Note: The following essay first appeared in the Spring, 2012 Graduate Newsletter. Enjoy!
Mark Slouka, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, has called the humanities “a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values.” English studies are at the core of that mechanism.
I teach writing courses by integrating service learning and philanthropy into the objectives and assignments of my courses. In one project that a colleague and I developed, the Storyboard Service Learning Project, we partnered with Senior Services of Northern Kentucky. The project began with all of us—faculty and students alike—spending a Saturday at the senior services community center cleaning, painting, and doing yard work. Then our students met, interviewed, and wrote profiles about the lives of “senior partners” whom they met at the center.
The project culminated in the design of storyboards, which integrated photographs and texts to represent the senior partners’ lives and experiences visually. The students formally gave their storyboards to their senior partners in a reception at the end of the semester.
The students in our course met some fine people and, in the process, they learned about the recent history of the region in which they had grown up. Although our students had encountered information about World War II and the Korean War in previous courses, in our course the students imaginatively entered the experiences of those who had lived through such significant historical moments.
By engaging our students in local history, we immersed them in writing. In the context of writing about topics they cared about, and writing for an audience of people they respected, our students developed and practiced a wide range of writing skills. They generated and organized ideas, located and evaluated useful research materials, and produced vivid and engaging written texts. Living in the community and writing about the community became inseparable.
The skills that our students developed in our courses will certainly serve them very well in the job market. Our course contributed to their abilities to be flexible, creative, and collaborative, to read and understand unfamiliar texts, and to articulate their ideas effectively in writing. Those are skills that employers say they primarily look for in job applicants, skills that English studies contribute to. But our course accomplished even more than that. It introduced students to the roles that they can assume in their communities as college educated adults.
The vocational purpose of education is crucial, but education has done only half its job when it prepares students for employment and careers. Education must also prepare students to become active agents of positive change in the world. The humanities in general, and English studies in particular, add great value to the public mission of a college degree.
English studies explore how language is used in the public square and in private, in business and in government, and for social action or private expression. Through the study of all these kinds of writing, students in English studies develop multiple kinds of literacy. Students in English studies explore how various kinds of texts work, how they are produced, how they are received and interpreted, and how they make democratic action possible.
In addition to producing arguments and explanations, every culture produces its own narratives and poetry, bodies of literature that explore the most essential and enduring questions.
These kinds of writing put the reader into the experience of others. This is a crucial skill because, as our world becomes both smaller and more diverse, all of us as American citizens must enlarge our views of the world. Through the study of literary texts, students develop what Slouka identifies as the skills that make societies healthy: an ability “to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity.”
Dr. Jonathan Cullick earned his PhD from the University of Kentucky. His teaching and research interests include American Literature and Literature of the American South, and Composition Theory and Pedagogy.