George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Project on the History of Black Writing launches website as hub for black poetry content

Wed, 04/30/2014

LAWRENCE — Summers are not necessarily the most popular time for students and professors to be in school, but for the University of Kansas’ Project on the History of Black Writing, the summers are a rare opportunity to bring college and university teachers together for an enriching experience.

Last summer, the HBW reached yet another milestone in its National Endowment for the Humanities grant history. Its seventh grant, titled Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry, assisted what NEH refers to as Summer Scholars in navigating the wide world of African-American poetry.

When 24 college and university teachers from across the country converged on the KU campus, they learned from some of the most celebrated scholars of African-American poetry in the country.

One NEH Summer Scholar, Althea Tait, assistant professor of English at SUNY College of Brockport, said the Don't Deny My Voice, or DDMV, institute was a life-changing experience. 

"I was drawn to the institute because of the opportunity to learn from the stellar scholars listed as faculty, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover much more. The material was engaging and challenging in a way that ignited paradigm shifts for me as a person, scholar and, above all, a teacher," Tait said. "The institute represented the true spirit of the academy — a space in which inquiry and passion meet and, most importantly, a continuum is promoted as scholars, teachers and students continue to engage in the discourse.”

Maryemma Graham, HBW’s founder and director, and Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, the institute coordinator, have found a way to continue to extend the conversations that began in the summer. The HBW offered a series of live podcasts with prominent award-winning poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Terrance Hayes, C. Liegh McInnis, Brenda Marie Osbey, Ishmael Reed and Natasha Trethewey, the 2012 U.S. Poet Laureate.

Now content from both the 2013 summer institute and the podcasts is available on the institute’s website, It is one of many HBW-sponsored programs one can access from HBW’s home page,, complete with social media components, including a Facebook page and blog, where viewers can become part of an active community.

“It means we can reach more people using social media because we are adding in all types of outreach programs,” said Graham, who is also a University Distinguished Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are trying to create more dialogue and more knowledge.”

Graham said bringing all of the institute work together under a single website will allow for an exchange of ideas within the academic community. The ultimate goal is to take it further beyond KU and to upload content to the site from conferences, seminars and events at other universities as well. Right now, the institute staff members are working on importing videos from a summer institute at Penn State University, and the plan is to identify other opportunities to add content.

“We wanted to have a central repository to help people self-educate, do research and give teachers more resources,” Graham said. “What some universities find is that it is easier for us to go in with you than to reinvent the wheel.”

She said the use of modern technology and social media has also opened the eyes of the poets who contributed to the podcasts. Many are able to take back certain ideas.

“Many artists are saying, ‘I’ve never done this before, but it really shows me a new way to teach, get valuable feedback, and interact with different audiences,’” Graham said. 

The site also will give college teachers access to more content and more opportunities to share ideas. She said the website is a natural progression for HBW, which began using digital technology to open up new possibilities for studying African-American literature in 1983. Now the content not only from DDMV but also from HBW’s previous institutes and its accumulated archives will be accessible to the general public. Social media will also allow for immediate feedback through comments on Facebook and other sites.

Graham said the HBW website, which will serve as one of KU’s Digital Humanities sites, will make important documents and resources available and downloadable, allowing the public, including educators at other institutions, to gain access through the Internet.

“We are in a sense just taking the next logical step to make sure our work has lasting significance,” she said.

DDMV began with a $189,000 NEH grant. The HBW has been bringing artists and educators together for more than 30 years. In addition to public humanities programs, it conducts research, recovers authors, and makes their works available in print and digital formats.  

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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