A Victorian literature expert mixes classroom lessons with community engagement
Helping out comes naturally for Teresa Mangum. Growing up in North Carolina, that's just how things were done.
"I come from one of those big old Southern families, the kind with 19 cousins," she says. "It never occurred to us that people might like their privacy. If someone had a problem, we needed to help."
If people can lend a hand, why shouldn't universities? An associate professor of English who specializes in the Victorian era, Mangum has become an advocate for service learning—which augments classroom lessons with volunteer work—and other strategies to connect academe and community.
One of her first such projects was a course on animals and literature that involved a service-learning partnership with the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center.
"I went to meet the center director, Misha Goodman, with my syllabus. But while I was waiting in the break room, a three-legged dog nuzzled my shoulder, and a Saint Bernard put his head in my lap," she says. "I thought, 'This is going to be a little different.'"
Lesson one of service learning—throw out your expectations. "You have to go to your partners with an open mind, assuming they have a lot to teach you," Mangum says.
Working with Goodman, Mangum enlisted her students as volunteers at the center, where they collected stories about human-animal relationships—why people abandon their pets, the challenge of euthanasia, even biographies of animals themselves.
"It was fascinating how these 'shelter stories' and the literature we read sometimes intersected, but sometimes flatly contradicted each other," Mangum says.
Early this year, Mangum co-directed an Obermann Center for Advanced Studies symposium aimed at helping UI graduate students incorporate public engagement into their work. Many participants focused on courses they'd like to offer, only to find community connections influencing their research, too.
"Months later, nearly every one of them said something like, 'I was working on my teaching, but now I've reconceived my dissertation,' or 'I'm working with someone in the community on an article I want to write,'" Mangum says. The program will be held again next year, with support from the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club, the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, and Iowa Campus Conpact.
In a class on literature and women this fall, Mangum's students will work with Meredith Alexander, lecturer in theatre arts, to organize and promote a staged reading of the suffragist play Votes for Women! The Johnson County League of Women Voters and the UI Center for Human Rights will sponsor the performance.
Activities like these link vintage texts and contemporary concerns, but Mangum emphasizes that traditional methods of teaching and scholarship remain essential.
"I always want to be part of an enterprise that involves reading, thinking, writing, and focused discussion," she says. "We would lose what the humanities are without that."
The pleasure of teaching literature, Mangum says, comes from working alongside peers with different takes on language and meaning. Her drive to explore may stem from her own interests as a reader and scholar.
"I'm interested in literature as a place to rehearse social relations, so I think most intensely when I'm looking at those relationships firsthand," she says. "At the same time, when I read a novel that addresses a social problem, it makes me want to get out into the larger world and, frankly, try to make things better."
On the other hand, perhaps this passion for public engagement goes back to those North Carolina roots.
"I notice that of my generation of cousins, an awful lot of us work in fields that involve some sort of engagement," she says. "Maybe it's genetic."
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tim Schoon
Aug. 20, 2007