Learning through Community Engagement
Winter term 2008 saw the creation of a new type of course at Transylvania. Art professor Kurt Gohde and English professor Kremena Todorova taught Community Engagement Through the Arts, a class designed to engage Transy students with the neighborhood to the north of campus through sustained interaction.
“We wanted to get away from the service-oriented model where you work in the classroom, then go out and do some service, then get back to the classroom,” Todorova said. “We met consistently off campus.”
In fact, class was held on Wednesday nights at Al’s Bar on the corner of Limestone and Sixth Street.
“The idea was to do something where the issues and concerns of the neighborhood that the students were going to address would be defined specifically by the community members rather than by us,” said Gohde.
To this end, Todorova and Gohde arranged for visitors to join the group, including a police captain, media representatives, and leaders of grassroots organizations. “Each week, the students met three or four people who were invested in the community and who had established themselves as understanding the issues of the neighborhood,” Gohde said.
It was an idea that turned out to be popular not only with the students, but also with the visitors who continued to attend class meetings week after week out of their own interest.
“We had as many as seven or eight visitors who just spent time with us and listened,” Todorova said. “That modeled for our students another way to be engaged— the fact that you don’t have to be enrolled in a class to go to that class—that there’s some value in being involved in that work and doing what we’re doing.”
The class recorded oral history interviews with people who live and work in the neighborhood and wrote reflections based on the popular This I Believe National Public Radio essay series. As a way to give back to the community, the essays produced in the class were published in a booklet that was given to the people about whom the essays were written.
“That was another way that all of us connected one-on-one with people in the community,” Todorova said.
“We’re working on ways to sustain our connections to the neighborhood between classes,” Gohde said. “The important thing we want to do is to make the class not just accountable to the curricular structure here but also to the people we engage with.”
With that in mind, Gohde and Todorova are developing an evaluation form to distribute to the people with whom the class interacted, and hope to use that feedback to shape the course, which they plan to teach again, involving students from a variety of majors.