This semester at Oxford College I’ve been teaching my first solo course. Housed in American studies, “Understanding Community: Oxford Encountering Oxford,” is a course that engages students in the critical exploration of the concept of community. They do this so they begin to formulate their own ideas of community, identify various structures of belonging in communities, and develop a deeper understanding of multiple communities to which they have been and are connected. We’ve talked about communities of origin, the Oxford campus community, virtual communities, communities of self-interest, intentional communities and we’ve especially focused on the City of Oxford.
One component of the course that has been especially meaningful was the midterm paper where each student was paired with a local resident in the city of Oxford for an interview. The students first met their community partner at a dinner on campus where they also met other members of the community seated at their same table. By the end of the night the students collected contact information from their assigned person, and by late October they were to write a paper based on the interview. The first page was a transcript of the interview that they selected, and the remaining pages of the paper were dedicated to their reflections on why they chose that particular excerpt as well as any other parts of the interview they found especially engaging and meaningful. Also in the paper, they were to demonstrate how their interview connected to the readings, in-class discussions and films from our class.
Over and over again in their papers, students commented on how meaningful this experience was for them. They talked about how little they knew about the City of Oxford. They also used what we’ve been learning in class to critically examine aspects of life, government and connectedness in the City of Oxford.
Without a course like this, this experience would almost never happen. Students don’t typically choose to come to Oxford College to get to know the residents or the city government in Oxford. That’s true of most colleges and their cities. I’m not naïve enough to think they do. But in my research I’ve learned that even through our volunteer programs, in which many of our students participate and regular commit a combined total of 15,000 volunteer hours each year, they hardly ever spend that time in the City of Oxford. I’ve also learned that many residents of Oxford long for some connection to students and the college. The only way that this connection will ever happen is by being intentional.
I credit family members and other mentors with my own passion and love for community but also the Doctor of Ministry program at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in which I’m currently enrolled for helping me create a course like this. In this program with its emphasis on community engagement, I learned more about the City of Oxford and the lack of engagement between students and residents most college towns experience. In this current month of thankfulness, I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience.
My hope is to keep teaching the class yearly for several reasons. First, strengthening the connection between the college and the city is historically important as well as important for a successful future together. Second, you never know how this class and the students in it might be beneficial to the city and its residents in the future. Third, students have the capacity to learn from members of the community with varied levels and types of life experience. Finally, cultivating people, especially students in my case, who have a sense of community is what we need now more than ever.
Understanding community means that we understand that we are in this thing called life together, and that we are responsible for one another’s well-being and flourishing.
As the results of the elections have come in and we live with a new reality, it seems to me that this course is exactly what’s needed. Understanding community so that we might create community where all are welcome isn’t just what our religious traditions teach us. It’s just the right thing to do. And when we do it, we can be grateful knowing that we are being transformed and transforming.
Rev. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. You can find him running in the city of Oxford about three times a week.