Crossroads in the Heartland
By JAMI SPENCER
Jami Spenser, a regular contributor to Community Works Journal, is an Assistant Professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois. She is also an alumnus of CWI's Summer Institute on Service-Learning. Jami is a veteran educator and practitioner of service-learning, incorporating place-based education, service, and sustainability in her work with college students. She is also a professional free lance writer whose work focuses on place based education, nutrition, and food themes. Jami and her husband home school their young children.
Photos of Normal, Illinois are courtesy of photographer, Troy Marcy. Additional photos CWI Archive.
It was a bittersweet day that Saturday morning as my husband and I traversed the 1000 miles home from Vermont via our rented Jeep Liberty. We were sad to leave the beautiful state of Vermont behind, but excited to see our four children. We were bummed to bid farewell to the mountains and the lake and say hello to flat cornfields and work, but anxious to harvest the Cherokee Purple tomatoes waiting for us in our front yard garden. On the trip to Burlington, Vermont from Bloomington, Illinois we had traveled the pricey toll roads along Lake Erie, but never saw the lake. Instead, giant concrete pylons framed our course. We met construction traffic that had us stopped behind miles of vehicles, adding hours to our trip. So to avoid such frustrations on the return home, we opted for the scenic byway through the Catskill Mountains, stopping to explore the small towns and villages along the way.
This should have been a wonderful end to an inspirational conference week at CWI’s Summer East Institute on Service-Learning. The views should have refreshed my soul and prepared me for the real life waiting back home, but I didn’t look out the window and appreciate our scenic drive through south-central New York. Instead, I spent at least six hours staring at multiple screens in an attempt at confidence in reliable directions, to locate a hotel for the evening and find gluten-free food options. Technology should offer convenient, quick, detailed information to be used on a moment’s notice, right? The perk is that we don’t have to “know” anything! The computer knows all and we expect the computer to serve us, when in the end, we typically serve the computer. I gave those screens my mountain views and small New York towns. Needless to say the relationship was not a reciprocal one. I have a slight memory of yelling at the GPS for being outdated and shutting off unexpectedly and perhaps even cursing a bit at my new smartphone for being so extremely slow. But there was a revelation in the anger. I had made a typical twenty-‐first century American mistake-‐ I placed all of my trust and reliance on a piece of technology and none on the people in the car.
Before attending CWI’s Summer EAST Institute I hadn’t completely bought into the whole education for sustainability thing. Our college had offered a faculty study group on this topic twice. The first time I passed it over assuming they were going to tell me I couldn’t print out student papers anymore and that everything would have to be done electronically. I’m still an old fashioned, book in my hand kind of girl that likes the smell of antiquated pages and dusty covers, so to read solely on a screen goes against my beliefs as an English teacher. The second time it was offered was the semester before the Institute in Vermont, so I decided to enroll. My passion was service-learning because it felt right, came naturally to me and it worked. I hadn’t thought of it as part of sustainability.
During our study group discussions, I found myself routinely playing devil’s advocate. I was uncomfortable, mostly, with the stigma associated with the term “sustainability” (I didn’t see myself as an extreme environmentalist pushing my views on others). Further, it has never been my style to use the classroom as a vehicle for recruiting young minds into my personal value system and it seemed that this is what my colleagues wanted to see happen. Plus, an underlying, yet unattractive truth about myself was revealed: I had been trying to entertain my college students and please them in the same way the media and popular culture do. They didn’t want to be in a composition class, so I appealed to their twenty-first century, tech-obsessed mindsets. Class took place on a very high-tech campus in fully equipped computer labs. We stayed in the classroom, used the technology and I encouraged them to recycle unwanted paper.
For me, though, this teaching approach was like trying to eat a Facebook Farmville veggie! I have not once walked away from technology feeling fulfilled. Rarely do I walk away without the frustration that comes from serving a screen that didn’t fulfill its promises. Yet, it is much too easy to get caught up in the fast-paced, technological advances of our modern society, and in doing so, become completely disconnected with nature and one another. Even after a week immersed in the ethics of sustainability, of connecting with Lake Champlain through walks along the rocky shores and a private swim on Friday evening, even after a week focused on reading, discussing and living the importance of sustainability, I was sucked in by the screens the very day we left.
For me as both a person and a teacher, CWI’s Summer East Institute on Service-Learning meant a complete buy-in to education for sustainability. The road trip home helped me to understand that teaching in this manner isn’t about pushing environmentalism on influential young minds; it is about helping them reconnect with their place and each other. We need to learn balance; I don’t believe that technology is all bad, but the way it defines our lives is not good. Sometimes, old school is better school. Hands-on, apprenticeship-style learning beats filling in bubbles any day. Passing down wisdom about medicinal herbs and edible weeds will sustain longer than instructions on how to use that new smart phone that is sure to be outdated in a few months. I want to share the importance of sustainability with my students by providing them with place-based service-learning projects that speak for themselves.
My experience of renewal and revelation happened when I found Lake Champlain and my childhood joy of connecting with another lake more than a thousand miles away came flooding back to me. I hadn’t experienced a true relationship with nature since I was nine, riding my big wheel down the huge hills of my Grandpa’s southern Missouri cabin on Truman Lake. Suddenly I remembered waking to the sounds of bluebirds, the smell of smoke from burning leaf piles, the sight of my skin, marked by squares from laying in the hammock too long, staring up at the shafts of light sneaking through old oak trees. I saw the catfish being cleaned on the fish shaped board, fins held down by a large silver clip. I was again traipsing through the woods hunting mushrooms with my mom and jumping off the dock to swim in our water hole with the cousins. The closest thing to technology we had at the cabin was an old 8-track player and the Grease soundtrack. In those days at Grandpa’s cabin I learned to “be.” I existed with nature, not in spite of it, in control of it or against it.
Those memories illustrate a symbiotic relationship with nature that many of us once have, but we tend to lose as technology takes over our lives. Somehow my husband and I survived that road trip home, still married and still sane. I regret not dwelling on the view of the Catskill Mountains and the novelty of a state with no billboards. I can’t imagine I would have regretted the use of an atlas, a cooler of food and a picnic in the mountains. I made decisions heading home that I was programmed to make. We become soused to technology as the answer that we don’t even think about the alternatives. I want to remind my students that there are alternatives. I hope to engage them with our monotone landscape and together, learn to appreciate the beauty of our “place.”
In the end, sustainability is about doing, and perhaps about leaving the screen awhile. For me, it was truly about remembering and prioritizing through a set of experiences. It’s impossible to completely relay to you or my students the fulfillment brought to me by the shores of Lake Champlain. In the sounds of the waves and birds and in the smell of the water and weeds I experienced an intimate reminiscence of my childhood and a love for the outdoors seeded by my grandfather. Likewise, it’s difficult to describe the satisfaction gained from the row of canned salsa on my counter this morning. In one jar I see the raised beds my husband and children made, the manure and soil I spread, the seeds we all planted, the watering and growth, the harvest of beautifully asymmetrical Cherokee Purples, the peppers on the grill, and our first apron-‐covered canning experience. In just one jar I see family, community, and my place. I can’t possible convey the satisfaction and fulfillment, but I can facilitate the experience and through that, perhaps a new generation will be inspired to set aside the screen and prioritize sustainability. [photo at left: Jami and her husband]
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