Making Meaning

by Barbara Kelley |

Barbara Kelley is a journalism lecturer at SCU who has incorporated the core Arrupe Program into her advanced classes for the past seven years.

found a quote that I love in a small journal called Points of Entry: Crosscurrents in Story- telling. In an article entitled “Journalist, Teacher and Storyteller,” editor Terry Lee suggests that the purpose of literary journalism, like realist fiction, is to “invite readers into the story to participate in the business of making mean- ing, and to learn something about the business of being human.”

It reminded me of Arrupe Center placements, which I have incorporated into my advanced journalism classes for the past seven years. What I have learned over time is that when it comes to community-based learning, this “business of making meaning” is a constantly shifting, evolving process whose elegance is its continuing challenge. The learning curve, for professor and student alike, is steep.

Many students enter the program wary at best, recalcitrant at worst. Placements take time. Students must venture outside their comfort zone. They have to talk to strangers. Hard questions arise. And yet, and this is the alchemy of Arrupe, almost all of these students come out of their placements ten weeks later not only in love with the program, but transformed as well. The beauty of Arrupe is its capacity to bring out the best in our students.

I recall a discussion last year when one young woman reflected upon a young Mexican girl she had befriended while helping her with math at the Sacred Heart Community Services Homework Club. The child wanted to know what college was like, and confessed her dream of attending Santa Clara one day. “I realized right then,” said my student, “that this little girl could have been my mother, who might have pursued her education too if she’d ever had the chance.”

A small moment, but significant nonetheless, as a deeper discussion took flight. We talked about dreams and opportunities and the systemic problems in our society that prevent those who live on the margins from realizing them. Clearly, this student had stretched her worldview. So had her classmates.

For the professor trying to make these connections click, it’s not always an easy journey. It can be messy. Unpredictable. Probably the hall- mark of a successful Arrupe experience is the need for the professor to relinquish a certain amount of control, something it took me a while to figure out.

From the start, I found Arrupe an easy fit with course objectives: Long-term placements in community agencies provided students with an experience in “immersion journalism,” where they could learn about another reality from the inside out. Students produced a final enterprise story, based on their Arrupe experience, that served to give a voice to those on the margins, who rarely have one in mainstream media, and to bring a significant social issue into the public discourse.

Over the years, students produced evocative pieces, some worthy of publication, ranging from a profile of a young single mother who had turned around her life of addiction and prostitution to a piece on the little-recognized but growing cohort of senior citizens with AIDS.

But while learning outcomes were never in doubt, I came to realize that I had only gotten this complex and layered program half right. The point was not to use Arrupe to serve the coursework, but to elevate it: to give the course- work purpose by using the students’ experiences in the field to trigger a deeper discussion of the causes of poverty and marginalization, and to tackle those complex issues within the context of the journalist’s mission—to put a meaningful debate on the table.

I’ve since reframed the experience around two issues: strength vs. weakness and arrogance vs. humility. In reflection sessions, we talk about the strengths of those living on the margins, rather than, as most media does, focusing on weaknesses. Abandoning the pathology paradigm allows students not only to consider the similarities between themselves and those in their placements, but also helps them focus on the larger context. And, by stressing that the people the students encounter are the experts, students realize the necessity of learning—and connecting— before they can be agents of change. By quarter’s end, most students understand that for journalists to truly address issues of social justice, it’s imperative to explore the issues from the grass roots, rather than from the top down.

We also talk about solidarity and, by the end of the quarter, most students have found a

Many students enter the program wary at best, recalcitrant at worst. Place- ments take time. Students must venture outside their comfort zone. They have to talk to strangers. Hard questions arise. And yet, and this is the alchemy of Arrupe, almost all of these students come out of their placements ten weeks later not only in love with the program, but transformed as well.

lingering sense of connection. Often the desire to take action transcends quarter’s end. One student has taken it upon herself to work with homeless women in publishing a regular newsletter for the agency. Another who interned at an alternative weekly in Portland sought to humanize the local hunger stats by writing a feature that examined the issue through the lens of a family of teenagers on food stamps.

Clearly, these students “got it.” As for me, I’m still learning. I’m thinking specifically about a reflection at the end of winter quarter last year. It was a sunny day and, bowing to pressure, I agreed to hold class on the lawn outside our classroom building. I sat under a leafy tree, feeling just the slightest bit Socratic, with the students sprawled around me on the grass. We were discussing the underlying problems the students had observed and how to address them. We were moving toward the transformative

piece—the need to take action—when one young man who had spent the quarter at a shelter for homeless adults, many with dual diagnosis, began to voice his frustration that the men he had gotten to know were unable to take any action to improve their situation. He’d give them advice one week, and come back the next to find they hadn’t followed up.

“You see a sort of paralysis?” I asked. “What do you think causes it?” Students often have a difficult time seeing past the prism of their own experience, and this one was no exception. He had trouble confronting the deeper realities of their situation without falling back on the facile explanations: Drugs. Laziness. No will. I tried to push. “What’s going on at a more systemic level that could trigger that kind of inertia? What can be done about it?” Among his classmates, the tenor of the discussion changed, along with the questions, which no longer centered on what the homeless men were doing wrong, but what we as a society were doing wrong. As the debate progressed, the young man was uncharacteristically quiet. As class ended, he picked up his backpack and headed off. Had his mind changed? I can’t guarantee that it had. Was he uncomfortable as the conversation challenged him to question his assumptions? Probably.

I was uncomfortable as well, as I continued to second-guess myself well into the next quarter. Had I missed a “teachable moment” with this student along the way? Was a previous class on stereotyping not deep enough? Was there a failure on my part not to push the discussion further, sooner? I wasn’t sure.

But then I remembered the learning curve. In this business of finding meaning, student and teacher alike learn from the uncomfortable questions, the doubts, and the dissonant experiences.

Next time, I’ll do it better.

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