Download Conversation #68
A conversation between Jeremy Tuman and Richard Peters on service learning and Xavier's new core curriculum.
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Download Conversation #68
A conversation between Jeremy Tuman and Richard Peters on service learning and Xavier's new core curriculum.
Links for this episode:
On February 25, students in the Freshman Seminar class of Ms. Shu Peng participated in a Chinese New Year celebration as part of their service-learning project to explore the theme of global leadership. The event, hosted by the Confucius Institute along with the Metairie Business District, provided students an opportunity to observe and critique the internal leadership and organization involved in putting on such an event. They also were assigned to interview students, parents, and other participants to promote cross-cultural awareness. And for some fun and cross-cultural experience of their own, students got to dance two huge dragons to start the event.
The event attracted nearly 1000 people, despite heavy rain at the start, and featured short speeches by Drs. Verret and McCall of Xavier, Jefferson Parrish President Mike Yenni, and Education Counselor Long Jie, from the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in Houston. Students were fully engaged in the service, rotating through six work stations throughout the day, and their formal reflective writing is about the event from the perspective of an organizer.
In addition to teaching the Freshman Seminar, Ms. Peng works as Assistant Director of the Confucius Institute at Xavier. This unique office, part of a non-profit organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, has a mission to teach and promote Chinese language and culture around the globe. Founded in 2012, Xavier's Confucius Institute was awarded the Institute of the Year in 2016, out of over 500 Institutes worldwide. Ms. Peng's engagement with the Freshman Seminar program demonstrates the degree to which the institute is represented in the teaching faculty. And her unique expertise (she holds an M.S. in Communications from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an M.A. in applied linguistics from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and an B.A in English from Xiangtan University) offers Xavier students a unique, global perspective on cultural awareness.
Ms. Peng (pictured here at left) hopes to make the Chinese New Year event an annual event, in order to serve the Xavier and New Orleans communities. Engaging first-year students as leaders and organizers in this event offers them valuable experience to reflect on, in order to achieve outcomes of civic engagement.
New Orleans celebrates its 300th year as a city in 2018, and as part of the festivities, Xavier history professor Dr. Sharlene Senegal DeCuir is leading her Freshman Seminar class in a special service-learning project.
Part of the city's planned activities for the tricentennial includes a four-day symposium called "Making New Orleans Home," to be held March 8 - 11 at various locations around the city. The symposium, presented by the city in partnership with The Historic New Orleans Collection, is free to attend and open to the public. Saturday's program is to be held on Xavier's campus, in the McCaffrey Ballroom of the University Center, from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it's here that Dr. Senegal-DeCuir and her students will participate. The day's featured speaker is Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Other speakers on the day include distinguished professor of history Kathleen Duval, of the University of North Carolina, Nick Spitzer of the radio program American Roots, and Xavier's own endowed chair in the humanities, Dr. Michael White.
The Freshman Seminar course is part of Xavier's First Year Experience program and is designed to introduce students to concepts of social justice, the purpose of a liberal arts education, and how the two concepts meet in Xavier's historic mission to prepare students to contribute to a more just and humane society. Each teacher of this course brings his or her own areas of expertise to the basic structure and approaches the purpose through a particular theme. Dr. Senegal DeCuir's theme aligns with the theme of the symposium, Making New Orleans Home. Through this theme students will examine the social, political and economic injustice that cripples New Orleans along with many communities nationally, while they explore important issues that can help raise hope and awareness for a brighter future.
For perspective on this theme students are reading The Coldest Winter Ever, the 1999 best-selling novel by Sister Solujah. This cautionary tale set in Brooklyn explores themes of wealth and poverty, criminal justice, and the often fraught and limited avenues toward the American Dream available to those in Americas inner-cities. In addition to reading and writing about, and discussing these themes, students will participate in the Saturday symposium both as volunteers, assisting guests and speakers and helping things run smoothly, and as attendees of panel discussions. Thus, students gain opportunity to consider themes of the novel and of the course through discussion of New Orleans' particular past and present, and to synthesize the material through reflective writings, discussions, and presentations.
Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Xavier University of Louisiana in 1999. She received her Masters of Art degree in 2001 and her PhD. in 2009 from Louisiana State University. Her areas of concentration are in American, African-American, and Latin American history. Throughout her academic career, she has focused on the New South period of American history through the Civil Rights Movement, with particular interest on African American activism in Louisiana. In 2014, Dr. Sinegal DeCuir was honored as the first faculty alumni to receive the Xavier University 40 under 40 Young Alumni Award. She has been featured in WBOK New Orleans Talk Radio, The New Orleans Times-Picayune and Health Issues with Christopher Sylvain. Her article “Nothing Is to Be Feared: Norman C. Francis, Civil Rights Activism, and the Black Catholic Movement" appears in The Journal of African-American History, and she has been interviewed for an upcoming documentary titled Monochrome: Black, White And Blue, by Cardinal Releasing.
Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing for this blog professor, author, and social critic Corey Dolgon. I had heard Professor Dolgon speak at an IARSLCE conference, the International Association for Research on Service-Learning, and I was intrigued by his critique of certain universities' historic and ongoing actions that have disenfranchised or otherwise harmed the very communities the schools purport to serve. The talk was both wide in scope and specific in researched detail, the ability to achieve which is a defining characteristic of public intellectuals I admire, such as Henry Giroux, Robert Reich, as well as Professor Dolgon. The work of these scholars manages to clarify in plain language vast and intricate socio-political-and-economic movements in order to distill their tangible effects on our day-to-day lives.
Now Professor Dolgon has a new book out called Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism's Triumph over Democracy that traces the corrosive effects of recent (read post-Vietnam) political discourse and the public policy that flows from it regarding the civic institutions that uphold democracy, and thus on the common well-being of the citizenry. Such concerns, such considerations, may or may not play a part of any given service-learning course, depending on the discipline and academic level of the course. A capstone course in environmental sociology may well include as primary this type of far-reaching discussion, while a 1000-level English course designed to improve writing ability while engaging with community elementary schools may include such theoretical material in a limited, introductory amount, if at all. Yet whatever the service-learning course, the social disparities, deficiencies, and injustices addressed by community action are likely created or exacerbated by these larger forces operating just beyond our view. While teachers often internalize these realities, while they may inform our work in very close, almost second-nature ways, students may be only first learning about such broad historical contexts. Part of what we teach then in service-learning is not only course content or even the value and necessity of civic engagement, but also a larger awareness of, and a questioning of, the very real series of human choices that led to the situations the class addresses.
Kill It to Save It takes apart several myths of modern American life that have allowed public policy to work against the public good. The first to go is the idea of the rugged individual, free to succeed on his own terms without need of governmental assistance. As policies purport individual freedom and economic opportunity, the vast amount of economic gains go to a smaller and smaller few. At the same time, the sacrifices required to make this upward wealth transfer possible are to public education, public health care, and public resources. The public is sold a bill of goods about the boundlessness of upward mobility in this country, while the shrinking of public resources needed to support such mobility make it less and less likely. All investments in the public good are cast as socialistic handouts to the lazy, while the holders of wealth need only to keep the policy-setting system rigged in their favor to keep the subsidies, negative actual tax rates, and other forms of corporate welfare flowing their way.
We needn't look further than our own communities to see the damaging effects of years and years of such neoliberal policies. The homeless people on our streets are permanent communities within communities, structurally forever shut out of integration. Our poorest neighbors are crammed into the least funded schools, almost ensuring by design their failure. Entire neighborhoods bear the marks of years of redlining, employment discrimination, and racist law enforcement policy, from the war on drugs to stop-and-frisk. Professor Dolgon traces these situations back to the public discourse and propagandized ideologies that shaped the policies that created them.
No matter what aspect of social injustice our service-learning course seeks to address, it's worth remembering that no form of injustice is naturally occurring. Our society was made by us, and can be changed by us as well.
Download Conversation #63
A conversation with Randy Stoecker of University of Wisconsin-Madison on liberating service learning.
Randy Stoecker is a Professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, with a joint appointment in the Center for Community and Economic Development. This position has taken him into expanded work in academy-community partnerships and community leadership development. He has been involved in work trying to amplify the community voice in service learning, and provide strong information technology support for nonprofit organizations, and build community power. Most recently, Dr. Stoecker and his students have worked with Community Shares of Wisconsin, SouthWest Madison Community Organizers, and The Natural Step Monona.
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This spring, Dr. Paul Schafer, of Xavier's Philosophy Department, taught a fascinating service-learning course called Aristotle in New Orleans. Taking as his premise Aristotle's idea that we must not only theorize about the meaning of life, but that we must put our ideas into practice, Dr. Schafer led his students through a study of classical texts on rhetoric and ethics, then guided them through eight weeks of community engagement, coaching middle-school debate teams. The culminating event was a day-long debate tournament held on Tulane's campus on Saturday, April 8th, which Dr. Schafer described as a "grueling but fantastic experience," in which his students learned a great deal by seeing their middle-school pupils, from KIPP Believe and Esperanza Middle Schools, engage in formal tournament debate.
Texts for the 2000-level course included portions of Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics, Quintilian's Education of an Orator, and Plato's Five Dialogues. The Quintilian text emphasizes the claim that the ideal orator must also be a good person, an idea that ran like a thread through the course. Other discussions included the nature of philosophical argument, the role of argument and virtue in the good life, and Aristotle's claim that happiness is acquired mainly by chance. These ideas were discussed and argued in class, then put to the middle-school debaters as well, thus simultaneously exposing both groups to crucial questions, while providing opportunity to consider their relevance in the context of modern society, all within a supporting framework of formal debate in a school environment.
