Community Studies


Ah, manong
your old brown hands
hold life, many lives
within each crack a story.
--Filipina Woman

Oral history gives history back to people in their own words. It recognizes the heroism of ordinary people going about their daily lives, and gives voice to their experience. It brings history into and out of the community. And in giving people a past, it also helps them towards a future of their own making (Paul Thompson).

Course Description

Community Studies introduces students to the theory and methods of social science research, and actively engages them in fieldwork. The course focuses on ethnographic field methods, including the techniques of participant observation, interviewing, oral histories, content analysis, and a collection of demographic, historical, and socioeconomic data. As an applied social science course, students will design and carry out research projects in Steelton, Pennsylvania a mill town rich in ethnic history.

Community Studies is a collaborative course in which college students and community members are collectively involved in discovering their own personal and community histories. Residents of Steelton from various ethnic groups, churches, schools, and work sites have willingly agreed to engage us. We wil be working with elementary and secondary school students, workers, and members of the Steelton community in gathering oral histories and related projects, such as the excavation and preservation of the Midland Cemetery, and African-American cemetery that dates back to the Civil War.

Community Studies draws upon and helps inform the other intersecting courses: Memoir and Narrative, and Political Economy. Using a multi-disciplinary perspective, we will explore the dynamics of class, religion, gender, and race and ethnic relations through an examination of our own family histories/stories, contemporary case studies, and the oral histories and writings gathered in Steelton. These various life, family, work, and church histories, placed in socio-historical context and life-course perspective, will enable the class to compare and contrast the intersecting historical and contemporary experiences of diverse groups in the United States.

Social science must reach the actual experiences and attitudes which constitute the full, live, and active social reality beneath the formal organization of social phenomena...A social institution can be fully understood only in we do not limit ourselves to abstract study of its formal organization, but also analyze the way in which it appears in the personal experience of various members of the group and follow the influence it has upon their lives (W.I. Thomas).

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take the culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (Clifford Geetrz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:5)

By Professor Susan Rose

Student Project Proposal

"Words from the heart are more alive than your scribblings.
When we speak, our words burn" (Watson 11).

Community Studies is a method of recording the lives and histories of the real people of the world. It teaches the skills of research in social science, in the form of interviewing, taking oral histories, analyzing content and the collection of demographic data. It is an exciting learning experience, which enriches the student and the community in which the study is being done. As a student at Dickinson, a liberal arts college, I have come to believe that there is not a clearer example of a liberal arts education than a project such as this. The student is using his or her knowledge to learn about the lives of everyday people whose voices are not being heard.

"Listening to individual testimonies acts as a counterpoint to generalisations and provides important touchstones against which to review the collective version. It gives [the researcher] access to the views and experience of more marginalised groups, such as the elderly, women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, and children. Bringing in these hidden voices allows a much more subtle appreciation of the divisions and alliances within societies." (Slim and Thompson 5).

Often we find that these hidden voices are the most important of all. Rarely are we, as students, taught about the true hardships of the working class, or the ethnic and religious struggles that are occurring in our own communities, or the battles that each child living in poverty fights each day to get a simple education. Through the fieldwork and projects of community studies, we can learn these truths from those who live amongst these hardships every day. All of this has been possible because of the innovation of the American Mosaic Semester at Dickinson.

Classroom skills can only take a community studies project to a certain level. The weeks of classroom discussions of the cultural diversity in the United States and the economic, political, and social dimension that this diversity brings to every individual in this country have enlightened us in one respect, but we need to experience it to fully understand it. Reflections of our own lives as a member of a certain economic class, race, gender, and religion is only possible when we are able to experience those societies which we are not a part of. We are learning research skills, interviewing techniques, and how to analytically interpret all that we learn, but we have to learn something first.
Jamie Metzinger, American Mosaic Student

Student Journal Entry

Today Becci, Samantha, Christine and I donned our bright yellow hard hats, fire resistant jackets, and protective glasses (kindly provided by Greg Bowers), and with great excitement and enthusiasm, set out to tour the steel mill. While driving to the plant, our guide Greg Bowers, explained that our gear was authentic steelworker attire; management could be identified by white hard hats. As we entered the gates of Pennsylvania Steel Technologies, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of immense, menacing structures and crumbling dilapidated building no longer in use. The entire scene was a canvas in grey--the building, the sky, and the muddy ground. A heavy downpour perfectly complemented the gloomy environment. Inspiring slogans on banners, posted at various points throughout the plant--"Good Work is Done Safely," "Return to Profitability,"--failed to brighten the depressing atmosphere. When we asked Greg about the second slogan, he responded, "that's our goal...this plant has not been profitable in fact, we've been losing money every year."

