Veronica House on Community Literacy and Engagement
During summer 2017, we conducted a video interview with Dr. Veronica House, Associate Faculty Director for Service-Learning and Outreach in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder). In our conversation, she discussed the founding of the Conference on Community Writing, perspectives on fostering networks for community engagement, and new directions for writing studies.
We are grateful for her time and insight, offering an optimistic perspective about how writing studies can work to forge community partnerships, a core goal of 4C4Equality. - Liz & Don
Liz & Don: You hold a unique position at your university and within your program, "associate faculty director for service- learning and outreach in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric."
What does the position entail?
Veronica House: I am charged with setting the vision for community-engaged pedagogy in the program and chair the program's Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Committee. I offer pedagogical support for instructors, leading presentations, discussions, and one-on-one consultations throughout the year as colleagues express interest in teaching an engaged writing course. Typically, I meet with a colleague to learn about the course and its learning goals. We then map out potential assignments and assignment sequences and discuss possible community partners. I next reach out to the potential partners to gage interest and send email introductions. I have also liaised with several dozen community partners, facilitating community-wide workshops and discussions on service-learning, conducting on-site visits to determine how to fill community needs through curricular innovation, and collaboratively developing and assessing community-based learning projects for undergraduates. Often partners approach me with project ideas, and I help connect them with faculty whose courses might lend themselves to the proposed project.
L&D: Could you tell us more about CU Boulder's Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement (WISE)? What sort of work does the initiative do?
In your 2015 Conference on Community Writing keynote, you state that 30% of CU Boulder's faculty teach WISE courses: who do faculty partner with, and what types of work do students carry out?
VH: I launched WISE in 2008 with a faculty retreat where we collaboratively determined what a programmatic commitment to engaged pedagogy would look like at our lower and upper division. Early on, we invited about 35 community partners to a working lunch, and we all discussed how to collaboratively launch this idea. Through several years of workshops, presentations, discussions, and consultations with colleagues and community partners, we've developed a really robust curriculum that maps to community needs, interests, and conversations around critical issues.
We have constructed a vertical service- learning curriculum that touches several levels of writing (first-year, technical writing, science writing, business writing, and topics in writing courses such as environmental writing, grant writing, and my own course on Food and Culture) and several areas of study (first-year experience, community literacies, digital and multimodal composition, ecopedagogy and sustainability, visual rhetorics, and public rhetorics).
First-year students might do a "writing about" assignment, such as a research paper investigating causes or effects of the social issue their organization addresses. Maybe they will determine an organizational need as part of a low-stakes "writing for" assignment, and craft a proposal letter to a local business or campus office asking for a donation of a particular item or service their non-profit needs. I had a class several years ago design a class project with a homeless day shelter we were partnering with. One of my students was a musician, and he developed a friendship with a homeless musician. They proposed putting on a concert on the CU campus featuring student and homeless musicians. My class used writing in all kinds of ways, from soliciting sponsorships and donations to crafting promotional materials and press releases. The event was such a cool collaboration between the two groups of people who would never have met otherwise.
Upper level students may, for example, write a grant, create an interactive website, draft a business plan, or do a digital storytelling project for an organization. One class did a comprehensive community discourse analysis for an environmental organization that wanted to understand how people use and understand the word "sustainability." The students wrote up a report and presented their findings to the organization's Board of Directors.
Just a few days ago, the YWCA's Reading to End Racism project director suggested a potential partnership with students who would write curriculum or lesson plans for particular books in their library that are used in the classroom. Another project idea was to have college students assess their library and do research on cultures, topics, and issues that are missing, and create a book list of possible additions.
Another recent request for our technical communication class was to have students write a case study on a new software/ app that they're implementing this year. The upper division projects range widely depending upon the course and instructor.
L&D: How do these partnerships relate to the Conference on Community Writing? How did the conference get started?
VH: Part of my work in the PWR is to liaise with Campus Compact of the Mountain West. The idea for the first conference really grew out of my work on their advisory committee. We did a number of regional faculty trainings, at which I kept hearing faculty say that they are doing engaged work DESPITE OF a lack of support at their home institution or IN ADDITION TO all of the other responsibilities they have.
