By Max McKenna (C’10)
“What happens to a dream deferred?” This was the question that Penn Alumni pondered at last week’s celebration of Langston Hughes in Wicker Park. A collaboration between the Penn Club of Chicago and Penn’s massive open online course “ModPo,” the event brought members of the greater Penn community together for an in-depth conversation on and collaborative reading of the great Harlem Renaissance poet’s work.
Max McKenna (C’10), a teaching assistant for ModPo and current Chicago resident, led participants in a discussion of Hughes’s 1940 autobiography, “The Big Sea,” the subject of this year’s 25th Annual Penn Reading Project. He also facilitated a “collaborative close reading” of a number of Hughes poems—including the classic “Harlem,” which asks what happens to a dream deferred—assigning each of the nearly twenty participants a different part of the poem to analyze, gloss, and pick apart using their own sets of associations. No corner of the poem was left unexplored: by the end of the robust discussion, the group was left speculating on the uses of the word “it”!
Collaborative close reading is an approach favored in ModPo, short for Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. Taught by Al Filreis, Kelly Professor in English at Penn and the Director of the Kelly Writers House, the ten-week course has been offered each fall since 2012 through the platform Coursera. ModPo is entirely free and open to the public, and enrollment generally numbers in the tens of thousands! More information can be found here: https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry
The celebration was generously hosted by Liane Jackson (’93) at her co-operative workspace, the Free Range Office.