This spring, for the second time, Terry Osborne is teaching his community-based first-year seminar, COVER Stories: Community Building & the Environment. This course uses writing and storytelling to take up the very important issue of the conscious construction of community—how it's done, and why it matters.
Osborne, a Senior Lecturer with appointments in Writing and Environmental Studies, has shaped his first-year seminar around the belief that environmental activism succeeds best when activists work in deliberate partnership with human communities. At the heart of this partnership are the stories that people tell one another—stories that have the power to effect change. To demonstrate to students how writing not only complements activism, but is itself a kind of activism, Osborne brings his students into area communities, where they work with a local organization, COVER, whose mission is to provide urgently needed home repair for community members who cannot afford it. Through COVER, students work alongside Upper Valley residents to rebuild their properties, then give language to what they learn, composing work that COVER can use to strengthen existing partnerships, and create new ones.
Although Osborne's course is innovative in design, it is grounded in the common outcomes of the first-year seminar. Like other seminars, this course provides an opportunity for sustained, rigorous investigation of a topic, through which students gain a deeper appreciation of the role of writing in scholarly investigation. This seminar uses as its means of investigation a form of academic engagement called "community-based learning"—that is, learning that takes place both in the classroom and outside of it, in the community. In the case of this seminar, the learning is accomplished through interactions with COVER and the exchange of stories.
Two years ago, when he first offered the course, Osborne understood that students needed to know as much as possible about COVER if they were going to be entrusted with its stories. Instruction began with members of the COVER staff visiting students in the classroom. Rob Schultz explained both COVER's mission and the role the class might play in furthering that mission; later, Hugh MacArthur, Home Repair Director, and Gail Guernsey, Homeowner Coordinator, presented their perspectives on COVER's work in the Upper Valley. Because students also needed instruction in story gathering and story telling to make their work useful to COVER, Osborne invited two other important class visitors: Peter Forbes '83, co-founder of the Center for Whole Communities, spoke with students about how to use story to connect people to the land; and Greg Sharrow, an ethnographer from the Vermont Folklife Center, taught students how to interview people and honor their stories. COVER's Guernsey, who had once been helped by the organization's repair program, offered to be interview by Sharrow; her stories, shared in front of the entire class, were particularly powerful in introducing the students to the kind of work they would be undertaking.
In the middle of this six-week preparation, students were placed in groups of four, with each group spending a day on a COVER work site, doing home repair. The time onsite provided students the opportunity to meet and talk with homeowners—another powerful experience that deepened the students' understanding of community. Working within the field of environmental studies to situate their work, students "read" communities as texts to be both analyzed and written about. And like students in other FY seminars, Osborne's students wrote a lot, drafting and redrafting their work, using peer and professor response to guide them. Towards the end of the term, for their final project, groups of students interviewed various people involved with COVER, both volunteers and homeowners, and wrote up their stories. They then presented those stories to the organization at a formal presentation.
By the end of the course, Osborne's students had developed a wonderful rhetorical flexibility as they'd written for and about community, adjusting their prose for particular purposes and audiences. These audiences were not limited to academic audiences, but included particular community audiences—the COVER board, staff, and volunteers—all with complex expectations. The result was an excellent writing education—and more. Osborne explains what's at the heart of the COVER experience: "Community-based learning ups the ante of academic engagement, brings real-world consequences to it. The organization is depending on the students, the homeowners appreciate their work, and the students feel that. The experience makes learning vivid, deep, and rich. The course is a gift for the students; by the end of the term they understand that, so they want to give back." One outstanding example of a return gift is the short film by student Karolina Krelinova, which can be viewed here. The film, based on one of the class's work days, stands as evidence of the remarkable experience that students had two years ago, and that they are positioned to have this spring.