Even in my own program where there is a lot of enthusiasm, we constantly bump up against the need for more time to do the work well and for a reward structure. I'm lucky here at CU that I have so many colleagues who support the work and do it themselves. We have a really wonderful comradery. But many faculty around the country don't have that.
What if we could move around all of these potential barriers that can cause fatigue and burn out, and could create a structure—that engaged infrastructure I was getting at with the inaugural conference theme—to make the work more sustaining and sustainable? Really, this calls for a shift in the field in terms of hiring and T&P practices, a shift in our journals in terms of what gets published, in our book series, etc.
Just a few months after I began planning for this conference, I attended a Writing Democracy workshop at CCCC and met Shannon Carter and Deborah Mutnick—they and Steve Parks and my awesome colleagues at CU on the conference planning committee all helped me to brainstorm about what the conference could be and do. For example, the idea for the mentor network and the book award came from Paula Mathieu, who has been incredibly generous in her ideas.
L&D: We note that the 2015 conference theme, "engaged infrastructure," and the 2017 conference theme, "networks and ecologies," both relate to connecting scholars across the communities in which they carry out local work. What is your perspective on the importance of connecting scholars across communities?
VH: Relationships are foundational. Eli Goldblatt takes a full chapter in Because We Live Here to talk about the importance of lunch. Paul Feigenbaum writes about "wise mentorship." Several people said about the first conference that they finally felt they'd found their people. Engaged work isn't easy. It's such a joy to connect with others doing similar work–to network, mentor, and support one another is critical.
L&D: Can you speak a little more about this year's theme and how you think it reflects/pertains to what work is happening in the field?
VH: This call for an ecological framework for engagement is based on an understanding that a writing program is one part of a dynamic ecology. This suggests a shift in community writing studies, from the singular model (single course/single instructor) to a multifaceted, cohort-based one. In this idea, I'm drawing on work by Sid Dobrin, Jenny Rice, Laurie Gries, Kristen Seas Trader, and several others who theorize the hyper- networked, collaborative, circulatory, and remixed nature of writing. These theories can align beautifully with community-based practitioners' work and can influence the kinds of writing we encourage in our communities. It calls for an understanding of the distributed, dynamic nature of public writing, and of how writing and rhetorical concepts circulate and morph in a complex ecology.
L&D: We note that many of the presentations listed in the 2017 conference program focus on an individual instructors' local work. How can we demonstrate the importance of building a disciplinary (or inter-institutional) infrastructure for community-based work?
VH: That's really what that first conference was all about. I said in the 2015 Chair's Address that I was thinking about the conference as a verb. As an embodied doing and making. The DeepThink Tanks in particular were supposed to convene people around a theme to figure out what it means to approach the theme as a discipline.
The conference is a part of that demonstration of that importance of disciplinary infrastructure. Reflections and the Community Literacy Journal are demonstrations of the importance. The CCW awards demonstrate the importance. We're in the beginning stage of launching a community writing organization. That's also a kind of demonstration of our disciplinary importance. And then, there's the larger field—I think it's critical to bring in key people who may not already think of their work as aligning with community writing (like Jenny Rice and Laurie Gries and others), and explore how tied our theories are. We have very deliberately invited people from the caucuses and other areas of the field, who were not present at the first conference, to demonstrate the wide ranging theoretical, activist, and pedagogical potential for what fits under the umbrella of community writing.
L&D: In the 2015 CCW keynote, you address how the conference aims to help build a national support network for writing faculty engaged in service-learning and community engagement. Furthermore, you describe an infrastructure for this network as including:
- Mentoring programs
- Learning outcomes models
- WPA consultant models
- A crowdsourced interactive map of work going on around the country.
Could you tell us about the progress made in these areas? Hopes or goals?
VH: Paula Mathieu and I have initiated a project with several leading scholars in the field to create a national mentoring network for community-engaged faculty and graduate students. Anyone interested in mentorship should contact me or Paul, and we can connect them.
In April, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), revised its Position Statement on Community-Engaged Projects in Rhetoric and Composition, which offers guidelines for "understanding, assessing, and valuing" community-engaged work. This wasn't affiliated with CCW, but four of the five authors are actively involved in CCW. It does speak to the growing presence of engaged work in the field.
