So Much More to Learn: Interdisciplinary Course Takes Students, Faculty Outside Their Comfort Zones
When Harry Dammer, Ph.D., sat next to Catherine Lovecchio, Ph.D., at the on-campus 2011 Pedro Arrupe Award dinner honoring Gregory Boyle, S.J., he never dreamed that he would be drafted to create, let alone help implement, an interdisciplinary nursing/criminal justice course. Dr. Lovecchio, assistant professor of nursing, was so inspired by Fr. Boyle’s presentation that she saw an educational opportunity for her nursing students that could not be ignored and convinced Dr. Dammer, chair of the University’s Department of Sociology/Criminal Justice, that his criminal justice students would benefit as well. The following January, during intersession 2012, they met their students at Los Angeles International Airport – better known as LAX – kicking off an educational and spiritual journey.
The course, “Gangs and Urban Health in LA,” was born of Fr. Boyle’s message, molded by two dedicated professors, forged by working with the homeless, poor, former gang members and prisoners, and annealed by friendship and Jesuit reflection.
The students were given articles in advance to prepare for their experiential learning. They were to apply or dismiss the theory when they met with the practice. They volunteered at St. Francis Mission, a community center that serves low-income families and homeless residents in Los Angeles, packing food, exercising and salsa dancing with seniors. They worked at a health fair at Dolores Mission Church, interacting with the homeless and the poor. The group visited with Det. Jorge Luis Martinez, who is responsible for monitoring Los Angeles’ 450 gangs, and toured the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, one of Los Angeles County’s prisons. They toured a cell block and visited the medical facility where they saw inmates handcuffed to beds. Dr. Lovecchio and her students were most impressed with the civility guards afforded inmates recalling, “they treated the inmates with respect. One guard explained that he wasn’t there to make the inmates’ lives more difficult.”
The students also toured Homeboy Industries, Fr. Boyle’s response to gang violence. “Homeboy Industries serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with a continuum of free services and programs, and offers seven social enterprises that serve as job training sites.”1 This organization also offers tattoo removal, employment, legal services, mental health, substance abuse and domestic abuse services, education and job training.
Every experience the professors planned was designed to take the students out of their comfort zone – to create dissonance – and to make them reflect on their own values, as well as the needs of others. The missions of the various agencies presented to the students were often in sharp contrast between the role of the criminal justice system. As they met with the poor, homeless, prisoners and former gang members, the students and professors were always continually confronted with the humanity of these people. Many of those they met wanted a better life; some were working hard at creating new lives. Central to change for those with whom they spoke was the power of education and of faith to transform their lives.
“One of the challenges of teaching is keeping my pedagogy fresh,” explained Dr. Dammer. For the criminal justice professor, this class did just that. What he saw was “just a refresher course on the systems and problems of criminal justice. It was helpful to go back and examine the etiology of gangs by talking to gang members.” But the class experience changed his views on his teaching paradigm. He found the experiential approach “contributed to the depth” of the subject matter.
Dr. Lovecchio and he came face-to-face with a fundamental philosophical difference in their teaching approaches. Nursing prepares the nurse to treat the person regardless of his or her background or behavior. Inherent in nursing is the respect for the individual and the need to transcend differences.2 Dr. Lovecchio looks at the person and their needs, not their past. In prison she approached the inmates with the thought that this is someone’s son or brother. She accepts people and treats them without qualification.
Dr. Dammer approaches people with a more skeptical view. He observes and asks, “How did this person get like this? What choices and actions had this person made to lead him to this place?” The two professors had not examined these differences until confronted with them. These experiences and discussions revealed a new way of thinking about their patients and clients.
Both Dr. Lovecchio and Dr. Dammer speak of the transformative nature of the class. Both tailored the course with their Jesuit, Catholic values, and included the “examen” at the end of the day. Jesuit novice Jason Downer, N.S.J., traveled with the group and nightly guided them in reflecting on the day’s experiences. Dr. Lovecchio felt that the examen allowed the entire group to find meaning in the experience by “challenging our values and reflecting on our choices.”
As their experiences created discomfort and cognitive dissonance, the examen allowed teachers and students to think about their futures in a faith-based way and perhaps an opportunity to reconcile their discomfort with insight.
Students and teachers began their journey with theory, tested those theories in experiential settings, reflected together on all they shared, and incorporated the experience into their personal and professional lives. Dr. Lovecchio and Dr. Dammer have heeded Fr. Arrupe’s call of living a life that is mindful of others, creating a class that asked their students to do so as well.