The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has approved a grant of $700,000 to Denison University for an initiative to embed “place-based” narrative in the curriculum. Place-based narrative is nonfiction writing that examines the heart of the nation, between the East and West coasts — “the missing middle,” as it is sometimes called, — its people, politics, culture, environment, economics and more.
“Denison is uniquely situated to do this work. Place-based narrative has the potential to greatly deepen the education of our students while also changing perceptions of the heart of this country in ways that positively impacts the lives of individuals and communities,” said Denison University President Adam Weinberg. “The Mellon grant will catalyze this initiative and help our students find opportunities to write stories that reflect the world around them — and to become strong communicators in every discipline. We are delighted the Mellon Foundation chose to support this transformative work.”
“At a time when reliable sources of local news are disappearing and there is intense skepticism about the bi-coastal myopia of the national media, Denison’s ‘Between Coasts’ initiative has the potential to gradually rebuild public trust,” said Eugene Tobin, a senior program officer at the Mellon Foundation. “Using narrative journalism and place-based writing to encourage students’ commitment to civic responsibility and improved public discourse is an investment we are proud to make.”
Courses that engage place-based narrative are experiential. They require critical thinking and expose students to different points of view on issues crucial to our communities. Students will write about these perspectives in essays, letters to the editor, blog posts, investigative reports, and more.
“Students who have spent an hour talking with a kindergarten teacher, a farmer, coal miner, or an addict, become not only better writers but better citizens,” says Jack Shuler, associate professor of English and chair of the Narrative Journalism concentration, who along with English professors Margot Singer and Michael Croley, will administer the program. “As these students share what they learn with others, we all benefit. The experiences of everyday people become more important and begin to bear weight in society. We gain empathy and learn to listen across difference.”
Denison’s location — in a rural county near Newark, a former hub of manufacturing, and Columbus, a vibrant, fast-growing metropolis — is an added bonus for the program. By traveling less than 30 miles, students will have the ability to interview a wide range of people from many walks of life. Local, county and state organizations are also accessible, which will allow both in-depth research and the opportunity to talk with participants on the ground floor of programs.
“Writing in Place” will bring the practice of narrative writing to classrooms across campus. Assignments will send students into the community, linking classroom learning with lived experience and inspiring them to think critically and find common ground. Denison students will gather data, make hands-on observations, interview and survey individuals and groups, as they write about a wide range of topics spanning the disciplines.
The “Writing in Place” initiative will build on Denison’s curricular concentration in Narrative Journalism, a program that teaches students to combine literary storytelling with in-depth, fact-based research. The Narrative Journalism concentration is designed for students from all majors who want a structured opportunity for hands-on experience along with exposure to potential career paths — from science writing to writing that spotlights the public humanities.
“‘Writing in Place’ offers the campus many opportunities,” said Denison Provost Kim Coplin. “It will breathe new life into existing writing-intensive courses, give faculty powerful pedagogical tools, inspire students to immerse themselves in their disciplines, demonstrate an array of career paths, empower faculty and students to engage in communities, teach critical thinking and empathy, and open the public square to civil discourse about humanity — our history, philosophy, languages, inventions, and art.”
Denison University unlocks the potential of our students to be architects of their own lives. Located in the beautiful village of Granville, our college is built on a foundation of academic prestige and lasting relationships. We create pathways for our students to quickly make friends and find mentors. We help them figure out what kind of lives they want to lead and develop the skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences to launch into professions so they can build those lives. As Denison continues to build upon its strengths, our focus is on deepening mentorship; expanding the liberal arts curriculum; reinventing the career exploration process; and leveraging our close proximity to Columbus, one of the nation’s best cities for the arts, internships, and entrepreneurship.