by Lisa H. Schwartz
Sept. 24, 2018
Veronica House is a local and national leader in the area of community writing, through her teaching and scholarship at CU Boulder and as the executive director of the Coalition for Community Writing. At CU Boulder, House is a senior instructor and the associate faculty director for service-learning and outreach in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric (PWR). She is a teacher dedicated to connecting her students to the community and a prolific scholar of community-engaged writing.
House founded CU’s Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement (WISE), and has coordinated the Program for Writing and Rhetoric’s transformation into one of the only writing programs in the country to offer community-based learning throughout its curriculum. She has worked with faculty at colleges and universities across the country to design service-learning courses and programs.
House’s teaching and scholarship interests focus on food literacy and sustainability initiatives. Her research focuses on Boulder County’s local food movement and she has a longstanding partnership with the Boulder County Foodshed, known as “the Shed."
The Conference for Community Writing, launched in 2015 by House, has been a resounding success since its launch, when she had to cap registration at 350 participants. Last year, more than 400 scholars, activists, educators and community members from 48 states and more than 200 universities and community organizations attended the conference that was held on the CU Boulder campus. This past year, she launched the Coalition for Community Writing, a national collaborative that engages practitioners year-round in community-based writing through research, teaching, publications, workshops and conferences, and public writing projects about, with, for, and by local, global and online communities. House also serves as co-editor for the Community Literacy Journal.
It seemed fitting to meet House at a local café to discuss her work and exciting projects, including her work on a book project about her food-literacy work in the local food movement in Boulder County titled Local Organic: Ecologies, Systems, and Writing for Impact which she aims to complete in 2019.
This is part of the Office for Outreach and Engagement's Engaged Scholars Interview series, which is designed to bring the process of community-engaged scholarship to life through discussions with exemplary CU Boulder scholars.
Why do you do community-engaged work as part of your research, teaching or creative work?
A commitment to methodologies for students to engage deeply and write effectively
I started doing engaged teaching before I knew there was such a thing as service learning or engaged scholarship, when I was a graduate student in literature at The University of Texas at Austin. I taught writing in the literature department as part of my graduate work and really felt that I wanted students to deeply engage in the subject matter and understand how it applied to their lives. It became clear early on, and there is a lot of scholarship on this, that students learn how to write more effectively when they are writing for particular audiences in a context that makes sense to them, where they understand the rhetorical situation. So, I started having students do some community service that tied to their writing assignments.
That model has evolved a lot. I am not having them do volunteer work at a site and writing about that work anymore. We do writing for and with nonprofits now, or about certain themes that are important in Boulder County, like climate change or food access. But this work, which connects directly to my research and service, evolved from that desire to have students engage more deeply in their writing.
Reflect on your particular experience and journey as a scholar. How has your experience shaped your beliefs and practices?
Integrating community voices locally and nationally
When I got to CU Boulder, I saw that there were a few people doing engaged work in the writing program, but there was little communication around why and what the best practices were. There was also very little sharing of resources and celebration of the work we were doing. That is when I started integrating the work into my service, as a kind of administrative work. I launched the Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement, WISE, and started coordinating projects, developing partnerships in the community, and integrating community voices into how we design our curriculum. And eventually that developed into the national work I have been doing for the last couple of years.
Starting a national conference and coalition
By about five years into working on WISE, I saw that the work we were doing in the writing program would be interesting to showcase nationally, and I wanted to bring our work into conversation with what other people were doing nationally. We put out a call for the first Conference on Community Writing (CCW) and crossed our fingers that people would come. We ended up having to cap registration at 350 people because we ran out of space. This conference, which Office of Outreach and Engagement helped to sponsor in its inaugural and second iterations in 2015 and 2017, continues to grow as a biennial event. It will be in Philadelphia next year, Oct 17–19, 2019. And I am in the process of launching the Coalition for Community Writing right now with a national group of top scholars in the field.
