Learning, creating, Nonstop style
- Published: October 23, 2008
Nonstop Institute festival, homecoming continues
Nonstop supporters around the country have descended upon Yellow Springs for educational and cultural events and a celebration of Nonstop during “Nonstop Learning Festival Week,” Monday–Sunday, Oct. 20–26. The remaining festival schedule includes:
Thursday, Oct. 23: 2 p.m., Art Space, 108 Dayton Street, co-creator of the NPR series “Living on Earth” alum Peter Thomson will read from his new book, Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal, at the Epic Book Shop/Mermaid Cafe, 118 Dayton Street;
8 p.m., Epic Book Shop, alums Terry Blackhawk, poet, and Louise Smith, writer and performer, will read from recent work.
Friday, Oct. 24: 3:30 p.m., Bryan Center, Nonstop community meeting;
7 p.m., United Methodist Church, Cary Nelson, alum, professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the AAUP, will speak on “Globalization and the Future of the Liberal Arts.”
Monday, Oct. 27: 7 p.m., Wright State University, Student Union Apollo Room, Fairborn, professor of American literature at Penn State Michael Bérubé, will speak on issues in higher education. He is co-editor (with alum Cary Nelson) of Higher Education Under Fire (1995).
For more information, go to www.nonstopinstitute.org or call 937-319-6086.
A month and a half after its launch, the students, staff and teachers of the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute face many unknowns. They don’t know how long Nonstop will stay funded. They don’t know if their beloved Antioch College will reopen. They don’t know how many students will show up in the winter.
But they know this for sure: they are engaged in an intense and invigorating experiment in learning that in some ways surpasses the best they hoped for when they imagined Nonstop last year.
“We take each class as a precious thing. Everyone of us is conscious of this,” said Nonstop faculty member Hassan Rahmanian in a recent interview. “This education is not taken for granted.”
Nonstop is many things, according to faculty, students and staff interviewed in recent weeks. It’s a radical experiment in education. It’s a way to keep longtime former Antioch College faculty from leaving town. It’s a college without a campus. It’s a bridge to a new independent liberal arts college. It’s an effort that gives new meaning to “town/gown” collaboration. It’s a way to keep alive the values and traditions of Antioch College.
And it’s also, according to villagers who attend Nonstop classes or the programs of Nonstop Presents!, an invigoration of public discourse in Yellow Springs.
“I think Nonstop has been amazing,” said Phyllis Logan. “It’s an incredibly innovative idea that adds a lot of stimulation to the community.”
Take this week, for example. Villagers, students and faculty could take part in a discussion on the financial crisis and neoliberalism, view a documentary film on the plight of young underclass blacks, improvise a dance and consider the role of Antioch College in American higher education.
And that was only on Monday.
Nonstop Presents! and Nonstop classes enrich Yellow Springs culture in new ways, according to villager Migiwa Orimo.
“Yellow Springs has always been active building community through the arts and theater, but Nonstop creates culture in an interdisciplinary kind of way, a new way of building community,” she said. “It’s a new model.”
The idea of Nonstop emerged last fall, several months after Antioch University trustees announced the college would close. Alumni efforts to reopen the college over the year came and went, and the hopes and disappointments of each effort felt to many like an emotional roller coaster, faculty and students said at the time. Sometime during this process, faculty began to consider the possibility of moving ahead even without the campus, offering to any interested students the mix of critical inquiry, co-op work experience and shared governance that they see as uniquely Antiochian. When the Antioch College Alumni Board pledged $1 million to Nonstop in February, the effort was officially launched.
Since then, Nonstop has been the little educational engine that could. The majority of former Antioch College faculty signed on, and currently the effort has 14 fulltime and three part-time faculty and 11 staff. And while no one had a clue how many students — or if any students — would show up this fall to a nonaccredited college without a campus, Nonstop drew about 20 traditionally aged college students, along with about 58 full and part-time nontraditional students from the village.
Why students came
Most of the traditionally aged students came to Nonstop because, after attending Antioch College the last year or two, they couldn’t imagine going anywhere else, several said in a recent interview.
“I fell in love with Antioch the first year I was here,” said Caroline Czabala of Chicago. “It changed my life.”
Third-year student Jessica Clark, who had been homeschooled as a child, sees Antioch as the only college she could find that, like homeschooling, allows her to pursue her own path of learning in her own way.
