By Kaitlin Roberts
“The Bubble” is a familiar phrase to any Davidson College student or staff member. In the world of library carrels and party kegs, it’s easy to get trapped in campus life and lose sight of anything outside the college world.
But a new curriculum is helping students “break out of the bubble” and draw connections between critical work in the classroom and life in surrounding communities.
Dr. Ann Fox, an English professor at Davidson College, teaches a seminar called Disability & Literature. This semester, her class partnered with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte to research ways of making the Bechtler Museum more accessible for people with disabilities.
The museum was an obvious choice when Fox developed the project. She has led seminars at Bechtler on body and identity and has discussed the relationship between disability and art as part of the Bechtler’s Modern Monday Series.
“I find that the Bechtler is a very democratic space. They have innovative programs such as working with at risk youth, and they’re very open, always asking, ‘How can we bring more people in?’” Fox said.
As a student in Dr. Fox’s class, I found the project challenging because of the wide range of populations that fall under the term “disabled.” Often, the first image that comes to mind when we think about disability is the blue wheelchair, but disabilities come in many forms – seen and unseen.
Students spent the semester exploring a range of disabilities by reading critical material and learning about disability outside the classroom. Some students explored access in Washington, D.C., museums and others observed art classes at InReach, a Charlotte nonprofit that provides community programming for people with intellectual disabilities.
In late April, students presented the proposals to Erica Somerwitz, Bechtler’s School and Community Programs Manager.
“I was blown away by the thoughtfulness and amount of research that the class put into these proposals” Somerwitz said.
Suggestions in the proposals ranged from small adjustments like creating large-print brochures to broader changes such as featuring more disabled artists.
“This isn’t just ‘Oh, let’s ask these kids to write something up.’ Erica is taking the proposals seriously,” Fox said.
Somerwitz has already incorporated one of the proposal ideas, a “favorites folder” that helps visitors remember which pieces of art they liked best. Somerwitz says she used the concept on a tour she led with InReach clients and it was a huge success.
While the proposals are already making changes, Fox and her students have some ideas on how to improve the service learning component for future classes.
“I have an existing relationship with the Bechtler and an interest in disability and art, but I could see expanding to other museums,” Fox said. “You know, why not the NASCAR museum, there are disabled NASCAR fans too!”
Garrett Sauey, a student in the class, agreed that expanding to other spaces would be a good change.
“A lot of the project had been prefaced for us and we sort of followed that," he said. "We all know the Bechtler Space, which was convenient in some ways, but it would be interesting to expand to other buildings and public monuments.”
While the course isn’t all tests and term papers, don’t equate service learning with an “easy A.” From critical essays to a trip to Washington, D.C., to cultural artifact projects, Fox’s students are staying busy.
“I think the service learning component was great. Dr. Fox wanted to have disability outside the classroom, to explore it on our own and understand how it works in life,” Sauey says. "But I think it speaks for itself, that the class is a pretty demanding one.”