Conceptualizing Writing and Rhetoric as an engaged discipline
The first and second CCWs highlighted a real desire for connection, for resources, for mentorship across universities. Some people felt isolated at their own institutions. I took Campus Compact’s “engaged department” model and suggested, through the first conference’s theme of “Building Engaged Infrastructure,” that we conceive of writing and rhetoric as an engaged discipline. What would that mean in terms of our journals, our tenure and promotion expectations, and our mentorship and support for junior faculty and graduate students who do engaged work?
Never mistake the job for the “bigger” work
Why do I do this? The next theme for the conference is ”doing the work." The idea comes from Writing and Rhetoric professor at John Jay College, Carmen Kynard, who wrote a blog post telling graduate students never to confuse the work with the job, that the job is a means toward doing the “Bigger Work." All of my research and service tends towards that bigger goal. I look at systemic issues and problems in higher education. The work that I do tackles those big issues.
How do you integrate your community work into your research, teaching and creative work?
How can theory help communities understand how to circulate their message?
I am fascinated with current theories of writing studies that look at how writing circulates, how it is remixed, and how writing is distributed and networked in communities. Some of the most interesting questions for community-based writing scholars is to ask: How do we as scholars impact the ways in which communities are writing? How can we take these theories and help our community partners understand how to circulate their messages? Can we teach our students to write impactfully for publication and circulation?
Creating shared meanings through community writing projects
My research looks at the local food movement in Boulder County. A couple of years ago my students did several hundred interviews and questionnaires with restaurateurs, farmers, and farmers market patrons asking about what local food means. They saw that the definition of local food was not at all clear. There was a lot of discrepancy about what it means, and this lack of shared meaning led to policy that often was at odds with what consumers thought they were supporting. To apply theories of distributed writing, I thought: what if we create projects in the community to allow lots of different groups across different ages, and ethnicities and backgrounds to co-write and co-create their definition of local food? What if we do this through various writing projects with community partners and CU students? The Office for Outreach and Engagement funded a project I created with a cohort of faculty and our community partner, The Shed: Boulder County Foodshed, called Dig In! To Local Food. We worked with BVSD high school art teachers and their students, teaching them about complexities around local food. The art students created art on this subject and wrote reflections on why they created their piece. Then they showed their art at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMOCA). We had speakers and served local food at a big full-day event. My writing students did all of the PR, creating press releases, brochures about The Shed, and all kinds of food literacy documents for the community.
A vast constellation of people writing to enact ideas: networks of remix and reuse
The students in these projects become part of a vast constellation of people writing and working to enact ideas. They are thinking about how their writing might move through a community, how it might be remixed or adapted. And they also look at previous students’ writing in this way, so they build on the work of their peers in past semesters.
A model for classroom engagement with theory and practice in the community
Every semester we engage with community groups. Now we are working with The Shed: Boulder County Foodshed. The Shed is a group of people from all over the county: BVSD, nonprofits, for profits, city and county government and CU Boulder that promote the production, consumption and appreciation for local food. I first approached them a few years ago to share the interview work my students had done with restaurantuers and farmers, and to talk about the discrepancies we were seeing in how people understood the concept of local food. They invited me to launch the educational campaign that I called “Dig In!”My students work on it each semester.
Applying academic work to community-engaged inquiry
I teach traditional content in the first part of the semester. For example, the students write an academic research paper on a topic related to food. For the second half of the course, we are translating their academic knowledge to a community project, like the BMOCA art show. The students get to choose the project they want to do each semester. In the case of BMOCA, students wanted to work with high schools.
Contributing to a shared “big picture”
There are 19 students in the classes, and I teach two classes per semester. Each class thinks about all of the possible projects they could work on – brochures, website content, bringing in various speakers, holding an event. Groups may work on different areas of a project or on multiple projects, but they all have a shared idea of the big picture.
