NEH Seminars: The Thinking Teacher’s Solution to Summer


“Under the influence of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed into a science of teaching in general in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught. A teacher, so it was thought, is a man who can simply teach anything...”

Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education


Starting in May each year, our Twitter and Facebook feeds, email inboxes and professional journal subscriptions fill up with the annual, “How to recharge your career over summer!!” posts and articles. Sadly, in the current climate, these well-intentioned guides tend to ask the impossible of teachers by cajoling us to simultaneously, “Read, rest, improve practice, socialize with adults, research your craft and rejuvenate!!” Right. It’s a summer, not a sabbatical.

But what if I told you there are programs available that allow you to fit all of these seemingly contradictory goals into one summer while being compensated at the same time? Would it appeal to you as well to not be thought of as a “man who can teach anything” but a professional contributor to an academic discipline as well as an education generalist? If so, look no further than the NEH Seminars in the Humanities.

Back in January when Noah Zeichner prompted CTQ blog readers to plan their summers, I was one of the teachers who chimed in about the NEH programs. That was before I knew that I would be attending my second this summer—and I am thrilled to be selected once again. (Karma, perhaps?) In their own words, the NEH Seminars for teachers are “tuition-free opportunities for school, college, and university educators to study a variety of humanities topics. Stipends of $1,200-$3,900 help cover expenses for these one- to five-week programs.” Accomplished professors and universities apply for grants to cover the programs and offer seminars with topics like, Philosophers of Education: Major Thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Postmodern Era, Memories Divided and Reconciled: World Wars I and II in France Today (held in Paris and Normandy), Great Adaptations: Dickens in Literature and Film.

Straightforward applications are due by March, announcements are made by the end of April and then the team at your program takes over, making sure you have your travel, accommodation and study plans all in order. Next thing you know, you are shacked up in a dorm or rented apartments surrounding an academic institution with 11-15 other teachers from around the country (and abroad in my case), ages ranging from the early 20s to the late 70s, experience levels ranging from first year finishers to 40-year vets, all engrossed with one specific academic pursuit for 3-5 weeks.

I did also promise that you would be able to meet all the goals we are encouraged to achieve during the summer, so it is important to note that except for days with special events or guest speakers, contact time for NEH seminars occurs between 1PM and 4PM (some meet in the morning)—no more. Having time to do your reading and research—and rest and socialize!—is taken seriously by the designers of the seminars, and you will have plenty of time to reflect and think: perhaps the most precious commodity for those of us who operate in survival mode during fragmented school days all year.

I am personally in the middle of a brilliant seminar at Bard College in upstate New York led by Dr. Kathy Jones focusing on The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt: The Problem of Evil and the Origins of Totalitarianism. My comrades are brilliant, professional and witty and our conversations on free will, the utter loathsomeness of Adolf Eichmann, and Hannah’s chain-smoking start well before 1PM and continue well after dark. We have spontaneously arranged movie nights, visits to Hyde Park and Val-kill to see the houses of the Roosevelts, evenings out to the Culinary Institute of America, and many, many trips for soft-serve ice cream from Holy Cow and burritos from the magic burrito stand (every NEH site has its equivalent mecca—or is in driving distance of a major city—so don’t worry).

Most precious, if you are anything like me, or Arendt herself, is the time participants in the seminar receive to explore the profound content of the course in the context of their disciplines, and not the “general science of teaching.” One of my peers will be working on scripting dialogue between Eichmann and Arendt, another is interpreting aspects of Arendt’s theories in dance, I will be writing a paper proposing a new approach to teaching history that emphasizes political action over academic analysis: and we all have five weeks on the beautiful wooded 500-acre campus of Bard for reading, resting, socializing, researching and improving our practice—a splendid lab for getting work done.

Recharging while immersing yourself in the content you love: doesn’t that sound exactly like the kind of rejuvenating you need?

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