HCC national leader in LC education

April 7, 2014

Learning Community Politics of Food class works in permaculture garden at HCC. LC coordinator Jack Mino looks for the devil inside a student's display.

What do you get when you cross subjects like psychology and English?

Answer: LC 200: "Darkness Visible: The Idea of ‘Madness' in Culture and Literature."

How about philosophy and sustainable agriculture?

LC 203: "The Politics of Food."

College composition and history?

LC 103: "Bon Appetit! Cannibalism Through History, Literature and Film."

People familiar with the Holyoke Community College catalog will immediately recognize the courses above by their prefix, if not also from their often playful and provocative titles.

In the HCC vernacular, "LC" stands for Learning Communities, a special genre of courses that combine two academic disciplines focused on a singular theme or topic.

"The purpose of Learning Communities is to prepare you to understand the inter-relatedness of knowledge and to develop literacy and competence in diverse fields of learning," reads the description in the HCC registration booklet.

HCC is not unique in offering Learning Communities, but it is one of only a handful of Massachusetts colleges that do -- public or private. It is one of the few schools -- and may very well be the only one -- in the country that offers LC courses in collaboration with other colleges.

There is no doubt, however, that HCC has become a national leader in LC education. The program marked its 20th anniversary in 2013. That makes it the oldest LC program in Massachusetts, according to the Washington Center - the national resource center for Learning Communities, based at Evergreen State College. Every semester LC classes are among the most sought after by HCC's best students.

"It's one of the things that HCC does very well," says Kim Hicks, dean of HCC's Arts and Humanities Division. "This program has a reputation outside this institution. Jack Mino" -- the coordinator -- "is a nationally recognized leader in Learning Communities.

The LC program at HCC is one of a related trio known collectively as the Integrative Learning Programs. The others are Honors and Service Learning, the latter which adds a component of community service to LCs and other HCC courses.

HCC's Integrated Learning programs will celebrate their respective anniversaries at a reception Thursday, April 10, in the PeoplesBank Room in the Kittredge Center: Honors (30), LCs (20), Service Learning (10).

Integration is the guiding principle. To understand LCs, says Mino, you have to look at them in the context of a continuum. At one end are traditional, stand-alone courses, those taught by professors with expertise in one field, say anthropology. A professor might choose to add an inter-disciplinary component to the curriculum by introducing topical material or inviting a guest speaker from another academic area.

Next are Linked Courses, known by the "LX" prefix in the HCC course catalog. These take two stand-alone courses and bind them with a common cohort of students, for example, LX 102, "Just Food," which links College Composition and Introduction to Nutrition. In these classes, the students stay put as the teachers change shifts.

"They may have common learning activities, like going on a field trip," says Mino. "There's common reading and common writing and they have some integrative assignments, but the teachers don't team teach and the students still have a stand-alone course experience. This is the most common model nationally, particularly at the university level."

The LC model takes this a step further -- and beyond -- by completely integrating classes from two different academic areas, for instance composition and statistics in "Won't Get Fooled Again," a course that explores the way both mathematics and literature contribute to our understanding of the world.

"The classes are thematically integrated," Mino explains. "The material is integrated and all the assignments are integrated, and the teachers team teach."
Further still on the continuum are the Honors Colloquia. These are elevated LCs, team taught courses that combine not just two but sometimes as many as five or six different academic disciplines.

In the case of "The Immortality of the Revolution," HCC professors Monica Torregrosa (Spanish) and James Dutcher (English) examine resistance movements in Latin America by drawing on source material from history, anthropology, Spanish culture, English literature, art and theater. Rather than using a traditional lecture format, most LC classes are run as seminars, where instructors moderate discussions based on course material but the students do most of the talking.

"It's different," says HCC student Kevin Kelly, a Sustainability Studies major from Wilbraham. "It's more critical thinking. It's more interactive. We get everybody's perspective."

Mino, a professor of psychology, taught one portion of the first LC at HCC in 1991. That pilot linked developmental reading, developmental writing and psychology.

"It was a total failure," Mino recalls. "On paper, it looked really good, but in reality we got the students who were the last enrolled, so they were the most unprepared."

Trying to link three courses together also greatly limited the pool of students eligible to sign up. Over the next two years, Mino and English professor David Ram worked out the kinks and developed the two-course model used today.