They have done some great projects. There was one several years back where we worked with the Bridge House. During one of his sessions at Bridge House, one of my students, who is a musician, struck up a conversation with a homeless musician, and they came up with the idea that CU students and homeless musicians could put on a joint concert to help raise awareness about homelessness. My student pitched the idea to his class for the class project, and they were really excited about it. The students organized, publicized and carried out the whole event. They got to apply all of the writing and rhetorical skills we’d worked on during the semester about tailoring arguments to particular audiences, about thinking through counterarguments and about understanding their various audiences. These ranged from Bridge House staff and clients in pitching the idea of the concert, to fellow students they hoped would attend, to readership of the Daily Camera they hoped would both learn about their writing class and attend the event, to retailers who they hoped would contribute goods for the silent auction. All of their rhetorical and persuasive writing skills were put to use in the documents they created for the event.
Sometimes students don’t want to do an event, they want to dig into something on campus. One year they wanted to know where dining services gets their food and also looked into student hunger on campus. Sometimes the students collaborate across the two different sections. My two classes last fall decided to launch a blog on The Shed’s website, and they researched and wrote blog entries.
Student’s inquiry and instructor’s adaptability, tough and fun
This model allows the students to use their content knowledge towards an inquiry project and a public writing project. The tough thing about this is that it means every semester my syllabus has to change, and I adapt based on the students’ desired projects. I find new speakers and field trips and readings based on what interests students each semester. But it also means it’s very fun and collaborative. The students co-create the class with me. It’s really fun when I say to them that they are going to be creating the 2nd half of the course, and I explain some of the projects former students have done.
Does it get easier?
Mutually beneficial partnerships over time
Yes, with The Shed now, because I have been helping them with the Dig In! education project. They are so excited about working with CU students. They think it’s a great way to help impact students, and they love the energy of our students. They agreed to make a part of their website the CU student blog, and every semester since, my students have written for the blog. It’s a great way to talk with students about audience awareness. Who is coming to this blog, and why? It’s where the students can translate their research paper to a blog post, and this gives them a space to think about how you shift the way you talk about your work for a specific audience.
From research paper to blog to bumper sticker: building students’ facility with genre and audience through real world contexts.
Another great example is when The Shed challenged students to make bumper sticker slogans. First the students had the inquiry research paper, then they distilled all of their research into the blog post, and finally, they had to figure out how to translate that content into a ten-word max bumper sticker. In college writing classes we teach about genre and audience, and we want our students to be able to transfer that knowledge once they leave the classroom, so this is a great way for them to practice genre awareness. We had several of the best slogans made into bumper stickers, so students can literally see their arguments circulate around town!
Less is more: Sharing a “Big Question” across the classroom and community partner
When I started teaching first-year writing, I did hours-based service learning, and initially students could choose their own partner. They would research the topic their partner worked with and they would do reflective writing about their experiences. I moved away from that model because though students were deepening their understanding of a subject through their site work, it was a bit too much like volunteerism, transactional versus transformational. I decided I would rather have project-based partnerships that aligned more with the ways that I think about writing now. In the hours-based service learning classes, I would potentially have 38 different projects with nonprofits, and it was too difficult to closely monitor every student’s work at each site. So it evolved into me choosing a few partners and pitching to students a projects that the partners requested. Now I only work with The Shed. They’re interested in the question: How do we create rhetorical contagion around the idea of local food? This question really aligns with the big questions that we pose in class about how writing is circulated, and how this impacts how ideas are taken up.
Co-learning and community embeddedness leading to deep, nuanced understandings
When I first approached The Shed with my students’ findings, I thought I had a really clear idea of what needed to happen and what wasn’t happening. And what I have learned over the three years of working with them is how totally un-nuanced my initial thoughts were. If I were just working on this problem in my little silo without engaging the community partner, I would have been way off. It’s so helpful to be embedded in the community. At the same time, The Shed’s conception of local food has become more nuanced, as well. We did that together.
What are some strategies you use, what have you learned about balancing the demands of community work and academia.
It is important that people try to integrate their scholarship, teaching and service as much as they possibly can. This is where higher education has to adapt. We will burn out our junior faculty if we are challenging our most innovative and engaged junior faculty and grad students to wait until post tenure to do community-based work, we are going to lose them. And engaged scholars know that the distinctions we have to create between the three categories for promotion and tenure purposes are really arbitrary. The work of a community-engaged practitioner is much more fluid.
