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Professor helps develop course on African-American literature

English language and literature courses are an integral part of every high school curriculum. However, rarely does one stop to think about the process of designing and implementing such courses. Recently, Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of English and literary and cultural studies Richard Purcell has begun to intensely study this process.

Purcell focuses upon many different aspects of literature, history, and popular culture — especially late 19th and 20th century African-American literature and literary criticism. Recently, he has been helping develop an African-American literature course that will begin in the fall in all Pittsburgh public schools. This course will be offered to high school seniors interested in the subject. Students will have the opportunity to take this course as an advanced placement English course. Although all of the classes will include African-American authors, this new course will bring their work to the forefront of classroom study. Purcell views the move as a recognition that "the world is and has been diverse."

First-year creative writing major Zach Betka understands the importance of recognizing diverse literature, especially African-American literature. He describes reading books such as The Color Purple a "humbling experience" and agrees that they broadened his perspective. This new course aims to do just that, including books such as Octavia Butler's Kindred. The course will also include William Attaway's Blood on the Forge, a novel set in Pittsburgh and chosen for its emphasis on the city's role in literature.

According to Purcell, "the purpose of the class — like any upper-level literature course — is to deepen a student's sense of literature and to show that literature and the imaginative mind is driven by ideas, social forces, politics, culture, and the emotions that are stirred by them." The course is designed to complement an African-American history class that was implemented two years ago. Purcell is part of a team that includes Jerri Lippert, executive director of curriculum; Diane Carroll, English language arts curriculum specialist; and Jackie Hale and Rachel Hittinger, both English teachers. Hittinger plans to focus on creating a unit on based on African-American feminism.

Aurelia Henderson, a first-year creative writing major at Carnegie Mellon, believes that the desire of the Pittsburgh public school system to develop diverse courses is a positive sign and a progressive movement toward providing advanced education. "I feel all schools should offer the course to raise awareness of the African-American contribution to modern literature. I feel that's a really important point that is overlooked," Henderson said.

Purcell commented that it was a bold move to make this course a core class and not an elective.

"People of color have been contributing their experiences and imagination to this core for a long, long time," Purcell said. "In order to understand our human condition we must acknowledge that its core is in fact a constellation of different kinds of people and experiences."