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University of Dayton faculty develop courses, digital archive to preserve Paul Laurence Dunbar’s legacy with $150K grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

By Dave Larsen

A University of Dayton initiative to develop interdisciplinary courses and create a digital archive to help preserve the legacy of Dayton native Paul Laurence Dunbar launched its first faculty cohort, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Six faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education and Health Sciences joined the project’s three directors during the 2021 spring semester to revise or create interdisciplinary curricula for undergraduates revolving around Dunbar, one of the first influential black poets in American literature.

The two-year, $150,000 Mellon Foundation grant provides funding for building the digital Dunbar Library and Archive, which will make hundreds of Dunbar-related documents artifacts freely available online. It also provides funding for faculty who want to integrate Dunbar into their courses and for students to participate in Dunbar-related research experiences. In addition, the grant provides funding for two organizational partners, Saint Louis University's Center for Digital Humanities and Ohio History Connection.

The Mellon Foundation grant runs through August 2022 and builds on work supported by two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, including a three-year, $99,992 implementation grant awarded in April 2020.

“This is the University's first Mellon award and the first substantial private grant for the humanities in quite some time,” said Jason Pierce, College of Arts and Sciences dean. “Funding from the Mellon Foundation will support the challenging work of course development in the undergraduate curriculum, with the goal of promoting the life and work of Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. It also allows us to engage undergraduate students in authentic humanities-based research.”

Dunbar (1872-1906) was one of the first black writers in the U.S. to attain national prominence, including publication in the Atlantic Monthly and The Saturday Evening Post. During his short life, he produced hundreds of poems, short stories, novels, plays, song lyrics, libretti, journals, essays, letters and political writings.

The faculty cohort participants are either revising an existing course or creating a new Common Academic Plan course during the 2021 springs semester. These courses will incorporate Dunbar's life and works into their curriculum, and also include interdisciplinary content and pedagogy. They will be offered starting in the 2021 fall semester.

The 2021 cohort members and their course plans:

  • Darden Bradshaw, associate professor of art education, is developing a course tentatively titled Art Integration in Education, in which pre-service educators from all disciplines and grade bands can explore ways to develop meaningful, critical art integration approaches toward social justice.
  • David Fine, assistant professor of English, is developing a course tentatively titled How to Travel as an Antiracist, for the College’s race and ethnic studies program. The syllabus will draw from Dunbar's work, including his travel writing, and support students as they think critically about the travail necessary to travel responsibly in and outside Dayton.
  • Suki Kwon, professor of design, is developing a course in which students create Dunbar poetry book art projects incorporating East Asian book-binding techniques, including ancient Chinese dragon scale binding. Students’ final projects will reflect their visual interpretations of Dunbar’s life, legacy and artistic vision.
  • Tam Nguyen, assistant professor of computer science, is revising the creative media applications course. The multidisciplinary, project-driven learning course encourages students to develop problem solving and teamwork skills while fostering creativity and logic.
  • Teresa Saxton, English lecturer, is revising her writing seminar course as an inquiry into Dunbar's poetry and his role in Dayton history. Students will explore archives to create questions and pursue research to create written work for a range of campus and Dayton community audiences.
  • Vanessa Winn, teacher education clinical faculty, is revising her social studies methods curriculum to include inquiry-based investigations of primary sources to build content knowledge about Dunbar’s life and legacy. She hopes students’ experiences with primary sources in class inspire and support the use of primary sources in their future classrooms as a social studies best practice.

Project director Minnita Daniel-Cox, associate professor of music, said the initiative creates curricular connections to Dunbar's life and legacy.

“Not only are we creating access to Dunbar’s legacy for the world through the archive, but we are amplifying the education we offer at UD through the innovative curricular work,” she said. “I am so inspired by the creativity with which our first cohort participants are creating their courses. Students will be exposed to Dunbar across disciplines and in ways that create a multifaceted learning experience.”

Ju Shen, associate professor of computer science, and Jennifer Speed, a historian and former College external funding director who is now at Princeton University, are serving as directors alongside Cox.

Speed said there are considerable Dunbar resources held in libraries and archives across the U.S., but they can be hard to access. The digital library and archive created by the project will make materials accessible for online search and use.

“Funding from the Mellon Foundation will allow us to build out a digital Dunbar Library and Archive, making Dunbar-related resources available to anyone who wants to know more about Dunbar's life and works,” Speed said. “It will include hundreds of items that are unpublished and little known, which will open the door to new and exciting research on Dunbar's life and influence. Students, community members and faculty will all contribute to the new digital platform.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, with a total endowment of about $6.5 billion. Since 1969, the foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. Through grants, it seeks to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.

For more information, visit the Dunbar Initiative website.

Photo, top of page (l to r), top row: Darden Bradshaw, Suki Kwon. Bottom row: David Fine, Tam Nguyen, Vanessa Winn. Not shown: Teresa Saxton.

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