BY BECCA KARPENKO
What’s your ideal classroom? Is it a group of students sitting cross-legged in a circle? In a square? Hexagon? Does the best learning happen outdoors? Do passionate professors provoke more interest in students? Can we learn better from engaging with other people?
If you’re familiar with the term, “Gestalt,” you know that Gestalt is the theory that the whole is other than the sum of the parts. Gestalt drives many spheres of academia, including psychology and art. Here at the Sturzl Center, we see the concepts of Gestalt at work every day. One example is CENG courses. CENG stands for Community Engagement, which is a designation that assists students in registering for courses. Essentially, CENG courses allow students to learn about a particular issue in the world and then connect what they have learned through service within the community. Whether it is education major continuing to serve in an after-school program or a student finding passion in the art of giving their time, we believe in the transformative experience of service. It’s not a simple math equation where learning + community service = good. It’s not even the act of the service itself, but the service beyond the service, where someone realizes their duty to serve, where the world’s greatest need and someone’s greatest passions combine, and where a moment in space and time becomes the first step in a lifetime journey.
For Dr. Kathleen Gallagher Elkins, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, service is a way for students to apply what they learn in the classroom directly in the community. This semester, Dr. Gallagher Elkins is teaching Women in the Bible, a course that attempts to understand the role of gender, sexuality, and women in Biblical texts while also understanding how the Bible affects the world today. Over the past months, Dr. Gallagher Elkins has seen how a small classroom of 20 students has grown into a place where students can exchange dialogue and ask questions about things they have never wondered about before.
Dr. Gallagher Elkins’ students learned about different situations in the Bible involving women. Often times, the concepts they learned were challenging and thought-provoking.
“I hear comments such as, ‘I’ve never thought about that before,’” explains Dr. Gallagher Elkins about how her course has helped spark discussion. “Other students say, ‘I didn’t know this was still going on today.’”
In addition to learning about women in the Bible and applying different theologies in order to interpret the Bible, students in Dr. Gallagher Elkins’ course then participate in community service. This semester, her students are serving at various sites within Brown County including Wellspring, Wise Women Gathering Place, The Micah Center at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, ASTOP, House of Hope, Reach, Pal’s Program, Freedom House, and the YWCA. By participating in reflections and various discussions, the students were able to discuss the impact service has made on them and how they have connected to it. Through service, students are able to see connections between the classroom and the real world.
“Because we are learning and working primarily with women it is important to see the unfairness that these women we are servicing have encountered. It may not all be related to the women we read about in the Bible but there are connections to be made,” says Alexa Brill, who served at Wellspring.
From the student’s perspective, CENG courses, and specifically Women in the Bible, have helped them be cognizant of different perspectives and ideas in the world.
“Some days I leave class without my questions answered and that is really powerful to because it teaches you how to wrestle with difficult thoughts and either put your own ‘solution’ to it or be comfortable with not knowing everything and just taking what you do know for what it is worth,” explains Alexa Brill.
“I would highly recommend this course to anyone interested,” affirms Owen Ward, “because it will push you outside of your comfort zone.”
Faculty who teach CENG courses are clearly passionate about their subject. Dr. Gallagher Elkins has worked on developing this Community Engagement course for two years after serving as a Faculty Fellow last year. She actually taught the course two years ago without a community engagement aspect.
“It’s completely different,” affirms Dr. Gallagher Elkins. “Rather than saying ‘I should know and read this ancient book,’ we can actually see how the Bible applies today and how it has done good work and bad work.”
The students agree with Dr. Gallagher Elkins that service was one of the most integral parts of the course.
If there was no service participation, the class “wouldn’t be as worthwhile or nearly as much fun,” says Owen Ward, who served at the YWCA.
“I never took a class that incorporated service in it, which was really appealing because I feel really closely with the college’s mission of communio so it was another good way for me to actively live it,” explains Alexa Brill.
Overall, CENG courses provide a way for students to connect real-world situations with what they learn and a way to see the concepts of Gestalt at work in their lives. There is something incredible that happens when the walls of a classroom are broken down, so that when a professor lectures about sex trafficking or economic injustice, the students see around them the people they have served within the community, when a professor mentions the under-served and underrepresented people groups of the world, the students hear around them the cries of the oppressed and the whispered prayers of their brothers and sisters, and when a professor states a call for action, the students clearly see that their hearts and hands can be used to do the work that needs to be done.
“We can’t understand the Bible until we see that legacy in people’s lives,” asserts Dr. Gallagher Elkins.
Want to take part in this unique learning experience? Students are encouraged to look for the CENG course designation when registering for courses. This designation will help you identify courses that enhance student learning while addressing local community needs.
(Stock photos from http://unsplash.com)