It’s been nearly five months since Bryn Mawr went to remote instruction and almost three months since classes ended in May.
When the move to online instruction happened, Clare Mullaney ’11, a visiting professor in the English Department, was moved by the vibrant conversations students continued to have despite the sometimes-awkward nature of group online video meetings.
Knowing that the end of the semester meant a somewhat sequestered life for most students, Mullaney came up with an idea to continue, and perhaps even expand, the online community of her classes.
Since early June, Mullaney and others have facilitated the “Literatures of Loneliness and Isolation” reading group, with weekly sessions of as many as 40 participants. The group started with English Department students and faculty but over the summer grew to include several alumnae/i and other members of the Bryn Mawr community.
“The group’s aim was to offer current students and alums structure during a summer of uncertainty,” says Mullaney. “But it also hoped to reaffirm what those of us who’ve spent time learning in English House know well: that humanistic inquiry is necessary for exposing difficult questions. Our favorite professors have taught us that books are places to trouble the world and reimagine it in new forms. And there’s no better time than now to continue this work together.”
Among the faculty to participate was Bethany Schneider, associate professor of English, whose June 23 reading was Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street.
“I was surprised at how powerful the experience was for me as a teacher,” says Schneider. “I’ve taught at Bryn Mawr since 2001. I knew alums were going to participate, but I hadn’t realized how much I would love seeing everyone again and having everyone think together.”
Of particular delight for Schneider was the opportunity to have students of various generations all brought together through technology.
“Memories came flooding back as people spoke—of the particular genius of Ingrid, or the way Xavia sits quietly for most of the conversation, then ties the whole thing up in a beautiful package and leaves everyone stunned, or the way Nora purses her mouth when she thinks, and you know she’s about to explode your world. And to have Ingrid and Xavia and Nora, who didn’t know one another at College, thinking together in this wonderful Zoom time machine, and to have folks who graduated 15 years ago talking with first years about literature—it was so fun.”
Luann Abrahams '87 was an archaeology major at Bryn Mawr but loved English House while a student.
“Of all the virtual concerts, plays, and other resources that have come online during these Covid times, this group has been the most satisfying thing for me. I think of it as the silver lining to my shelter-in-place summer,” she says.
Abrahams notes that while the readings are centered on themes of isolation and loneliness, it’s been striking how often the group ends up discussing connection, community, and the creation of a “family by choice.”
“I have come to feel that connection with my fellow summer readers as well,” she says. “Every week’s discussion has been stimulating, profound, and enriching. I’m grateful to the faculty members who have invested their time and care into the project, and especially to Clare for making it all happen. I’m sad to see it end, but so glad I had the opportunity to be a part of it.”
Professor of English Michael Tratner, who led a session on Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, says the sessions took him back to his days as a student.
"As a professor, I have been teaching books I know all too well, so summer has always meant reviewing what I sort of already know. Instead, the sessions led by my colleagues have returned me to that feeling I had as an undergraduate, surprised by texts creating visions I never suspected were available. And Zoom has added to the pleasure, as we break into groups for good long talks with people from all sorts of places. The closest analogy to the experience is the feeling of taking a long trip, perhaps on a small ship where strangers talk about the unusual things that appear around us."
Mullaney will be starting a new job as an assistant professor at Clemson University in the fall but Schneider says she hopes the department will continue to host similar summer reading groups in the future.
The group's full reading list is available online here.