By Linda Lockhart
Some of the best ideas are born in casual conversation. Ask the faculty at Ohio University-Southern about that.
They might tell you how the cheers of some 700 community members and schoolchildren greeted President Abraham Lincoln as he arrived at the Lawrence County Courthouse on horseback Monday with former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth at his side. The famous visitors transported the crowd back 146 years -- to the same date in 1862, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The visit culminated a successful four-day Freedom Festival, the idea for which was hatched as a sidebar to a casual conversation at a faculty meeting.
A faculty member's report on a research project delving into a local community's roots inspired history instructor Bob Leith to comment that the Ironton area had a deep history in relation to the Underground Railroad, abolition and related topics. His comments led to a suggestion to explore and celebrate that history through an event. The faculty jumped on board.
Soon that sidebar conversation had grown into a full-fledged plan that extends far beyond the four days of festivities and has been integrated into the very fabric of the campus this quarter, including the curriculum. Dave Lucas, acting associate dean and associate professor of communication, estimated about 85 percent of the students on campus will be involved this quarter in some way with the topics that were central to the festival: freedom and the Civil War era.
A history course allows its 40 or so students to earn credit around the festival's events and topics. Some course assignments required students to attend festival events, including the one-hour mini-courses that focused on topics such as nursing and medical practices during the Civil War and Lincoln's leadership. Two essays and an exam are required as well.
During Monday's speech by nationally recognized Lincoln historian and actor Jim Getty, art students were sketching, photography students were snapping images and education students were interacting with the teachers and administrators who brought more than 600 elementary and middle-school students to the event. The electronic media class was busy capturing video and sound for a documentary that is a class project this quarter and some students, such as equine studies major Jason Massie, who acted as Lincoln's groom for the horseback ride to the courthouse, volunteered to participate just because they were interested.
Lucas said assignments were carefully planned to be rigorous.
"The purposeful design of this entire event was that we wanted to engage the students in writing across the curriculum," Lucas said. He added that the campus' decision to institute a common reader for freshmen was essential to bringing everyone to common ground. The book, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," also is being required in several other classes this quarter.
The learning has extended beyond the classroom in both anticipated and unexpected ways. In addition to students' participation, faculty have benefited in ways they didn't foresee.
"We're so busy we rarely have an opportunity to witness the power of our colleagues and their interaction with students," said Tom Suter, an art faculty member. "Working together in this way, we learned a lot about ourselves and a lot about our colleagues."
Lucas agreed that the day was both informative and educational for faculty.
"When I heard those (mini-course) presentations, it was like going to a conference," Lucas said. "You know your colleagues are intelligent and well-educated, but I had never heard them in that role," he said. "I just kept thinking, we did this for the students, but I'm the winner here."
The festival also has taken the learning experience into the community -- part of the mission of Ohio University's regional campuses. Of the four days of the festival, only Friday's events were held on campus. Saturday and Sunday were spent at the campus' Nature Center, located at Lake Vesuvius in Wayne National Forest. Bob Culp, chemistry instructor, said about 200 people attended the events there, including the Lincoln-Douglas debate.
"Probably 90 percent of them have never been to the Nature Center and didn't even know it existed," Culp said.
Steve Call, travel and tourism program director, said capacity is nearly full for two upcoming Education on Location trips, scheduled for Oct. 10 and Oct. 17-18, that will give people an opportunity to visit several sites associated with the history that has been central to the festival.
And, of course, the grand finale was held in downtown Ironton, and the city's schools brought busloads of students to the event on the courthouse steps. Following the speeches, students filed up to Lincoln and Truth to meet the re-enactors in person. Lucas, who was standing next to Lincoln to keep order in the receiving line, noted the reaction of one 11-year-old boy.
"That's really Abraham Lincoln," the boy said, a stunned look on his face. "He looks like he walked right out of my history book."
Program and class evaluations will measure the success of the event and the quarter-long focus. And the steering committee responsible for the details -- comprising Steve Call, Dave Lucas, Tom Suter, Bob Culp, Dave Surgalski and Bob Leith -- will report the results back to faculty who initiated the idea.
The hope? That this event will continue to evolve and that next year's event -- perhaps on a different topic -- will generate comparable enthusiasm, learning outcomes and community involvement.