Interim Chair Geoff Sirc on the Department of English's renewed public engagement efforts.
by Professor Geoff Sirc
First, let me say what an honor it is to be an Interim Chair of such a vital department as English is at Minnesota, and one with such a storied history. Even though my term will last only a year, it's already been full of a singular variety of challenges and experiences. I'm dedicated to doing whatever I can to help maintain the department's tradition as one of the premier humanities departments on campus.
I'd like to take the rest of this letter to tell you about what's going to make this a very exciting year for the department. Before I do though, some context: I think when people outside of academics hear the term scholar, it evokes an image of dust-covered old books in some lofty garret, with a grey-haired sage doing arcane research, far removed from the rhythms of everyday life. There is certainly still a place for such obscure investigations (if many ancient texts can now be found on-line!). But the scholarship being done by many in English is as vital and immediate as a front-page headline. The very mission statement of our department makes this clear; when articulating the objects of department study, the text reads: "All forms of 'reading' and 'writing' may fall within its purview, including but not limited to film, electronic media, print journalism, popular literature, drama and other performance arts, as well as the traditional and developing genres of folk and literary art." In other words, we study literature and literacy from every perspective.
And far from being shut away in a musty attic, our teaching and scholarship very often takes place in the midst of community life. For years, the Department of English has been implementing a variety of public engagement initiatives, from training public school teachers (through College in the Schools, which English professor Charles Sugnet helped initiate more than 20 years ago) to putting undergraduates to work in the community (we have one of the strongest service learning programs in the College of Liberal Arts). As a land-grant university, the University of Minnesota has a responsibility to educate and enrich the state of Minnesota. The Department of English's unique charge within that is to encourage and support community literacy, a cornerstone of democratic societies. To that end, the English Department was recently awarded a highly competitive grant (we were one of only seven departments in the University system to be successful) that will allow us to develop an integrated curriculum around public engagement, one which will lead students from introductory to capstone courses, with extracurricular opportunities for teaching and mentoring along the way. We also aim to strategically promote this integrated curriculum to attract increased participation from students, faculty, University departments, community partners, and funding sources. You can read more about this in this issue's article "English in the Public Sphere."
Recent history of public engagement
In the summer of 2008, English inaugurated two outreach programs centered on encouraging literacy and college aspirations in local high school youth. I myself partnered with the Minnesota Spoken Word Association to create "In Da Tradition," a four-day June summer institute using spoken word and hip hop to teach academic and creative writing to high school students and teachers. We've run two successful institutes now, bringing high school students and teachers to the University to write and think about the cultural contexts of rap and spoken word, supported by Education Minnesota's Affinity Grant Program, as well as the University's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, a Coca Cola Academic Initiative Grant, and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (which published a report by myself and outreach coordinator Terri Sutton).
The other program took place the past two Julys, in a collaboration with the University of Minnesota's K-12 Consortium, Achieve!Minneapolis, and the Givens Foundation for African-American Literature. The STEP UP to College Workshop supports local high school students in their quest to attend college by helping them write college application personal statements. Twenty students with summer jobs at the University through Achieve!Minneapolis's STEP UP program were paid to attend a three-day workshop with college-level writing instruction from English graduate and undergraduate students. My favorite comment on the evaluation forms: several students suggested the Workshop be longer. And we're talking high school students here.
These two fruitful programs join such vibrant department traditions as VG/Voices from the Gaps, the English class and educational internet site dedicated to North American women writers and artists of color (co-created by Professor Emerita Toni McNaron in 1996), undergraduate public engagement curriculum (designed as the Literacy Lab in 2002 by professors Tom Augst and Pat Crain and adjunct lecturer and alumnus Eric Daigre), and the aforementioned College in the Schools. The latter is a NACEP-accredited concurrent enrollment program which trains high school teachers how to lead University-level courses, which they operate within their schools. CiS began in 1984-85 when then University Extension director Bill van Essendelft asked Professor Sugnet, who had been teaching Extension courses, to develop the idea. For ten years, Sugnet led the teaching of Introduction to Modern Literature within 30 schools. Since its start, CiS has exploded from English into other disciplines; Professor Emerita McNaron has taught the English offering since Sugnet's departure.
Faculty participation in community engaged work
Myself, as Interim Chair, former Chair Paula Rabinowitz, current Director of Undergraduate Studies Maria Damon, and Beverly Atkinson, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies, are all members of the Engaged Department Grant team; so Department of English support is plainly strong at the administrative level. The terrific work of adjunct lecturer Daigre has kept the Literacy Lab initiative alive by ensuring that our core service learning classes (ENGL3741, ENGL3505-3506) are regularly full, even as the faculty architects of these classes left for other universities. One of our newest faculty members Daniel Philippon and I have lent our efforts to service learning component classes such as the very popular course ENGL1501 Literature of Public Life, as well as helping to expand our department's ideas about public engagement (me, with hip hop freshman and senior seminars and the summer hip hop camp; Philippon with his ENGL3501 course Public Discourse: Coming to Terms With the Environment).
Other English faculty currently involved with community art and activism include Evelyn Ch'ien, who studies hip hop and technology, Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, who is involved with the Institute for Advanced Study's Performance and Social Justice Collaborative and as the faculty adviser to VG/Voices from the Gaps, and Josephine Lee, who works with Mu Performing Arts and other theaters locally and has assisted her students with internships at regional theaters.
For a detailed summary of the efforts we are making in the department, check out the "Public Engagement" section of the English Department's website. We're particularly proud of the improved and expanded engaged curriculum covered in the Undergraduate Programs page. We're also excited by the eNow! series this year built around the public engagement theme, which augments our usual series of public readings and lectures by visiting writers. We are dedicated to being a department that answers the needs of the community it serves. And now we have some support to build on our strengths and dream new ways to connect even further with the larger community. I hope you're excited by our plans. We'd love to hear from you--perhaps you have some ideas to help our engagement effort expand?