Disrupting Social-Educational Spaces

Reflections on a Community-Based Learning Project

By Kristi Girdharry, Johnson and Wales University

One of the major challenges of intertwining “the community” with “the classroom” is the perception that community is denotative of “outsider” rather than as an integral part of the university itself: the community can become exoticized and difficult to talk about without falling into an “us/them” dichotomy. When I first came up with the subject of this article—a digital storytelling project with local veterans—I admit that I, too, faced this falsification. I created a sequence of writing assignments, and I researched veteran organizations, eventually reaching out to an organization that works on behalf of reintegrating soldiers into civilian life. When they mentioned something about how I’d “probably already reached out to the student veteran group on campus,” my palm went to my face. How could I overlook this detail?

In the following essay I reflect on other surprising ways the educational space of this course was disrupted by assigning a community-based project in a first-year writing course at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. I draw from my own course documents and experiences as the instructor as well as, more importantly, insightful student reflections (all names are pseudonyms and reflections are used with students’ permission). In the end I argue for examining how engaging with communities outside of the classroom can impact student authority both as thinkers and as writers: this project gave students the space to critique their own positions as members of the university and also provided a new rhetorical situation where the composition guidelines were not as structured as the more traditional research and writing assignments my students had been used to.

Because I had never taught a course with a “community engagement” component before (service-learning and community engagement are the terms used by my program), I “warned” my students weeks before the course started, disguising my email under the subject of not buying the required textbook: “I won’t have you start thinking about our course yet, but I will send out another email to remind us not to buy the book and to give a little background on how/why this section is different in case you’d like to switch sections to a more ‘traditional’ first-year writing course; however, if you’re curious now, I have no problem sending you a brief introduction. Feel free to email me back if that’s the case.”

What is it about a community project that compelled me to take this action? In “The Irony of Service: Charity, Project, and Social Change in Service-Learning,” Keith Morton relates students engaging with a community to moving from “charity to advocacy” but furthers the implication of this in a way that, as writing instructors, may feel a little out of our comfort zones: “Most commonly, a service continuum is presented as running from charity to advocacy, from the personal to the political, from individual acts of caring that transcend time and space to collective action on mutual concerns that are grounded in particular places and histories. Charity emerges on this continuum as giving of the self, expecting nothing in return, and with no expectation that any lasting impact will be made…. The risk inherent in charity is the risk of caring for another human being” (118).

While I do not equate my course’s community engagement project with that of “charity”—in the way volunteering at a soup kitchen or tutoring underserved populations works as charity—I do take special interest in Morton’s last line: “the risk of caring for another human being.” Perhaps my warning came from a personal insecurity of my role as the authority figure for this group. In traditional writing courses, my goals have been completely student-writer focused: I aimed to develop confident, competent writers who would have a base knowledge of academic writing that would prepare them for their other courses at the university; however, while I felt that moving into the community would enhance my students’ perceptions of academic writing as a public, social activity, I was interfering with my students politically with an additional agenda disguised as just part of a writing course.

While all community engagement projects inherently have political agendas, Nancy Welch offers an explicit representation of this in her book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World. I am especially drawn to her discussion of “rhetoric from below,” which she quotes from Arundhati Roy’s book Power Politics, and I align my project more with Welch and Roy than I do with Morton’s representation of charity. In her discussion of activist rhetoric, she explains rhetoric from below as being “not from official policy makers but from those who feel the daily effects of official policy” (Welch 71). To me, this project was a way to rethink social conceptions of “veterans” by engaging in their stories rather than by only listening to how such stories are mediated to us by various outlets (television, movies, and so forth). Although this might not be as openly political as an “activist rhetoric” would suggest, this did mean directly interfering, and potentially greatly disrupting, my students’ conceptions in order to alter their social consciousnesses of those in the military, and this hegemonic move led to a feeling of discomfort; thus, a “warning” was sent to my students.

