Course Overview: The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois

Post by: Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton, MDiv 2020, HDS Office of Admissions Graduate Assistant.

If you’ve ever wondered what an HDS classroom looks like in action, this post is for you. Current MDiv student, Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton, writes about his experience in Dr. Cornel West’s course on W.E.B. Du Bois. Whether current applicant or prospective student, you are welcome to sign-up for a class visit on our Admissions Events Calendar. While the class featured in this post is not offered this semester, there are many other wonderful courses open to visitors. I also recommend checking out our Course Catalog.

Professor West in action. Photo contributed by MDiv candidate Ismail Buffins.

This past semester, I took a course called “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois.” The course was taught by none other than premier Du Bois scholar, Cornel West. My friends and family ask all the time, “what is it like to take a class with Cornel West?” My answer is, as you might guess, “quite life-changing actually.” One facet about this course is that students from all over the Yard also took the course (Ed School, Law School, the College, even a few 1st and 2nd year PhD students) only enriching the discussion even more.

If you haven’t heard of W.E.B. Du Bois, he is a figure you should get to know. Du Bois was born in 1868, one year after the Emancipation Proclamation. He was the first African American to receive a PhD from, you guessed it, Harvard University. It’s incredibly amazing to walk the same Yard Du Bois walked before he became the Du Bois we know today. He was the founder of the NAACP and one of the first well-known African American sociologists in America. In the course, we closely read two of Du Bois’s seminal works, The Souls of Black Folk and Dusk of Dawn, usually focusing on a chapter or two a week. While it might sound like a traditional class, it definitely was not.

West with Harvard Dance Director, Jill Johnson. Photo contributed by Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton.

Before each chapter in Souls, Du Bois offers an excerpt from various poets and the musical score of a spiritual. Like the preface of each chapter, we began each class acknowledging the talent in the room. Students might present a piece of poetry, someone might play the guitar and sing a song, and we even had a dance professor show us a few eight-counts. The pieces of visual art and culture that others offered to the world of our classroom were the demonstration of joy, pain, and the genius in all of us. This part of class was essential in understanding Du Bois and his writings on the souls of blacks in America.

Following the talent, Dr. West would lecture on the one or two chapters we read, providing context behind Du Bois’s writings. We would often address questions such as: “how are we reading Du Bois in our current era?” or “how have African Americans maintained joy in times of despair?” Following his lecture, students posed thoughtful questions and critiques of Du Bois, sparking a lively dialogue. During the last part of class, the Teaching Fellow would offer thought-provoking reflections and end the class with questions that we’d be compelled to think about beyond the classroom.

A lecture on one of Du Bois’s essays. Photo contributed by Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton.

When Dr. West or a student would pose a question or reflection, it was evident when the class agreed as we would snap our fingers. As we read “The Sorrow Songs,” a chapter in The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. West had compiled a playlist of some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and played bits of their songs. The class turned into a dance party and we hyped each other up as people showed off both throwback and new dance moves. The class proved to be full of laughter, some tearful emotional moments, and even some tense times as we discussed difficult topics. We talked about education, religion, privilege, and ultimately, what it means to be human in all its beauty and ugliness. I left each class with a bit of Du Bois I hadn’t had before.

Dr. West’s class was unlike any I have taken before, I am incredibly grateful to have taken this Du Bois class with him. If you are admitted to HDS, you might be able to share this experience with your classmates as well, and I highly recommend taking a course with Dr. West.

Comments are closed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: