Making the Most of Digital Tools in a Class on Black Public Intellectuals

Photograph of Harris-Perry on TV set


Regina Mills

Image Credit: 

The Atlantic

I am teaching a literature course next term (African American Literature and Culture). Thankfully, when I teach in the fall, I will be in the Digital Research and Writing Lab (DWRL). However, unlike a research-based writing class, literature classes do not seem as easily tailored towards the digital tools we have available. Thus, I’d like to take this blog post as an opportunity to throw out some of the ideas I have for class projects and activities.

First, the tiniest bit of background. My syllabus is a work in progress but currently revolves around the theme, “Black Public Intellectuals.” I was inspired by the current debates over the need for more public intellectuals (written mostly by older white men) and whether or not Melissa Harris-Perry (lovingly known as MHP) is a public intellectual (as claimed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in this Atlantic article). I plan on reading intellectuals from Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Cornel West, and of course MHP. Some of the questions I’ll be posing are: What is the role of the public intellectual? Is the role of the Black public intellectual different in any way? In what ways have Black public intellectuals broadcast their ideas in the past? In the present? Who are the Black public intellectuals of our times?

With this in mind, I want to discuss some of the activities/prompts I’m considering for this class. First, I’m thinking that I am so tired of having to answer questions about things on my syllabus and resources (that are underused!). I have tried syllabus quizzes, refusing to answer E-mails about questions I’ve already answered, etc. but I want to try something new. So, here’s my idea: A scavenger hunt of class policies from the syllabus and key resources/locations. I’m considering requiring students to visit the DWRL Open Lab, the Undergraduate Writing Center (UWC), and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, plus certain helpful websites. I would need to ask if the UWC, the Open Lab, and the Warfield Center could help me out. Maybe they could have business cards or some proof of being there as part of the Scavenger Hunt completion. This could be done on the first day of class as the major activity for the day, with a debrief at the end of class.

As for writing projects, I’m considering having students create a website on a Black public intellectual we did or did not study in class. Since I intend to give only one or two readings per intellectual, this makes it so students can go deeper into a public intellectual that intrigued them in class or they can research others that might speak more to their own social justice and/or intellectual pursuits. I would imagine this website having to include: close readings of a few texts, historical context and biography of the Black public intellectual, and a list of recommended readings (with short annotated bibs/previews of what the sites/resources offer). I could make this an end-of-the-semester project (though it really does ask a lot), but I could also see it being done in piecemeal with certain sections being done over the course of the semester. Or having students have bi-weekly blog posts where they work on drafts, track progress, etc. My one concern is that I don’t know the kind of blogging websites that would be less clunky than Blackboard or Canvas (our current management software).

So these are some of my thoughts – I would really appreciate your feedback and other suggestions for class activities revolving around the themes and questions I have set up.  Please leave a comment or E-mail me at


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