Art and Activism

Motivating Students to Take a Stand

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Associate Professor of Communications Catherine Hastings invokes a quiet activism in her passion for preserving open spaces such as those found along the Susquehanna River.For Kate Hastings, associate professor of communications and director of the Film Studies program, the rebellion is gentle and quiet, in keeping with her Quaker heritage. She screens subtle, nonlinear films that, in the words of one perplexed student, are “like two hours of watching the snow fall.” Hastings is delighted by such a comment, understanding that it heralds the opening of a mind to the possibility that a film can be more than car chases and gunfire. She moves her students toward silence, a Gandhi-esque activism borne out of her observances in the Religious Society of Friends, wherein practitioners mutely renew their spiritual resources while contemplating God’s creation. The cause to which she applies this movement is, logically, the environment.

Hastings is a true nature lover. She has been a trail maintenance coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Mid State Trail, has traveled widely for the sole purpose of hiking, and is an avid birder who keeps a “life list” that records every first sighting, whether a common sparrow or a rare shorebird strayed from its arctic realm. She considers it her mission to generate in her students an enthusiasm for the outdoors.

“Hey, you’re in the middle of Pennsylvania,” she tells her freshman orientation class. “Explore it.” To this end, she provides them with maps of local hiking trails. In the spring she will offer students a weekend retreat in a bucolic setting overlooking the Susquehanna River. “I want them to be in nature,” she says, “to listen and to observe.” By doing so, she hopes they will come to share her passion for the preservation of open spaces.

Drew Hubbell, associate professor and chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing, also worries about spaces—both urban and rural—that give shelter to human beings but are under the control of corporations and powerful interest groups indifferent to pollution. He lectures about the interconnectedness of all things and uses literature to illustrate the point. Whether from Robert Frost’s poem Design, describing the fateful meeting of a white moth and a white spider upon a white flower, or Ogaga Ifowodo’s The Oil Lamp, which links an audience of Western consumers with the plight of the tribes in the Niger Delta, Hubbell’s students become well aware that everything is connected. Some are inspired to turn awareness into activism, volunteering for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, or interning at Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs such as Sweet Meriam’s Farm in Beaver Springs, Pa.

The classroom is an alembic in which students of the arts learn about not only truth and beauty, form and technique, but also social consciousness and activism. “So much depends on the approach,” says Erik Viker, associate professor of theatre. “When I teach August Wilson’s Fences, I focus on the characters as human beings. Wilson doesn’t hit you over the head with the theme of racial prejudice. Once you’ve empathized with the family members, you can appreciate the injustices they’ve had to endure.”

When lecturing about music and politics, Associate Professor of Music Patrick Long embraces the negative. “Songs of protest and outrage get the job done,” he says. “Whenever music is used in favor of a political position, it sounds like propaganda to me.” To drive home his point, Long gives students examples of classical music used to promote fascism and other destructive political movements. “Three of the worst mass murderers in the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—misused classical music to create an aura of greatness for themselves. It’s sickening to think of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy being played at Nazi rallies, but it was.”

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