By Ollie Marinaccio
In the November 2022 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, poet and journalist Kristina Andersson Bicher discussed Poetry in America’s progress expanding access to high quality humanities education over the past decade.
I’m amazed at how long it’s taken the world to realize that the same tools we use for entertainment are also going to be useful to us in learning hard things.”
– Elisa New
Since the launch of its first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) almost a decade ago, Poetry in America has developed an array of programs for learners of all kinds, including a popular PBS series, resources for K-12 classrooms, and, via Arizona State University, a robust and growing dual enrollment program for U.S. high school students. “For years,” observes Bicher, “[Elisa] New has been at the forefront of virtual learning with her signature online poetry class, tweaking and innovating as she goes along.”
Bicher interviewed Elisa New on the occasion of her appointment as founding director of ASU’s Center for Public Humanities. In her new role, New “remains passionate about expanding access to quality education,” and believes she can replicate and scale the successful model of humanities education that she’s created in Poetry in America. The new Center’s goal? “Bringing the best of humanities teaching and learning to worldwide public audiences.”
New bemoans the fact that poetry has become ‘academicized, professionalized, institutionalized’ and because of this, became ‘something one does in school.’”
– Kristina Andersson Bicher
Currently in development, the Center’s upcoming projects include for-credit undergraduate courses, materials for use in K-12 classrooms, and potential Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs for doctors, nurses, and palliative care professionals in the interdisciplinary field of health humanities. The health humanities, which originated in medical education, is a burgeoning area of study which integrates the humanities, social sciences, and the arts with the study and practice of medicine, and of wellness more generally. Its greatest efficacy is realized in programs that support the broadest societal understanding of the human life cycle.
For courses existing and in development, New and her team of instructional designers and curriculum developers think hard about ways to engage their different learner populations—and to enable students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. “I’ve come to be a passionate believer in design,” New said to Bicher, “and the intellectual process of continuing to review the flaws.”
New credits this learner-centered design—and continual redesign—process with her courses’ ability to reach populations traditionally underserved by institutions of higher education: since its inception in 2019, the Poetry in America for High Schools dual enrollment program has reached more than 3,600 students enrolled in 173 high schools across 26 states; 97 percent of those students have come from Title I high schools. Two-thirds of those dual enrollment learners have earned college credit through New’s courses, effectively getting a jump-start on postsecondary education at no cost to their families—and often discovering a love of poetry along the way. As one Spring 2022 enrollee put it, “Before taking this course, I had read only a handful of poems, but now […] I have been exposed to so much, and I don’t even know which poem is my favorite.”
Poetry in America’s education programs have the benefit of drawing on the associated PBS show for both talent and content that is uniquely engaging in the classroom. “For New, TV and education cross fertilize one another and drive innovation in learning.” Poetry in America’s one-of-a-kind guest list affords students the opportunity to read and enjoy poetry alongside familiar celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal, Nas, and Regina Spektor. “What’s delightful about Poetry in America” quips Bicher, “is that the content delivery is fresh and interesting.”
Through a multiplicity of voices, and with music, graphics, and text, we are so engaged that we hardly realize we’re being taught.”
– Kristina Andersson Bicher
Published quarterly by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, The Writer’s Chronicle is a leading source of news for writers, editors, students, and teachers of writing.
Kristina Andersson Bicher’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Rumpus and Columbia Journal. She is co-creator/co-host of SEAM: a poetry reading series with Kathleen Ossip.