Learning-associate programs invite students to the 'real world' to Bates


Novelist Carolyn Chute and the owners of an organic Maine farm are among the specialists working with students in two innovative programs that are engaging the campus with the world outside.

One in the humanities, one in environmental studies, these “learning associates” programs enrich the curriculum with the real-world experience and perspectives of top practitioners in an occupation related to some aspect of the curriculum. “The students’ minds are opened to something beyond the immediate classroom,” says Judith Robbins, the Mellon learning associate in the humanities.

Many of these practitioners are from Maine. Terry and Mark Silber, who run Hedgehog Hill Farm in Sumner, are teaching a seminar on organic farming in the environmental studies program. A well-known Maine novelist, Carolyn Chute worked with students in creative writing and storytelling courses this semester as part of the senior thesis program.

Students found the interaction with Chute eye-opening, says Robbins. Chute, author of the acclaimed The Beans of Egypt, Maine (Ticknor & Fields, 1985), is an outspoken champion of Maine’s rural poor. Robbins says that several students, in evaluating the sessions with Chute, explained how she made them newly aware of Maine’s economic divisions.

One student, self-described as someone from a “middle-class family who had never had the chance to meet real, true working-class people,” realized the “similarities of all types and classes of people.” Another wrote simply that that Chute “opened my eyes to a new way of viewing literature.”

The environmental studies program involves the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences. The Silbers’ upper-level seminar explores the practical and ethical aspects of environmentally sustainable farming. The Silbers are the authors of Growing Herbs and Vegetables From Seed to Harvest (Knopf, 1999).

Camille Parrish is the environmental studies learning associate. Through setting up internships and engaging guest faculty like the Silbers, Parrish helps environmental studies majors connect their classroom work with real-world environmental issues as near as the campus and as far away as Thailand. By involving students with such local organizations as the Bates Mill Redevelopment Corporation and the Maine Rural Workers Coalition, Parrish also furthers another primary Bates goal: strengthening ties with the community.

In fact, the learning-associate initiative evolved in 1999 from President Donald Harward’s drive to engage the college with the world outside campus in more concrete and meaningful ways. (Harward retires at the end of June 2002.)

The New York-based Andrew Mellon Foundation awarded two grants last year to support the initiative. A $300,000 grant is supporting the learning-associate component of the environmental studies program, as well as the purchase of equipment. A $450,000 grant is funding the Mellon Learning Associates Program in the Humanities, now in its second semester.

In addition to Chute, the humanities program this semester is funding Denis Ledoux, a Francophone Maine memoirist, Lake Affect, a Buffalo-based sound performance quartet, a writing specialist in the Spanish language, poets, pianists and a dance critic.

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