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Community as Text

When Katie Frank ’15, a sociology major, and her classmates were dropped off in downtown Green Bay in the fall of 2011, they were given a handful of maps to nearby sites like St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, a graveyard and a small retail area. Their instructions on what to do were minimal. The students knew they needed to investigate something to draw on for their papers on the impact of community spaces, but they didn’t know what. They had to figure that out for themselves.

After thinking about it a few minutes, the group let their grumbling stomachs decide for them. They entered a small restaurant, where they spotted a man whom they deemed interesting. So they began to pepper him with questions: who was he, why was he there, how often did he come there. “He said he came there weekly, and that he often plays poker there with the former mayor,” Holly Nickerson ’15 recalls. “We began to make connections between our generation and the older generation – how this [restaurant] is to them what a coffee shop is to college students now: a place you go to hang out and meet other people.”

Nickerson’s observation was just what her instructors were looking for – although had she made one of innumerable other observations, they may very well have been appropriate, too. “These kinds of exercises are designed for students to figure out what they have to figure out,” says Mara Brecht (Religious Studies), namely “that understanding a place, a book, a person – anything, really – necessitates interaction and conversation with those around them.”

Two freshman classes in the Honors Program have now experienced “City as Text,” a unique common course that, Frank says, helps students understand how the activities and decisions of past generations shaped the present-day landscape – in particular, the landscape surrounding their college. The curriculum develops through onsite visits, discussions, problem-solving and research papers. 

The class was developed by Marcie Paul, director of the Honors Program, and Terry Jo Leiterman (Mathematics). Four professors from different subject areas teach the course, with roughly 20 students assigned to each professor. Although the syllabus is developed by all four professors, 65 percent of the time the students meet in their separate small groups. 

“The whole point of City as Text is to look at the area in which the college is located as a series of concentric circles,” says John Neary (English), a two-time class instructor. “The residence hall, the college, the city of De Pere and northeastern Wisconsin are all larger and larger circles of community. It puts a little depth to St. Norbert’s idea of communio – the idea that education occurs most richly and ethically in a communal context.”

To date, classes have focused on several aspects of the local community, including downtown Green Bay, dairy farms, the Fox River and the Green Bay Packers organization. Students have especially enjoyed learning about farming, even if they come from rural backgrounds. Meagan Murphy ’15, who is majoring in communication and media studies, lives in Chicago’s far-flung northwestern suburbs, so farms aren’t exotic to her. “I see them all the time, and I have friends who have farms,” she says. “But when I actually visited a farm, it was crazy to see what farmers go through every day just to produce milk. It’s so easy to go to the store and pick it up, but I had no idea how much work goes behind it.”

Greenleaf farmer Mark Wall has hosted several groups of City as Text students on his farm, and also traveled to St. Norbert to talk to all of the Honors Program students about farming. He thinks the course is a wonderful addition to the curriculum. Students not only learn how farming is integral to the local community, but the on-site visits put a human face on the industry. “The farming community doesn’t want to separate themselves from city people,” says Wall. “We want to educate them and show them we’re out here trying to make a premium product, because we care about you people in town.”

There’s nothing overly simplistic about sending college honors students to tour a farm or a landmark destination like Lambeau Field. It’s not these entities themselves that the students are exploring, but the relationships and connections that bind them. And nourishing those connections is critical for responsible citizenship. “When you come to a new place, and really learn what that place is, and get to know people in that place, you begin to take ownership of it and care about it,” says Brecht. “That’s really important, and that’s what’s unique about this program.”

The importance of personal connections is what Nickerson pulled from the class. Nickerson says she initially found it difficult to approach strangers and ask them questions. Afterward, she found herself chatting to people wherever she went. “A friend actually yelled at me for making too much small talk with a waitress,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t think I would have done that before I took the class. It really made me a more open and accepting person.”

Murphy began viewing everything around her differently, including her hometown of Johnsburg, Ill. Scrutinizing its public spaces – a subject she’d studied in class – she realized they were pretty minimal. In fact, she realized it was easier to interact with others in downtown Chicago than tiny Johnsburg. The Windy City is filled with a wealth of sites that encourage people to gather – sidewalks, parks, recreational paths, cafés. In Johnsburg, Murphy has to hop on her bike to reach a gathering spot, the best of which is a local strip mall. “And strip malls aren’t really good places to meet and engage with people,” she says. “They just don’t have that community feel.”

The young women’s reactions are positive, and show they don’t find themselves trapped in some insular notion of community, a place where members only look inward. “A community that’s outward-looking and inclusive of its surroundings is healthier and more ethical,” says Neary. “Academic institutions are not self-contained bubbles, so it’s good for students to look beyond them.

March 27, 2013