When first-year Honors student Abby Armstrong arrived at UMass, she knew W.E.B. Du Bois as the namesake behind the university’s iconic 26-story library. Now, since thoroughly exploring his writings in her Ideas That Change the World class, Armstrong knows Du Bois as a prolific author, scholar, and civil rights activist. Students across sections of the first-year multidisciplinary seminar are delving into the university’s extensive collection of Du Bois’s work and becoming familiar with this local scholar who has a profound legacy as one of the most important 20th-century thinkers.
“Before class, I had a general sense of who Du Bois was but not in-depth knowledge,” said Sierra Powers, a first-year honors student. “But UMass is such a goldmine of his works. Since learning about him, I find myself viewing everything with a different lens.”
Students described Du Bois’s writings, including “The Concept of Race” and “The Propaganda of History,” with palpable excitement, explaining that his work seems to somehow cross space and time to fit contemporary discussions. For example, student Gina Collari, a first-year biology major, said that her class drew parallels from his writings to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
“My class has been tremendously engaged,” said Professor Julie Skogsbergh, who teaches Ideas That Change the World. “Often we say, he wrote this in the 1900’s but we can talk about it—and it’s still relevant—in 2016.”
The course itself is divided into four units that encourage students to consider influential ideas and their impacts on society. In each section--Models of Inquiry, Social Philosophy and Civic Engagement, Impact in Science and Technology, and Power of the Arts--Skogsbergh said she incorporates Du Bois. During the Social Philosophy and Civic Engagement unit, which features the writings of Gandhi, students in Skogsbergh’s class read letters that Du Bois and Gandhi exchanged with one another. In one letter to Gandhi, Du Bois asked him to write a “message of love” for his supporters and extend hope to African Americans.
Skogsbergh stressed that Du Bois was a social, intersectional figure who pushed the envelope during his time. “It’s amazing to think that he did all this and connected to so many people without the Internet and social media,” she said.
Students in all classes have a unique opportunity to study Du Bois’s work through archival research with the library’s W.E.B. Du Bois Center. Skogsbergh brought her class to the special collections herself to explore Du Bois’s work in-depth. Du Bois was born in nearby Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “We learned that his wife and son taught here, and his childhood home was an archaeological site for UMass,” said Powers. Although the students said they have enjoyed learning about Du Bois’s local connections, they’ve also seen that he had a broader impact on the rest of society.
Collari explained that studying Du Bois has prompted engaging conversations about social justice. “We’re having discussions that aren’t openly talked about in other settings,” said Collari. “When I think of Ideas, I think of Du Bois.”