The warning of my community engagement project took two forms on that first day of class through my orientation and on the first page of the syllabus. As I reflect on my syllabus, I have noticed something different from my past syllabi in that I cite directly from the Writing Program’s website, and I reiterate the idea of representing the university:

From Syllabus Section I. Course Overview > I. a. Community Engagement
This course will also include a project which engages with members from the community (veterans). As stated on the Writing Program’s website, Community Engagement sections of [first-year writing] “involve one or more projects in which students will work with a community- based agency or organization. These projects allow students to connect their learning in the classroom to meaningful writing and reading activities in a particular space outside the university” …. The goal of this project will be to investigate what stories/truths veterans want to share… and to produce short videos that they may want to share with those in their lives.
From Syllabus Section II. Course Policies > II. c. Class Participation and Professional Courtesy
You are required to come to class carefully prepared, and all students are expected to participate in one way or another. It’s reasonable to expect this participation to be thoughtful and respectful of all the class members.

The same courtesy expected in the classroom is also expected outside of the classroom. Absences or tardiness during your scheduled meetings with community members is not only inconsiderate but will severely affect your grade. Remember that you are not only representing yourself as a student, but you are representing yourself as a member of a shared community and of Northeastern University.

Citing from the Writing Program’s website positions our small class amidst larger parts of the institution; this is only furthered by emphasizing expectations for students as they represent themselves as part of a “shared community” and the university. Instead of viewing this course as a closed-set of ideals and expectations, drawing attention to the university as a piece of a larger puzzle disrupts the imagined ideal of a writing classroom and requests that students see themselves as socially situated in larger spaces of the Writing Program, the University, and the community in a way that works to both collapse and open up binaries in a critical way.

Through reading my students’ reflections on this project and discussing it in context of the whole course on the last day of class, this disruption of what a writing course entails seemed welcomed by most students as they were able to draw on other literacies that were seen as important to their lives both in and outside of the classroom. As thinking about “writing” and “composition” as dynamic and changing terms was another goal of this course, this disruption to the social space of the writing classroom was epistemologically important; however, I believe the project itself—leaving the classroom to interview veterans—affected the type of thinking that was able to be produced by my students as it worked to keep opening up their conceptions of writing as a social activity. To understand what this change of physical space meant for my students, let us turn to two different students who reflected on the location of their interview:

We chose to meet [the veteran] at [our university’s library] and we conducted our interview in one of the group study rooms on the second floor. The room was very small so we sat around a table…. The fact that we were physically so close definitely had an impact on the interview…. I believe that it worked in our favor and helped [the veteran] feel that he could trust us.
[We chose] a cozy corner of [a chain sandwich shop] that had soft lighting and intimate booths. We hoped that our location choice would make [the veteran] feel comfortable…. [W]e pulled up two extra chairs and made a circle so he could look at all of us while he was speaking. This setup made his interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a discussion.

In these two selections from the individual reflections that accompanied each video, we see that there had been some thought as to appropriate spaces. Most of the groups, like Mary’s, met somewhere like the university library—essentially an academic space that can be thought of as an extension of the classroom. This was convenient for its centrality as well as its semi-private rooms. Although Caitlin’s group decided to meet in a public space off campus, both students emphasize the physical closeness of meeting directly impacting the veteran’s “comfort” and ability to “trust” these students. Students related their conceptions of psychological comfort to ideas of biophysical comfort and the ability to share stories.

It was not by one-sided convenience that my students met with their veterans on or around our campus: as mentioned, the veterans we worked with were also Northeastern students. When I explained that we would be working with other students, my class’s mental conceptions—that is, of thinking of who a “veteran” is—were challenged. No matter how much my students thought of veterans as “old guys,” their idea of “students” interfered with their thinking. The idea of “student” also became complicated in itself as the men my students interviewed were older than my traditional first-year students, and they clearly had different pre-university experience. No matter how much my students had interacted with war in their lives, none of them had experienced war as closely as the men they interviewed, and this disruption of conceptions made an impact on the lived experience of the project as we can see in the following representative selection from Mary:

The process of Interviewing [the veteran] was a very unique, powerful experience. When I heard that we were going to interviewing a veteran, I automatically assumed that he was going to be an older man with stories from Vietnam. However, [he] is only 24 years old and a student at the same school that I attend…. I do believe that him being so close to me in age made his stories even more powerful.

What is interesting about such sentiments are the emotional connections that students came to because of the disruption to their conceptions about the veterans themselves as physical beings. After viewing all of the videos, we thought about how a veteran’s age affected the “trueness” of his war story: does the short temporal distance from their story make it any “truer” in that they remember things more clearly? Or does having distance from a story, like one of the older veterans did when discussing his role in the Coast Guard in New York Harbor during 9/11, allow one to reflect on an experience that makes it truer? Back in the classroom the action of restabilizing the disrupted social space of our course and its themes proved to be one of the most fruitful times for thought and discussion.

