English in the Public Sphere: Faculty Initiative
Our faculty’s public engagement work is as diverse as its scholarship. Some professors choose to contribute on their own time. Others see a need and move to fill it institutionally, as Professor Charles Sugnet did more than 20 years ago when he helped forge College in the Schools, which trains current high school teachers how to provide their students with a class on par—in terms of pace and standards—with college level courses, thus encouraging access to post-secondary education and strengthening teaching in Minnesota.
More recently, Professors Tom Augst and Pat Crain in 2002 created the Literacy Lab, an initiative to develop a curriculum fostering civic engagement through service learning. “Usually, public service is treated as an add-on to academic courses,” Professor Augst noted at the time. “This is an experiment to see not only how the study of literature can be made practical to the life of the communities that surround the University, but also to think about how civic engagement might alter the way we study literature in the classroom.” Their effort resulted in ENGL 3505/3506 Community Learning Internships I and II, a perennially full two-semester course in which students work and learn in nonprofit community agencies four to eight hours a week, while also attending a twice-weekly class on campus. ENGL 3505/3506 has been taught from its inception by Eric Daigre (PhD 2001).
In 2009, Professor and Chair Paula Rabinowitz, collaborating with Daigre and Professors Sugnet, Maria Damon, and Geoffrey Sirc (and English staff), received one of only five University “Engaged Department” grants given by the Office of Public Engagement to further foster engagement curriculum. The grant was also used to integrate the department’s diverse community activities for greater impact and awareness. The success of English in the Public Sphere depends on the enthusiasm and inventiveness of faculty such as these:
- Edelstein-Keller Professor in Creative Writing Charles Baxter in 2008 inaugurated the Hunger Relief Benefit, an annual fall reading by Creative Writing Program faculty to benefit area food relief organizations.
- Professor M. J. Fitzgerald led the 2005 re-creation of the two-semester undergraduate class which conceives, edits, and produces Ivory Tower, the University of Minnesota undergraduate literary and art journal. The class provides students with invaluable magazine experience and has led a significant number of former staffers to prestigious internships, publishing institutes, and magazine and small press employment.
- Professor Shirley Garner chairs the committee selecting award-winning literary authors to present the bi-annual Esther Freier Endowed Lecture Series in Literature, which is always free and open to the public.
- Regents Professor Patricia Hampl collaborated with Barbara Frey of the Human Rights Project in 2006 to establish the Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship, in which a Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing student works with the Human Rights Program as a writer-in-residence. The Scribe researches one of the HRP’s public human rights projects, then writes an article for publication for a large audience.
- Professor Josephine Lee works with Mu Performing Arts and other theaters locally and has assisted her students with internships at regional theaters.
- Professor Ellen Messer-Davidow created the course GWSS 4502/ENGL 4090 Women and Public Policy, which examines low-wage labor, healthcare, welfare, social security and pensions, and home ownership. Students practice designing and writing policy and are encouraged to email public leaders, newspapers, and lawmakers.
- Professor and former chair Paula Rabinowitz and English Advisory Board member Archie Givens, Jr., devised a summer writing workshop which would assist high school students in preparing the college application essay. The STEP UP to College Workshop (2008-10) received crucial support from the College Readiness Consortium and AchieveMinneapolis’ STEP-UP program. The program also served as a teaching opportunity for English graduate and undergraduate students.
- Professor Geoffrey Sirc joined the Minnesota Spoken Word Association to offer In Da Tradition: Spoken Word & Hip Hop Institute, a free week-long summer literacy program for high school students which also acted as a training program for high school teachers. Supported by Education Minnesota’s Affinity Grant and the English Chair’s Initiative, the Institute was offered in 2008 and 2009.
- Professors Omise’eke Tinsley, Maria Damon, Paula Rabinowitz, and Professor Emerita Toni McNaron (who co-founded, with American Studies Professor Emerita Carol Miller) all nurtured VG/Voices from the Gaps, an English class and an internet site dedicated to women writers and artists of color. The second most visited internet page in CLA, VG contains biographical and critical analysis, interviews, and pedagogical information. High school teachers around the world use VG as a resource in their classrooms.