

“Black women are frequently left out of historical accounts, but this course digs into the margins of this history to share distinct perspectives and to highlight stories that are relevant and important,” says Deirdre Lyons, the course’s instructor.

Reading a cross-cultural and transnational selection of autobiographical accounts and historical fiction, Lyons and the students are currently exploring questions such as how memory and history have shaped accounts of slavery in Black women’s writing, how Black women grapple with the legacy of slavery, and how slavery and its aftermath shapes ideas of gender, race, and class, which includes drawing connections to contemporary social and political issues.

“We’re examining not only the similarities among these accounts of slavery, but also how these women’s respective environments and circumstances shaped their different perspectives on slavery and the lives of Black women,” Lyons says.

While Bond confesses to holding “apprehensive expectations” about the course, she quickly found the humanistic stories around slavery enlightening, and she hopes more longstanding Graham School students will enroll in these courses in the future.

“There’s a while to go before we sleep, but the course is sparking important conversations and showing the value in viewing slavery through a different lens,” Bond says.

Partners in ‘lifelong learning’

The course is one of several that Graham has opened to the community through its partnership with OCE, which blends Graham’s passion for teaching the liberal arts with OCE’s community engagement efforts. The course choices are curated by Dudley with an emphasis on stories and histories often overlooked.

The Graham-OCE collaboration follows other recent Graham partnerships, such as the Novel Knowledge Series (NKS) developed with UChicago’s Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. NKS features multi-disciplinary courses challenging conventional wisdom and encouraging new ways of approaching timeless and timely questions, such as ideas about normality and humans’ ever-evolving relationship with technology.

As they look to the future, Graham and OCE are hoping to deepen their partnership in the years ahead. “We’re all committed to broadening engagement and accessibility and each of us brings valuable assets to the table, which makes additional collaborations both appealing and possible,” Dudley says.

Green concurs.

“We want to expand lifelong learning and ensure our courses are accessible to a broader community, especially those who live around the University of Chicago,” Green says. “This collaboration with OCE and The Loom is an important part of how we open the doors of the University’s distinctive education to all learners.”

This story was first published by the University of Chicago’s Graham School. Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.  

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