2014 Northwestern Michigan College

Writing the Experiences of Homelessness Workshop
2014 LAND Institutional Excellence Award
Northwestern Michigan College
Timothy J. Nelson, President

Name of Team and Participants

  • Michael Anderson, Communications Instructor, Writing Workshop Assistant, Writer Mentor
  • Susan Odgers, Psychology Adjunct Instructor, Community Liaison
  • Melissa Sprenkle, Communications Instructor, Writing Workshop Leader

Rationale for Nomination

Advancement of the Liberal Arts education through innovation and collaboration in the teaching/learning goals of any course or discipline primarily dedicated to the Liberal Arts.

This workshop advances liberal arts education through the collaboration of communications and psychology faculty using an enriched writing curriculum that offers tools from experimental critical writing, rhetorical theory and practice, and journalism.

The Northwestern Michigan College Writing the Experiences of Homelessness workshop was supported this past fall (2014) by the NMC Foundation Innovations Grant (applied for by Melissa Sprenkle and Susan Odgers). The workshop supports the efforts of writers who have or are currently experiencing homelessness and are interested in writing about these experiences to change our community’s understanding of homelessness. Rather than imagining “the homeless” as a homogenized group, readers of these writers’ works would come to see those experiencing homelessness as diverse individuals.

Promotion of educational access to new populations of learners, including outreach to populations or groups currently underrepresented.

The workshop invites people from any background to consider themselves writers and to take their written expressions of their own experiences seriously. While many of the workshop participants have attended college, some have not yet completed high school. Others have completed advanced degrees. This workshop broadens the Northwestern Michigan College community to include people in the area who have no or limited access to college, and it encourages staff as well as current and former students to recognize and activate their academic abilities. Our current group includes a mix of women and men, single parents, senior citizens, youth, and members of local tribes.

Enhancement of the quality and outcomes of student learning in the Liberal Arts.

Workshop participants practice a variety of invention writing techniques, read a range of literary essays as models, and analyze popular culture. They think about how ideas of personhood are communicated, and they write to invite readers to recognize anew the personhood of those experiencing homelessness. In a world dominated by discourses of instrumental reason (where we must blame individuals for systemic injustices), these writers are given tools to resist homogenization and replace generalized ideas about the hypothetical culpability of “the homeless” with a more humane understanding of individuals coping with diverse conditions currently categorized as homelessness.

Collaborative models of course work, i.e. interdisciplinary teams, cross disciplinary partnering, collaborative learning, and/or other forms of group productivity and may include outreach into occupational or career preparation.

This project builds on two recent NMC and community projects. In spring 2014, a collaborative service learning research project was conducted by Melissa Sprenkle’s English 112 class and Lisa Blackford’s Social Work 221 class. After researching definitions and causes of homelessness in both urban and rural areas and learning more about homelessness in Traverse City, students created and distributed a survey of perceptions and experiences of homelessness among students, faculty, and staff at NMC. As they researched this issue, students in the two classes became more aware of how widespread the experience of homelessness is among members of the NMC community. Both classes wondered how the problem could be so widespread and yet so invisible or unknown.

In June 2014, Melissa Sprenkle was contacted by a former ENG 112 student, Ryan Hannon, who works as an outreach coordinator for Goodwill, and invited to join a planning meeting for a proposed street paper giving voice to those experiencing homelessness in Traverse City. At that point, Melissa began leading weekly writing workshops at Central Methodist Church for people who wanted to create writing to be published in the new street paper. Several writings from this workshop were published in the first edition of the paper Speak Up, Traverse City. Since the summer editions, the zine has included several new writings from the NMC workshop participants.

The zine has had a good start and many citizens and business owners in Traverse City have been supportive, but the process by which content is generated for the paper is not currently sustainable. In offering this workshop, NMC contributes to the sustainability of the project by giving writers support and resources needed for creating, editing, saving, and publishing writing, and (ideally) by connecting those currently experiencing homelessness with NMC students, faculty, and staff who have experienced homelessness in the past and have moved on to a more stable living situation. Together, Traverse City community members and NMC community members could are working to make those experiencing homelessness more visible and more human to the general public

NMC students involved with the workshop have practiced human services skills that will be valuable in future careers in social work. Also, students collaborated with workshop participants to create flyers and posters advertising events, and assisted with organizing the community performance.

Encouragement of the Liberal Arts for lifelong learning and enjoyment.

The workshop has only completed its first semester (running September 16th through December 16th), but participants already report that they enjoy writing and sharing writing. They also have been proud to see their work published in the Speak Up, Traverse City street paper, and some have already broadened their publication efforts by getting works published in the White Pine Press (NMC’s student paper) and in other local publications. On December 7th the workshop presented oral performances of writings to the community in a local event at the downtown Inside/Out Gallery (a community performance venue). The room was packed and standing room only. Already our workshop writers have used the learning community we offered at NMC to more firmly take their places in the Traverse City community.