Chris Featherman uses his First-Year Writing course as a vehicle to explore literacy issues

By Megan Fowler

Street Team member Megan Fowler sat down with First-Year Writing faculty members Chris Featherman and Bret Keeling to talk about how Service-Learning is integrated into two different sections of the same course. Professor Featherman’s students serve as writing tutors in the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science Writer’s Room, a space run by 826 Boston, while Professor Keeling’s students are partnered with seven community-based organizations. 

CFWhat made you decide to incorporate S-L into your course?

I was interested for two reasons; one – I have worked with literacy issues in the past and I’ve had courses that are themed around literacy so I thought the link between them would really fit well, especially with the 826 Boston partnership which I thought was very interesting.

I started teaching about 15 or so years ago through literacy issues working with adult learners in typically under-privileged communities and so it seemed like a nice way to connect back to some of the things I had been doing and bring them back into my teaching.

Could you please provide a brief overview of your course and how service-learning helps meet the course objectives?

The course is a first year writing course, pretty much what everyone takes. Students engage in four writing projects, three of which focus on the theme which is literacy in education, while the fourth is a reflective project.

The service component comes in incrementally in the class. In the beginning of the course the students are exploring issues that come up around literacy as well as education, whether it’s issues of access or privilege or other different things. It’s very exploratory and from their own experience at that point. As the course progresses and they’ve had more opportunity at O’Bryant (the highschool that the course partners with through 826 Boston) they are able to draw on their experiences as part of what they are writing about.

In the second project they are forming an argument about where writing could fit into a model of education. They think critically and conceptually, and can contrast their own experiences with what they are seeing at O’Bryant – which may or may not be similar, we don’t know.

By the time they get to the latter stage of the class they are really engaging in research; asking questions about their own writing experience and processes, things they’ve observed as tutors, very much as a way to experience inquiry as well as take what they’ve been talking or thinking about in other projects and apply it in a practical and experiential way.

How did the partnership with your community partner(s) begin?

The partnership with 826 Boston pre-existed me and I think it began separate from Service-Learning. The current writing director, Neal Lerner and the previous one, Chris Gallagher, who is now in the Dean’s office – they partnered up with 826 Boston separately and later it moved to service-learning because it was easier to manage and facilitate to get students involved. It began through a personal relationship I believe they had in the community and also because of need.

How has having students engaged in Service-Learning influenced your thinking about your field?

One of the ways it has encouraged me to think about my field is that it has made me ask questions about how we can make a course like this, which is required, meaningful and practical in experiential ways to students who may not be going in to a field that involves a lot of writing. It has allowed me to think about why teaching writing is important. Why should writing be part of the university curriculum – which has been really positive. Also I’ve started to think about what kinds of research should be done in composition studies; and is that something that should pertain more to what’s being done at the university level or how to make those connections to the communities that surround the university, which I think was the impetus of partnering with 826.

How has Service-Learning affected your teaching?

It’s helped me, as I said before, to try and bring writing to life as well as the issues that surround writing. It’s also encouraged me to try to make it something more than writing itself – a chance to explore the types of issues students face and the experiences they are negotiating as first year students at a university like ours. This interaction with the community can allow students to reflect back on themselves and see where they are in a particular position or point in their lives. I think trying to create that space in a class like mine takes a little extra than it would to just teach the class itself. Going through that process has helped me reflect and think about more about what the purpose of this course is and how it fits in to the overall curriculum, which is what I ask the students to think about.

One of the great things about it is that students go out and have their own experience which I’m not a part of, which is also part of course, and it’s allowed me to learn from them and to see where the course should go and how we should direct it and in that way the service can make the teaching in the course come alive.

How does teaching this Service-Learning section of First-Year Writing connect to your personal, professional, and/or academic engagement?

As I was saying about my interest in service – I’ve been interested in literacy issues for a long time and it allows me to connect in that way, engage some of the scholarship and literature and try to make that accessible to the first year students in the class. Just the opportunity to see ways in which the university can partner with the community and partners like 826 Boston, how that interface can happen and help to shape learning outcomes and experiences, is something I’m very interested in as well.

If you were a student in your own course, what would you do to get the most out of your experiences?

I would try to be as open minded as possible about the service experience. I would ask as many questions as possible about how the service relates to the course and vice versa. I would try to read service as kind of a text, in the same way you’d read an assigned text in the course. I would see it as opportunity to gain experience but also to a chance to read a different kind of text.

Do you have any tools, tips, or tricks about utilizing or incorporated Service-Learning that you could share for other faculty members?

You have to be willing to be flexible in how you conceive your class and its links. You have to revisit this idea throughout semester and when you start up again because things will change from how you originally saw the connection, and also as relationships with the partners evolve. You have to revisit it from time to time to make sure that everyone is serving each other’s needs.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the Service-Learning program?

I’m enjoying it a lot and I still have a lot to figure out!

Chris Featherman has taught a Service-Learning section of First-Year Writing for two semesters.
Megan is a member of the Service-Learning Street Team. 

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