The transformation of Pennsylvania Steel Technologies from an integrated mill to a "mini-mill" (a verboten phrase among the steelworkers), has resulted in the many abandoned and run-down departments. Pennsylvania Steel Technologies now creates steel from scrap metal (instead of from raw materials), and either ships it as semi-finished "blooms," or as steel rail.

We observed huge amounts of scrap metal lifted by an immense crane with a "magnet" on the bottom and loaded into enormous "buckets." Greg explained that it was extremely important to distribute the scrap metal evenly; otherwise the crane operator would have a difficult time pouring the buckets into the furnace. Greg, an experienced crane operator, realized that the buckets were unbalanced and the crane operator would have to compensate. Becci perceptively compared the process to cooking: "It's like pouring tortellini into a pot of boiling water! You have to put them in slowly or the water will splash out of the pot." We watched as huge cranes opened the "roof" of the furnace and three buckets of scrap were poured in. The furnace, like a massive black volcano, spewed bright sparks of fire (a Fourth of July spectacle); the transformation of the scrap metal into molten steel created a deafening blast. To signal the completion of his task, the crane operator sounded a shrill alarm (like an ambulance siren). Greg joked, "oops...I forgot to bring along earplugs!" By the time we left this department, I had a throbbing headache...

Finally, after the two-hour tour, we piled into Greg's car. We were soaking wet, dirty, and exhausted. Although I found the steel-making process fascinating, my observations of the working conditions and my conversations with the steelworkers left me with a heavy heart. As we drove out through the gates, Greg's words echoed my thoughts: 'The goal of every day is to make it out of here the same way you came in."
--Erica Monheit, American Mosaic Student

Preface to "Reading Fat and Fiction" Final Project and Honors Thesis

As a ten-year old, a chubby, shy fifth grader in Mrs. Johnson's class, I would come home from school and create a space for myself on the living room couch, a few romance novels at my side. I might read one or two in an evening and at least five each week. I most adored, however, novels with heroines who were like me, ones who wanted desperately to have boyfriends but were not pretty enough, not thin enough, to attract them. In retrospect, I believe I read those novels so that I might locate some piece of myself and my adolescent experience in the experiences of others. I felt isolated, like many other adolescents I'm sure, and turned to reading to save myself from that isolation.

When I undertook the study of young adult romance novels whose heroines eat compulsively or develop bulimia as they simultaneously wish to embark upon their first romantic experiences, I again wanted to locate some piece of my adolescent experience in a context larger than that of my own living room. In working with both college women and high school girls as readers of this self-identified romance genre, I believe I have not only found myself but also stumbled upon a researcher's goldmine in the neglected words of the young women, often readers and often silenced, with whom I was able to work. In order to understand the ways in which these readers negotiate the contradictions and codes in the adolescent romances, I first interviewed a group of Dickinson College women who responded to passages I had chosen and spoke frankly with me about their own eating histories. I then expanded the project and interviewed over thirty high school girls from Steelton, a working-class town in central Pennsylvania. They also read and responded to the same passages and discussed in groups their own lives and school experiences with respect to dating, education, and eating disorders. All of the reading theories I had studied as both an American Studies and an English major at Dickinson I could finally test in "real life."

What I found as I began to "test" the reading theory I had outlined, based upon the scholarship of Stanley Fish and others in the reader-response school of criticism, is that I could not work within the constraints of that theory; it was, in fact, too reductive. As I worked with reader's responses from two very different "interpretive communities," to appropriate Fish's term, I discovered that the Dickinson and Steelton students often times used the same language to describe their impressions of the heros and heroines and to answer the question posed after we read all of the passages, "Which is most romantic?" Not only did the different reader groups read the texts in similar ways, but they also had internalized a vocabulary specific to the romance narrative, one that I scarcely know existed.
--Cathy Costa, student, American Mosaic Project

Student Reflections on Fieldwork

"After working with the elementary school children every week, attending services at Prince of Peace, going to St. Lawrence lodge, and frequenting the parish's social functions, it did not take long before I was known by name in the community. I found a lot of truth in Michael Agar's The Professional Stranger as he described the process of becoming integrated into a community.

Eventually, people come to accept you for what you are--a strange person who asks many dumb questions. Starting from scratch, it seems to take me about three months until some quantum leap occurs, and I am a functioning, accepted member of the community. While you are becoming adjusted, people watch you and find out (hopefully) that nothing harmful happens as a result of your presence. They notice that you do indeed ask questions about language and customs, write things down in notebooks, and tape record interviews (60,61).

As Agar wrote, it did take some time to really feel comfortable and accepted in the community. People laughed at my questions and made fun of my notebook. By the end of the semester people still teased me about my outsider questions, but I also found myself invited to a Croatian wedding, being forced by one of the women to learn Croatian Kolo dances, and even asked to sit at the head table at a Croatian dance in the parish hall. These are all experiences that I would not have encountered if my project had gone as planned.

--Kathleen Rice, American Mosaic Student