Schulz Takes Literature out of the Classroom

Not Your Basic Intro to Lit

English Professor Dr. Jennifer Schulz, MAP ’03, has a new approach to teaching literature. She introduces her students to “The Arts of Reading and Walking in the City” by requiring 20 hours of service learning with organizations serving Seattle’s low-income and homeless population.

“The figure of homelessness, not necessarily poverty, is powerful in American literature – people always on the move, migrating, ungrounded,” she said. “It is liberating and constraining at the same time. I wanted my students to engage with the city and explore urban living, both as literature depicts it and as we inhabitants experience it. ”

In her course, students read classic American literature, like Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Nella Larsen’s “Passing.” They also learn from low-income and homeless adults, children, and teens at Seattle’s Compass Housing Alliance, Hilltop House, YouthCare’s Orion Center Overnight Shelter, and YWCA’s School Age Program. 

Several years after writing her English doctoral dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance and teaching literature, Schulz enrolled in the M.A. in Psychology program (class of 2003). She did her practicum at the Pike Market Medical Clinic, which serves very low-income and homeless adults. The clients had fascinating stories to tell, and Schulz found real-life comparisons to the fictional characters she had studied and taught.

She returned to teaching and today conducts classes in the English, liberal studies and psychology departments.  Combining her creative writing and literary interests with the phenomenological approach learned in the psychology program serves her well. Her experiences at the Pike Market Clinic and in private practice with homeless and low-income adults led her to include a service learning component in the introduction to American literature course.

Schulz added the service learning component to her syllabus in 2010. She required all students to reflect on the relationship between what they learn in the classroom and what they experience in the city. She asked provocative questions: Why do the figures not only of providence but of homelessness, detection, experimentation, and performance arise again and again in literature of the city? How do your interactions with other city-dwellers re-construct (or help you to re-interpret) the literature?  In what ways do literature and lived experience reflect and create each other?

Some students had never lived in a city or seen people living on the streets. They found their experiences in the community to be transformative. 

“The students heard things that they never would have believed were true,” Schulz noted. “They learned to go deeper than the facts—to recognize fear and pain in the stories they heard.”

At the end of the course, each student wrote a self-reflective essay that considered the different narrative, theoretical, and experiential lenses through which they looked at the city. Schulz specifically asked that they critically reflect on the ways in which they have altered their encounters with the city and how their service learning experiences informed their readings and interpretations of the literature.

“Students gain more than an understanding of course content and a broader appreciation of the discipline,” Schulz emphasized. “They enhance their personal development and the leadership skills needed to work for social justice.”

Hear from Professor Schulz and student Julia Johnson on her experience at Hilltop House.
Watch the video: