Chicago course examines literature and social justice

Students in the Literature and Social Justice course are exploring Chicago during Block 1 to study the relationship between writing and activism in Chicago’s history.

Literature and Social Justice class with Randy Santiago '18
Literature and Social Justice class with Randy Santiago ’18

Students are reading a variety of texts and visiting several locations, most of which focus on late 19th and early 20th-century America, the age of reform. They’re examining issues of race and socioeconomic class, immigration, and education through meetings with writers–some of whom are Cornell alumni–activists, writer-activists, and literary organizations with a social justice mission.

They’ve heard U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak about her new children’s book and met with Dan Duster, the great-grandson of Ida B. Wells, to hear about his family’s legacy of activism in the city. 

Literature and Social Justice class with Dan Duster, great-grandson of Ida B. Wells
Literature and Social Justice class with Dan Duster, great-grandson of Ida B. Wells

“Students have been excited, inspired, and moved by the people we’ve spoken to and places we’ve visited,” said Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Rebecca Entel. “They’ve emphasized the conversations they wouldn’t be able to have on campus–hearing about how to break into journalism or non-profits or make a living as a writer and activist. They’ve also appreciated that the course allows them to understand the city on a deeper level, not just as a tourist: we’ve learned about segregation in the city, for example, from many of our speakers and from observation as we’ve traveled to different parts of the city by public transportation. Importantly, we’ve gotten to see how the South Side preserves, fosters, and celebrates its creativity in spaces such as the Stony Island Arts Bank, which is a gallery, archive, library, arts incubator, and community center all in one.”

Many students are also appreciating the chance to experience the city, explore new topics, ask tough questions, and make new memories.

Students were encouraged to attend at least one optional event. Senior Zoe Randall went to a workshop where a group was using plastic bags to make sleeping mats for the homeless. She reflects on that experience and the course objectives in her class blog.

“In this class we are focusing on social reform, this larger societal change can seem overwhelming and unattainable at times,” Randall said. “These societal changes are needed, but I think that it can be hard to figure out how to be part of them. You can go to a rally, or write about your thoughts and these are important things to participate in, but something else that I think is important is still focusing on individuals, where you can, how you can. While these acts might be a smaller scale, and not solve the root of the problem, I believe that they can go a long way in changing attitudes across society and bringing connection between classes.”

During the second week of the block, students visited the American Writers Museum near Millennium Park.

“Overall, the visit made me want to appreciate literature even more than what I already do now because one detail I noticed at the museum was that each author was given the description of what their purpose was or mission that they had in life,” said Katrina Stroud in her class blog. “All writers have their own beliefs that they feel are important and that need to be heard, but literary activist writers have a mission to address the injustices in the world and why that is.” 

Students are getting first-hand experience of the city and understanding the connection between literature and social change.

At the end of the trip, Entel says, students will also walk away with new ideas about how they can navigate professional opportunities related to literary activism and social justice. And inspired by the work the class is doing, many of the course’s guest speakers have discussed potential internships with the students.

Cornell’s One Course At A Time schedule provides ample opportunities to study for a block off-campus. You may choose to travel either domestically or internationally.