Melanie Kisthardt, Ph.D., is adding a twist to her freshman composition class this year. As a focus for her students’ writing assignments, Kisthardt, associate professor and chair of the English/Communication Department, chose poverty as the theme of the course. She also added a service-learning component, sending students to the West Chester Food Cupboard where she volunteers twice a month, and involving them in organizing an Empty Bowls event, a fundraising dinner for the food cupboard.
The students’ first assignment was to write about their neighborhoods—whether they include a mix of ages and races, how well neighbors know each other, whether shopping centers are close by, how frequently crime occurs—and analyze what these characteristics imply. “Look at your neighborhood with the eyes of a researcher,” Kisthardt told the class. “What goes into our environment that helps make us the way we are?”
Kisthardt then had students look at their neighborhoods on two websites, a food access research atlas and a map of average income and rent throughout the U.S. One student lives in an area with lots of industrial parks, which indicates plenty of employment opportunities, Kisthardt pointed out. Another lives in an area with abandoned houses where a supermarket is just now being built, which suggests a less stable population and lower access to healthy food.
This exercise is not just about finding information, but understanding and interpreting it, Kisthardt emphasized. “You can’t just throw data into a research paper. You have to explain to the audience why it’s relevant,” she told her students. “You make meaning out of the facts that you’re finding.”
After the class was over, Kisthardt explained that her students are “learning how to write better, because they are being investigative reporters.” Her goal is to help students “to think about thinking” as they grapple with the issues of hunger and poverty through readings and observations.
Kisthardt is pleased to see how her class is engaging with the material so far. One student appreciates that the food cupboard calls its customers “clients,” because he thinks it allows them to maintain their sense of dignity. “He’s starting to think about what you call people,” Kisthardt said, “and that really impacts how you think about them.”
Other students were surprised when Kisthardt told them that clients can only visit the food cupboard once a month. “What do they eat the rest of the month?” they wondered. “So they’re starting to think,” Kisthardt said of her class. “We’re going to be asking lots of hard questions,” she said. “How can you be working, and working maybe two jobs, or two people in your household working, and you still can’t make it? What’s going on?”
Kisthardt wants these questions to linger in students’ minds without being resolved too quickly. “That’s one of the biggest developmental shifts they’re going to be making in the next couple of years, post-high school—recognizing that there’s complexity, and it’s OK to examine the complexity and not try to say, ‘This is it. This is what we can do or should do,’” Kisthardt said. “Some issues are complicated, and there aren’t easy answers. You draw your conclusions and you do the best you can.”
To facilitate careful consideration of these issues, Kisthardt asks her students to write reflections of their experiences at the food cupboard. Some students wrote about feeling a little apprehensive before meeting the clients.
“I made these assumptions based on what I have seen on television shows and movies that portray hungry and lower-income people as wandering animals rather than humans,” said one student. Another commented, “I was expecting these people to be quiet, shy, and even mean. However, it was the complete opposite; they were nice and very thankful for the help. It was very easy to talk to them, and I was very grateful for the experience. It reassures me how lucky I am to have the life I have, but also this experience reassured me not to judge a book by its cover.”
“It’s primary research,” Kisthardt said. It requires students to interact with people affected by poverty, to learn about them firsthand in order to supplement their readings on the subject. Kisthardt hopes that the experiences her students have at the food cupboard will change their perceptions more deeply and more permanently than merely reading articles about hunger. “They’re more active, they’re more involved,” she said.
Kisthardt is also involving her students in coordinating the Empty Bowls event on campus. They are helping to advertise the dinner, gathering disposable bowls and spoons, and writing persuasive letters to local businesses asking for donations of raffle items and soup. Even these activities help strengthen students’ analytical and writing abilities.
“How you present yourself is important,” she told her students as they discussed how to write the letters to area companies. “What information [do people] need to know? It’s a class about being able to solve communication problems. And you can’t do that if you can’t get into the head of the person that you’re trying to communicate with.”
Throughout all of these assignments, Kisthardt is helping her students to analyze social justice issues and articulate their ideas. Though the subject matter can be weighty at times, Kisthardt is glad to see how students are benefitting. “I’m not trying to bring them down,” she said. “I’m trying to raise them up to be thinking about higher issues, and think about society around them.”