A Sense of Place

Grant Examines Ways to Enhance Gateway Programs


By Lynn Conlee and Richard Alley

For Rebekah Barr ’16, the discussion-based classes of the Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion program (Search) gave her the skills to more diplomatically address issues of poverty in Memphis public schools. The roots of western civilization studied in Search helped political science major Cecil Brown ’14 better understand politics. Sumita Montgomery ’15 made connections with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, studied in Search, when she experienced a reality of Memphis that she had never before seen while conducting a Crossroads to Freedom project. And it was the skill of synthesizing conflicting perspectives learned in Life: Then and Now (Life) that helped Mary Catherine Cadden ’15 prioritize and process information during her Summer Service Fellowship.

A grant-funded study currently under way on the Rhodes campus aims to shore up these critical links between classroom and experiential learning by taking advantage of Rhodes’ Memphis location to enhance the college’s foundational Search and Life programs. As part of a four-college consortium awarded $250,000 by the Teagle Foundation, Rhodes will draw on its strength of place to ensure that the big questions of human existence studied in Search and Life classes remain part of a student’s fabric of learning throughout his or her education—and beyond.

The Rhodes Twist

Learning that takes place in the classroom informs an equally important aspect of a Rhodes education—that of experience gained outside the gates. Whether through internships, fellowships, or research projects, the Memphis community at large becomes a veritable petri dish of learning opportunities for Rhodes students.
“Something that is unique to Rhodes College is the experiential learning component and how Memphis plays a role in that,” says Dr. Russ Wigginton ’88, vice president for the Office of External Programs and member of Rhodes’ Teagle team. “That’s not a factor at most liberal arts colleges around the country. If you’re asking ‘What’s my purpose in life?’ and you’re reading Plato and Socrates and Martin Luther King as part of thinking about that question, and then you’re volunteering at Cypress Middle School or an impoverished community or at the Church Health Center, that’s a unique kind of education. That’s our individualized twist.”

It was this twist that led to Rhodes’ collaboration with Lawrence University in Wisconsin, College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Ursinus College in Pennsylvania to share the Teagle grant titled Gateways to Liberal Education. The initial consortium meeting of the grantees was held in August 2013 at Ursinus to work on a plan and establish a mutual understanding of their respective gateway programs; each campus will host subsequent conferences as the process unfolds. For Rhodes, those gateway programs are Search and Life.

The chair of the Life program, Dr. Luther Ivory, associate professor of religious studies, explains the role gateway courses play in the educational cycle of a Rhodes student. “The Life program is intimately linked to one of Rhodes’ four strategic imperatives, namely, student inspiration. This component of the Rhodes Vision emphasizes, among other things, the development of personal integrity, clarification of values, and the history of a particular tradition of religious thinking,” he says. “As student scholars are exposed to these elements, their scope of understanding is broadened and deepened in areas of critical thinking about seminal moral values, or how an embraced value system may work to orient, motivate, and guide behavior in multivariate settings.”

Dr. Geoff Bakewell, director of the Search program and professor of Greek and Roman studies, explains that Rhodes’ gateway courses intend to influence students far beyond the classroom. “We’re trying to lay, in some senses, the foundation for, not so much a career, but a life,” Bakewell says.

Integration into Action

One model that Rhodes has created for integrating classroom and experiential learning is known as Community-Integrative Education (CIE). Under the CIE umbrella are student experiential learning opportunities through Summer Service Fellowships, Crossroads to Freedom, and the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies (RIRS). The concept of such programs has its earliest beginnings in longstanding initiatives such as the Laurence F. Kinney Program, designed to promote leadership and involvement within the community outside of the Rhodes campus. But it was Dr. Tom McGowan, associate professor and chair of anthropology and sociology, and his research into service learning that brought the focus of integrated learning into the forefront.

“The main criterion,” McGowan explains, “is that students combine activities off campus with their classroom learning in a way that’s transformative. It’s integrative in the sense that the experience goes through the student and involves them in a holistic way, their personal life as well as their academic life, helping to promote a kind of transformative outcome.”

“It brings that classical aspect of academic study and makes it relevant and concrete for the students,” notes Dr. Amy Jasperson, associate professor and chair of political science. Jasperson is part of the Rhodes’ Teagle team.

Students definitely are getting the connection between classroom learning and participation in the community. Through RIRS last summer, Brown conducted research on his home county—Tunica County, Mississippi—to gain a broader view of public school segregation in the 1960s. Among his findings: an orchestrated plan by white residents to place their students in church-run schools resulted in the population of white public school students dropping by 100 percent in one day.

“Search was definitely my favorite class while at Rhodes,” he says. “When I was taking Search and also taking political philosophy classes, we might be reading Aristotle in both. I began to see the overlap and how they were connected.”

