Humanities 101: A Community of Learners

Program celebrates a decade of honouring the lived experiences of its participants

Donna McKinnon - 08 May 2018

Years of homelessness, prostitution and addiction left Patti Howell little room to contemplate alternative possibilities for her life. Survival drove most of her decisions. And yet, in spite of very difficult circumstances, including a life-threatening car accident, Howell turned her life around.

As her body healed, she found Humanities 101, a Community Service-Learning (CSL) supported program for people who have experienced economic, institutional, or social barriers to accessing formal learning opportunities.

Embraced by a safe, diverse and inclusive community of adult learners, Howell became empowered by education. Now a practicing social worker and addictions counselor, she attributes many of the successes and strengths in her life to the program.

"I came to a real intense bottom," she says. "When I started Humanities 101, I was pushing a walker. My old life was dead, but I didn't know if a new life was waiting for me. HUM was the first step in that new life."

Making educational opportunities accessible to underserved communities is at the heart of Humanities 101. By acknowledging different ways of learning, the program creates an open atmosphere of sharing; a distinctly non-hierarchical and reciprocal method of knowledge transfer that places lived experiences on the same plane as traditional coursework instruction.

For Howell, it represented the first time she felt truly valued for her knowledge. "What I remember most about those first semesters is that they were accepting and tolerant of differences. That feeling of being accepted and in a place where I could contribute, I started to realize, hey I can do this. I can be a learner. It also showed me that I have an incredible capacity to work with different types of people, and that gave me confidence to go after a social work degree."

Humanities 101, in varying forms, has been around since 2004. Its current incarnation under CSL is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the significance of the program to both the University of Alberta, and to the program's participants is undeniable.

HUM program coordinator Lisa Prins believes that accessibility is the key to its success. "It's important that the university invite people to the table," she says. "A lot of knowledge is gleaned off the backs of people who aren't actually allowed to have access to the institution. And for the community, the idea of being able to sit in a group of people who are curious, is a huge privilege that I don't think we recognize at the institution. It's uplifting the whole people."

Howell describes Humanities 101 as experiential learning meeting book knowledge, shared in an inclusive, non-judgmental way.

Prins agrees, adding that participants in the program hold incredible knowledge, but often lack the means of expression. "A lot of people read books but have no actual lived understanding. And then you have people who have nothing but understanding, but no access to the language to describe it."

Humanities 101 graduating class of 2018

Offered each semester, Humanities 101 is a non-credit course that, in addition to Prins, relies heavily on volunteers, mostly grad students, as well as faculty guest lecturers and facilitators - all of whom are expected to come as active participants. Since 2010, a second course has been offered through the Wings of Providence second-stage women's shelter for women and children who have experienced family violence.

Though many enrolled in the program live in challenging circumstances, the project-based programming encourages critical thinking and is not focused on the individual, but on the larger, societal issues that drive systems of oppression.

"The things that can happen to how you perceive yourself in the world, when you think about what's happening outside of yourself, is profound," says Prins. "Our goal is to look at those moments of oppression. What is that actually about? So let's unpack the patriarchy. Let's unpack colonialism. Let's talk about where these things come from."

Kelsi Barkway, a doctoral student in sociology, has been with the program for five years as a volunteer and now, as an assistant HUM 101 coordinator. She says her experiences with the program have fundamentally altered her perception of what learning communities can look like, how they can be built, and who should be there. "It's so life-giving, to be part of it," she says. "I recognize how hard it can be and how rare it is to have such a truly supportive community of people who are excited to learn together."

"HUM 101 was an opportunity for me to step into an educated environment at a place and time where I didn't have the money or the resources, and I didn't have the belief that I could," says Howell. "It offered something that I really wanted, but didn't know what was available to me. I've not seen this type of interaction between different abilities, anywhere else in society. Not anywhere. It's a beautiful thing."

As part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, Humanities 101 will be holding its first conference - Connections: Workshops, Conversations, and Celebration, May 11-13. You are invited to attend a celebration of the Humanities 101 community and the work they have done over the past 10 years on May 11 from 3 to 6 p.m., 4th Floor Lounge (4-10) Education Building North. Please RSVP by May 9 here.