School’s Out

Social distancing may have brought us farther from our friends, but we have never been in more constant contact with our bookshelves and word processors. Many of us are dusting off unread classics, or attempting to write the book we’ve always meant to. Though they aren’t physically open, universities, literary institutions, and bookstores are providing online classes and community events on literature and composition. Grab your Milton and open “Novel.doc”—the experts are (virtually) in.

University of Michigan Law Library. Photo: Wikicommons/Cadop
University of Michigan Law Library. Photo: Wikicommons/Cadop

For readers:

If you’re looking for a quick introduction to major works, Harvard University is offering three variations of David Damrosch and Martin Puchner’s world literature survey for free via Take the full class––spanning from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red––or enroll in just the first half, dedicated to ancient classics, or the second, focused on modern masterpieces. Classes commenced on April 15 but you can still enroll and take the classes at your own pace.

Also free of charge from Harvard, James Engell leads a rhetoric course on persuasive public speaking and writing (begins May 12) and Stephen Greenblatt gives a primer on Shakespeare’s biography and key works. (The class started April 15 but is also self-paced).

At Open Yale Courses, browse a selection of free, archived literature courses comprised of lecture videos, syllabi, and tests. Highlights include Wai Chee Dimock’s “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner,” Langdon Hammer’s “Modern Poetry,” Amy Hungerford’s “The American Novel Since 1945,” Giuseppe Mazzotta’s “Dante in Translation,” and John Rogers’s “Milton.”

For a visual survey of literary history, try one of many web exhibitions curated by US libraries and museums. Learn about the Ramayana through the University of Michigan Library; Islamic book art through Indiana University’s Lilly Library; French illuminated manuscripts through Chicago’s Newberry Library; or Mark Twain’s experiences in the American West through University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. You can also explore James Baldwin’s house through the National Museum of African American History and Culture and, if you’re feeling enterprising, assist the Smithsonian in their effort to transcribe documents from their collections—the Baldwin collection is spoken for but many more projects remain.

If you’re in search of more timely works, scholar Leigha McReynolds leads a course on “Classic Dystopias” through Washington DC’s Politics and Prose bookstore (starts April 22, $90 for P&P members, $100 for non-members). Also beginning April 22, tackle Boccaccio’s epidemic epic The Decameron through a Zoom reading and discussion group led by Eric Banks ($150), convening Wednesdays with the New York City bookshop McNally Jackson.

Still craving more of a catastrophe fix? Download Stanford’s free podcast on crisis in classical literature, The Literature of Crisis, or catch up with A Public Space’s ongoing community reading project, “Tolstoy Together,” run by The Vagrants author Yiyun Li. Participants are currently working their way through part three of the wartime saga War and Peace.

For writers:

The Miami Book Fair’s year-round “First Draft” happy-hour program continues online. Boozing with a purpose, participants receive a prompt and complete a short piece while enjoying a beer (or several). “Have a drink. Write a story. Have another drink. Write a better story.” The next session will be held on April 23.

On April 21, New York’s Center for Fiction hosts a virtual launch for Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, a how-to on pursuing a successful writing career. Authors Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon are joined by novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn, publisher and editor Jamia Wilson, and independent publicist Michael Taeckens. The center also has a number of online writing workshops running in April, May, and June (fees vary).

If you’re working on your first novel, the University of British Columbia MFA program can help. Starting April 28, creative writing professors Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon guide you through the process of transforming your outline into a full-length draft in part two of their “How to Write a Novel” cycle. The enrollment fee is $295. (Part one, which started in February, is recommended but not required.)

Portland’s Literary Arts has moved their scheduled writing programming online. Starting May 10, Natalie Serber (Shout Her Lovely Name) teaches a class on advanced memoir writing. The next day, Emily Chenoweth (Hello Goodbye) begins a crash course on novel-writing. Fees are $275 and $365, respectively (scholarships are available).

Dedicated writers’ spaces are also offering spring workshops online, among them, Bethesda’s The Writer’s Center and Houston’s Writespace. Genres and themes run the gamut, from genre-specific writing intensives to administrative sessions on managing and growing your career.


This post continues Bookforum’s series on how the literary community is coping during the coronavirus pandemic. For coverage on how to support independent bookstores and engage in their online programming, see our last post.

Hannah Stamler is a Ph.D. student in history at Princeton University.