What makes us resilient?

What does it mean to be resilient? What does it mean to have grit? What makes us resilient, and what is the cultural value of resilience? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How does one “come back” from personal or communal tragedy? As an African Americanist, these are questions that drive my research and teaching.

For the past two years, I have been conducting research on grit–a term used in positive psychology research circles and fitness program titles and literature. My initial research was driven by my persistent work on a twice submitted NEH Enduring Questions grant application for which I was not awarded funding, unfortunately (perhaps Paul Tough is right in his argument that the secret to success is failure!). The fundamental question with which I have been grappling is: what does it really mean to be resilient? Although the question appears simple at first glance, the answers are complex. In fact, my explorations of resilience thus far have involved my reaching back over the centuries to locate the earliest source/notation/stories of resilience.


In the process of that reaching back, my readings, though initially humanities-centered, led me to new encounters with influential thinkers and writers in the fields of history, philosophy, religion, and psychology, which spawned an ah-ha moment. That moment revealed to me that if my research could lead me to reach significantly beyond my expertise as a scholar and teacher, I might be able to shape my new knowledge thoughtfully and pedagogically such that I can effectively challenge and encourage junior and senior students in a Synthesis capstone course to reach significantly beyond their expertise in their various majors. The more I considered this possibility, the more interested, hopeful and committed I became, particularly since so much of my mentoring, research and teaching focus on identity, character building and the radical gestures that convey the extent to which ordinary people have persevered thereby influencing the culture, institutions, policies, and politics of our world.


Of great concern to today’s college students are the questions of how we define, assign value to and pull off human acts of fortitude. Such considerations inform the basis of this new course and lead directly into the supplemental questions that extend from the core inquiry. In addition to asking, what makes us resilient?, I will guide the students, at a basic level, early in the semester’s course work into a historically organized exploration of the relationship between resilience and character. To that end, we will aim to find out if there is any cultural value in resilience? Other additional questions are crucially important.

How do we “come back” from personal tragedy? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How might ancient and modern thinkers and writers contribute to readers’ development of self-discovery, knowledge and good character? These big, persistent questions imply resilience as an ethically complicated category of inquiry and form a springboard from which students can trace the historical emergence of and moral discourse on mind habits that create bridges to a better future.


The texts that form the focus of the proposed course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. Motivated by my desire to fill a historical gap in my existing pedagogical approaches and African American literary scholarship and to (re)energize my teaching in order to ensure a more current sense of interest among Albright students, I find exciting the opportunity to frame the class as an enduring query while simultaneously situating humanities thinkers in explicit conversation with ancient philosophers and positive psychologists. With its quest for a documentable past, the course has the distinctive potential to challenge existing paradigms and produce new explanations that will help bridge the chasm that has often ensnared even the best of my pedagogical intentions.


In Teachers as Intellectuals, Henry Giroux argues that it is the responsibility of teachers to practice a critical pedagogy that directs student attention not only to the text but also to the process of production of cultural meaning and to the politics of the educational institution (86-107). The texts that will form the focus of the new course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. My desire to stretch myself and be stretched beyond my own disciplinary concerns and interests while simultaneously anticipating my students’ concerns is aiding me in examining carefully the critical connections between historical eras and the formation of narrative.


In my subsequent blogs, I plan to detail the structure of the course along with its readings, which I believe will enhance and strengthen the newly envisioned general studies curriculum as well as the college’s Strategic Plan both of which give high priority to greater internationalization of our campus and courses.



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