“Rather than the teacher giving you knowledge, Antioch inspires your own intelligence,” she said. “And the teachers are exceptional.”
Second-year student Juliet Hansen of Reynoldsburg came to Nonstop because she felt that Antioch’s combination of critical inquiry and real-world experience was a learning model she couldn’t find somewhere else.
“It’s very engaging about what’s going on in the real world, not just about digesting knowledge and spitting it back on tests,” she said. “It’s real learning. It changed every aspect of my life.”
While these students would prefer that Nonstop were accredited — organizers continue to work on finding ways to gain accreditation — they came to Nonstop well aware of its lack of accreditation and are willing to stay regardless. It helps, several said, that they now pay $1,500 a semester, compared to more than $15,000 previously.
Nonstop has also attracted a few first-year traditionally aged students, who came because they wanted the Antioch College education and they wanted to be a part of what they perceive as a radical experiment in education.
“I’ve never met so many people who are so passionate about something,” said first-year student Rose Pelzl, who grew up in Yellow Springs. “I want to stress that people don’t build a college in three months, but that’s what we’ve been doing. I can’t imagine another group of people able to pull this off.”
Villager Sylvia Carter Denny is one of the nontraditional students who signed up for Nonstop classes. She finds them invigorating, Carter Denny said in a recent interview.
“I’m looking at the world and seeing more,” she said.
How it works
Hassan Rahmanian’s Nonstop class, Community Economics and Sustainability, takes place several times a week in the living room of Gordan Chapman’s Livermore Street home. Because they are meeting in the living room of a private home, both students and teachers must work hard to create a situation that works well for everyone, including the person who lives in the home.
“It’s a process of negotiation to make this living room into a classroom,” Rahmanian said. “Everything is examined more carefully than in a typical classroom. Everything is negotiation.”
That process of negotiation around classroom space extends to all other aspects of Nonstop as well, according to Nonstop faculty member Chris Hill, since the Nonstop community is creating a college from scratch. Consequently, Nonstop teachers and students liken their current challenges to those faced by students who in the past at Antioch College went off to new places for co-op jobs, and had to create a new community. At Nonstop, that creativity is taking place all the time, by teachers, students and staff. In some ways, sharing this experience has broken down barriers between groups, Rahmanian said.
“Students see that teachers are taking the same risks as they are,” he said. “We are all stepping off this precipice together.”
As well as some private homes, Nonstop classes take place in local churches and businesses. Where they do not take place is any building owned by Antioch University, which does not allow Nonstop organizers to use the library for their class needs, nor spaces open to the public, such as the Glen Building or Rockford Chapel, for meeting spaces.
According to Antioch University CFO Tom Faecke in an email, because the university has not endorsed Nonstop, allowing the group to use university facilities could create confusion for the public.
The lack of cooperation by Antioch University has made Nonstop organizers even more appreciative of the Yellow Springs community.
“We feel so grateful that the village has embraced us,” Hill said, giving as an example the Yellow Springs Library that offers its facilities as a place where faculty can put their assigned texts on reserve for students to use.
All of the immersion into Yellow Springs has made former Antioch College students feel a far stronger connection to the community than they did when they spent most of their time on campus, Hill said, and that connection also contributes to their sense of themselves as useful members of a society.
Knowing that Nonstop would need to attract villagers to its classes as well as draw on traditionally aged students, some faculty designed courses intended to address issues relevant to the Yellow Springs community. For instance, longtime professor Rahmanian, along with environmental studies assistant professor Colette Palamar, created a new class on Community Economics and Sustainability that uses recent writings on strategies for sustainable local economics.
“We wanted to help the village look at these issues,” he said.
There is no doubt that creating a college from the ground up comes with challenges. Faculty and students alike spend considerable amounts of energy just figuring out where their equipment is coming from, according to Nonstop faculty member Dennie Eagleson, who teaches photography and community journalism.
“The first week was all about, where are my tools?” Eagleson said. Accustomed to teaching her photography classes with a strong darkroom component, she has had to scale back her expectations and her goals.
“I’ve had to change things a lot,” she said. But she has adapted by using some donated equipment and some newly purchased, although she has to make do without a darkroom.
But her difficulty regarding equipment is more than balanced by the richness she finds in the Nonstop classes due to the mixture of traditionally aged students and older students from the village, Eagleson said. In her beginning photography class, for instance, four Yellow Springs woman and two younger students learn together.
