2014 Outstanding Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year
Professor of English and Women's Studies
Pennsylvania State University Berks
Good afternoon. It is with deep appreciation and a sense of honor that I speak before you today.
I want to take you to back a few weeks to Oct. 14. My students and I were beginning part 2 of the Olivet Boys & Girls Club history project, and on that day, 20 undergraduates were interviewing 20 Olivet alumni to write essays based on their oral histories.
The room was buzzing. My colleague—his first time doing community-based research—was nervous, hoping beyond hope that students and alumni would show up (we had backup plans, for sure). Nervous, but excited students about to interview complete strangers had learned in their course that "ordinary" people have important stories to tell, but some seemed still hesitant about what any of these ordinary people had to say and why the Olivet had any significance beyond itself. Why would anyone care about the organizations' and its people's history?
Olivet alumni mingled with one another—white men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, African American men in their 50s and 60s and Latino women and men in their 20s and 30s. They represented the changing demographics of Reading, Pennsylvania's population and the fact that Boys & Girls Clubs of America did not include girls until 1990. I felt everyone's excitement, tentativeness and anticipation.
I saw my former student, Jessica, now the executive assistant to the mayor of Reading, consulting with a student about setting up another interview time with Mayor Vaughn Spencer, an African American Olivet alum. Jessica wrote an article on local African American artists in Woven with Words: A Collection of African American History in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in our 2006 partnership with the local NAACP branch and the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum.
Cassandra, the program assistant to the Center for Service Learning and Community-Based Research at Penn State Berks, was running around helping to organize the event. Cassandra is a former student of mine who researched and wrote on religion and community leaders in the book, Hispanics/Latinos in Reading and Berks: A Portrait of a Community in 2010.
Two days later, in my 8 a.m. first-year composition class, students began their research on Olivet's history. They dug into what we came to call the "Olivet archives": a collection of several hundred documents in binders and boxes arbitrarily collected over 116 years by individuals affiliated with Olivet.
Two students from last semester, Keyara and Jami, came to class to encourage these first-year writers about the project they were embarking on, offering advice such as "it scared us at first too, but it was great," and "she (me) isn't crazy but she will make sure you do the work and keep detailed records of your research, so don't procrastinate or blow it off.
El, who's here with me today and wrote about Club No. 4 last semester, assists my first-year writers with their research. El is also currently working under my guidance on an in-depth undergraduate research project on the images and representations of urban boys living in poverty in the early 20th century.
This community-based teaching is not without risks. Students' research for the first Olivet book yielded an overwhelming amount of information about the prevalence of minstrel shows and black face at Olivet in the first half of the 20th century. They learned about "the working boys," sometimes referred to as "street urchins," who went to work at 10 years old to help put food on the table. Yet, these are also the moments that yield the most powerful learning experiences for students—and for me. As an English professor and multicultural educator, I address these local histories through various perspectives and questions of language and communication. Foremost among them are who owns and controls writing and the knowledge it produces and preserves, and what are the ethical and political choices writers must consider, given our narrative control? Who gets left out, and why? Why might we bring these people back into public memory?
And these are the kinds of issues that inform my own research and scholarship and then circle back to inform my teaching. For example, what resonated most profoundly for me when I looked into the Olivet history project are the demographics: Census data for the city of Reading indicates that in the first three decades of the 20th century, Reading was 99 percent white. Census data in 2012 lists a population that is 13.2 percent black or African American, 58.2 percent Hispanic or Latino and 28.7 percent white. Reading was the second poorest city among U.S. poorest cities with more than 65,000 residents in 2013 (it had the No. 1 ranking in 2011, No. 6 in 2012). The Olivet, a chartered member of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, serves 3,000 to 4,000 children per year; 82 percent of these children live at or below the poverty level; 62 percent are Hispanic/Latino; 23 percent are African American; 6 percent are multi-racial; and 9 percent are white. We see too often in our country, and in Reading, negative public attitudes toward children of color who live in poverty. But did students, and might the community, re-vision its understanding of, attitudes toward and actions for Reading's poorest families today, a majority of whom are Hispanic/Latino?
A colleague, Chris Anson, tells us that research shows that students want agency and purpose. They want their writing to do something meaningful. Consequently, he suggests, "Educators must become designers of doing." I love that phrase, designers of doing. Surely when students do work beyond the classroom walls, collaborating with community members who have lived issues of difference and diversity in the most profound ways, they are engaging the issues reflected in Reading's and Olivet's population statistics.
It is with heartfelt thanks to all of them, and to the CASE and Carnegie organizations, that I have the honor to tell you all about it today.
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