Outcomes included understanding Aristotle's philosophical method, his concept of ethics, and his vision of the way moral and intellectual virtues are developed. Students also learned what arguments are and how they function to help us think about the deep truths of life and reality – including what it means to live a good life. Then, once in the community, Xavier students learned first-hand the educational challenges that face middle school students in New Orleans. Also, as a result of eight weeks of working in small groups, the New Orleans middle school students gained valuable, engaged educational experience of the kind that has been shown to improve self-esteem and overall academic performance, which in turn leads to greater high-school graduation rates, more chances for success beyond high-school, and far greater chances of staying out of the criminal justice system.
The students coaching at Esperanza collaborated with Tulane students enrolled in a similar class with the same title. For more on that class, check out this interview with its teacher, Dr. Ryan McBride. These types of collaborative efforts provide opportunities to Xavier and Tulane students that have been shown to enhance their educational experience, by teaching skills of teamwork, problem solving, civic engagement, and cultural knowledge--the very skills most needed to thrive in a globalized society. The community engagement with middle schoolers then provides the next generation the same opportunities. Thus, service-learning classes such as Dr. Schafer's help to fulfill the public purpose of universities.
This semester Dr. Treva Lee, Xavier's Director for Institutional Compliance and Planning Initiatives, led a class of first-year students in a service-learning project to mentor local youths in the concept of Pi.
On Saturday, March 11, thirty Xavier students joined twenty other community volunteers and twenty local professionals serving as mentors to teach and mentor around 150 area school kids, as part of STEM NOLA's STEM Saturday event celebrating Pi Day, at Gernon Brown Recreation Center. Two other Xavier faculty, Carroll Diaz (Math) and Floristina Payton-Stewart (Chem), participated as instructors as well, along with some of their students.
The kids were divided into two groups. The first group, kindergarteners through second-graders, learned the concept of Pi through math problems using skittles, construction paper cut-outs, checkers pieces, and building blocks. Skittles were used to graph Pi. Checkers were used for math demonstration of Pi. Construction paper cut-outs were used to make a chain to infinity, meaning each group of kids as they came to the station added their cut outs to the chain to illustrate how Pi never ends. The same concept was used with the building blocks.
Treva A. Lee holds a Ph. D. in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans. She received her B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Counseling from Xavier University of Louisiana. In her twenty-five-plus years at Xavier, she has served in numerous capacities, including as a teacher in the Freshman Seminar program, in which this service-learning project took place.
Download Conversation #56
Ross Louis joined the Communication Studies program at Xavier in 2003 and teaches courses from a performance studies perspective. He is the co-founder of the Performance Studies Laboratory at Xavier University of Louisiana. Recent projects include This Other World (a site-specific performance of Richard Wright’s haiku) and “Performing Presence in the Haiku Moment” (forthcoming in Text and Performance Quarterly).
Last fall, Xavier faculty member Dr. Mark Gstohl, of the Department of Theology, led an interesting service-learning project in partnership with A Studio in the Woods, a nonprofit artist retreat and learning center located in New Orleans. Working with artist Jacqueline Ehle Inglefield as part of a residency series called "Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion," the two built a shrine to the bottomland hardwood forrest, the purpose of which was to "reignite a reverence for nature." To link thematically with Dr. Gstohl's Comparative Religion class, the shrine referenced religious scriptures and past spiritual practices. The shire was meant to "encourage contemplation of the global impact of habitual consumption and waste and how our spiritual relationship with the natural world may influence our individual acts and determine our collective impact on our environment."
For their part, Dr. Gstohl's students created handouts and posters detailing how various religions approach environmental issues, and presented their research at A Studio in the Woods' "Forestival" last November. The shrine also was displayed at Xavier's Art Village. Thus, this project engaged students with the community on several levels, artistic and environmental, fostered awareness of environmental issues in the community, and contributed to the creation of public art, which nourishes the spirit of the community. The project provided an invaluable cultural experience for the students, introducing them to intersections of art, public space, and environmental justice, while immersing them in theological history, demonstrating the ability of service-learning to achieve unique academic and civic outcomes.
The "Flint and Steel" residencies, designed by Tulane, who manages A Studio in the Woods, seek to link artists with invested academic partners to "inspire each other in the development of new work, to excite the public, and to fuel social change. creative discourse." The residencies align with the larger purpose of A Studio in the Woods to pair "land preservation with intimate artist residencies centered on environmental challenges and connecting artists to the local community." Originally purchased in 1968, the site, in a remote wooded area in the very eastern corner of New Orleans' "west bank" of the Mississippi River, evolved organically from a site of wetlands preservation to a tranquil artist retreat, where "artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work uninterrupted within this natural sanctuary."
Dr. Gstohl serves as Head of Xavier's Department of Theology, and has served previously as Faculty-in-Residence for service-learning, and as Fellow in Xavier's Freshman Seminar program, where his passion for social justice and commitment to Xavier's mission have greatly benefitted the Xavier and New Orleans communities, as exhibited through service-learning projects such as this one.
*Quoted text is from materials published by A Studio in the Woods and by Dr. Gstohl.
Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.
Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."
Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.
Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."
In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.