Posted: April 3, 2007
Updated: Listen to the Audio/Podcast
When the Community-Based Learning Program was first launched, not everyone on campus felt the idea of structuring courses to give students academic credit for leaving campus to delve into the workings of a neighborhood organization, an elementary school, or the daily struggles of women behind bars was in keeping with the mission of a small liberal arts institution. But now, celebrating the beginning of its second decade as an integral part of academic life at Mount Holyoke, the Community-Based Learning Program has come into its own.
Each semester as many as 200 students in ten courses are doing such things as teaching philosophy to fourth graders in Springfield, researching air quality as it relates to the asthma rate in Holyoke, or studying literature and writing together with female inmates in Hampden County. The CBL program now rests on a "solid foundation," Preston H. Smith II, associate professor of politics and associate director of the Weissman Center for Community-Based Learning, told participants in a one-day conference to mark its tenth anniversary. For the last four years Smith has coordinated efforts to encourage more faculty members to design courses that lend themselves to weaving classroom work together with meaningful interactions with the wider world. This is now recognized as a "legitimate teaching and learning endeavor," Smith said.
In fact, the concept of CBL is gaining national recognition for not only providing deeply enriching pedagogy for college students, but also for forging innovative connections between higher education and economically depressed areas. "Our partnership with Mount Holyoke comes at a critical time," Carlos Vega, executive director of Nueva Esperanza, told the gathering. His agency, which addresses basic needs such as housing and access to health care in Holyoke's blighted neighborhoods, has come to rely on the regular infusion of energy and curiosity Mount Holyoke students bring. "Besides money, what we need most is research, research, and research," said Vega, because understanding and documenting the underlying dynamics of the issues his community faces is key to bringing resources to bear on solving them.
This, in turn, goes back to some of the core concerns and aspirations of CBL proponents. Service is a natural part of community-based learning. But it also has to be about academics and this can lead to using access to often disenfranchised people to test ideas. It means not only reading, understanding, and discussing theories but also testing them in the crucible of everyday experiences. Smith termed this "investigative scholarship," noting that it is related to but distinct from other worthy enterprises such as service learning and experiential learning.
At the same time as it puts rigorous academic demands on students, insists Smith. CBL, which at Mount Holyoke is housed in the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, must be "based on a principle of mutual benefit." By this he means that the community partners must reap real value from the interaction. A panel of former Mount Holyoke students who are now building their own academic and social activism careers, grappled with complexities of what seems like a fairly straightforward proposition. "Community service work without a reflective component perpetuates unequal power arrangements," Faith Karas '03 told the gathering. She described herself as an aspiring anthropologist who is all too aware of the damage researchers can do to the communities they work in. To ignore the fact that CBL often brings students from a setting of privilege and opportunity together with marginalized populations would be to ignore an important part of the CBL experience, she said. Looking within to ask oneself, "what does it mean to help ... [and] what does it mean to come from Mount Holyoke College?" might actually require the hardest work, Karas said.
Nicole Fabricant '99, who did community-based learning projects with youths in Holyoke as well as in Bolivia, shared Karas's radical outlook. She also talked about the academic component of the experience. "Community-based learning taught me that progressive scholarship matters," she said.
An afternoon panel featuring recent curriculum offerings included a presentation on a course that puts Mount Holyoke College students in the classroom with incarcerated and recently released women. Visiting professor of English Simone Weil Davis spoke about the course she, with the assistance of a former inmate, is teaching in collaboration with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. "A side benefit for Mount Holyoke students is to actually have the benefit of entering a penal institution," she said. Students explore the theme of the course, Crisis and Transcendence, both in readings and through creative writing prompts and discussions in which women living dramatically different lives get a glimpse into each other's realities. Davis characterized this as a "portal for social change." She called on the conference participants to think of education as a verb, or something that is achieved through active engagement, rather than as a noun, or a commodity that is consumed.
Giovanna Di Chiro, visiting assistant professor of earth and environment, spoke of CBL as an opportunity to do "street science," by linking lived expertise with academic learning through "participatory action research." She presented as part of a panel that included two leaders of Nuestras Raices, a grassroots community development organization in Holyoke. "What should research be about?" asked Di Chiro, suggesting that one answer would be to use community and college partnerships to "bridge the gap between theory and practice."
Opening the conference, which took place March 30, Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton commented on how far the concept of community-based learning has come in the ten years since the school formalized its place in the curriculum. "Other institutions are now discovering community-based learning, but we have an irrefutable solid track record," she said. "We are now serving as a model for others." She emphasized the importance of putting the requirements of the community partners on an equal footing with scholarship. "What is especially impressive about this program is the care that is taken to wed substantive academic work to community needs and to form a genuine partnership," Creighton said. "This is not a kind of dilettantish coming to the community to look and participate in a slight way, but [is based on] a real discussion with the community about what they need."