“It’s been sweet to see the level of generosity” between the younger and older students, Eagleson said, calling the mixed-age classes “a great challenge and an inspiration.”
Seeing the positive interactions between older and younger students, Eagleson believes that Nonstop is not just about maintaining Antioch traditions, but also finding ways to create a better Antioch College.
“We’ve learned some great things from doing this,” Eagleson said. “This model that includes villagers will make us stronger in terms of how we grow.”
Some things better at Nonstop
Nonstop organizers originally worried that students, having no central meeting place on campus to gather, would suffer from a lack of community. What has transpired instead, according to several students and faculty, is a sense of community that seems in some ways stronger than that of Antioch College.
“Before there was more splintering off of interest groups,” Eagleson said. “This feels more successfully inclusive than we ever were at Antioch.”
Part of that inclusiveness can be linked to the smallness of the group, according to several students, who said that having to work hard together in so many ways has helped bring together students who might otherwise focus on differences. Like so many other things about Nonstop, creating community requires conscious choice and conscious actions, over and over, so that students take nothing for granted. Nonstop students have created new traditions, such as a Thursday evening pizza party and a Friday noon community potluck, to which all are welcomed.
The students’ awareness of the need to create community was reflected in mid-September after the windstorm that knocked out power in the village. A group of Nonstop students set up a table downtown to help villagers identify stores open to buy needed supplies, people who needed help, and volunteers available to provide assistance.
“Students did that on their own initiative. They organized ways to help the whole village,” Hill said.
After the power outage following the windstorm, students also made clear the importance of their classes in sustaining their sense of community. Rahmanian’s class missed only one day, the Monday after the storm, he said, because students insisted on Tuesday that they meet anyway, even though a tree that had fallen on Chapman’s house meant that they needed to find a new venue. So the class met on benches behind the Yellow Springs library. None of his students has missed a class so far this year, Rahmanian said.
One aspect of Nonstop that also works well, and in some ways perhaps better than in past years, is community government, according to Ellen Borgersen, an alumna who is president of the College Revival Fund. Away for several weeks when the fall term began, Borgersen was impressed when she returned and attended the Excil, Comcil and Nonstop community meetings at which, in the Antioch College tradition of shared governance, Nonstop decisions are made.
“These were three of the best meetings I’ve ever attended,” Borgersen said, stating that she was comparing the Nonstop governance meetings not just to recent Antioch College meetings but those that took place when she was a student.
“They were serious discussions on important topics,” she said. “The arguments were cogent, crisp, and when people disagreed, they heard each other out and reached conclusions. They were truly productive.”
The skills learned in community government are significant ones, Borgersen said, including working with diverse people, being part of a team, and learning to disagree with civility and common purpose, she said.
“Serious learning goes on there,” she said.
While Nonstop faculty and students feel proud of the innovative experience they created, they sometimes feel weary.
“We know we’re in the middle of something interesting, but we also experience the strain,” Eagleson said. “There are so few of us making this fly.”
When he feels depleted, Rahmanian finds new energy from his fellow faculty and staff, he said, and several said the enthusiasm of Nonstop students keeps them moving forward.
But many unanswered questions remain, and they can be draining as well. According to Hill, most Nonstop organizers expected that a task force’s current effort to separate the college from the university would be over by now, but that effort continues. This weekend the Antioch College Alumni Board will meet in Yellow Springs and determine whether Nonstop will continue being funded in the spring. The recent collapse of the financial markets has made all of these issues more complex, Hill said.
While Nonstop sees itself as a bridge to a new and independent Antioch College, it is also more than a bridge, organizers believe.
For instance, Nonstop has maintained a lively Web presence, garnered international publicity through a recent Associated Press article, and kept the Antioch College way of learning alive in its new configuration in Yellow Springs, Hill said. All of these efforts keep a future independent Antioch College in the forefront of people’s minds in a way that a closed college would not.
“We feel we’re not only an expense but an investment,” in the future of the college, Hill said. “We feel we are taking on challenges that will be important issues in the near future” should the effort to create an independent college succeed.
In the meantime, even though many questions remain unanswered and they sometimes feel weary, Nonstop faculty, staff and students are deeply engaged in creating a new educational and community venture while preserving the values and traditions of Antioch College.
For more information, contact www.nonstopinstitute.org, or call 937-319-6086.