"On Creating an Interdisciplinary Service Learning Course"

Mellis Cropped 

by James Mellis
Department of English

In the Spring semester of 2015, I taught an interdisciplinary course entitled “Hurricane and ReBirth: New Orleans Before and After Katrina” which was intended to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the historic storm that devastated New Orleans, a city that I had grown to love while living there pursuing my doctorate.  Like millions of others, I watched in horror as the levees breached in the days following the storm and the waters from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain inundated the city, resulting in almost 2,000 fatalities and causing $105 billion in damage.  Almost as bad as the physical damage caused by the storm were (are) the hard truths regarding issues of race, class, social justice and economic disparity in the United States brought into sharp focus by the national response to the disaster. 

The failed response of city, state and federal authorities to the storm, coupled with the iconic images of New Orleans residents, primarily poor and African-American, waiting in desperation for help on rooftops, highway overpasses and in the Superdome and outside of the Morial Convention Center, have been seared into our collective consciousness and have become, justly, one of the dominant threads in the narrative of the storm.

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However, of course that is only one part of the story.  For, despite the immediate debate in the wake of the storm as to whether or not to rebuild New Orleans, and if so, what kind of city it was to become (then-mayor Nagin’s insistence that New Orleans would remain a ‘chocolate city,’ making the Lower Ninth Ward a ‘green space’ by displacing lower-income African-American residents, etc.) the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans to many presented opportunities; economic, educational, social and cultural, that are at turns exciting and frustrating to observe.  Thus, when I proposed an interdisciplinary course to study both New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and the challenges in rebuilding the city while trying to keep its unique culture intact, I was faced with a number of exciting challenges.

Aside from the administrative and logistical challenges of bringing 12 students to New Orleans for a week of volunteer work, lectures, and cultural excursions as economically as possible (and there were many, and without the enormous support of Wartyna Davis, Kara Rabbit, Ian Marshall, Phil Cioffari, Meg Gunther, Kim Heisler, Jonathan Lincoln, Provost Sandmann and others, the course could not have happened), one major challenge I faced was how to construct a syllabus for a course that is intended to cover multiple disciplines addressing one overarching theme: the recovery of New Orleans and the manifold challenges that doing so presented.   

“New Orleans: Before and After Hurricane Katrina” is an enormous topic, so I chose to introduce a number of topics (educational reform, criminal reform, gentrification, literature, first-person narratives, history of the city, festivals, etc.) in the readings, in the hopes that students would pursue their individual interests further with a suggested reading list that I had compiled for each discipline (literature, sociology, political science, and geography and urban studies).  The organizing structure of the course was weekly meetings leading up to Spring Break where students were given essays or book chapters from across the disciplines, watched documentaries, and participated in instructor-led discussion groups.

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The week in New Orleans was an intensive immersive experience.  The students stayed at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, which is an organization that has deep roots in the community and facilitated our volunteer work, which primarily consisted of light construction and painting at a day care center run by Vietnamese nuns and refurbishing houses in the Lower Ninth Ward that, ten years after the storm, had still not been repaired.  In addition to our volunteer work, our group attended a number of pre-planned excursions and lectures intended to give multiple perspectives on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  Some of these included a voodoo ceremony led by Marie Laveau’s grand-daughter, a meeting, lecture and dance with Mardi Gras Indians, a ranger-led excursion to the bayous of Jean Lafitte National Park to learn about erosion of the wetlands and the local ecology (complete with alligators crossing our path!), meeting documentarian Katherine Cecil for a question and answer session after watching her film Race about the first mayoral election after Katrina, touring the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation in the South that gives tours from the slave’s, rather than the plantation owner’s perspective, meeting professor Scott Liebertz of the University of Southern Alabama to discuss the rebuilding of New Orleans from a political scientist’s perspective, and hearing the official historian of the Zulu Social club talk about community activism in the African-American community both before and after the storm.  Perhaps my favorite was a private concert with the Preservation Hall Band, who spoke to the group about the importance of Jazz music to New Orleans and America generally, and the importance of keeping that tradition alive to the identity of the city and in its efforts to rebuild.  One of our students, Jazz major Hannah Comia, even got up to sing a few Louis Armstrong standards with the band and was brought to joyful tears when they contacted her that evening inviting her to perform with them that weekend at a blues and jazz festival! 

For all of their readings and these excursions, I think what most affected the students were the unplanned interactions- the people who openly shared their Hurricane Katrina stories and gave the students new perspectives on Katrina, challenging them and inspiring them to become more actively involved in the world around them. Whether it was thecook at the Center for Ethical Living spontaneously sharing her Katrina story (her home destroyed, her daughter killed) with the group, a jazz musician from Preservation Hall leaving his tour in Japan to make his way back to New Orleans to help save his family business, or people who volunteered with the “Cajun Navy” performing rescues from flooded areas with their own boats, asking nothing and putting their own lives at risk, the students were often spellbound hearing stories of bravery, despair, and ultimately hope.  So much so that by the final days of the trip, some students were openly approaching people in parks and on the street and recording their Katrina experiences for posterity.  People were always open to sharing their stories, most of which can be found on a Facebook page that the class set up and maintains (https://www.facebook.com/HurricaneAndRebirth/).  These interactions had a transformative effect for many of the students, some of whom had never before left the tristate area, and some are now seriously contemplating returning to New Orleans after they graduate to work as social workers, drug counselors or educators.  Some sample titles of the students’ final research papers:  “The New Orleans Charter School Movement in the Wake of Katrina,” “Gentrification in New Orleans Post Hurricane Katrina,” “The Role of Religious Institutions in the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” and “How Music Saved the City:  Musician’s Village and the Rebirth of New Orleans Culture” are indicative of the range and depth of the experience and the ways the students all openly embraced the challenges and opportunities afforded by the course.  When I received an email from one of the students in August telling me that she and other students from the class wanted to set up a donation drive at William Paterson to collect clothing, food and medical supplies for those affected by this summer’s historic flooding in Louisiana, I knew, without a doubt, that the class had been a success.

If you would like to contribute a faculty essay, please contact parkk4@wpunj.edu.