Blog Post

Interview: Teresa Mangum, Obermann Institute at the University of Iowa

I recently had the chance to interview Teresa Mangum, Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa who was the 08-09 Faculty Associate Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.  Teresa is the founding Co-Director of the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy, a week-long seminar on civic engagement for graduate students that is in its fourth year.  Teresa has also organized the University of Iowas first Obermann Platforms for Public Scholars conference, a symposium that begins this week (Oct. 15-17).  In addition, she has been a mentor and hero to me and countless other students at the University of IowaI had the chance to participate in the 2008 Obermann Graduate Institute with Teresa, and she has inspired me in many ways, but most of all to pursue civicly engaged teaching and scholarship.


Bridget: How would you describe service learning to someone who has never done it before?

Teresa: First, I have to confess that like many others, I wish we had come up with a more capacious term, such as publicly engaged learning or public pedagogy.  Particularly for those of us who teach literature from an earlier period, developing a true service learning course is challenging, but its quite possible to create learning experiences that engage the public in literature and literary history and the issues they raise.  Those who teach more contemporary issues that arise in disciplines like political science, sociology, environmental studies (including literary studies), and so forth no doubt find community-based teaching less challenging.

That said, service learning is a pedagogy in which a classroom teacher forms a genuine partnership with a community partner.  Students extend and deepen their learning by carrying out projects for the community partner, often an organization.  These partnerships must meet two requirements:  first, the research or project must be of genuine value to the community partners, and, second, the project cant just be volunteerism or good deeds.  The community work must have a genuine, rigorous connection to the learning objectives for the class.  The bridge between the two is the practice of guided reflectionwriting assignments that ask students to make the intellectual connections between the ideas being discussed in class and the work they are doing out in the community.

In my case, I teach an undergraduate course in animal studiesthe cultural work of literary and visual representations of animals and human-animal relationships.  I have a wonderful relationship with the Iowa City Care and Adoption Center.  When I designed the course, Misha Goodman, the Center Director, was a full partner.  I actually pitched the syllabus I had designed before meeting with her, and we developed ideas together about the intellectual as well as service dimensions of the class.  I continue to learn so much from her and her staff.  I also work with Liz Ford, the Volunteer Coordinator, to match the Centers needs with the goals for the course.  For instance, one semester students interviewed the staff and people adopting and releasing animals to discover how their various stories about animals corresponded with the narratives literature offers about our bonds with animals.  The project also provided the Center with information about the people they serve.  You can see one of the many amazing projects the students developed online:

High Quality-

And low quality-

As we were reading novels like Barbara Gowdys The White Bone, a mystical account of African elephants (and what human predation is doing to them), and John Bergers King: A Street Story, about homeless animals and humans from a dogs perspective, our own Animal Center was rendered homeless by the Iowa floods.  A wonderful group of studentsAbby Bendlage, Craig Eley, and Eleanor Kingproposed to the Smithsonian Story Core that staff from the Animal Center be included in the interviews they were collecting about the flood.  Then, the students were so moved by the interview that they made this short documentary.  

The Center Director now uses that documentary when she lectures around the country about best practices for animal shelters responding to emergencies; the students posted it online to share their work; and Abby is now writing an honors thesis about animals and conceptions of home.  

The students in the class produced beautifully researched studies of animal narratives that were powerfully informed by their embodied experiences and their contact with the shelter world and the social issues it raises. Students in SL classes also tend to write with great passion after they bring their onsite experiences back into the classroom.

The course has been featured in two articles in the wonderful Bark: The Modern Dog Culture Magazine: The Near and Far of Dogness: A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide (45 [December 2007]:  87-92) and Literary Dogs: Writers imagine the world from a canine point of view ( 47 [April 2008]: 74-77) both by D.L Pughe.

Bridget: How does service learning "democratize knowledge" in the classroom?

Teresa: The experiences students bring back to class position them as authorities.  I ask them to think of their community work as another text, only this time each student needs to teach us that text based on journal observations they record, responses to guided reflections about the cultural narratives and the coded behaviors they observe, and connections they can show us among the formal conventions, cultural assumptions, and allusions and illusions they see across literature, images, film, and the world of the Animal Center.

Bridget: How does civic engagement relate to the values of HASTAC?

Teresa: I have a lot to learn about and from HASTAC and digital practices.  But it does seem to me that in our own ways were trying to stretch learning beyond the classroom, to dismantle boundaries between sites of learning and the larger world, and to encourage deep intellectual and civic engagement in all the diverse meanings of the word.

Bridget: How did you get involved in service learning initiatives?

Teresa: The University of Iowa Center for Teaching offered a one-week faculty seminar on service learning for 15 faculty members two summers in a row.  The seminars were directed by Edward Zlotkowski, a leader in the field of engaged learning and a professor of English at Bentley University.  The seminars transformed the teaching of faculty members all over campus and inspired all sorts of great collaborations.  For far more information about SL, you can find innumerable materials at the Campus Compact site:  For the broader philosophy of engaged teaching and learning, especially for those in the arts and humanities, youll find wonderful resources at two other sites:

1) Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life

The Imagining America report Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University is a brilliant, radical argument everyone should read with lots of implications for ways to count digital work for promotion and tenure as well as public work.

