What Works: Focus on Humanity

By Pax Rasmussen

Jean Cheney, Jeff Metcalf and Craig Wirth have spearheaded a college-level humanities program that invites nontraditional low-income people to explore the wealth of the mind. The result? Devoted, engaged students that teachers usually only dream of. humanityinfocus“I’m not really worried about their ability to tell the story,” Craig Wirth says. “These students know their stories. Teaching this class is like teaching word processing to someone with a novel in his head.”

Wirth smiles when he says this, and looks up to greet Dot Richeda as she walks into the classroom, an Asian woman in her 60s and one of the 18 students enrolled in this class, Humanities in Focus.

Jeff Metcalf, a professor in the English Department at the University of Utah, together with four-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Craig Wirth, teach the class and are just finishing up the first semester. Twice a week, the students come from all around the valley to work together creating powerful, well-told documentaries about issues ranging from crystal meth abuse to karaoke to homelessness. They range in age from 18 to 65 and across six nationalities. Two are former refugees, one a recent escapee of a polygamist clan, another a former female prisoner. All of them live below the federal poverty line, and none of them are paying a dime for this class. These students, now in their second year of these free, college-level courses, are graduates of last year’s Venture Course in the Humanities.

To fully explain what is going on here, we have to go back a year, and for the full story, over a decade.

The program was started primarily by Jean Cheney, the assistant director of the Utah Humanities Council (UHC). About nine years ago, Cheney learned of a program called the Clemente Course in New York City, offered in partnership with Bard College. This program had been started a short time before by author and social activist Earl Shorris, who, according to Cheney, was acting on a “growing conviction that {quotes align=right}what poor people lack most is not job training or skills education but the ability-and time-to reflect, to develop independent thought.{/quotes}” The idea resonated with Cheney, and she felt that something like this was needed in Salt Lake. At that time funding wasn’t readily available, so Cheney put the idea on the back burner.
Three years ago, however, an opportunity presented itself.

“I always had the idea that someday I would do this,” said Cheney, “and then the funders approached us.” The Arts, Humanities and the Environment (AHE) Cultural Initiative had heard about the New York project and together with the Humanities Connection, another philanthropic organization in Utah, they offered Cheney and UHC a three-year grant to make Venture a possibility. Cheney spent a year planning Venture, selecting the faculty to teach the classes and arranging the details, and launched it in September 2005.

The course, now in its second year, is offered through a partnership between the Utah Humanities Council and Westminster College. Transportation (in the form of bus tokens and TRAX passes) is paid for, as is child care and an evening meal. Horizonte donates the classroom space and food. The students commit to a full year of classes, two nights a week: The first semester is Art History and Literature with Writing alternating, the second semester Philosophy and American History, again with Writing alternating. The courses are taught by professors Jennifer Bauman, Jeff Metcalf, Jack Newell, Bridgett Newell and Jean Cheney. At the end of the course, the students receive eight college credits from Westminster.

All students must live below the federal poverty line and can have no previous college experience. They also must write personal statements explaining why they think the courses will help their lives.”I had a normal life, worked, got married. I always wanted to go to school. No matter how old you are, there’s still room to learn,” said Richeda, smiling.

Beyond Venture

The students from last year’s Venture course still meet every Tuesday and Thursday, not at Horizonte, but at Salt Lake Community College’s South City Campus, part of the brand new Humanities in Focus program. At the end of May, their time with Venture came to a close and they found themselves not yet ready to give up being students. “It just wasn’t time to quit,” said Richeda.

The other students voiced the same opinion. When Metcalf asked how many of them would apply if there was a continuation of the program, they all expressed a desire. “{quotes}These students were coming to class every night, doing their homework, doing other work without even being asked to do it. They were enthusiastic and didn’t want to quit{/quotes},” said Metcalf. Earlier in the semester, Metcalf had explained the Venture Course to Wirth, and together they developed the concept for the Humanities in Focus program.

There was still only one small problem: funding. Metcalf started looking for money and found it in a one-time grant from the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation in New York. With this money and help from the UHC and the Department of Humanities at the University of Utah, Focus on Humanities managed to come into being by September.

Student filmmakers

{mosgoogle} Of the original 21 students in the Venture Course, 18 continued with Humanities in Focus. They meet twice a week for instruction from Metcalf and Wirth, discussing their projects and gettting feedback from one another and their instructors. Using the writing and narrative skills they learned last year in Venture, they’re now learning to apply their vision and make something concrete to share with the world.

“The writing is so deep from their hearts,” said Wirth, “they know their stories, and they’re eager to learn how to tell them.” Justin Scheurer, one of the student filmmakers, agrees. “I’ve always wanted to get into filmmaking,” he said, “I just wish there was more time for this during the week.”

Grouped into teams of four, they had to decide as a group what story to tell. They’ve chosen diverse topics, such as karaoke and the eclectic art scene. One group, with a member who was formerly homeless, is working hard to show the viewer what a day in the life of a homeless person is like. Another making a documentary about meth use among the poor, and they know this subject: Two of the women in the group have teenage daughters who use meth.

Working hard

Making it to class isn’t easy for these people: All of them work long hours just to pay the bills, many of them are taking care of children, and some of them live far from the class site. Even so, the attendance rate is staggering, often at 100%. While the national average retention rate (the number of students that finish the course) is at about 50%, last year’s Venture Course had an 80% retention rate, and this year it is at 90%. The Humanities in Focus course is near 100%.

Goals in sight

A few of the students graduated Venture and continued on to college. Richeda has been accepted into Westminster and has plans to pursue a psychology degree, and Judy Fuwell is studying Special Education full-time at the University of Utah. A number of other students plan to apply.

But that’s not the main goal of the program. “While the hope is that through this experience some of the students will continue with college, the real goal is to offer a promise that being a lifelong student, however you do it, will serve you well,” said Metcalf. “We want to awaken a curiosity in a population that has been terribly underserved.” Wirth agrees. “It’s quite an experience to teach people who are here 100% for education and expression,” he said.

Future years

The Venture Course has funding for one more year, and Cheney has been invited by AHE to apply for future funding. Humanities in Focus is out of money, but Metcalf is diligently hunting for more.

Whatever happens in the future, what has already happened is sure to have an enlightening impact on Salt Lake’s disadvantaged population for years to come.

To get a more personal taste of the Venture Course students, check out the photography exhibit by Kent Miles at the Whitmore Library (2197 E. Fort Union Blvd) beginning January 6.

Check out our website www.catalystmagazine.net for streaming video from one of the Humanities in Focus class meetings.

Visit the Utah Humanties Council’s website at http://www.utahhumanities.org/Venture.htm (make sure you capitialize the V in Venture) to watch a documentary about the Venture Course made by Craig Wirth.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2006.