Poetry Without Borders—or a Classroom

May 11, 2020
book open on table

On 11 March, as Harvard students hurriedly packed up their dorm rooms, attended their final face-to-face course meetings, and said tearful goodbyes to their friends and mentors, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Stephanie Sandler composed an email to her students in GENED 1057: Poetry Without Borders. Reassuring them that their course would carry on with a refreshed syllabus after spring break, and wishing them well for their journeys away from campus, Sandler closed with “a poem to keep you company” through the pandemic—an excerpt from Tracy K. Smith’s (‘94) “My God, It’s Full of Stars.” “We learned new words for things,” one line reads. “The decade changed.”

It’s not every day that your Harvard professor sends you an inspired poem—unless, that is, your professor is Stephanie Sandler. One of the distinctive features of Poetry Without Borders is Sandler’s “Poem of the Day” assignment, which asks students to curate a poem for their classmates. Inspired by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, this assignment provided students three opportunities over the course of the semester to acquaint themselves more deeply with contemporary poetry, to develop tools and resources to find and read new poems, to practice analyzing and describing poems, and to spend time simply absorbed in poems. Besides finding and dwelling with their own selections, these student posts became a central place for discussion.

Sandler first mentioned her idea for a Poem of the Day assignment months before the start of the spring semester, when she came to the Bok Center to talk about the design of her new Gen Ed course. Sandler—who sits on the faculty committee that oversees the Gen Ed curriculum—oriented our team by sharing the goals at the center of her course. She was particularly concerned to balance her aspiration to equip her students to read any poem that they might encounter with her commitment to give them opportunities to focus on specific poems of personal importance to them. In light of these goals, the Poem-a-Day assignments became a key place for students to practice their analytical skills in anticipation of the course’s midterm and final exams.

Throughout November and December 2019 Sandler worked with Bok to refine the syllabus and the Poem-a-Day assignment. For the assignment, Bok drafted instructions, tested different ways in which students might submit their poems, ran these prototypes by Sandler, and revised as necessary. As the assignment rounded into final form, Sandler was able to hand the “last mile” logistics to her Head Teaching Fellow, Raymond DeLuca, who collaborated with our staff to mount the assignment in Canvas. In the end, students used a PowerPoint template that they could download and then resubmit to Canvas as a discussion board entry. Each entry included the text of their chosen poem, a recording of the poem (PowerPoint also allowed for students to make their own recording if one didn’t exist), a brief biography of the poet, a brief description of the poem, and sections with descriptions of and links to other, related poems.

Pleased with the results of the first Poem-a-Day responses, and now curious about how the assignment could be further revised to take advantage of students’ engagement with a series of poetry podcasts they encountered throughout the semester, Sandler and DeLuca remained in contact with the Bok Center throughout the semester, both before and during the transition to remote teaching. (Even the best designed assignments—perhaps especially the best designed assignments—will open new possibilities and take on new forms as students engage with them, and the Bok Center is always delighted to provide in-flight support for instructors revising materials during the term.) This made it easier, when the time came for students to leave campus in March, for Sandler to sit down with us again and imagine the possibilities for altering such things as the length of her class meetings, a student reaction paper, and students’ final portfolio assignment.

Later in the excerpt of the Tracy K. Smith poem with which Sandler bid her students farewell, she recounts the launch of the Hubble Space telescope. “The first few pictures came back blurred … ,” she writes. “ … The second time, / The optics jibed.” Courses, like telescopes, are complex machines, and they often gain focus—or, for that matter, can find themselves traversing entirely new and unforeseen orbits—as the semester unfolds. If you wish to redesign an assignment and make the “optics jibe” in one of your courses, or to explore additional technologies that can enhance the way you and your students share and respond to key course concepts, please schedule a Zoom consultation with our team.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash