Radical Humanities 101: Engaging Marginalized Adults in Learning and Life

Published May 6, 2014


Digital Quilt created by Humanities 101 Students


“For me education is all about the possibility of transformation and capacity building, and is bound up in the meanings we have about ourselves. And for me, that’s found in the humanities through poetry, prose, drama, art, music, and classical studies.” Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell began our conversation with this statement about her work in the Humanities 101 program at St. Mary’s University College, an independent Catholic liberal arts university located on a historic site in Calgary, Alberta.[1] Humanities 101 is a unique university education program for marginalized adult learners adapted from the Clemente model pioneered by Earl Shorris, a journalist and social critic.

Shorris believed that “access to the humanities addresses the power differential within society that regulates relative poverty and affluence and provides the reflective space and tools necessary to become fully engaged citizens, to join the viva active (the active life), a life based on action and choice, and to escape from lives of impoverishment” (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 19). In 1997, Shorris launched his first humanities course designed to reach socially and educationally disadvantaged non-traditional adult learners: the poor and disenfranchised in New York City (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10). The course was named after the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan, a place that provided counselling to poor people in their own language and in their own community (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10).

Many different versions of the Clemente course developed since then, throughout Canada, Mexico, Australia, Korea, the United States, and Sudan (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10). And although each was based on Shorris’s principles, many chose to build their models in unique ways.

The Evolution of Calgary’s Humanities 101 Program

The Humanities 101 program in Calgary started out as Storefront 101. In 2003, Claire Dorian Chapman, a community social worker with the City of Calgary, was inspired by the success of a Humanities 101 program initiated at the University of British Columbia in 1998. She organized a pilot program in Calgary with the help of several collaborators: the Mustard Seed, a non-profit Christian humanitarian agency that provided services to the homeless and street people of Calgary; City of Calgary Community and Neighbourhood Services; Athabasca University (AU); University of Calgary (UC); and Alberta Human Resources. Pilot funding was provided by Calgary Community Adult Learning Association (CCALA) (now Calgary Learns) (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2008, 153).

By 2004, the other universities were less involved, and St. Mary’s University College came on board as the accrediting institution. St. Mary’s program is the only program that gives students the choice to either get university credit or to audit the courses. This decision can be made part way through the courses.

Initially classes were held at a local church but they later moved to Alliance University College/Nazarene University (now Ambrose University) and weekly tutorials were at the Mustard Seed. Storefront 101 became Humanities 101 in 2009 and moved permanently to St. Mary’s University College campus. This decision was made after consulting with the students about their needs and preferences. As Tara explained, “We host it on St. Mary’s Campus and we do that quite deliberately. The research that Janet [Groen] and I did with students across three Canadian humanities programs said it was really important for them to physically step foot on the university campus—that symbolically it means a tremendous amount to be able to call themselves university students.” She added that when students come to the program, they are fully St. Mary’s students: they receive a student ID card and have access to the library, the fitness centre, and counselling services.

Defining Elements of Humanities 101

One of the principal goals of the program is to create social change. Tara explained:

We look at ourselves as an institution. What kind of barriers, visible and invisible, do we have in place that keep learners away from learning or that impede their progress? We’re always looking at ourselves and what we can do, as well as the wider community. We’re trying to teach our students that they have more agency and they can make choices in their lives.

The program teaches literature, history, cultural studies, art history, music, and the classics. Tara talked about the curriculum and how it is presented:

Through a variety of texts and teachers, we look at different issues, different ideas. Two courses we are now repeating every year are Story and Meaning, and Different Stories, Different Meanings … So everything from creation stories to stories from around the world. Last term we did a whole unit on Aboriginal history in Canada. We looked at First Nations poetry and prose … I try to tailor the content to reach the students who are in the class. Last term we had a very ethnically diverse group of students from all over the world—students from Sudan, Dubai, and Nigeria. We try to bring in immigrant stories as well as First Nations stories. We try to honour all of those perspectives but also talk about some of the difficult questions. For example, in Canada what is the difference between a settler, a First Nations person, an immigrant? We talked about the colonial history of Canada and most students had no idea … they found that very moving and upsetting and we had some heated conversations. That’s when we did the smudging and the talking circles to bring everybody back into the community.

Another component of the program is taking the students to cultural events and public spaces, including live plays, art galleries, and museums. “We want the students to access culture because that’s what helps make us citizens and engages us in society. Again, most of the students have not gone to live theatre, or to the art gallery or to the museum. They are absolutely thrilled and very thoughtful about what they see. It is also about deliberately transgressing those spaces that have often been kept for the elite,” Tara explained.

An additional, vital element of the program is countering any physical barriers that might obstruct student participation. Tuition is free; textbooks, binders, pens, and paper are paid for; transit tickets are supplied. Childcare is covered if needed. Tara added, “We have a hot, nutritious meal before class twice a week. That’s important not just because people are hungry but also to form a community. So it’s really important that we all sit down around a table together and get to know each other as people.”

Students are required to read a lot, reflect on their reading, and do written assignments weekly. “For us that’s a really important part of the learning … that’s really where the transformation takes place,” Tara told me.

Authenticity as Teachers and People

Tara has been involved with the program since its beginning in 2003, initially teaching English literature. She recalls the first time she taught the Humanities 101 class:

That first night I stood in front of the class and I thought, oh dear, they’re terrified. And I thought I have to do something entirely different here than I’ve ever done before and so I started doing some oral story telling. I’ve thought a tremendous amount about pedagogy since that moment and what I’ve learned in Storefront 101 and Humanities 101, I bring back to my degree courses here.

In that moment, Tara realized that the students needed to overcome their initial fears and feelings of isolation. They didn’t need the expert persona of a “professor” with its connotations of power and authority. They needed her to help them “find a way to inhabit the learning space comfortably and begin to participate in the active dialogic process that marks both learning and civic engagement” (Hyland-Russell and Groen 2013, 42-43.)

In her past work Tara had practised storytelling, but hadn’t used it in her work at the university. Intuitively, she told the students about “a practice from Haiti that offers a model of belonging and dialogue as listeners are invited into a shared community space. In Haiti, when people are gathered and someone wants to tell a story, they stand up and say ‘cric’. If the listeners want that particular storyteller to tell a story at the time they respond with ‘crac’. If the community doesn’t respond or the response is weak, the teller does not have permission to bring a story into that space” (Hyland-Russell and Groen 2013, 42). Tara explained to her class that without a “crac,” she did not have permission to tell them a story. “Would they like a tale? Cric,” she said. “Crac” the class replied enthusiastically and she began telling them the Haitian story called “The Magic Orange Tree.”[2]

In doing this exercise with the students, Tara shifted the power dynamic within the class and began the slow process of gaining trust and building relationships with the students. “I see a lot of people who are afraid to learn or they have had negative experiences in learning. I think it’s possible to ignite that flame, that passion. But it takes a willingness to risk and to be vulnerable on the teacher’s part,” she said.

Characteristics of the Students

When students come in for an interview they fill out a questionnaire developed specifically for the program. The main criterion for entrance into the Humanities 101 program is low income. While the income levels are tied to the Low Income Cut Offs (LICO) established by Statistics Canada,[3] there is some subjectivity involved in determining what’s considered low income. During the interview, people are asked how they think their experience fits into the program. Tara elaborated on the characteristics of most of the students in the program.

In general, the students who come to the program are all low income. They’ve experienced prior interrupted education, or negative experiences with education. Many of them have experiences with violence. Some have experiences with substance abuse or addictions. A number of them have experienced homelessness or unstable housing. They may also have a physical or mental illness or disability. An increasing number have experience with war, immigration, being refugees. They are referred from over 130 agencies and services in Calgary.

The students’ ages range between 18 and 63. People are also assessed on an individual basis for how they will fit into the dynamic of the class. The program requires that people not come to class under the influence. Tara stresses that “a main feature of the program is that it is a profoundly safe place.”

Innovations in Calgary’s Humanities 101 Program: “Making the Learning Come Alive”

The curriculum in Humanities 101 is always undergoing change to keep it fresh and current and instructors use innovative techniques to engage learners and make the learning come alive. Here are two innovations that stood out.

Keeping Cahiers

During the last ten years of her life, artist Frida Kahlo kept a journal of writings, observations, reflections, watercolour drawings, and sketches (Hyland-Russell 2013, 1). Tara read about this technique and wondered if “combining text and image in a reflective journaling assignment would contribute to students’ transformational learning processes” (ibid., 1). She developed a reflective journaling practice she calls keeping cahiers that she uses in her undergraduate classes, including Humanities 101:

Essentially every week or every other week, students need to give me a couple of pages of text and image. And I give them prompts now [questions to open up their thinking]…The students say that it absolutely helps them ruminate — it takes them places that they don’t go otherwise, and helps them really bring together strands of what they are learning. It also gives them a place to put their emotions and to record their emotional responses [to the learning].

