By Dr. Mary A. Evins, Research Professor, Center for Historic Preservation
Undergraduate students generally leave college well-versed in understanding that they are expected to build their communities economically. They often have received far less guidance, however, in how to act as responsible citizens or how to build on our nation’s values and help fulfill its promise. With the assistance of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the American Democracy Project (ADP) at MTSU has launched a partnership with Tennessee community colleges to help students become more engaged citizens of our participatory democracy.
Several years ago, the NEH made a commitment to do its part to invigorate civic life across America. As part of the initiative, the agency developed programming to enhance colleges’ efforts to bridge cultural differences within communities throughout the country (NEH Call for Proposals, 2014, p. 2). In order to assist community college faculty at a time when the number of students at two-year schools is increasing nationwide, the NEH established “Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges” grant opportunities.
Partnering with the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and four TBR community colleges (Cleveland State, Jackson State, Dyersburg State at Covington, and Nashville State at Cookeville), ADP applied for one of these grants and was awarded more than $100,000 last spring. Our mission for the project is for our schools and faculty to work together to bridge cultures and build a more civil society across Tennessee through strengthening humanities education in our state’s community college classrooms.
The Bridging Cultures grant is an exciting opportunity for Tennessee to develop supportive partnerships among our state’s public two-year and four-year institutions, to make coursework connections to new resources, and to refresh ourselves about the important big ideas in the humanities disciplines–the Big Picture of why we teach–while increasing our students’ civic learning. We have twenty months–almost two years–to pilot this initiative through a group of dedicated TBR schools, with the hope of forwarding the mission even more widely across TBR’s other colleges and universities in the future.
Our program kicked off powerfully the week of July 13-17, 2015, with a workshop at MTSU titled “Religious Pluralism in Tennessee.” Addressing the challenges of religious difference in our state and helping our students learn to dialogue with civility and respect across difference are the objectives of our two-year program. The university, Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), Department of History, and College of Liberal Arts welcomed 26 community college faculty to our campus for an intensive, shared, week-long study.
Distinguished humanities scholars joined us from Emory University; Washington University, St. Louis; the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and McGill University, in Montreal. Using history, ethics, philosophy, and literature, our outside scholars led us through multicultural studies from the perspectives of the founding fathers historically, ethics and legal frameworks of pluralism and self-expression, philosophical processes to debate difference across religious boundaries, powerful literature to transform lives, and integration of global and local issues into students’ lives.
We discussed Hinduism with a swami, Islam with an imam, Catholicism with a nun, evangelical Christianity with a lay Baptist minister, and faith with a formerly incarcerated Freedom Rider. We had a panel of women leaders of multiple faiths. Another panel with the Faith and Culture Center focused on its “A Seat at the Table” dialogue and “Our Muslim Neighbors” initiative. We met with representatives of the American Muslim Advisory Council and were hosted by Humanities Tennessee.
We took our community college visiting scholars to a mosque, a Laotian Buddhist temple, and the Civil Rights Room of the Metro Nashville public library downtown. We also took participants on a riding tour of Civil Rights historic sites and African American churches in north Nashville where Nashville Student Movement activists of the 1950s and ‘60s were trained. In addition, we ate an Iftar dinner, breaking the Ramadan fast, at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
On campus, our visiting faculty accessed resources at the Albert Gore Research Center, the Center for Popular Music, and Walker Library, including the Learning, Teaching and Innovative Technologies Center. We also introduced the group to the Heritage Center in downtown Murfreesboro. Throughout the workshop, we were immersed in high-quality scholarship, with readings, materials, and bibliographies for the visiting professors’ own development and for use with students.
Our opening workshop showcased a rich platform of resources and connections within our state to access for teaching diversity. We as a group very much look forward to our next steps together, which will include new faculty learning communities at the community colleges beginning in the fall, a workshop back at MTSU at the beginning of 2016, presentation of reports at the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment national meeting in Indianapolis in June 2016, and a statewide workshop hosted by the TBR in Nashville.
Thank you to the CHP for the incredible support network, collaboration, and collective thinking to develop this strong program. The initial workshop was a team effort of faculty, staff, and graduate students, as our work at the CHP always is.