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Books: In Utah, finding hope in the humanities

First Published      Last Updated Oct 24 2016 09:59 am

Thumb through the pages of "Hope, Heart, and the Humanities: How a Free College Course Is Changing Lives," and you'll be struck by the stories of students whose fierce hunger for a life of the mind eventually led them to Venture — an interdisciplinary course offered by the Utah Humanities Council for adults with low income. Now in its 10th year, Venture is the subject of this graceful new collection of essays edited by L. Jackson Newell and Jean Cheney, associate director of the Utah Humanities Council and the creative catalyst behind the course.

While attending a meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1998, Cheney heard the late-Earl Shorris, a writer and contributing editor for Harper's Magazine, discuss a free humanities program he was running for those with low incomes in New York City. Classes were held twice a week and students — some of them homeless — gathered to study philosophy and literature. People thought he was crazy to undertake such a project, Shorris said. But he could see firsthand the benefits of sharing an "elite" education with an underserved population.



Inspired, Cheney wondered if she could do the same thing in Utah. She discussed her idea with professors Hikmet Loe, Jeff Metcalf, Bridget M. Newell and L. Jackson Newell (no relation), who all signed on for the project. Then she worked to acquire funding and launched the program in fall 2006. "Hope, Heart, and the Humanities" grows out of these individuals' experiences.

As part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival, Cheney and her fellow instructors will discuss the book, as well as their experiences, on Wednesday at Westminster College. (See box for details.)

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Cheney shares her thoughts about Venture and the importance of a humanities education for everyone.

Is there a typical Venture student?

Yes and no. Statistically, the typical student is about 35, female, living on a low income, and a mother (either single or married) who had her children early in life. She is smart and curious but lacks the money or confidence to develop her talents. But really each Venture student is unique. Although all are living on a low income, some are working, some not. Many are immigrants or refugees. Some have been homeless, others have always had a stable home. Many have experienced racism, sexism, extreme poverty, domestic violence — the oppressions that keep the human spirit from flourishing. Others simply never had the chance to go to college. But all Venture students who finish the course have a level of courage, stamina and thirst for learning that is unparalleled in the traditional college classroom.

Can you comment on the impact the program has had on the lives of these students?

The impact on many students is profound and complex, but if I had to summarize it, I would say that it gives students greater agency over their lives, more confidence to become their fullest selves and to use their abilities to give back to their communities and inspire their children to value education. They leave feeling more able to make changes that will help them reach their goals. What those changes and goals are vary from student to student, but we have heard, over and over, that Venture helps them relocate the person they've always been or wanted to be. They may not have had the time and encouragement to develop that person, but she or he was always there.

And what about the impact of the course on the faculty?

The impact on the instructors has been profound. Each of us would probably describe it differently, but I think we would all agree that our teaching in Venture has shown us how wide and deep is unearned privilege in this country. All white and middle-class, we grew up in safe neighborhoods and attended good schools, and our parents and teachers introduced the humanities to us early in our lives. We've all been shaped and inspired by what we found in books and art. They have become a part of who we are. Because of systemic racism, classism and economic inequalities, however, that is not the case with many, many people in America. But once they do engage in this study, they only want more! Secondly, on the flip side, we've learned what rich minds exist among those living on low incomes. When given the opportunity and the tools, students are able to understand and interpret their lives in ways that have taught us much. In sum, we've learned how much we need each other, have to learn from one another.

What is the time commitment for students?

Students attend two-hour classes twice each week, for eight months, for a total of 55 class meetings. Classes are held in the evenings, and child care and transportation are provided. Outside of class, students read literature, history and philosophy, or study art, depending upon the subject at the time, and write essays. Students tell us that Venture takes up almost all of their free time, especially if they also have a job and/or a family.

What is the time commitment for faculty?

Each of the five faculty teaches 11 two-hour classes, and outside of class prepares lessons and reads student work. Faculty have to adapt the curriculum they are accustomed to teaching to this abbreviated number of classes and, sometimes, develop new ways of engaging these adult learners. The time commitment for both students and faculty is considerable.

How is the program funded?

Originally, Venture was funded by a five-year start-up grant to Utah Humanities from Alternative Visions, a fund of the Chicago Community Trust. Now, it is primarily funded by the partnering college or university (Westminster College, Southern Utah University and, until this fall, Weber State University), with consulting from Utah Humanities and some support for nonpersonnel costs. Utah Humanities is extremely grateful to Alternative Visions for helping us to start Venture and to these colleges for their commitment to their communities to keep it going.

What insights did you gain while editing this collection of essays?

» Next page... Single page

 

AT A GLANCE

“Hope, Heart, and the Humanities: How a Free College Course Is Changing Lives”

Edited by Jean Cheney and L. Jackson Newell with Hikmet Sidney Loe, Jeff Metcalf and Bridget M. Newell

University of Utah Press, 2016

144 pages

$21.95

Venture course

To qualify for Venture, students must be 18 years or older, able to read and write in English, and living on a low income. The course is accredited and free. Transportation and childcare are provided at no cost. Depending on the partnering institution, students can earn approximately eight credit hours. Venture is not meant, however, to be a substitute for a first year of college. For more information about Venture, visit http://www.utahhumanities.org. Click onto the “What We Do” tab, then click onto the “Educational Access” tab.

Utah Humanities Book Festival event

As part of the 19th annual Utah Humanities Book Festival running though Nov. 5, the authors behind “Hope, Heart, and the Humanities: How a Free College Course is Changing Lives” will talk about their book and the Venture program.

When » Wednesday, Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Where » Westminster College, Gore Business Auditorium,1840 S. 1300 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets » Free

More on the festival » http://www.utahhumanities.org


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