In 1983, The NEH Distinguished Visiting Professorship was established at the University of Richmond with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and matching funds raised by the University. The professorship rotates annually among six humanities departments—classical studies, English, history, modern literatures and cultures, philosophy, and religion. While some departments invite a visiting professor to teach a course for an entire semester, other departments set up a course and have visitors come throughout the semester to teach a few classes and give public lectures or events.

In the 2007–2008 academic year, when the professorship was offered to the English department, Professor Bert Ashe proposed a course that would explore the nature of boundaries through works in a variety of media; instead of one NEH-funded guest professor, Ashe would teach the course and invite artists and authors to give lectures and performances on campus. The English Department endorsed Ashe’s unique proposal and offered the course, Blurred Boundaries, in the spring of 2008.

"I wanted to explore with my students how and why the barriers surrounding a medium, genre, or idea exist,” said Ashe. We looked at cultural boundaries, aesthetic boundaries, artistic boundaries, and boundaries of the body through examples in literature, journalism, music, film, and art.

Students began the semester by exploring the boundaries between cultural appropriation and inspiration through Jonathan Lethem’s essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence” and his novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. They continued their investigation into literature with the works of Trey Ellis, which deal with the changing boundaries of narrative form, and then they looked at the boundaries of sex and gender through Jonathan Ames’ novel The Extra Man and Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. Lethem, Ellis, and Ames gave readings of their work on campus and engaged in further conversation with Ashe’s students during in-class question and answer sessions.

“Our class had the opportunity that many students dream about—the chance to directly hear from and question many of the creators about their work,” said political science major Maxine Naawu, ’09.

Departing from literature, the class studied the medium of storytelling through “This American Life,” a National Pubic Radio series hosted by Ira Glass. After analyzing the show from the perspective of the audience, they were able to see a live version of the show performed on campus at the University’s Modlin Center for the Arts. Immediately following, Ashe and his students had an exclusive talkback session with Glass and learned more about the creation of each show.

“I remember Ira Glass passing around the notes that he carried for future shows and his down-to-earth nature as he spoke with lingering students about the nuances of radio journalism,” Naawu said.

The class explored blurred boundaries in the art of remixing through the works of Paul Miller, who goes by DJ Spooky. His piece, “Rebirth of a Nation” is a remake of the film, “Birth of a Nation” and is mixed live at every performance. Miller exhibited his piece on campus at the Modlin Center and came to meet with Ashe’s class the following day.

“With Paul Miller, the students were very interested in whether the blurring of boundaries in his piece was intentional and inadvertent.” said Ashe, who added, “I was really impressed by how the students ‘took off the gloves,’ so to speak, when talking, or, rather, interrogating each of these artists about their work.”

Ashe wasn’t the only one impressed by his students. When playwright Susan Lori-Parks came to campus to discuss the genre-defying boundaries of her plays, she was initially wary about an in-class visit. Ashe set up a more general question and answer session immediately following her talk in Weinstein’s Brown-Alley room and says that Parks was so impressed with the quality of questions that his students asked, she agreed to an in-class session.

“It’s one thing to form a theory about an author’s meaning and intention. It’s another thing to have this theory tested and challenged by the creator of the work,” said Naawu. “Having our arguments critiqued by the creators was an invaluable element of this class.”

In addition to bringing guest speakers to campus, Ashe used the NEH funding to take his students to New York for the day. After flying in, a waiting van took the class to the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York to see Kara Walker’s exhibit, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” They spent several hours looking at and discussing the work; they continued the conversation over dinner and then flew back to Richmond that night.

“Experiencing Walker’s haunting, life-sized silhouettes in full panoramic display at the Whitney brought a weighty reality to critiques of her work, which abandons traditional forms of expressing injustice and oppression, and challenges preconceived ideas of America’s history of slavery,” said Ashe.

English major Brianna May, ’09, was also powerfully affected by the exhibit.

“Before the visit I was academically aware of the racial tension and racial stereotypes in American society but being immersed in a larger-than-life artistic vision of racial tension really made that awareness personal,” she said. “Suddenly I didn’t just have to be aware of racism in society but I had to examine its place in my own life. It was a painful process that has since empowered me to think about racism in a more responsive and productive manner.”

When he first submitted the proposal for Blurred Boundaries, Ashe says he knew the format of the class would enrich his students’ learning experience; he didn’t anticipate how much he, his students, and even the guest lecturers would come together around the course’s curriculum.

“The students were really marvelous—they took such an exploratory mindset to the material and the discussions,” he said. “At the end of the semester, we were all able to look at boundaries with the sense that they are permeable.”

“I am no longer content to keep my study of a field or idea confined to its supposedly concrete limits,” said Naawu. “The course has had a significant impact on the way I look at the world, deepening my ability to see connections between disparate ideas, and wrestle with abstract concepts in tangible ways without diminishing their complexity.”