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Teaching and Learning across the Class Divide

Janet Irons, Associate Professor of History, Lock Haven University

While many educators are working to enhance our abilities to talk across racial and gender divides, we have paid less attention to communicating across the chasm of class. To address this void, Lock Haven University (LHU), with a grant from AAC&U, conducted an American Commitments Community Seminar last fall to explore the corrosive effects of class differences on a community's welfare.

Twenty years of deindustrialization in Lock Haven, a small town in rural Pennsylvania, have laid bare many economic inequalities previously mitigated by the benevolent paternalism of major industrial employers. The community faces high unemployment, declining high school graduation rates, high rates of teenage pregnancy, and environmental degradation.

Designed to give the university a window into community concerns, our seminar also functioned as a mirror, forcing us as faculty and students to examine our own teaching and learning. Many students at this state-owned university come from families that have experienced economic hardships, while most faculty and administrators function as elites within the community. How might the perspectives of people in economic crisis affect their understanding of what learning is?

We recruited to our seminar many members of constituencies who had been excluded from the inner circles of local power and decision making. Members of labor unions, environmental groups, and social service and women's organizations were joined by representatives from the farming community, religious organizations, and the public schools.

We hoped to provide a foundation for constructive citizen involvement by exploring the town's history and culture. As seminar leaders, however, our interest in a leisurely exploration of the community's identity sometimes conflicted with the group's understandable impatience and desire to address pressing community needs. When we attempted to unravel the sources of current divisions in the community, many participants felt we were unnecessarily reopening old wounds. "Too much time devoted to the past!" commented one.

The wounds were not hard to uncover. Individuals not connected with labor unions, for example, resented the fact that supporters of a strike from the late eighties insisted on recognition of their struggle and continued to harbor a special bitterness at their loss. Similarly, those concerned with the needs of poor and working women felt that domination of the conversation by others did not permit their voices to be heard.

The group responded most warmly when we addressed issues that united them: love of land, family, and community. Years of division, hardship, and loss had deadened them to the possibility of celebrating their own culture. Participants craved visible proof of the region's mere existence as a community. They proposed a "Unity Day," discussed ways to develop a community center, and reaffirmed their devotion to the beauty of the surrounding mountains.

In the end, the simple act of bringing together a core group of committed citizens proved the seminar's permanent legacy. "I learned that there is hope," commented one; "that there are people that care," added another. A third was glad to have discovered that "people will get involved to do meaningful things to benefit the community."

While the seminar gave concrete expression to the pain of economic distress in the community, the role the university should play in this context remains unresolved. A group of faculty members and students, however, have formed a group to explore the impact of class and regional identity on learning. This May, the group came together for a weeklong university-sponsored workshop to discuss the development of an Appalachian studies minor and to explore ways to increase campus-community connections.

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