They marched forth on March 4 to the Emily Dickson Museum: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who was touring several places in the state, highlighting educational innovation during Women’s History Month. He met with the museum’s staff and the students from English 355/American Studies 364, a course devoted to the poet taught by Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler. Together, the group toured the Homestead, where Dickinson had lived, and met next door at The Evergreens, built for Dickinson’s brother’s family, to talk about education and poetry and the power of change. You couldn’t help but think of Dickinson’s poem 1320 that March day, actually, which blends hospitality with the season. To quote: “Oh March, Come right upstairs with me—I have so much to tell—“

Miguel Cardona, Catherine Epstein, Jane Wald, and President Biddy Martin stand in front of  the Emily Dickinson museum.

“She Transformed the Genre.” So said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, of the poet, on his visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum, which he’d never seen before. The idea was to learn about Dickinson, but also hear how students can amplify their learning experiences hands-on at a museum or historical site. Here Cardona shares a laugh with Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of the faculty; Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director; President Biddy Martin; William Gorth, chair of the museum’s Board of Governors

U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona reads an Emily Dickinson poem while standing in Emily Dickinson's bedroom.

She Had a Thing for the Word “Thing.” Cardona reads the famous poem “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” in Dickinson’s bedroom. The poet and critic Helen Vendler notes that Dickinson uses the word “thing” 115 times in her poetry. “It is her single largest mental category, which can embrace named and unnamed acts, creatures, concepts, occasions and so on,” writes Vendler. “It is as though she begins each inquiry with the general question, ‘What sort of thing is this?’”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stands next to Emily Dickinson's small wooden desk

Such a Small Desk. Cardona and the students were struck by Dickinson’s desk, how tiny it was, compared to the magnitude of her talent and vision. Over her lifetime, she wrote some 1,800 poems. “It makes it so much more real, to be able to smell, to see, to touch the space that she was in, and the place that she was producing these amazing and famous poems,” said Fiona Anstey ’24.   

A student reads one of Emily's poems while Miguel Cardona and Museum Director Jane Wald listen

The Faux Riddle. Eugene Lee ’23 reads “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” as Sona Kim ’22 and Brooke Steinhauser, the museum’s program director, listen in. “Why doesn’t [Dickinson] simply say “’Hope’ is a bird”? asks Helen Vendler. “The non-naming rhetoric makes a faux riddle of Hope’s species, prolonged from ‘the thing with feathers’ to the ‘thing’s’ location (in the soul), to its form of expression (a melody without words), and to a temporal extension (it never stops).” 

A contractor woks on renovations to the Homestead while four visitors descend the stairs

Renovation in Action. The Homestead has been closed to the public (but will open soon!) as it undergoes an estimated $2 million renovation. Wallpaper and carpets from the period will be installed, along with decorative items and furnishings appropriate to the 1850s. 

Interior images of the The Evergreens, the Italianate home of Emily’s brother Austin and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert

Picturing Susan and Emily. “I would not paint —  a picture/I’d rather be One/ It’s bright impossibility.” Austin and Susan Dickinson, Emily’s brother and sister-in-law married in 1856 and moved into The Evergreens, shown here, which looks much as it did in the mid-nineteenth century. Emily and Susan were deeply close, arguably romantically. As Emily once wrote to her: “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona tours Austin Dickinson's home, The Evergreens

Ever Entertaining at The Evergreens. Cardona continues to tour The Evergreens, learning from museum guide Melissa Cybulski, shown here. The Evergreens was where Emily joined in lively gatherings, as a family friend once reminisced: “The music—the rampant fun—the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen—our most congenial circle.”

Miguel Cardona listens to tour guides inside The Evergreens, the home of Emily's brother Austin Dickinson

She Played Piano Like the Devil. This room at The Evergreens features a piano: Dickinson was a fine player and, per the museum’s website, “multiple accounts describe her skill at improvisation on the piano, including a piece she called ‘The Devil’ that was a real crowd-pleaser.” At left, Kei Lim ’25 (in argyle sweater) speaks to (from left) Cardona, Christian Pattavina ’24 and museum guide Melissa Cybulski. Said Lim: “I think it’s important to acknowledge all of Emily Dickinson at once, to notice how her writing was shaped by her religion, her gender, the relationships she had, and her queerness to create her view of the world.”

Miguel Cardona and others tour the kitchen of The Evergreesn where the original cookstove still stands

Kitchen Confidential. The group toured the kitchen at the Evergreens. Emily Dickinson loved to bake bread and made gingerbread and caramels for the neighborhood children. Her round loaf of Indian and Rye won second prize in the Amherst Cattle Show of 1856. She admitted, though, that her sister Lavinia was one of the judges. Pictured: Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director; Cardona; Elizabeth Bradley, the museum’s manager of educational programs; Anna Smith ’22.

U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona joins a seminar being taught in the Emily Dickinson Museum


Students participate in a seminar being held inside Emily's Dickinson home, The Homestead.

Primary Colors. The group met in the south parlor of The Homestead. Many spoke of the impact of experiential learning. Said Professor Sanchez-Eppler: “I personally think it’s an immense privilege to have the access and opportunity to be in the space of a primary source. What makes it all the more special is that you’re not just reading about Emily Dickinson texts, you are actually getting to see the ways in which she lived, the ways in which she was able hold these different types of poetry in this space.” Pictured here: Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler; Fiona Anstey 24; Gabrielle Avena ’25; Kei Lim ’25; Secretary Cardona; Sona Kim ’22; Eugene Lee ’23; Christian Pattavina ’24; Anna Smith ’22; Elizabeth Bradley, the museum’s manager of educational programs.

Visitors gather for photos outside of Emily Dickinson's home, The Homestead

Wrote Dickinson in poem 683: “The Soul unto itself/ is an imperial friend.” These particular selves (students, officials, academics, curators, guides) finish up the day conversing, gathering—and even taking selfies with Cardona in the background—on this March day when Dickinson had “so much to tell.”