In 1993, HCC received a grant that allowed the LC program to expand to include 15 faculty members Mino calls the "LC Piloteers."

"We started building momentum," says Mino. "Students were digging it. They were doing well. Then we started to get affirmation from transfer institutions. They said, we like these students who are taking Learning Communities because they are better prepared."

Now, HCC offers about a dozen Learning Communities every semester, from "Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole," a course that explores the social, political and economic causes of crime by studying episodes of the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," to "The Philosophy of Biology," where students study Darwin's Origin of Species to better understand the relationships between living organisms.

LC students often find themselves engaged in work outside the classroom. "Young, Pregnant and Literate" adds a Service Learning component to the course that allows students a hands-on experience in the human service field through a semester-long partnership with The Care Center in Holyoke, a nonprofit that helps teenage mothers continue their educations.Students taking "The Politics of Food" are frequently outside, digging and planting vegetables in HCC's sustainability and permaculture gardens alongside their professors, Kate Maiolatesi (sustainability) and Don Hanover (philosophy).

LC classes seem to attract some of HCC's highest academic achievers. Or, perhaps, the LC classes inspire students toward greater academic success.

"HCC has a strong transfer culture and the Learning Communities are a big part of that," says Irma Medina, coordinator of HCC's Pathways program. "That's the biggest thing students say they miss when they leave here. I just wish we could make all students take them. It just transforms students. It opens up their minds."

Students say they get something from LCs they don't from other courses. Some become so enamored by the LC concept they sign up over and over. Hicks playfully calls them "recidivists."

Kelly, the Sustainability Studies major from Wilbraham, is one of them. He'd already taken five before his final semester this spring. He says LCs have prepared him well for transfer and plans to study sustainability at the University of Massachusetts after he graduates in May.

"Most Learning Community classes I've taken have really been at a higher level," he says. "In Learning Communities, you write a little more, you learn to read a little deeper. I think it's a really good stepping stone."

In Fall 2012, HCC offered its first inter-institutional LC, "Urban Political Economy," an Honors course co-taught by HCC professor of economics Mary Orisich and Preston Smith, a professor of political science at Mount Holyoke College. The course met on both campuses and included students from both HCC and Mount Holyoke. The students worked together on several research projects, including recommending new uses for an abandoned factory, and presented their findings to town officials as well as professors and deans from both schools.

"The idea there was that we wanted to provide students a kind of inside track for transfer," says Mino. "We were transferring a lot of students. We wanted to get more students in that pipeline and get them attuned to the kind of requirements and expectations they would see."

HCC offered a second inter-institutional LC Honors course in Spring 2013. "The Immigrant City" paired students from HCC and Amherst College in a study of Holyoke from both historical and political perspectives.

Mino, who regularly attends national conferences on Learning Communities, says he's not aware of any other college that offers LC courses jointly with other schools. "As far as I know - and I've checked it out all over the country," he says.

This spring, HCC is offering its first linked course with the University of Massachusetts. In "Equity, Health & Justice for All," HCC anthropology students are working with graduate students from the UMass School of Public Health on a Service Learning project with Holyoke community groups.

Last Fall, HCC's LC classes went intercontinental. Students in "When Gaia Meets Psyche" engaged with their counterparts at Hebei Normal University in China in a study -- via email -- of the Tao Te Chingand what the text has to say about humankind's relationship with nature.

"They were ESL students and we're in this Learning Community on psychology and environmental literature, so we had very different academic focuses," says Eli Berkowitz, an HCC student from Florence, "but because we were studying something that was very culturally relevant to them, really quickly there was this great conversation that formed."

Those conversations are the real strength of Learning Communities, says Mino. The student-led discussions are where the real learning and insights occur. To capture those moments, Mino records his LC classes and puts the videos online for students to review.

"The students collectively construct new knowledge together," says Mino. "They find intersections in the disciplines you didn't plan for. It's like magic."

This story also appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Alumni Connection

Photos: (Left) HCC philosophy professor Don Hanover tills the soil in the HCC permaculture garden alongside students in a Politics of Food Learning Community class at HCC. (Right) Learning Communities coordinator Jack Mino looks for the devil inside a student display at the annual LC poster conference in December.


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