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Becca Morgan

Becca Morgan ’11 (left) discusses her thesis project with Willamette Professor Wendy Petersen-Boring and Dante expert Peter Hawkins from Yale Divinity School.


Artist Sandow Birk (left) and Hawkins, a Dante expert, visited the class to answer questions on "The Divine Comedy."


Prints from Sandow Birk's "Inferno" were on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in the fall, including "The Minotaur" from Canto XII, 11-12.

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Humanities seminar brings 14th-century Dante work to life for Willamette students

The 16 undergraduates in Wendy Petersen-Boring's humanities senior seminar on Dante's "Divine Comedy" went way beyond reading and discussing the text.

They examined a modern interpretation that portrays Dante as a California surfer heading through "Hell" on the streets of Los Angeles. They talked with Sandow Birk, the artist who created the modern version, and viewed his prints a block away in Willamette's Hallie Ford Museum of Art. And they met in small groups with Birk and a respected Dante scholar from Yale Divinity School to get advice on their senior thesis projects.

The experiences helped them discover how an epic Italian poem from the 14th century could still apply to their lives today — while giving them the rare chance to query renowned experts.

"Interacting with a professor who is one of the leading minds on Dante, and an artist from Los Angeles who is known internationally for his work, turned my project into something more meaningful than just writing a paper," English major Brent Jones '11 says. "It gave me a greater appreciation for Dante's work and made it much more personal."

Gaining Outside Perspectives

Willamette offers the humanities senior seminar several times a year for students majoring in humanities-related fields. A different professor teaches each seminar, focusing on a single work of literature.

The seminar goes to the next level when an outside scholar visits campus to meet with the students and help them develop their theses. For the Dante class this fall, the scholar was Yale Professor Peter Hawkins, who has studied Dante since the 1970s and knows the "Divine Comedy" inside and out.

The class also benefited from a special partnership: the university's Hallie Ford Museum of Art agreed to host an exhibition of prints from Sandow Birk's version of "Inferno," the first and most famous of the three parts of the "Divine Comedy."

"I was able to think about the ‘Inferno' in new ways by seeing those prints on the wall and setting down the text to work my way through the story with just the pictures," says Becca Morgan '11, a history and American ethnic studies major.

The partnership happened after several years of discussions between Petersen-Boring, assistant professor of history, and museum Director John Olbrantz. "Willamette is fortunate to have a museum that is dedicated to supporting the undergraduate curriculum and is flexible enough to allow faculty to approach the director with exhibition ideas," Petersen-Boring says.

Different Approaches to Dante

Petersen-Boring taught Birk's "Divine Comedy" along with Dante's version to help her students relate better to the story. Birk worked with writer Marcus Sanders to re-write and illustrate the epic poem in a more modern way that incorporates themes of American consumerism and capitalism.

Hawkins and Birk visited the class together, giving the students the opportunity to ask about everything from Birk's artistic choices for certain characters to Hawkins' favorite level of Hell from "Inferno" (he chose Limbo, for the chance to hang out with great philosophers like Aristotle and Plato).

The students also met in small groups with the experts to discuss their thesis topics.

Morgan is studying a British play, "Katrina: A Play of New Orleans," which uses the testimony of Hurricane Katrina survivors to create a hellish atmosphere and a path to purgatory and eventual healing — similar to the three sections of the "Divine Comedy."

Jones is working on two creative writing projects. For one, he is creating a new version of Hell, titled "Heck," which reinterprets the story as a children's fable. He is also writing a poetic post-modernist version of "Paradiso" that was inspired by Birk's work, an attempt to find Heaven on Earth in overlooked places.

Anna Zimmerman '12, a religious studies and classical studies major, also is considering two topics: eroticism in Dante's work, and the ways Dante's writings have been translated into music.

"It was helpful to hear from Birk and Hawkins about the places in the ‘Divine Comedy' that we could use to our advantage in our projects," she says. "They gave me a better insight into my topics and showed me how to add to the ideas I already had to make them better."