MAPHer Alissa Smith Finds Service Complements Graduate Study

There’s nothing like a preschool classroom at Circle Time.  You’re lucky if you can maintain your bright smile and upbeat tone while still being heard above the din.  I look around at the children who, expected to sit cross-legged, are all in strange and impossible contortions that allow them to poke their friends, check out the kids playing outside, or grab for the blocks all while still, technically, keeping their feet on their designated dot.  I raise my voice and hope to get their attention, starting in on the first verse of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” animatedly working my fingers to the motions in an attempt to encourage them all to join me.  A few small voices pipe in, then a few more, louder this time.  “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain…”

And then, from the corner…Deshon.  “So you fancy huh, so you fancy huh, so you fancy, huh?!?!” he sings, bobbing his little 3-year-old shoulders to his own beat.  All I can do is sigh, and smile.

Let me begin by saying that I am terribly grateful and horribly under-qualified to be bequeathed the honor of a post on the MAPHtastic blog.  So often Maren and the mentors serve to inspire me, entertain me and, on rare occasions, dry my tears of despondency through the words they offer here, and its quite the intimidating task to follow their pens (or keystrokes?).  That said, I’ll do my best to inspire, encourage… most likely just entertain… in the words that follow.

The MAPH program’s focus, obviously, is on offering a stellar intensive Masters education to a group of students with vastly broad interests.  This is a massive undertaking in itself, especially considering the bureaucracy institutions such as universities can often be.  Assisting students in navigating this minefield, and encouraging and supporting them in their passions and interests all the while, is a huge job.  This year, however, the MAPH program has renewed their efforts to include another aspect of student life into the fold of MAPH-supported initiatives…that of service.

The mentors and administrators have included service opportunities and community projects alongside the social and academic events on the MAPH calendar, offering students the chance to mobilize outside of the classroom.  The benefits to participating in such activities are too numerous to all be addressed here, but I believe there’s one benefit that’s overlooked and very much underappreciated by those of us who are often overwhelmed with the enormity of work enrollment in the MAPH program tends to bring, and that is the beauty of connecting the often abstract and speculative work you do in a graduate school environment with the concrete, unadorned reality of the world.

More on Alissa’s experience after the Jump

There’s a nobility and virtue in sophisticated study in the humanities, or at least I hope those of us in this program believe so.  Investigation and inquiry plays an important role in knowledge and moving the world forward by better understanding our past.  Each of us has our own version of just why it is we chose to devote this year, if not many future years, to a career in academia.  But isn’t there something more to what we’re doing here than ideas?  Aren’t we hoping for more to come of our work and our thoughts than the appreciation of other scholars, than page numbers in a publication relegated to some dusty shelf?  I think, at the heart of it, that all of us scholars hope to see our work come to application, to see the investigation and inquiry we’ve embarked on somehow change the world, even if it’s in a small, limited way.

If this is what we all hope, then what are we waiting for?  There’s nothing to stop us from being the procurers of knowledge AND the feet for its movement.  The big ideas of what most of us are working in – knowledge, beauty, language, ethics, being – find their manifestation right outside the door.

I’m here in the MAPH program with ambitions of heading into a PhD program in philosophy.  My interests lie at the intersection of philosophy of language and ethics, and my thesis work involves the study of evaluative words.  After hours spent drudging through innumerable (no really, I’ve lost count) articles, books, and reviews on just how we use words in making ethical judgments and assertions, I get to watch firsthand how preschoolers in some of the worst neighborhoods in the country build their own understanding of good and bad, right and wrong, through the way they learn language, in their reading of books and the way they describe the pictures they’ve drawn.

I work for a program called Jumpstart, serving preschools in Woodlawn and Englewood.  Jumpstart is a national organization that trains college and graduate students in classroom management and education skills and then employs them in teams to low-income preschools to teach a beginning literacy program.  Every day is an adventure.  Preschoolers are one of the most difficult, but also one of the most hilarious, populations to work with, evidenced by the story I opened the post with, which is one of so many an average day with Jumpstart provides.  But what makes my days with Jumpstart so rewarding is the fact that I get the chance to bring my academic work into life, to watch it work and see its power in a real-life, transparent way.  I don’t have to wait for my research to someday be discovered as discipline-changing and monumental, most likely years after my death, which I succumbed to poor and unappreciated.  I can be the conduit for its potential, right here, right now.

And, even better, I’ve seen my observations and experiences with Jumpstart inform the work I do in the classroom.  Having a better understanding of just how my academic work will function in shaping and motivating change helps me to focus and target the sort of work I do and the issues I choose to study.  It provides a real and palpable framework for the hours I spend reading, the minutes I spend typing, the seconds I spend discussing.  It gives me direction.

There’s honor and nobility in graduate-level academic work, but I believe you’re doing yourself, and your passions and interests, a disservice if you’re not allowing yourself to enjoy the power and energy such work wields in real-world contexts…in the here and now.

Alissa Smith will graduate from the Master of Arts Program in Humanities in June 2012. To find out more about Jumpstart see their website or talk to Alissa. To look for other volunteer opportunities check out opportunities at the University Community Service Center or talk to MAPH Central.

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