In her study of the students’ perspectives on keeping cahiers, Hyland-Russell found that:

1) cahiers invited students to engage holistically with course material;

2) cahiers facilitated divergent and creative thinking;

3) cahiers aided deep learning through ownership of the process and content;

4) essential to student engagement with the cahiers was the instructor-student dialogue and situating the cahier as a safe, reflective place; and

5) central to the way cahiers function is their inclusion of images. (Hyland-Russell 2013, 6)

 Artivism: Art as Activism

Last semester, Tara attended a conference in Regina on arts-based research for Aboriginal communities. At the conference she met Leslie Robinson, a scholar from Edmonton who has been working in Uganda with Ugandan youth for eight years doing art as activism – artivism. After Tara described this work to the class, they decided they wanted to do an artivism project. They skyped with Leslie Robinson. With the students gathered around in a horseshoe, Leslie led the conversation.

Tara explained the process like this:

Everybody has to come to a consensus about the topic or theme. It took two and a half hours to come to consensus about the project and how we were going to go about it. We had just read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the threads of the course was what is the meaning of our life? how do we make meaning? and how is that connected with our transformative learning journeys? So they came up with the prompt “Our Journeys of Transformation – What Ultimately Matters?” Everybody, even the most shy, had their chance to speak and they all agreed on the topic.

Following this process, Leslie Robinson travelled to Calgary to work with the class. They gathered art supplies and people made art pieces. Some did a “before and after” piece to show how they felt before they came into the program and how they feel after. They took digital images of the final art and called it a digital quilt. This project was shared with the community at the end of the semester’s learning celebration. Tara explained that “one of the aims of artivism is to impact the community and try to create social change. Students were able to talk about their pieces in front of the audience, which included the board of governors and potential donors.”

Student Success Stories

Graduates from the program have moved on to postsecondary education, taking courses for audit, credit, and as part of university degree programs. Twelve students entered St. Mary’s, with two students graduating by October 2012 and two more close to completion. Some students have completed degrees at other postsecondary institutions. Other student successes include obtaining employment, working as a research assistant, volunteering, and having an increased capacity for decision making and civic engagement (Press Release, St. Mary’s University College).

In a previous Story from the Field, I spoke about the different ways of measuring success and student progress. “While learner success and growth can be measured in statistics, grades, or numbers, learners and the practitioners who work with them often measure success through the personal stories that describe changes in their lives”(Loschnig 2013). Such life changes are certainly evident at the end of the Humanities 101 course.

Recently, at the learning celebration held on 15 April 2014, I sat in the audience and watched as student after student came forward and spoke eloquently about how the course had changed their lives. Several spoke about Humanities 101 saving their lives. They described previously feeling worthless and suicidal, and how, through the course work and with the support of fellow students and instructors, they found themselves thinking about their worlds differently. One woman said quietly “I learned I can take part in the world — not just react to it.”

She was not alone. At the end of our conversation, Tara shared this story with me:

At the learning celebration at the end of the last semester, a student came up on the stage to receive her certificate of completion. She walked up to the microphone and said “You know, when I first started this course the question for me was: to be or not to be. I was suicidal and this course saved my life.” She’s still struggling — she hasn’t got it all figured out, but she’s back for another course and she’s starting to figure out that she is strong and resilient and she can make choices.

By any measurement, formal or informal, the Humanities 101 program is an unqualified success.

Program Sustainability

Finding long-term funding to support the Humanities 101 program has been an ongoing challenge. Calgary’s program was on hiatus from 2011 to 2013 due to a lack of funding.

With the passionate support of St. Mary’s president, Dr. Gerry Turcotte, the university has made a commitment to keep the program running. In the fall of 2012, they embarked on a fundraising campaign, Friends of Humanities 101, to raise funds to relaunch the program in 2013. The university provides help on the development front with support in writing grants and expanding fundraising initiatives. To make the program sustainable in the long term, they have also given Tara teaching release, in recognition of the time she spends in the program, though she still volunteers a large part of her time.

Volunteers are an integral part of Humanities 101. Tutors who work with the students are all volunteers, mostly from within the student body and from the community, and faculty teaching the program all volunteer their time and expertise. “We actually have a lineup of faculty who want to teach and volunteer their time,” Tara told me during our conversation. “One of the other reasons the program thrives here is that our larger student body really values the program. They care about the students. We only have 700 or so students and they have committed to raising over $5000 a year to support Humanities 101.” In the past year alone, students raised over $13,000 and donated it all to Humanities 101.

