Meet Barbara Paul-Emile, Pioneer

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Molly Mastantuono (Bentley University Newsroom) writes about professor of English, Barbara Paul-Emile, who recently received the Adamian Award for Lifetime Teaching Excellence at Bentley University.]

“There are many classes here that teach you how to make a living,” says Barbara Paul-Emile. “But only a handful that teach you how to live.”  

For more than 40 years, the professor of English has ensured her Bentley courses meet the latter category. A distinguished scholar, novelist and poet, Paul-Emile believes in the transformative power of literature: “It’s through reading the stories of others that we come to know ourselves.” She was recently honored with the 2020 Adamian Award for Lifetime Teaching Excellence. 

Paul-Emile’s classes explore a wide range of genres and styles, from Caribbean literature and mythology to English Romanticism and the Harlem Renaissance. Though the subject may vary, students in all of her courses must keep a journal. “My goal is to move beyond the theoretical and abstract, to bring the material home in a personal way,” she explains. “I want them to connect the content to their own lives, and in doing so, begin exploring their values, beliefs and their purpose in this world.” 

For Paul-Emile, finding one’s purpose is paramount. Growing up in Jamaica in the 1950s, when the island was still a British colony, she discovered her own calling at an early age. After spending her days at a private primary school, Paul-Emile would race home to share what she’d learned with her neighborhood friends.  

“All of the children would gather outside on our veranda,” she recalls, “and I would teach them about things like English currency: how many pence equaled a shilling, how many shillings equaled a pound, and so forth.” Looking around at her friends’ smiling, eager faces, she says, was “absolutely thrilling.” And it’s a feeling that continues to this day: “I am excited every time I set foot into a classroom.” 

Paul-Emile left Jamaica for the United States on a student visa, completing her high school education at the acclaimed Rhodes Preparatory School in New York City. She graduated at the top of her class, winning an academic scholarship to New York University. 

Paul-Emile flourished at NYU and speaks highly of the richness of the curriculum and the many opportunities that became available to her. She excelled at her studies, double majoring in English and history and minoring in Fine Arts. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa, America’s oldest and most prestigious honor society.   

At NYU, Paul-Emile encountered the great love of her life: her husband, Serge, a mathematics and physics major from Haiti. The pair married shortly after earning their degrees and relocated to Boulder, Colorado. As Paul-Emile explains, Serge had worked closely at NYU with nuclear physicist Leona Marshall Libby, one of the few female scientists involved with the Manhattan Project. When Libby joined the faculty at the University of Colorado, she invited Serge to join her as director of her research lab. Paul-Emile joined the university’s faculty as an assistant professor of English in 1971. 

She began teaching literature to college students at a pivotal time in history, when the Civil Rights movement had forced Americans to confront the economic, political and social inequalities wrought by slavery. While Paul-Emile had participated in sit-ins, marches and other non-violent protests, as a university professor she was able to advance racial justice in a more personal and systemic way by developing one of the first courses in the nation focusing exclusively on Caribbean literature and culture.  

“To call her a pedagogical pioneer is to underestimate just how much she has done to advance new fields of study,” says Ben Aslinger, chair of the English and Media Studies department. “Long before multiculturalism and inclusion were embraced by higher education, she was teaching students the importance of learning from diverse cultural traditions.” 

Paul-Emile left Colorado to chair the Africana Studies department at Vassar College and, later, serve as associate director of the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program at Harvard University. She joined the Bentley faculty in 1980, continuing her trailblazing tradition by becoming the university’s first Black tenured professor and the inaugural recipient of the Maurice E. Goldman Distinguished Chair in the Arts and Sciences.  

For original post and to read Paul-Emile’s essay “Celebrate Juneteenth,” see https://www.bentley.edu/news/meet-barbara-paul-emile

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