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Tales of a superannuated undergraduate

Most of my excursions into the classroom since I left graduate school have occurred in the middle of the night, and they have usually involved waking up in a cold sweat.

In the fall of 1999, though, I entered a classroom in broad daylight, not without trepidation. I was, however, fully clothed.

I had decided to take a course--the first one outside my major (English) in a quarter century--that had intrigued me since its inception two years earlier. Offered by the history department, "North by South" is an investigation of the "Great Migration" of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. An added incentive was the fact that the year-long course was offered by two faculty members I greatly respect and admire, Peter Rutkoff and Will Scott, whose classes I hadn't had an opportunity to take as a regular Kenyon student.

"North by South," which Rutkoff and Scott developed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, came highly recommended. Hays Stone '99, our office manager in public affairs, had been a member of the inaugural class, during the 1997-98 academic year, and one of our student workers, Andrew Kahrl '01, had been a member of the second. Both were effusive in their praise of the "North by South" experience.

And experience it is. Participants in the class commit themselves not only to a hefty reading list and three-hour-long seminars but also to two week-long trips with their classmates and a final cooperative project in which they build a web site describing their research. During winter break, they visit a southern site whose history they've studied. When spring vacation comes, they travel to a northern site with which the southern one has been paired. The sites have included Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City (Harlem) in the first year, and the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, Illinois, in the second. Our class would be visiting Birmingham, Alabama, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

From the class's first meeting, I was blown away by my fellow students. Here were sophomores who spoke not only in complete sentences but complete paragraphs, juniors whose quiet passion illuminated their responses to our texts, and seniors whose arguments were models of intellectual elegance.

Likewise, Peter and Will more than lived up to their reputations as masterful teachers. One provocative question or comment from them was usually enough to get the class off and running at full speed. This was a seminar that truly warranted the label: a free exchange of ideas and opinions among students and their teachers. I left each class on an adrenaline high that kept me going far past my usual bedtime--and gave me a chance to get a head start on the next week's reading.

In March, during spring vacation, I joined the rest of the class for the Pittsburgh portion of our travels. My classmates explored the city while conducting interviews with primary sources--from barbers and beauticians to former baseball players from the old Negro leagues--along with research in the city's archives and libraries.

I spent a good deal of my time there showing--or showing off--my favorite city and its environs to Peter and Will. They were an eager audience, or at least they pretended to be, for the mini-lectures on Pittsburgh architecture and history that I'd been mentally preparing for months.

During our week in Pittsburgh, I saw parts of the city I'd never before seen. And I lamented, more than ever, the destruction of the formerly vibrant Hill District, the city's one-time heart of African-American life, a victim of the politics and "urban renewal" of the late 1950s. Of course, it was a part of the city I knew about from books rather than personal experience, but that only added to the sense of loss.

A few of the old buildings along Centre and Wylie avenues in the heart of the Hill survive, forming what seems like a small town of slightly down-at-the-heels structures surrounded by vacant land in the midst of the city. One of those buildings houses the Crawford Grill, a Pittsburgh institution that served as a sort of unofficial headquarters for our group.

One evening, the group gathered at the Crawford Grill to partake of the restaurant's signature soul-food cuisine. At first, there were stares directed our way from the Crawford's regular patrons, but a camaraderie developed between the two camps over the course of the several hours spent there eating, listening to jazz, and viewing the art work exhibited on the restaurant's walls by local artists.

I came away from our sojourn in Pittsburgh and my studies in "North by South" with a much fuller appreciation of the city I'll always think of as home, even though I grew up in a then-rural area about thirty miles to the north. But perhaps the best result of the class for me was the confirmation of all the superlatives we lavish on our faculty and student body. They are truly extraordinary groups of people.

If I could have a second undergraduate career, I think it would be as a history major. That's not to say I regret having been an English major; I don't. But I do wish I knew more about history, and although I continue to read books on the subject, there's nothing like the give and take of a class with a great teacher and first-rate fellow students.


To check out the work of the "North by South" classes, click here.

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