You are a leader in this area of scholarship. Is your leadership considered service? Or is it scholarship?
Leadership as embodied scholarship
Leadership is a kind of embodied scholarship. You have to understand the scholarship to know what you are leading. You need to know how to write about it to appease the academic audiences. But so much of this work is not valued in the same way as other scholarship. If we have mission statements that say we value engaging with communities, we need to change promotion and tenure requirements to reflected that. I saw that in a previous interview, CU Boulder Theatre Associate Professor Beth Osnes talked about how she was penalized for publishing in certain areas instead of others. We need to question— what is knowledge and how do we value it? Pure theoretical work is still valuable, but it might not be more valuable.
Regarding this work (engaged scholarship), what kind of mentorship have you received and how do you mentor others? Any advice for others who are interested in this work?
Forging her own path and standing out for the CU Boulder Program for Writing and Rhetoric
No one talked to me about this work when I was a graduate student. As I mentioned earlier, I did it without knowing that service learning was a thing. There wasn’t a structure for it at UT Austin at the time. Service-learning and community-based work were still relatively new in English and writing studies. But I wrote about it in my job letter to come here, and that is apparently what got the attention of the Program for Writing and Rhetoric search committee here at CU Boulder. When I was hired, the director at the time was interested in having me start to think about how to develop the curriculum around community-engaged work, but we had no idea what it would turn into.
As I developed WISE, we’d bring out nationally known scholars to run workshops with our faculty, and a few became important mentors to me, well beyond their visits to our campus. One person in particular, Steve Parks, who was at Syracuse and is now at University of Virginia, was so generous about talking through a book idea and an article I was working on at the time. He and a few others from universities across the country have taught me a lot about mentorship and generosity. They mentor people at other institutions; they offer to serve on graduate student dissertation committees for students at other universities if the student doesn’t have adequate selection of engaged faculty at their own school. There’s a real collaborative impulse with all of the faculty I’ve met through this work, even the big name scholars I was so in awe of earlier in my career. I’d encourage junior faculty and graduate students to reach out to people whose work they admire. Make those connections.
Rigorous Generosity: Helping others develop their ideas
Now I am in a position to offer mentorship. This is part of what is so exciting about editing the Community Literacy Journal. My co-editor and I have talked about how our role as editors is often about mentorship. We have several graduate students on our staff, and through their work, they’re learning how academic journals function and having opportunities to connect with scholars they’re reading in their classes. Beyond that, we’re thinking really deliberately about how to align the ethos of the journal with the articles we publish and the ways in which we communicate with authors. We also want to figure out how to encourage and support non-academic community members who want to publish in the journal. We have adopted the term “rigorous generosity.” We expect a high quality of submission, but if we see a kernel of a novel idea, even if it isn’t yet fleshed out, we want to support the author through multiple revisions if necessary. We also offer mentorship through the Coalition for Community Writing.
What is your experience with / thoughts on tenure?
Advice for others
Try to integrate as much as you can between your teaching, research, and service. Understand the tenure requirements up front. Figure out how to play the game of the job while keeping your eye on the work and the reason why you are doing it. But I think ultimately change has to come from the higher ups, and tenured faculty have to demand change to how we reward faculty work. They need to champion and mentor the junior faculty.
As instructor-rank faculty, it has been at times frustrating and other times liberating to navigate non-tenure track life at a research institution. I can do the work I believe in and publish where and what I want because I don’t have to worry about tenure. On top of my teaching, I’ve been able to choose to devote huge amounts of time to developing the conference and now the national organization, work that I may have been encouraged to put off until post tenure if I were on the tenure clock. I’ve had to dig deep to figure out what I value most, and rather than leave CU Boulder for a tenure-track position, I’ve decided that I value deep connection to my community and to place. The mobility we’ve come to accept as a necessary part of academic life is not particularly conducive to forming deep community partnerships. I’ve decided to opt out of that game. It comes back to the quote from Carmen Kynard I mentioned earlier -- “Do not confuse the WORK with the job.”