Inviting the community to college

An unusual UI class seeks to uplift lives and spark change

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IOWA CITY — If it has been a while since you strapped on a backpack and squeezed into a desk, or you’re curious about the evolving higher education experience, this is your chance.

A University of Iowa professor — in pursuit of making higher education “more meaningful and deeply engaged” — is inviting community members to take his class for free. Backpacks aren’t actually necessary. And desks aren’t going to happen — as the class will be meeting in the Englert Theatre.

But community members who attend will join more than 80 honors students enrolled in Professor David Gould’s second iteration of “The Green Room,” a class he debuted last year to explore what higher education in the 21st century should look like and to help students prototype meaningful lives.

This year’s version features a series of talks from local and national thinkers on topics like wonder, tolerance, democracy and story. Through music, literature and discussion, guests and students alike will consider larger questions: How does a community become smarter? How can we employ that knowledge to uplift the lives of its residents? And how can we unite with other communities to change the world?

“It’s like fingers on a hand,” Gould said. “If we all find something that we care deeply about, we learn about it, we understand the needs and problems and then we invest ourselves in them … if we all do that, not only do we cover a lot of things, but what we find is that collectively, we are truly uplifting our community in meaningful ways.”

On a personal level, Gould said, “It’s the richest life to live.”

“The idea that you find something that you care deeply about, that you get lost in, and you turn it toward a larger world,” he said.

The Green Room, offered through the UI honors program, will meet at 7 p.m. Mondays for six weeks starting Aug. 28 and continuing through Oct. 9 — skipping the week of Labor Day. It’s free, and seating will be on a first-come-first-served basis.

Speakers include Zach Wahls, son of a same-sex couple from Iowa who helped shape the conversation around same-sex marriage; Nate Staniforth, an internationally-known magician; Jane Elliott, an anti-racism activist known for her “blue eyes-brown eyes” exercise in tolerance; Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation; and Khizr Khan, the Pakistani American father of an Army captain killed in 2004. Khan rose to fame last year for criticizing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The class comes at a time of significant change across the higher education landscape, from how teachers educate and scientists conduct research to worries about funding and long-term sustainability — and at a time of heated national discourse on topics like race, inclusion and democracy.

The evening classes will include opening acts — allowing local nonprofits to piggyback off the headliners. When participants leave around 8:30 p.m., Gould said, he plans to “line the walls” with tables of opportunities for community involvement related to that night’s topic.

A short walk down the Iowa City downtown Pedestrian Mall, an “after party” will take shape, continuing the conversation in Merge — a space just west of the Iowa City Public Library. Guests may use the opportunity to swap ideas with neighbors or pick the brain of that night’s speaker.

“My interest was not just bringing in a bunch of inspiring speakers that will say stuff, but that it becomes catalyst for activity,” Gould said.

Gould already has been collaborating with the community — before the class even starts.

He has been meeting with former students and interested residents about ideas to make the project a success.

They include Allanda Hageman, 25, who graduated from the UI in 2014 and will be working with students in their event planning efforts; Dan Boscaljon, who earned two UI doctorate degrees and reached out to Gould to help; and Jordan Brown, 24, who works with Gould in the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement.

These folks “meet with me regularly to daydream,” Gould said.

‘Noble risk’

Honors at Iowa has a rich history of community engagement — take the James Gang, an Iowa City-based nonprofit that UI honors students developed in 2002 to encourage creativity and collaboration.

That group spawned — among other things — the 10,000 Hours Show, a year-round initiative to engage young people in volunteer service; the Saturday Night Free Movie Series, which brings locals to the Pentacrest on summer weekends; Public Space One, an art venue for various genres and forms; and the Mission Creek Festival, a series of concerts, readings, films and performances attracting statewide visitors.

Professor Bob Kirby said the UI honors program long has guided students toward wider engagement.

“In many ways, Dave’s class is an outgrowth of that same sort of spirit,” he said. “How can we take the resources and knowledge of the students, and their drive to benefit others, and turn it into something like The Green Room?”

Gould’s original version of The Green Room last year connected an intimate group of high-achievers over food and big ideas. The course occurred during the dinner hour, sometimes in a classroom and other times off site — like at the Walker Homestead, a picturesque property just west of town epitomizing Iowa’s beauty with rolling hills and backyard chickens.

Its students called the experience transformative, informing their life trajectory and directing their career aspirations. And word spread. Interest grew, and honors administrators wanted to reach more students.

“I didn’t resist,” Gould said. “I knew that the class could not be the same. We’re not going to have intimate dinners together with 80 or 90 students.”

But “inviting the city to school,” according to Gould, requires a whole different design. And, he said, it’s a risk.

“But I think having something that has a small bit of noble risk, that has the potential for a noble failure, makes it to me — it’s kind of like a race that matters,” he said.

Success could come on many levels, beyond just bringing people out, according to Gould. Do they leave with a “church-like high?” Do they continue the conversation days after it started?

“Does this create change independently?” he said. “Do people live better lives and become better versions of themselves and care about others and participate in this kind of larger thing called community?”

‘Change their perceptions’

This year’s Green Room will involve 13 teaching assistants — all of whom participated in last year’s original class. Students will be broken into six teams, each charged with a different responsibility — depending on the night.

One group will promote the week’s event, for example, while another handles guest accommodations. A third group will be in charge of greeting the audience, while a fourth takes care of production details. The last two groups will coordinate nonprofit involvement and the after-party.

UI junior Laura Schwager, 22, is one of the teaching assistants who took the class last year and said she hopes the experience shatters stereotypes some might have about higher education.

“It’s the challenge of every university — to be able to bridge some of the barriers between itself and the community,” Schwager said. “For whoever is going to be involved in this, it is going to change their perceptions, as it did mine.”

Art Spisak, director of the honors program, said he was an easy sell on the unusual course focus and structure.

“It’s more like you stay out of Dave’s way,” he said.

Inviting the community to participate and collaborate seemed a natural fit with the honors program mission to make education for the students experiential and relevant, Spisak said.

“I had no problem approving his idea to do this,” he said. “We like to have the community see what’s going on at the university — what we’re doing with our students — so that they understand better what the purpose of the education here and higher education is.”

Though the course aims to give the community more to think about and do, the somewhat intimate dialogue with some of today’s thinkers also aims to shift the way participants think — perhaps motivating continuous curiosity, bolder visions and action.

“It’s like if I were to give you a backstage pass to a concert that you cared about, and you go to the concert, when your backstage, you see it totally differently,” Gould said. “You have the opportunity to actually observe and to feel the people that you’re with. To hear how they talk to others. To hear the conversations and the way they think. To maybe even ask questions that you have thought about for a while.

“Once you experience a concert with a backstage pass,” he said, “sitting in the long seats is never the same.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Source: The Green Room syllabus draft of David Lynn Gould

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