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Teaching Toni Morrison

Swarthmore President Valerie Smith delights in reentering the classroom

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

With that epigraph from Toni Morrison at the top of the syllabus, President Valerie Smith sets the tone for a seminar she’s teaching this spring on the late Nobel Prize-winning writer, a former colleague.

“Morrison was a writer of remarkable versatility,” says Smith, a scholar of African American literature and author of Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). “I had the pleasure of getting to know her when we both taught at Princeton, and I found her to be a generous colleague, mentor, and friend.

“Not only was she an extraordinary prose stylist with an amazing gift for capturing the evocative power of language and the depth and resonance of emotional complexity, but she was a profoundly influential editor, a gifted librettist, a compelling author of children’s books, and a powerful public intellectual who produced brilliant essays,” Smith adds. 

“She used her gifts to expose the destructive impact of sexism, racism, class oppression, and inequality of all forms, as well as the redemptive power of human striving, resistance, creativity, compassion, and love.”

Seminar students read nine of Morrison’s novels in addition to essays by Morrison and criticism by various writers. The class strongly emphasizes the craft of writing. 

“I am teaching the class as a writing course, so students submit drafts of their papers to a peer editor and to me, and have the opportunity to use the feedback they receive to revise their papers,” Smith says. “I’m delighted that students report how much they enjoy the process of giving and receiving peer edits.”

This is the first course Smith has taught since she assumed Swarthmore’s presidency in 2015. 

“I’m enjoying working with and getting to know Swarthmore students (and one Haverford student) in an intimate intellectual context,” she says. 

The experience has reinforced what she knows about Swarthmore students: They come prepared, read Morrison’s work carefully, and are eager to participate in class discussion.

“They have a reputation for being intellectually curious and passionate about ideas,” Smith says. “The students in my seminar live up to that expectation.

“Perhaps the most challenging part,” she adds, “is that I always leave class wishing we had more time for discussion.”