Students explore Philly in “Philly Word”

The students in “Philly Word” on a walking tour in the city, Courtesy of Dr. Nzadi Keita

Maddy Rodak

In Dr. Nzadi Keita’s Philly X course, “Philly Word,” students are able to immerse themselves in Philadelphia’s vast literary culture. During the duration of the ongoing fall course, students have been reading works by Philadelphia writers, as well as curating blogs and vlogs about their experiences. The course involves engaging in interviews with various figures steeped in the Philadelphia writing scene, as well as visiting different events in the city.

The class is made up of four students total. One of the students in “Philly Word,” Senior Amanda Turcios, shared the excitement that comes with a course that strays away from being your average lecture course. “My favorite part about taking Philly Word with Dr. Keita is that there is always something new going on. There’s never a stagnant set of routines that we do, and our classes are never boring,” Turcios said. “I’ve learned so many things outside of the classroom through attending literary events, which makes my experience feel more well-rounded.”

Turcios expressed how Dr. Keita, the instructor for the course, is “filled with so much knowledge it’s always interesting to hear her speak about whatever topic she has her mind set on. Turcios said, “She gives us different kinds of writing prompts that trigger the creative side of your brain, so the writing that we do as a class doesn’t feel like your standard academic essay.”

Dr. Keita, who is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of African American/Africana Studies at Ursinus, was born in Philly. Being a Philadelphia resident, Dr. Keita explains the main differences between teaching on campus compared to in the city. “I drive not 60, but ten minutes to take a 15-minute subway ride downtown. I’m a native, so when I’m here, I’m deeply at home—visually, emotionally, spiritually, and of course, physically—so while Ursinus is my Collegeville home, I’m more centered in Philly,” Keita said. “This particular course also centers me in my ‘parallel life’ as a writer.”

“The students have encountered people in my community who write, publish, educate, cultivate, and advocate for Philly’s literary life,” Dr. Keita went on to explain. “These encounters have been intentional, through contact with our guest speakers, and incidental, as when we ran into two of my neighbor-friends, attending the new U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s reading at the Free Library. Those neighbor-friends were Sonia Sanchez, literary activist and legend, who was Philly’s first Poet Laureate, and Yolanda Wisher, who followed Sanchez in that post.” Joy Harjo’s reading was held on Nov. 13, and marks one of the group’s many events across the city.

Dr. Keita also likes how teaching allows not only the students, but her to experience more of Philadelphia’s literary culture. “A very sweet and productive difference is that I am walking far more than I do when teaching in Olin and going to many more readings that I would be too tired to attend after an hour of driving,” Keita said.

New York City native Turcios likes having class in Philadelphia since it feels like being back home. “Having class in Philadelphia makes it so much more easier to be independent in terms of how my schedule functions,” Turcios said. “For all three of my classes: Race and Ethnicity in Philadelphia, Philly Word, and Philly 101, we mostly go on trips to events that are around the city. It’s much better than sitting in a classroom in the suburbs.”

Unlike a lecture class at Ursinus, Turcios explains how the courses of Philly X allow her to experience an environment that goes beyond the classroom. “We go to shows, poetry readings, parties, lectures, bars, film screenings, cultural centers, and that’s only to name a few. I learn better when I’m in an atmosphere that’s active and lively, instead of quiet and dormant.”

When asked to pick a favorite moment from the course so far, Dr. Keita found it hard to choose just one. “It’s a six-way tie between the literary walking tour my students conducted, the heart-wrenching reading/talk by Lamont Steptoe, the expansive conversation with Larry Robin, publisher of Moonstone Press, the uplifting visit with Chris Rogers at the Paul Robeson House, the vibrant insights of Kalela Williams from the Free Library, and the exposure to both prizewinning memoirist Sarah Broom and the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo,” Dr. Keita explained.