Faculty member designs writing course around crafting new local narrative

June 24, 2022

South Bend is a special place. That was the message Nicole MacLaughlin wanted her course to convey. An associate teaching professor in the University Writing Program, MacLaughlin has taught community-engaged learning classes for more than ten years. In each class, she created opportunities for students to collaborate with and learn from members of the community. Yet in the semester following COVID-19 lockdowns, she had a different perspective. She knew that life as a college student can happen in a bubble. The combination of rigorous class schedules, living in a residence hall, and eating in dining halls can make it easy for students at Notre Dame to focus their attention on campus. She also knew that the response to COVID-19 had only exacerbated that sense of isolation. When MacLaughlin asked her students for words they associate with South Bend, many said “rural” and “boring.” They were disconnected from the area. With this in mind, MacLaughlin reimagined her community-engaged teaching. This time she wanted to do more. She wanted to change the narrative.

Supported by a community impact grant from the Center for Social Concerns, MacLaughlin created a course that invited students to see a new side of South Bend in two ways. First, they worked closely and extensively with the staff at the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC). Together, the teams of community members and students created literacy materials that the RCLC will use frequently in the future. This kind of collaboration is the core of community-engaged classes and had been part of MacLaughlin’s previous partnerships with the RCLC. In 2021, however, MacLaughlin also asked students to interview RCLC staff about their own transitions to South Bend. Many members of the staff are not native to South Bend and instead relocated from areas across the United States. Such conversations are “not [the staff members’] job or their specialty,” MacLaughlin later reflected, “but it’s part of who they are and sharing who they are really helped.” The conversations highlighted what the staff members had come to love about South Bend, even those who originally arrived skeptical of it.

MacLaughlin also asked her students to explore South Bend independently. While acknowledging that her “heart is in the community,” MacLaughlin asked members of the class to write their own story, to find out for themselves what the area is like. Without first hand experience, students often see South Bend through the eyes of others, relying on stories and perceptions that are not their own. To get their own sense of the city, students were required to spend an afternoon off campus on the bus, going wherever they wanted and using their phones to document the experience. “Go and have fun, see how easy it is to find your way around,” MacLaughlin encouraged them, “and take photos, take lots of photos.” She then asked students to create photo essays to help first year students better understand South Bend. In this way, MacLaughlin challenged students to confront their assumptions and the rhetorical frame through which they thought and talked about the community beyond campus. “It’s a city, it’s got problems,” she told them, “but find out for yourself.” 

And find out they did. Student essays collected in MacLaughlin’s course consistently embraced a new narrative about South Bend. Through their photos and writing, MacLaughlin argues that “the students came to appreciate the richness in the community in terms of cultural diversity, in terms of arts recreation, in terms of natural beauty.” Beginning the semester uninterested in or skeptical of local communities, “a large number of them became South Bend supporters” by the end, says MacLaughlin.

Coming back to community engagement also reminded MacLaughlin of how off campus collaboration can benefit faculty. In an era challenged by pervasive patterns of misinformation and disinformation, community-engaged learning helps students understand the value of direct interrogation, of examining something directly. “When you see that students are lacking factual information that would make their experience more meaningful or educational,” she argues, “if there’s something that they’re uninformed about, teach into the gaps.” Misperceptions and ill-formed rhetorical frames are an opportunity for instructors to challenge their students to engage with South Bend first hand. Buoyed by her experience in fall 2021, MacLaughlin plans to do just that in the years to come.