New UC Santa Cruz program sends humanities graduate students into local schools

Literature graduate student Veronica Kirk-Clausen was a little nervous when she stepped into Martha Dyer's eighth-grade class at Mission Hill Junior High in Santa Cruz last spring.

"I'm used to teaching undergraduate sections and writing classes with students ages 18 to 21," Kirk-Clausen recalled. "I didn't know what to expect or how to anticipate their reactions, but they surprised me by being very interested, excited, and asking sophisticated questions."

Kirk-Clausen's junior high visit was part of the Graduate Student Speaker's Bureau, a new program launched in January by UCSC's Humanities Division. It offers free classroom presentations to high school, junior high, and middle school classrooms in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. Graduate students are selected to participate on the basis of their particular areas of expertise, as well as their ability to communicate with local students in the community.

The program was proposed and designed by Christopher Connery, associate professor of literature at UCSC.

"We wanted to do more humanities outreach through the Institute for Humanities Research," Connery said. "We have great reserves of talent here in the division and wanted to do more to share that with our community."

Connery added that one of the goals of the program is to introduce middle and high school students to the idea of graduate school and research in the humanities. It is also intended to give graduate students experience in sharing their knowledge with diverse, nonacademic audiences, as well as to strengthen ties between UCSC graduate programs and area teachers.

The presentations cover a wide range of topics in the fields of English, language arts, history, literature, linguistics, philosophy, and cultural studies. Kirk-Clausen gave a talk on California literature, comparing descriptions of the state's landscape from a Native American creation myth and John Steinbeck's classic novel East of Eden.

A native of Pacific Grove, Kirk-Clausen earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from UC Davis. Now in her third year of graduate studies at UCSC, she specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American literature with a focus on California, as well as medieval French literature. Although her ultimate goal is to teach at the college level, she found her experience at the junior high to be particularly beneficial for everyone involved.

"It was good for me to take my ideas off campus and to see how I would have to rework them and reexamine them in order to present them to a completely different audience," Kirk-Clausen observed. "And I know the students learned about the subject, but they also learned about what it means to go to college, and what studying the humanities is all about. Choosing a profession like law or medicine is easier to understand for junior high schoolers than becoming a researcher in the humanities," she added.

Program administrator and Ph.D. candidate in literature Sherri Helvie noted that teacher response to the new program has been overwhelmingly positive. She added that graduate students work closely with teachers in developing the presentations so that they are appropriate for the age groups and student interests.

"Junior and high school students often don't know that they may pursue a career based upon their interests in history, literature, philosophy, or linguistics," Helvie said. "Having access to graduate students who are doing just that opens up a whole field of possibilities to our local students."

This fall, the Humanities Division has also launched a new program connecting UCSC faculty members with teachers in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. The Teacher Scholar Program offers a series of seminars on topics in the humanities that will help middle, junior, and high school teachers with curriculum enrichment. Presented in partnership with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and UCSC Extension, the program allows teachers to explore a variety of subjects in a university setting.

Seminars scheduled for the future include: "Reimagining 'Western' Civilization: Contact, Commerce and Crusades in the Medieval Mediterranean," with associate professor of world literature and cultural studies Sharon Kinoshita on February 25 and March 3, 2004; and "Jazz Cultures," with associate professor of American studies Eric Porter, on May 10 and May 24, 2004.

For more information about UCSC's Graduate Student Speaker's Bureau or the Teacher Scholar Program, contact program administrator Sherri Helvie at