With the university’s support and ongoing fundraising, Tara is optimistic that the program is at St. Mary’s to stay.

If you are interested in helping St. Mary’s continue to provide this essential programming, visit www.stmu.ca/HUM101 for more information and learn how to donate.

There is no doubt that the humanities courses offered for people living in poverty are radical. They seek to uncover and disrupt relations of power that surround and immobilize the poor while they enact a pedagogy that transforms not only the students but all participants in the learning community. To mark and name this radical education that is rooted in social justice, we have coined the term radical humanities. (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010b, 33)


Fraser, Wilma, and Tara Hyland-Russell. 2011. “The Wisdom of Sophia: Adult Educators and Adult Learners as Wisdom Seekers.” In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, edited by Elizabeth Tisdell and A. Swartz, 25-34. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Groen, Janet, and Tara Hyland-Russell. 2009. “Success: The Views of Marginalized Adult Learners in a Radical Humanities Program.” In Conference Proceedings: The Canadian Association of the Study of Adult Education (CASE). 25-27 May, Carleton University, Ottawa.Retrieved from http://www.casae-aceea.ca/sites/casae/archives/cnf2009/OnlineProceedings-2009/Papers/GroenHyland-Russell.pdf

———. 2010a. “Radical Humanities: A Pathway Toward Transformational Learning for Marginalized Non-Traditional Adult Learners.” Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning. Retrieved from http://www.ccl-cca.ca/ccl/Research/FundedResearch/201009GroenHyland-RussellRadicalHumanities.html

———. 2010b. “Riches from the Poor: Teaching Humanities in the Margins.” In Learning for Economic Self-Sufficiency: Constructing Pedagogies of Hope among Low-Income, Low Literate Adults, edited by Mary Alfred, 29-47. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

———. 2011. “Humanities Professors on the Margins: Creating the Possibility of Transformative Learning.” Journal of Transformative Education 8 (4): 223-45.

Hyland-Russell, Tara. 2013. “’I Will Write to You with My Eyes’: Reflective Text and Image Journals in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2013.777403

Hyland-Russell, Tara, and Janet Groen. 2008. “Authenticity: Honouring Self and Others in Practice.” In Thinking Beyond Borders: Global Ideas, Global Values: Proceedings of National Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE)/ L’Association Canadienne Pour L’Etude de L’education des adultes (ACEEA) 27th Conference, edited by Janet Groen and Shibao Guo, 152-58. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, 1-3 June.

———. 2013. “Crossing a Cultural Divide: Transgressing the Margins into Public Spaces to Foster Adult Learning.” In Lifelong Learning, the Arts and Creative Cultural Engagement in the Contemporary University, edited by Darlene Clover and K. Sanford, 42-53. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Loschnig, Sandra. 2013. “How Are Practitioners Collecting Evidence of Student Growth? What Role Does Assessment Play in Teaching and Learning in Adult Literacy?”Stories from the Fieldblog12 November.Retrieved from http://wp.me/p1CeDD-Nt

Press Release, St. Mary’s University College, 24 October 2012. Retrieved from http://stmu.ca/newsEvents/pressReleases/2012%20-%20Humanities%20101%20Offers%20Poor%20and%20Marginalized%20Adults%20a%20Pathway%20Into%20Education.pdf

Robinson, Leslie. “Co-creating Artivist Pedagogy in Uganda/Canada.” 1 March 2013. http://prezi.com/hpytntej7luz/co-creating-artivist-pedagogy-in-ugandacanada/

Shorris, Earl. 1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a Weapon in the Hands of the Poor.” Harper’s Magazine. September. Retrieved from http://www.honorshumanities.umd.edu/105Readings.pdf

———. 2000. Riches for the Poor: the Clemente Course in the Humanities. New York: W.W. Norton.

Wolkstein, Diane. 1978. The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. New York: Random House.


[1] According to its website, St. Mary’s students “are inspired to combine academics with a passionate commitment to ethics, social justice, and respect for diversity of opinion and belief.” Retrieved from http://stmu.ca/aboutUs/aboutUs.html

[2] The tale and knowledge of the cric-crac practice were taken from Diane Wolkstein’s book The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folk Tales, which contains transcribed and translated tales gathered from oral Haitian story tellers, a source credited in class when Tara told the story.

[3] The low income cut-offs (LICOs) are income thresholds below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing than the average family. Retrieved from the Statistics Canada website http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75f0002m/2012002/lico-sfr-eng.htm

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