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NewsApr 1, 2016

If education doesn’t break down barriers, foster change and improve lives, what is its purpose?

Presentations, posters and a plenary address underscore university's core values in daylong academic expo

If education doesn’t break down barriers, foster change and improve lives, what is its purpose?

The more than 40 workshops, presentations, poster sessions and a moving plenary address at Community of Scholars Day 2016 were informed by the spirit of advocacy — for others and self — and demonstrated the healing, illustrative and constructive power of knowledge.

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Physician, poet and MFA in Creative Writing faculty
member Rafael Campo.

MFA in Creative Writing faculty Dr. Rafael Campo, a physician and award-winning poet, said during his plenary that he was criticized in medical school for his “tendency to identify too strongly” with patients, yet he sees his practice of poetry as integral to his practice of medicine, which too often uses clinical, even, “weaponized language to keep patients at bay.”

Instead, Campo’s poetry and the humanities in general are a means of connecting with people who are suffering, or at least humanizing them, rather then viewing them as an amalgam of biomedical facts. He used the vernacular of acute care incident reports to weave several lyrical slices of life, telling the stories of patients who “presented” as victims of rape and domestic abuse, heartbreaking illness and drug overdoses, like the “Jane Doe,” found with “heroin inside her, like a vengeful dream…”

“How important it is that we talk to each other across those disciplines,” Campo said, reflecting a quip in President Joseph Moore’s introduction of Campo, regarding “Trump-like walls” between academic disciplines.

“I think the humanities still have a lot to teach us about human suffering,” Campo said. “If poetry is made of breath and the beating heart,” it certainly has a place in healing.

Confronting oppression

Other presentations demonstrated different methods of healing social ills and guiding the way toward societal change.

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Student Janna Corsetti talks about Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" concept
as it relates to organizational whistleblowers.

In “Visualizing Campus Accessibility,” associate professor of design Heather Shaw and adjunct faculty member Lisa Spitz discussed how their students and “user experts” from Lesley’s Threshold Program navigated the Brattle, Doble and Porter campuses to map buildings and areas inaccessible, or incompletely accessible, to people with impaired vision or mobility. Then they employed a “Design for All” process to plot important developments, such as tactile and Braille-festooned overlays of traditional visual maps of campus, mobile-device apps that rate routes based on accessibility and that emit chirps for people with visual disabilities when they near their classroom or office.

Other changes would involve building designs that feature attractive, massive street-level windows, but don’t confuse seeing-eye dogs attempting to locate the door, or making sure the means of access don’t end up segregating people with disabilities from others entering a structure.

“Students began to be able to predict over time where there would be an issue,” said Spitz, consultant for the College of Art and Design’s bachelor’s program in design for user experience.

Embracing empathy

Other presentations reflected that impulse to experience life as others experience it, and work to find solutions to societal afflictions. In reading and hearing the Claudia Rankine poem “On the train the woman standing” (Session: “Work In Progress — Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community,” by Madeleine Holtzer, visiting scholar for Creativity Commons), attendees discussed the separation of people by race and class, in this poem’s instance, on public transportation.

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Students check out one of the posters at Community of Scholars Day.

Similarly, assistant professor of art therapy Michaela Kirby’s “Monopoly, Not Just a Game” literally rewrites the rules of the classic board game Monopoly to more accurately reflect the real world, where people don’t start out with the same amount of money, collect the same $200 when they pass “Go,” or enjoy the same ability to build houses and hotels on desirable property. When adjusted to reflect natural disparities in wealth, those with access to more money were allowed the benefits of the “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards, while the less flush often found themselves unable to stay out of jail.

Even the familiar game tokens hint at the class disparity otherwise obscured by the game: the top hat, purebred terrier, roadster and ocean liner reflect the rich, while the boot, wheelbarrow, thimble and flatiron reflect the working class.

But at least in Monopoly, it is possible to change one’s fortune via a lucky roll of the dice. In real life, one must exercise more control over one’s outcome.

A presentation about “The Visual Reflection Team: Mindful Witnessing in a Counseling Context” illustrated the practice of narrative therapy as a powerful tool to experience life as others experience it.

Presenter and adjunct faculty member Joe Mageary’s research team explored a narrative therapy technique called the “visual reflection team,” in which a team interviews an individual to “witness” their story. Each member of the team them reflects on what they hear, and responds to the teller through words, writing and art to express how it affected them as a witness.

“The idea is a person’s word has power,” said Mageary, “that just by hearing something can have ripple effects in other people’s lives,” he said, noting that “outsider witnessing” can remove the power imbalance inherent in traditional therapy.

Added presenter Vidya Sivan, “We’re constantly growing not only through our own experiences, but by those we surround ourselves by.”

Making a way

In the session “Creating a Leadership Development Study Group for Women Faculty: An Act of Relational Leadership,” professors Diana Direiter, Amy Rutstein-Riley and Stephanie Spadorcia discussed the LEAD program (Leadership Enrichment and Development). The program helps (at present) women core faculty members tap their potential to recognize their own roles as leaders through advocacy for themselves and others, regardless of job title.

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Students and faculty come together to create a Social Action
Movement Choir bringing awareness in preventing relationship
violence through the power of dance and community, led
by Associate Professor Nancy Beardall, adjunct faculty Valerie
Blanc, and graduate students Mallory Polivka and Ruoxi Zhang.

Faculty members Mitchell Kossak and Irle Goldman discussed the ways the tools of expressive therapies and counseling psychology can intersect to help people in therapy help themselves, with Goldman (a counseling psychology specialist) joyfully conceding, “All therapy is expressive therapy.”

Kossak and Goldman admitted they baited their hook with psychology icons Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and spoke largely of the mythopoetic and shamanistic aspects of therapy.

Those themes — and their potential in helping oneself and others, were at the heart of the First-Year Seminar presentation by assistant professor of business management Robert McGrath and student Janna Corsetti. In “Whistleblower: Savior or Snitch?” they discussed how the themes of author Joseph Campbell’s concept of the "Hero's Journey" related to the story of the whistleblower: the opposition; the reliance on “supernatural” help (say, a public-interest attorney); and the great physical, financial and emotional cost of the journey itself.

“There are a lot of ways Joseph Campbell’s works can connect with many, many experiences” of overcoming obstacles, said Corsetti. “You have to fight your dragons along the path of your adventure.”

Creating advocates

As members of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty explore a multi-disciplinary environmental studies program, the tenet of advocacy is at the forefront, illustrated by a lively panel discussion, “Studying the Environment Across Divisions: A Vision of Unity.” Social action on behalf of people and on behalf of the environment are one in the same, argued professors Julie Shoemaker, Kim Ruegger, Robert Wauhkonen, Brian Brophy-Baermann and Frank Trocco.

When students engage in environmental field work, “the distinction between people and planet starts to disappear, and becomes thinner and thinner until you realize there is no distinction,” said Trocco, associate professor in the natural sciences and mathematics division.

Across business, science and the humanities, Lesley faculty work to expose students to the knowledge and the science to empower them as critical thinkers who can affect policy as they enter the workforce.

“I accept climate change as fact. Ninety-eight percent of the leading scientists in world say it’s real,” said Wauhkonen, acting chair of the humanities division. “I don’t think we need more science with climate change, we need people to do something. … We’ve got to change this culture; we need to change people’s minds.”