We've added two awards to the initial one of Distinguished Engaged Scholar of Community Writing, which we gave to Eli Goldblatt in 2015, and which Ellen Cushman will receive at CCW this year. We now also have Outstanding Book and Outstanding College-Community Partnership. Each awards committee had about 7-10 scholars deciding the honorees.
As Paul Feigenbaum and I assume editorship of the Community Literacy Journal, we're aligning the journal more closely with the conference–we will offer a special issue to come out of each CCW.
In terms of the map of community writing, we have a really strong outline for what we want to do. We're now searching for a web developer (hopefully someone in Rhetoric and Composition) to help create a minimally viable model that we can use to apply for funding to do the bigger project.
L&D: How might writing instructors get involved in efforts to build this infrastructure?
VH: If anyone is interested in getting more involved, either in the mentor network, on the awards committees, in future conference planning, or in helping to build the new organization, they can just contact me and let me know what they'd like to do. If they have an idea for something new, that is totally welcome, too! If you have resources to provide, those are also welcome. We're really in the building stage–it's an exciting time to get involved.
L&D: How has the conference changed from first iteration to second?
VH: It is even more inclusive of a wide variety of projects, ideas, and people. It's more comprehensive, too, in that it includes lots of CCCC caucus members who are bringing in some of the central foci of the caucuses to CCW. My colleague, Seth Myers, has launched a makerthon—an activist maker space. We're continuing the DeepThink Tanks, which are meant to be action- oriented working sessions that may result in collaborative action, a co-authored article or special issue of a journal, a conference panel, a location-based or theme-based cohort that can do on-the-ground work around a topic. We're trying to play with and expand possibilities for what a conference can do and be.
L&D: What are some of the main goals for the conference/future conferences; how can local organizers, who see the need to connect their work regionally or nationally but who may not be focused on writing and instruction, get involved in this network; and what advice do you have for those audiences, both communities and institutions?
VH: A key question for me is, "how do communities 'write' themselves?" Distilling our theories about rhetorical velocity and virality and contagion and circulation, and offering communities tools for spreading messaging and ideas could be a real way to get local organizers interested in the potential organization and the conference. Our Highlander Center pre-conference workshop will be a big draw to community organizers who have not yet thought much about connecting to higher ed. We're doing a lot of outreach to community organizations around this workshop, the Deep Think Tanks, and themed sessions. We're also opening up the two evening performances free to the public. So, part of it is just starting to get the word out that this exists. Most of the people we talk to are amazed that so many academics are doing this kind of engaged work. I hope that future conferences will build on this outreach. We've started from a disciplinary focus, but I imagine we will branch out to become a more interdisciplinary and inter- community conference and organization.
One thing we can do in our local communities is to continue to do outreach, and once the organization is formed, we can invite community members to participate and serve on the board. Paul and I are also thinking about ways to make the Community Literacy Journal more accessible and relevant to public audiences.
My advice is to join the listserv and reach out to me if you want to get involved. There's so much work to be done and many ways for people to get involved. I should add, too, that community partner presenters can attend the full conference for free. That's something we've offered from the beginning, and I think it is important to continue that tradition.
L&D: How have the goals of building a national network been affected by the current political climate (Trump, etc.)?
VH: Certainly issues of immigration, racism, environmental protection and climate change, gender, and so much more have all become more visible and urgent under the current administration, and higher ed has to adapt and respond in deep and meaningful ways. Engaged scholarship and pedagogy has come under sharp attack in the forms of things like the National Association of Scholars' report and the Professor Watchlist. I'm proud that CCCCs has responded by creating a strategic action task force, chaired by Steve Parks, to pull together resources for faculty who may feel threatened or who need to promote and explain engaged work to external audiences.
As CCW forms an organization and as the conference leaves Boulder and moves around the country, it will be critical that we keep at the forefront questions of why we are important and to whom, whose voices are included or excludedÉI believe it's critical to build structures of support and resources and mentorship, but I hope that those structures will remain pliable, adaptive, and critically engaged–that's what I was trying to get at through the concept of an engaged infrastructure, and that's one of the draws of thinking ecologically.
Ecologies are responsive and in constant flux. I think, given the bent of the hundreds of people involved in CCW so far, it will continue to remain self-reflective and adaptive and connected to its grassroots origins.