2) TRUCEN (a wing of Campus Compact that focuses on engagement in research universities).

Bridget: What are the biggest challenges in creating civically engaged programs?

Teresa: Time, the need to change the reward system to reward this new, innovative form of scholarship and teaching, and learning to be a responsible and sensitive collaborator.

Bridget: Why is civic engagement important in the academy today?

Teresa: What is the point of education if not to learn how to be caring, responsible, well-educated, and involved citizens?  Weve never needed to work together as much as we do nowto save our very planet.  Universities should be leading the way in ending poverty, ending social inequalities, initiating conservation efforts.  Once my students get out in the community and see the need even in a small community like Iowa City, they take their education much more seriously and they see themselves as part of the solution to our innumerable problems.

Bridget: What are the biggest rewards in creating civically engaged programs?

Teresa: The knowledge (and awe) Ive gained as Ive learned what nonprofit and civic groups are doing in our communities. Its also a joy to see how generosity, humility, and a sense of responsibility take hold of students even in a single semester.

Bridget: How have you included these projects into your scholarship?

Teresa: Ive begun to write about what I teach.  Even my scholarship on Victorian literature now often connects the past and the present, the power of representations in the fictional realm and the possibilities past literatures open up for us now.  For example, in  "Dickens and the Female Terrorist: The Long Shadow of Madame Defarge"  in a recent issue of Nineteenth-Century Contexts, I tried to imagine how readers today might respond to Madame Defarge in light of reports of women suicide bombers and what we can learn about women driven to such means from the novel.  In an upcoming article, The Many Lives of Victorian Literature, I discuss a class experiment in which we worked with Theatre Arts and the local League of Women Voters organization to produce a public staged reading of a suffrage play from our class reading during the presidential primaries.

Bridget: How did you become involved with the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies?

Teresa: I had been a scholar in residence and had taken advantage of several of the grant programs there.  Ill be forever grateful to Jay Semel, the Director, for giving me and my colleague in Political Science, David Redlawsk, the opportunity to design and direct the the Obermann Graduate Institute for Engagement and the Academy.

Bridget: How did you find funding/administrative support for the civic engagement institute?

Teresa: The generosity of the Graduate College, the Obermann Center, a number of groups on campus and in the community have supported the effort.

Bridget: Why did you want to focus on graduate student work in the civic engagement institute?

Teresa: Graduate students will determine what kinds of colleges and universities well have in the future.  

Bridget: What are some of the highlights of the Obermann Institute for you, or for the participants?

Teresa: The very short answer islook online at the bios of students in the last three Institutes.  I am so honored to have worked with such brilliant, socially committed, caring people, including my co-director David Redlawsk and my new co-director, Ken Brown, from the College of Business.

Bridget: What advice would you give to other academics or administrators who might be interested in starting a similar program?

Teresa: Go to the Imagining America conference at the University of Washington in Seattle next year!  The conference offers a crash course in publicly engaged theories, methods, and practices as well as quick introductions to leaders in the field of graduate public engagement like Kathleen Woodward, Miriam Bartha, and Bruce Burgett.  Their graduate institute at the UWs Simpson Center for the Humanities was the inspiration for ours, and they were very helpful as we planned for our work in Iowa.

Democratizing learning seems to imply a yielding of "control" on the part of an authority/expert (in a variety of roles: professors, administrators, librarians). Some argue against democratizing the production of knowledge on the basis of the quality of the knowledge produced. Is this a valid concern? As someone involved in service
learning/civic engagement, how do you deal with the loss of "control"?

The fantasy of control is based on such odd illusions of ownership, mastery, and authority.  In this digital, media-intense world of ours, we all live in a chaotic flow of information far beyond control.  Encouraging students to learn how to navigate through that flow, how to think critically about the ideas they encounter, how to communicate effectively and thoughtfullythose would be my goals in any course I design.  I find that approaching that chaos through stories and attention to language and form and multiple histories helps me feel I can participate more fully, attentively, and critically.  I offer that opportunity to students who share my pleasure in literature and narrative; at the same time, Im grateful for what I can learn across generational, social, regional, and other differencesincluding learning more about participation in the digital collective.

Bridget: Do you see civic engagement as an answer to those who charge the humanities with producing work that is not immediately of practical use?

Teresa: Well, I have as many questions about the term humanities as I do about the term service learning. (I work in animal studies, after all.)  As I say, I think the world has never been in greater need of the disciplines formerly called the humanities, now in partnership with colleagues across the campus and the globe.  What the study of literature, history and ideas offers include an awareness of the shaping forces of the past, the ability to communicate clearly, the willingness to consider profound questions and issues often obscured by claims of practicality, and values such as generosity, open-mindedness, and caring.  The humanities keep me on my mental toes in all of those ways.  So does working with other people inside and outside the classroom and the academy.





Thanks for this interview, Bridget and Teresa! Lots to think about concerning the meaning of service learning, public scholarship, and the humanities as a field. Since I can't go to Iowa City (lovely though it is) next weekend, do you have any plans to report on the proceedings at the upcoming symposium? I hope so since it looks like a great lineup of topics and speakers!





The conference was fabulous!  I do have some reports on the symposium, listed on my blog.  I hope you'll check them out!  Thanks Michael!