Meet Barbara Paul-Emile, Pioneer
Professor Receives Adamian Award for Lifetime Teaching Excellence
“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.
Celebrate Juneteenth: An Essay by Dr. Barbara Paul-Emile
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.
In the decades since, she’s continued to champion an inclusive worldview by offering inspiring literary courses, for which she’s won three Innovation in Teaching Awards. In 1998, she began working with the Office of International Education to develop intensive study abroad courses to foster greater global awareness; to date, Paul-Emile has led students on 16 trips to destinations including Cambodia, Egypt, France and Jamaica.
Recognized for her efforts both within and beyond the Bentley community — she received the Distinguished Scholar Award: Honoring Black Scholars in New England from the University of Massachusetts in 1991; was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education in 1994; and was honored by the Women of the Harvard Club as one of Boston’s Most Influential Women in 2014 — her impact is best measured by the gratitude of her students.
“Professor Paul-Emile’s class helped me understand that it’s important to consider your strengths as an individual and how your work brings value to those around you,” says Nivetha Aravindan ’22, a Data Analytics major.
Sarah Abdulaal ’17, says Paul-Emile “sparked a passion I never knew I had.” After taking her Caribbean Literature course, Sarah and her twin sister, Danah ’17, were inspired to visit Jamaica and experience the island’s history and culture firsthand. “She taught us that we are a planetary people,” Sarah says, “and that it’s important to listen to and understand each other’s point of view.”
The Abdulaals, who serve as co-founders and directors of Fast Flow International, a Bahrain-based drilling and oil services company, also credit Paul-Emile with inspiring their business plans. As Sarah explains, “Dr. Barbara would often tell our class things like ‘nothing is impossible,’ and ‘hard work, works.’ As we established our company, I found her words ringing in my ears, reminding me that great things can happen when we push beyond our comfort zones.
“Dr. Barbara wasn’t just my professor; she was also my mentor,” she continues. “She helped me grow as a person and encouraged the best of me to flourish.”