“Making the Big Read work after annexation was the practical work of building relationships in Marshall.” By Steven Marowski, ’18 Known during the summer as the Big Read room, Vulgamore 123 is home to eighth-to-10thgraders from Albion who train to be leaders for Albion’s Big Read in October. Normally the room is cluttered with creaky wooden desks, but on one July day last year, the desks—not the students—left the room. Jess Roberts, professor of English at Albion College and director of Albion’s Big Read, said the first three training meetings went well, but that it was starting to feel a little like school. Everyone could feel the drag. Then, as Roberts recalls, Emily Allison, ’18, one of the Big Read’s College volunteers, suggested they remove all of the desks from the room. “It struck me as the most exemplary Big Read moment because it was a practical decision. It was a small doable task, and it transformed the entire space,” Roberts recalls. “So when the students walked in, there was no place to sit down. They were initially confused; some of the students didn’t like it; some of them immediately lay down on the floor. It made them interact with that space and with each other in a totally different way, and we never went back. It made it really different.” After that day, Roberts, Allison, and the rest of the College volunteers began every meeting by putting all of the desks out in the hallway. Moving those desks—all thirtysomething of them—may have been a chore, but it allowed everyone in that space to do a different kind of work and use their bodies in a different way. It’s an example of what Roberts is trying to facilitate with Albion’s now four-year-old Big Read—the creation of relationships between people of different ages and backgrounds who can come together and talk about a common denominator: literature.
Roberts and her husband, English Department colleague Nels Christensen, are two faculty members who are powering a closer connection between the College and its host community. This is the story of how their work has helped redefine the impact a residential college can have on the local level. But as we’ll see, their investments of energy and talent inside and outside the classroom are motivated by more than just a vision of what it can mean these days to be an Albion professor. For Jess and Nels, doing good things around and beyond the Quad also couldn’t be more personal.
Easing the Pain of Annexation Initially, the Big Read came to Albion by way of a successful and inspiring collaboration between Albion College, the Albion District Library, and Albion Public Schools (APS). The result: in October 2015, the Albion community read, discussed, and celebrated the 1968 sci-fi fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Just three months later, the Albion school board voted to shut down grades six through eight in APS and send those kids to Marshall Public Schools. By mid-2016, the rest of APS had followed suit. (Albion High School had been closed since 2013.) To keep the Big Read going, Roberts knew another huge effort would be required. “Making the Big Read work after annexation was the practical work of building relationships in Marshall,” Roberts explains. “When I reached out to folks at Marshall Middle School, they reached back again. After annexation, the Big Read became an occasion to make relationships that would actually help, I think, make things more smooth after the tumultuous process.” This is where Christensen comes in. The associate professor was a member of Albion’s Board of Education when the annexation vote came to a head. By early 2016, the board was not voting to actually annex APS (at this point a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade district), but rather to give Albion citizens an opportunity to
vote on the issue. “I knew what I was voting for was to give the town of Albion a chance to vote for or against annexation,” Christensen says. “I was not deciding for the town to do that thing. I was deciding to move in that direction and that the town had that right, and must vote yes or no.” Still, it wasn’t an easy decision to make, even in the face of years-long enrollment and state-funding declines. And for Christensen and Roberts, it was even more personal: their daughter, Emmylou, was attending Albion Middle School when it closed. Earlier, Christensen had registered one of the two votes to keep the middle school open, but they were outnumbered. As a board, there were two options: give the choice to be annexed to the voters, or fight it out and all but certainly close at some point down the road. The eventual, collective decisions that brought annexation might not have been best for everyone in Albion, but students are reaping the benefits. “As a result of annexation, way more Albion students are getting the kind of education we want our students to get,” Christensen says. “At the same time, our students are going to school in a different town. That’s not ideal, and some of them, their situation is potentially worse because of complications of a bunch of different factors. They went from being in one of the worst school districts to one of the best. That doesn’t mean it’s best for everybody. It’s just a fact.” Roberts and Christensen are not the only faculty couple at the College, but they are two of the more proactive professors when it comes to working in the city and its surroundings. Perhaps that is why people in town tend to identify Jess and Nels as community members first and foremost.
Spring-Summer 2018 | 17
Io Triumphe! The magazine for alumni, parents, and friends of Albion College