Associate Professor, English
Course: ENG 373 Creative Writing and Social Engagement
Describe the course in which you used service-learning.
In Winter Quarter 2011, I launched the first-ever Junior Year Experiential Learning course designed specifically for creative writers (ENG 376: Creative Writing and Social Engagement). I also created and taught a version of this course for graduate students (ENG 484: The Art of the Interview: Chicago Stories). These two classes were part of a unique partnership between DePaul and Steppenwolf Theatre. Students enrolled in these courses (Winter Quarter 2011 and 2012) fanned out all over Chicago to collect the stories of some 70 people affected by youth violence, including at-risk adolescents, parents, community leaders, educators, police officers and members of the clergy. The project offered DePaul students the opportunity to assist in the creation of a play, which premiered at Steppenwolf in February of 2013. It also resulted in the publication of a Studs Terkel-type collection of oral histories, also called How Long Will I Cry, which I edited. Released in the fall of 2013, the book is about to go into its fourth printing, with more than 20,000 copies distributed nationwide.
In the Fall Quarter of 2013, I taught a new iteration of the course. This class was part of DePaul’s ongoing collaboration with the Chicago Public Library on its One Book, One Chicago program. The course used Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of American's Great Migration to explore questions about migration. Like the subjects of Wilkerson’s book, my students became migrants themselves, regularly traveling from Lincoln Park to Harvard Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side to help 7th and 8th graders learn and write about their local community. This effort was part of a partnership between DePaul’s English Department and 826CHI, an organization dedicated to offering free after-school tutoring and creative writing workshops for kids ages 6–18. It, too, resulted in a book, Even a Lion Can Get Lost in the Jungle.
What’s your understanding of service-learning?
I have a fairly broad definition. The How Long Will I Cry project, for example, did not fit neatly into the traditional direct-service paradigm. The students in the service-learning courses for this project were not assigned to work directly with community organizations. And while all students were required to conduct their interviews in the communities where their subjects lived, they did not return to those neighborhoods on a weekly basis to complete tasks that were immediately beneficial to local residents.
I’m grateful to the Steans Center for its flexible understanding of the various forms service-learning might take. Many of the community groups that took part in the project, moreover, have expressed satisfaction with the way that the play and the book have enhanced their own organizing and outreach efforts. Many of them still use copies of the book as an integral part of their work.
Why did you choose to use service-learning in this course?
In both the ENG 376 courses I taught, it was a natural fit. The service-learning aspects of the classes greatly enhanced the academic goals.
What were some of the benefits of doing so?
Perhaps the greatest benefit was that the issues we discussed in class weren’t abstract to the students. They were experiencing them first-hand.
What were some of the challenges of doing so?
A very small number of students view service-learning as an unfair burden placed on them by do-gooder academics. Most students, however, seem to embrace the challenge. In the One Book, One Chicago course, for example, students regularly commuted to 75th and Vincennes by bus. It was a long commute (100 blocks from DePaul), and for some of them a scary one, but they learned a great deal about the city—and about themselves.
How well did students’ community experiences complement the academic learning in the course?
Extremely well. In fact, those experiences were absolutely central to our academic goals.
How well did students’ community experiences encourage critical thinking about social issues?
Again, very well. In some cases, students expressed a shift in their previously held views. One African-American student, for example, told the class that she had her views had changed “180 degrees” on the issue of Mexican immigration. “In my community, we tend to think those people are taking the jobs that would otherwise go to us,” she explained. “But now I see that they’re in the same economic boat that we are.”
What learning strategies did you use to enable students to demonstrate to you that they achieved course learning objectives?
Among other things, they wrote reflection papers. But to be honest, I didn’t have to work very hard to convince them that they had achieved the learning objectives, both academic and civil. Because those goals were closely aligned with what we were already doing in the course, it was sort of self-evident.
In what ways was the Steans Center involved with your course?
Steans and Egan helped in countless ways, from conception to completion. I can’t say enough good things about the staffs of both centers. Neither of my projects would have been possible without them.
What do you consider to be the impact of teaching with service-learning on your students?
Service-learning breaks down barriers—an especially important tool in Chicago, which is still the most segregated city in the United States. My students became aware of a bigger world, and their own place in it.
What do you consider to be the impact of teaching with service-learning on you?
My service-learning courses, particularly the How Long Will I Cry project, have been among the greatest experiences of my career, both as a teacher and as a journalist.
The project was grounded in “collaborative storytelling.” This concept is based on the notion that the way we gather and tell stories is undergoing a fundamental change in the 21st century. Thanks to online and mobile platforms, normal people can now capture their experiences and share them with an audience on a scale never before possible. Professional storytellers such as myself, meanwhile, have more ability than ever to harness those stories to create a larger, cohesive narrative.The idea of collaborative storytelling is not just to tell a single narrative by a lone author, but to tell many narratives—and to allow the various storytellers an opportunity to make connections with each other and with the broader world. Collaborative storytelling will, for example, be a central component of the new National September 11 Museum and Memorial. One media designer working on the project describes it as a “radically different museum—a museum [in which] to learn [and] to remember, yes, but also to participate, to actively reflect and to share.”
The How Long Will I Cry project constituted collaborative storytelling in at least four significant ways. The first collaboration was with my students, who played a central role in the creation of both the play and the book. In 2011 and 2012, while more than 900 Chicagoans were being murdered, some 60 creative-writing students from DePaul fanned out all over the city to speak with people whose lives were directly affected by the bloodshed.
The second collaboration was with the wildly talented creative team, cast, crew and staff at Steppenwolf Theatre who invested countless hours in transforming the stories my students collected into a powerful theater piece.
The third partnership was with the approximately 70 Chicagoans that we interviewed. Once my students had turned the raw transcripts into cohesive narratives, we sent them to the respective interviewees for fact-checking and review. I had worried some participants would want to sanitize their testimony or even to pull out of the project entirely, but my students convinced me we had a special obligation to the people who had opened their lives and hearts to us. If we were planning to present these narratives as their stories, told in their words, didn’t they deserve to have creative control over the material? It turned out, of course, that the students were absolutely right. Relatively few of the interviewees asked to make significant changes in their narratives—and during the give-and-take of this editorial process, they became full collaborators, with real stakes in the project.
The final collaborators were young people who saw the play or read the book, many of whom recognize themselves in the stories. Perhaps the most satisfying letters I get are from young people all over the city and country, many of them non-traditional readers.
Please share a story about your service-learning course?
My students and I published a whole book of stories, so it’s hard to pick out just one. But I’ll always remember watching a DePaul undergrad—white and suburban—interview a man who had recently come out of prison for murder and was trying to turn his life around. At first, the interviewer looked scared and the interviewee looked distrustful. By the end, however, they were laughing together and trading anecdotes, having established a real human bond. My student later told me that he had just accomplished something he hadn’t thought possible.
What advice would you give to faculty considering using service-learning in their course(s)?
Be ambitious, plan carefully and be aware that most of your plans will need to be modified at some point.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Just this: I’m eternally grateful to the Steans Center.