English in the Public Sphere

The Department of English is thinking big about public engagement, and this issue of English@Minnesota focuses on its efforts.

Josh Capodarco and student image
At the end of spring semester 2009, students in Eric Daigre's year-long community internship class ENGL3505/06 gathered in the Lind Hall conference room to describe their internship projects. Watching were staff from the community sites where they had volunteered, along with English professors and staff, and a few alumni.

The students rose in groups according to their area of work: those who had interned with K-12 organizations, such as Southside Family School and Kaleidoscope Place; those who had tutored English language learners (ELL) at the Franklin Learning Center and Cedar Riverside Adult Education Center; those who did community work at the Jane Addams School for Democracy. With poster board murals, class materials, and children's art, they told stories about obtaining children's books through fundraising, compiling a binder of effective lesson plans for future instructors, making health and dental information available to adults in ELL classes. Always they framed their descriptions with references to pedagogical theory and literacy research.

English major Abdulahi Hussein talked about the value of storytelling in his own experience of becoming trilingual (Somali, Arabic, and English) and how he used Somali fables to more effectively teach English. Senior major Halima Abdi concurred, relating stories of teaching the young children of immigrants at Sumner Library from the perspective of someone who was once a young immigrant with no English. Senior major Heidi Alford showed how she fashioned materials to prepare adult English learners for the format and conventions of language tests.

In the winter of 2009, the Department of English received an "Engaged Department" grant from the Office of Public Engagement, one of only seven grants system-wide. The grant provides support for the department as it integrates and expands efforts to engage with the University's surrounding communities, whether they are neighborhoods such as Cedar-Riverside, demographic groups such as urban high school students, or more abstract coalitions such as the Twin Cities' literary publishers, bookstores, and writers. "The grant is helping us coordinate these opportunities into a coherent stream," explains Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor Maria Damon, "and to find ways to acknowledge student and faculty effort in this realm, whether through some kind of certification upon graduation, or through strengthening and diversifying the role of 'service' in faculty profiles."

For members of the department's "Engaged Team," charged with developing and promoting the grant initiatives, instructor Daigre's small gathering last spring felt like a pivotal moment: the culmination of a previous push to make the study of literature practical to the life of a community, and the promise of a more deeply embedded and coherent public engagement commitment to come. "This grant has allowed the department to think big," says team member Professor Paula Rabinowitz, "to create an ideal model of 'English in the Public Sphere' that links together exciting student projects such as those undertaken in Eric's classes with internships in publishing, publication of a riveting literary journal, a dynamic website VG/Voices from the Gaps, and much more as we begin to imagine how new technologies and new communities are refashioning the work we do as scholars and creators of literature."

As Daigre (PhD 2001) relates, the ENGL3505/06 class began because he and former English professor Tom Augst (now at New York University) asked community sites who worked with University interns how they would change that relationship. The answer came back clear and strong: students are just figuring out what's going on at the site when the semester ends: make the internships longer. Daigre and Augst responded in 2003 with Community Learning Internships, a year-long commitment of four to six internship hours a week along with weekly class time dedicated to discussing and analyzing readings about the role of education in democracy.

The first couple years, Daigre recalls, some students didn't complete the full course. But in recent years, enrollment has maxed out in both semesters, as it does for the other English core service learning course ENGL3741 Literacy and American Cultural Diversity. "English undergraduates are really responding to these courses and initiatives," Daigre notes. "They're saying, 'I'm developing these excellent analytical and textual skills, but I want to try them out in the world some way. I want to be that public person.'"

You can hear that sentiment everywhere in this issue of English@Minnesota, from Stephen Courchane and Ryan Magee's accounts of signing up for Teach for America to Jamie Joslin's experiences editing the department's literary journal Ivory Tower, from the interview with English alumni employed at the Museum of Russian Art to the conversation on Shakespeare between summa cum laude graduate Jamie Kreil and her adviser Professor Katherine Scheil.

In Da Tradition literacy camp imageResponding to student enthusiasm--from graduate and undergraduate students --as well as already existing activities by faculty and staff, the Department of English is creating an "Engaged Leaders" curriculum arc and award for undergraduates, hosting a fall 2009 discussion series on engaged teaching, scholarship, and learning, and bringing together the community engagement efforts of individual faculty members for greater effect. The latter include such disparate work as novelist and Professor Charles Baxter's annual Benefit for Hunger Reading, Professor and Interim Chair Geoff Sirc's hip hop and spoken word literacy camp for high school students (see photo left of spoken word artist E. G. Bailey), and the Scribe for Human Rights Graduate Fellowship developed by Regents Professor Patricia Hampl with the University's Human Rights Program.

Given the diversity of these examples, one may well ask, "What is public engagement?" For English, the simple answer might be: looking up from the book. Which is not to say that the department is reneging on its commitment to deep scholarship. As former chair Rabinowitz has noted, there's room for both. Rigorous literary scholarship may encompass the study of public policy (as in Professor Ellen Messer-Davidow's Women and Public Policy course) and the research and recovery of a struggling language (Professor David Treuer's work to establish an Ojibwe grammar).

A more complex definition of public engagement might be found in the story of Josh Capodarco's career at the University. Capodarco (pictured above right) was one of those students presenting projects in the Lind Hall conference room last May. Set to graduate in December 2009, he is one of numerous English majors involved with the University's Community Engagement Scholars Program, which recognizes students who put in more than 400 hours of volunteer service during their time here. Last spring he was honored with a President's Student Leadership Award from the University. As of this writing, he is now managing the service learning option for undergraduates as a research assistant in one of English's most popular courses, ENGL1501 The Literature of Public Life. His public engagement work has made him a leader--and an examined one. "In the spirit of John Quincy Adam," he states, "I now realize that true leadership is not defined by my personal improvements and capabilities, but in my ability to push others towards learning more, doing more, becoming more and dreaming more."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on September 24, 2009 9:20 AM.

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