Harlem Semester

Looking back to the last weeks of the Spring 2020 semester, Professor Diedra Harris-Kelley reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown upon her place-based, site-inspired 'Romare Bearden: Home is Harlem (BC3532) course.

"I am most concerned with the students who still seem vulnerable and at odds with the future. My group stayed committed to the course and their final presentations," Deidra Harris-Kelley said of what it was like to teach in the closing weeks of a semester that had gone from site immersed, face-to-face learning, to 'hyflex' learning.

"The students of the Bearden course typically speak to the benefits of a diverse range of instructors, walking tours, exhibits, and cultural events being the attraction of my course, and others like it in the Harlem Semester. How all of that is impacted with the new remote reality remains to be seen. Although nothing comes quite as close as walking through Central Harlem, or seeing art in-person, together, we made use of quite a lot of online resources during the shut down."

Diedra Harris-Kelley is Co-Director of the Romare Bearden Foundation. She has taught in the Harlem Semester since its inception and is an artist in her own right. For a glimpse into her work on Bearden, see 'Diedra Harris-Kelley Discusses Romare Bearden'.

Now in its fifth year, the Harlem Semester Program looks forward to expanding its course offerings. Already, in 2019, we offered a course that expanded the transnational reach of early Twentieth Century Harlem with Professor Jennifer Wilson's 'Harlem/Moscow' course. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened our plans to address health care through close collaboration with Harlem-based organizations. We anticipate offering 'Harlem Medicine,' devised and taught Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young of Barnard's Women's Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. This course will draw medical science and technology into the disciplines and areas of study already open to students. 

Anchored by a generous endowment from Denise Jackson-Lewis (class of '66), the Program continues to be an ambitious public humanities initiative that reflects the commitment of Africana Studies faculty to collaborative involvement with Harlem's social, political, intellectual and artistic work past and present. Students from across disciplines are introduced to the complexities of Harlem’s histories, its past and current leaders, its culture, its arts, and artists.

The curriculum of the Harlem Semester critically examines Harlem not as an inert site or abstract concept, but as an intensively peopled place of complex interaction and rich history, alive today. Pairing faculty from Barnard and other colleges with Harlem-Based institutions, these place-based courses teach Harlem’s diverse cultural and political legacy through participatory, interdisciplinary, multi-directional learning modules.

Barnard faculty have collaborated with artists, thinkers, and cultural workers to design courses that integrate collaborators at partner institutions, with a minimum of three class sessions held on-site. For example, students will work with archivists at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on digital archiving; participate in a movement workshop with famed choreographer Diane McIntyre; learn about artistic and curatorial practice at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and engage in a multi-media production at the Harlem Stage.

The Harlem Semester Program offers a critical intervention in approaches to diversity, inclusion, and inequality on campus. This program takes the lead in shaping new pedagogical models that directly engage controversial issues and actively develop learning spaces where social issues can be debated openly and students’ capacity for interpersonal awareness, solidarity, and respect can change and grow.

Central to this program’s intervention is an engagement with Harlem’s cultural institutions as sites of community activism; spaces that continue to be crucial to exploring thorny questions of inequality and social justice. Students participating in the program will gain a unique perspective on the extraordinary contributions of Harlem’s residents through the institutions and community workers who have sustained it, through frank discussions of topics such as access, prejudice, recognition, and respect.