Midwest Faculty Seminar Update - Dr. Heather Shirey


Heather Shirey writes about her experience at the January 2012 Midwest Faculty Seminar, which focused on Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man and how she plans to incorporate the novel into her Arts of the African Diaspora (ARTH 284) course.

In January, I had the privilege of traveling to the University of Chicago as a participant in the Midwest Faculty Seminar focusing on Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man. I was initially attracted to the theme of the seminar because issues related to African American identity and the representation of race in historical and contemporary American society play a role in nearly all of my courses. Students in my introductory and upper-division courses, for example, engage in a critical analysis of the representation of race in American culture and the construction of black identity, paralleling themes of the novel. At the graduate level, many of my students develop research interests in Ellison’s contemporaries in the visual arts. Intersections between the visual arts, theatre, literature, and music are central to my course content at all levels, and so greater exposure to this literary classic was clearly beneficial to my teaching.

The seminar took place over the course of three days, which included formal presentations by faculty from the University of Chicago and small group discussions facilitated by UC faculty. I also enjoyed a lunch discussion group with University of Chicago graduate students from many disciplines, all of whom had expressed an interest in teaching at liberal arts colleges. The seminar provided participants with the opportunity to attend the world premier of Invisible Man performed on the stage at the University of Chicago’s Court Theater. The playwright, Oren Jacoby, and the executor of Ellison’s estate also met with seminar participants, sharing their unique insights into the difficulties of adapting such a complex novel for the theater.

During our first small group session, members of my group engaged in a passionate discussion about pairing Invisible Man with other novels. While this was an interesting topic, I initially felt a bit lost as the only art historian in the room, particularly since I’d never heard of many of the novels that were clearly so familiar to my colleagues in English. Furthermore, I have never actually “taught” a novel as a piece of literature. Yet the novel and its potential to provide a rich context for the art of the period remained intriguing. By the second morning I had fleshed out a rough draft of a syllabus for a graduate art history seminar that would focus on the novel. This course will examine not only the artistic context of Invisible Man, but also the visual elements within the novel itself. My intention is to continue developing my syllabus and to teach this course in the 2013-14 academic year.

As an art historian, it is more complicated to think about using such a lengthy piece of literature in my undergraduate classes. It seems unrealistic to expect students to read the novel in my introductory courses, given the broader scope of the material and the necessity of also reading much material from the perspective of art history as well. Although I still have not determined how to best incorporate the novel in my undergraduate teaching, the seminar did provide some immediate inspiration for presentation topics for the course I am teaching currently, Arts of the African Diaspora (ARTH 284).

About the Midwest Faculty Seminar

Each year the University of Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning organizes a number of seminars for faculty from a consortium group of 24 midwest colleges and universities. These are interdisciplinary scholarly symposia on topics of interest to those teaching in liberal arts environments. Applications are taken in the fall for the Midwest Faculty Seminar (MFS) and Faculty Development is able to send a small number of faculty each year to attend MFS seminars.


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