One of the most interesting projects came from a group whose conceptions of a veteran were not only disrupted by their veteran’s physical appearance but also by the sentiments he spoke of:

[What we] heard from [the veteran] in that small room all caught us off guard. The stories carried a different notion and emotion from what we expected to hear from a war veteran. Instead of patriotic enthusiasm, [he] expressed resentment and hatred throughout his stories. He hated his experience during his time of service.

The image of the unconditionally patriotic veteran was disrupted for this group and, in turn, for our class when this group decided to take a humorous approach to their video. While it seemed perfectly logical for someone to hate their job, why were we surprised by this sentiment from a veteran? When our preconceived notions of veterans were disrupted, my class began to reconsider the idea of a “veteran” again in quite productive ways as they worked through what this meant for the lived experience of this person.

For some students, with this newfound authority came a sense of vulnerability. While we had talked about vulnerability as a class, the ways students talked about vulnerabilities in their reflections surprised me. Mike’s group members both expressed vulnerability in different ways:

Although this may have been one of the most challenging assignments I have taken on in my college career [Rachel was a transfer student], I think it has also been one of the most rewarding. This certainly brought up some feelings of vulnerability; creating something and sharing it brings up a lot of anxiety. It is human nature to want others to connect with what you are sharing.
I felt vulnerable also in the sense that we were meeting the works cited, the author, and the reason for why we were creating this movie in the first place…. With a text, I can say that this part was horrible and that part makes no sense, but when listening to a person tell his life story, I don’t find it appropriate to show the emotions that I was feeling…. In general, it took more connected and emotional thought to create this project.

From these two reflections, and others like them, I gather that actually meeting with someone and hearing their story influenced my students’ commitment to doing a good job on a much deeper level. While the repetition of the word “vulnerable” was understandable to me in terms of leaving the safety of the classroom, meeting a stranger, and sharing personal stories, I did not expect this term to show up in terms of the work produced for the project. Furthermore, I think that having a visceral reaction to a project does something for student authority in that when we feel something about a subject, we are more inclined to be careful in our thought and more prideful in the work we produce, and these types of sentiments were expressed by many of the other students as well.

More than just “caring” about a subject, perhaps there is something in this connection—in this disruption of spaces—that works pedagogically to foster student authority in ways traditional writing projects cannot always complete. This is not to say that we should do away with reading and writing activities, but community engagement projects allow us to take an authoritative role in our criticisms of texts we encounter because it opens up ideas of social space in that our roles as university students becomes part of our role as community members in much more explicit ways.

As we think about the risks and rewards of disrupting social space in community engagement projects, we should not forget the goals for writing courses or the goals our students have. It is not that the interviewers left their role as students outside of their interviews, just as they came to understand that veterans did not lose their identities as “regular people” just because they had served in the military. Caitlin drew my attention back to this fact:

Partially, I think we all worked so hard to make a video we were proud of was because we wanted a good grade. However, I believe the driving reason was the fact that we had met with our veteran, heard his story, and felt that it was something inspiring that deserved to be shared in an emotional and true way.

However briefly, this student was the only one to comment on the fact that this was a project for a course. This is where I see the greatest room for student development and the most apt examples of how the disruption of social space has influenced these writers. As Caitlin points out, just because one has an interesting, eye opening, or emotionally palatable community experience, it does not detract from the fact that this is work for a course. This also works to highlight roles for students, such as university member or researcher, because they are switching to a more active role in their learning.

In understanding the social-educational space of community-based learning projects, we can see how the work of positioning students this way allows them to begin to critique their understanding of their roles as members of the university. While much scholarship criticizes community engagement projects for “Othering” and dichotomizing universities and communities, there is something to be said for enhancing a first-year student’s conception of what it means to be a member of the university. This is a space where authority for student-writers can manifest. In my classroom specifically, the break my students took from traditional writing gave them distance from their writing that seemed to allow them to internalize some of the conventions we had practiced all semester. Perhaps the “break” from traditional writing assignments, as well as the “new” practice of composing did something for their writing in its disruption of spaces that allowed them to gain authority over their own positions as student writers. And pairing this with Morton’s risk—“the risk of caring for another human being”—seemed to only offer rewards in terms of wanting to produce quality work.