Barr, a political science major/urban studies minor from New Hampshire, spent summer 2013 working for Memphis’ Achievement School District as her RIRS project. Looking at alternative schools, where typically low-performing students receive a nontraditional education aimed at encouraging them to succeed, she created a tailored set of accountability measures, the first of which were implemented in fall 2013.

“Poverty has a huge impact in urban schools, and I had to study a lot of what poor students were bringing into their schools,” she says. “I had to approach this topic of poverty very diplomatically with a lot of consciousness of how I talked about the topic. I think that one of the purposes of Search is to give a strong foundation for a lot of the things that we understand and see today, and I think in that way it’s important.”

Memphis native Montgomery, a religious studies major, spent summer 2013 in South Memphis teaching inner-city children how to conduct interviews in the same manner that Rhodes’ Crossroads to Freedom participants do. “We taught the kids how to conduct proper interviews, how to format them for online documentation, and then we presented them to the community,” she says.

The project was “reality in its truest form,” she notes, and harkened to her Search studies. “Plato’s allegory of the cave says that people see shadows and they consider that reality, but if they would just turn around and leave the cave, they would see true reality. I feel like Crossroads really helped me get out of the cave and leave Rhodes—my shadow of reality—and experience the true reality about what is happening in Memphis.”

Likewise, Cadden immersed herself in the nonprofit Latino Memphis, through her summer research fellowship. The bulk of her job was creating a curriculum for the organization’s Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) division, which seeks to increase the number of local Latinos who complete high school and secondary education by providing support, knowledge, and guidance during the transition from high school to college and up until they successfully obtain a degree.

“There was a lot of information to sift through, but I was able to either select or eliminate texts quickly and efficiently,” she explains. “I was then able to combine our needs with these successful programs, creating a completely new program base that would cater to Memphis Latino students’ needs. I don’t think my finished product would have been as well thought-out or polished without the valuable reading and writing skills I learned in my Life classes.”

The Teagle Incentive

Montgomery says that the philosophical concepts learned in Search made more sense when coupled with a physical experience. Flipping that idea a bit on its head, the Teagle grant will look at ways to generate that level of connection and understanding even earlier in a student’s academic career by adding a measure of physical experience to the Search and Life curriculums.

“One of the possibilities and potentials that’s coming out of this Teagle grant is combining those two strengths, our really strong core courses, and just continuing to think about ways that those courses can be increasingly relevant to the lives the students have outside of the classroom,” says Dr. Milton Moreland, chair of archaeology, associate professor of religious studies, and a member of the Rhodes Teagle team.

At the heart of the Teagle grant lies a core question permeating today’s educational conversations: the value of a liberal arts education. While critics might contend that direct job training forms the best pathway for a college student, liberal arts supporters assert that their graduates are, in fact, even better employees due to the critical thinking skills such an education affords. Experiential learning takes those skills out of the classroom and into the work place.
Chelsea Peters ’12, of Oxford, MS, majored in environmental science and chemistry and, in her senior year, worked with the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA) in its community gardens and on environmental initiatives within the neighborhood. In the beginning, she had a hard time understanding how the community work might fit in with her science-oriented classes and goals.

“That job really changed my whole career goal. It was wonderful to see how it all related to people and how it related to the community and what a community is,” Peters says. “I knew I was a part of Rhodes, and I was very involved on campus, but my work with VECA integrated me into Memphis.”

Peters graduated and worked with AmeriCorps in Knoxville for a year teaching middle and high school students about water quality and environmental awareness. Her work with VECA while at Rhodes, she says, helped her become a more well-rounded student, and the outreach aspect of her liberal arts education helped her when it came time to meet students for the first time as a teacher. She is now at Vanderbilt University on a graduate/PhD track in environmental engineering.

“I say that I fell in love with Memphis,” Peters says, “but the experience also really helped on campus in my classes. I was able to relate things to real-world situations I experienced in the Vollintine-Evergreen community.”

In January, The Princeton Review publication The Best Value Colleges: The 150 Best-Buy Schools and What It Takes to Get In deemed Rhodes one of the Best Value Colleges for 2014. The list was based on surveys of 2,000 undergraduate institutions in 2012-13 concerning their academics, cost, and financial aid awards. Remarks made clear that Rhodes “. . . encourages students to study as many different disciplines as possible in order to gain a broader understanding of the world . . . Students who put in the work can expect to succeed.” Also noted was its location in a city with opportunities for recreation and community involvement.

“The idea of integrative education is to truly break down the barriers between the student’s role and the student’s life, so that they come to embody their experience at Rhodes,” McGowan says. “And it’s not even that they then have to carry what they learn into the future . . . it’s inside them, it’s become part of them, and the student is the outcome.”