What started as an idea for a communication arts class several years ago has turned into a meaningful and engaging project for dozens of Allegheny students and residents of Meadville.
It has even inspired one former student to embark on a self-made career following his graduation.
The Meadiaville Listening Project is the creation of Associate Professor Emily Chivers Yochim. The course that spawned the project is in its third year, and Yochim says it is helping to change the way students view their education.
“I want them to see education as cooperative instead of competitive. Everything is so competitive nowadays, and we’re all encouraged to just look out for ourselves. I want students to see that a large group of people can work collectively toward the same goal,” says Yochim. “Most importantly, the students are envisioning and creating the project, spending time working with each other, and learning from both one another and the community.”
Three years ago, Yochim decided to bring her passion for exploring ethnography into her classroom. As a 2000 Allegheny graduate, Yochim based her senior project on ethnographic research, a qualitative method where researchers observe and interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment. She returned to Allegheny to teach in 2008. Then in 2013, she collaborated with Professor River Branch on “Tool City Voices,” a media project that examined the up-and-down fortunes of the tool-and-die industry in the Meadville area.
That led to Yochim and her students interviewing Conneaut Lake residents and sharing that information with the former Eila V. Bush Endowed Professor of Art Amara Geffen, who crafted “Ganesh,” a sculpture installed at Fireman’s Beach in Conneaut Lake in 2016, culminating a community art project two years in the making.
Yochim has written two books based in ethnographic research. Her first, “Skate Life: Re-imagining White Masculinity,” explores how skateboarders negotiate their identities in skate culture. The second, “Mothering Through Precarity: Women’s Work and Digital Media,” co-authored with Associate Professor of Communication Arts Julie Wilson, is based on extensive ethnographic research conducted with mothers of young children in Meadville and Erie. Wilson also co-taught the Meadiaville class with Yochim during its second season. “My collaborations with Julie have been so important to both my research and teaching. She and I share teaching ideas all the time, and we’ve really developed this collaborative pedagogy together,” Yochim says.
Yochim has also worked closely with Oral History in the Liberal Arts (OHLA), a Great Lakes Colleges Association faculty development initiative supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Yochim is the communications and pedagogy director of OHLA, which encourages faculty to fold community-based oral history and narrative projects into the classroom.
“I really wanted to bring this to students, to encourage them to know their community better, to do something that mattered, and then to make their work public,” says Yochim. “OHLA was instrumental in helping me to imagine and build this project. It connected me with a network of liberal arts faculty who are doing similar work, and it helped me to develop the teaching know-how and the digital tools to bring the project to life.”
Project Work Led Graduate to Forge His Own Career
As a senior, Brogan McGowan was part of the Meadiaville project in the spring of 2016. Three years later, he finds himself employed as a private contractor working from Washington, D.C., and has juggled 18 consulting contracts with profit and nonprofit organizations since his graduation. His resume lists work titles from communication and marketing manager to creative strategy consultant to visual designer — all a strong representation for the versatility in skill set that ethnography in practice benefits a workplace.
“I learned from Professor Yochim and the Meadiaville experience to use communications as a tool to build relationships with people,” says McGowan.
His first contracting job out of college was with WQED-TV, Pittsburgh’s public broadcasting station, where he helped librarians develop and use short videos and podcasts as educational tools to bring children under the age of 5 and librarians together to document their lived experience learning together. This work concluded after three months, leading McGowan into a new direction in working with for-profit companies and organizations.
McGowan also has worked with the Allegheny County Health Department in Pittsburgh as a visual designer helping craft messaging and graphics to fight stigma surrounding folks battling addiction. His most recent consulting job, where Allegheny magazine reached him on the streets of San Francisco, is observing and helping design digital advertising and community engagement strategies for The Gender Confirmation Center, an organization that works to create high-quality gender-affirming medical care for trans and non-binary individuals.
“With almost all the contracts, I’ve developed the communications plan and worked to recruit and build a team of people that can take over the project. I believe finding more people to invest in the work creates a sustainable intention,” says McGowan. “There has been a lot of learning on the fly, and I’ve fallen a few times, but I’ve been learning from the whole experience. It’s unconventional but definitely incredible work. I’m being compensated for being a critical member of the community.
“Meadiaville gave me a voice for technical directions in these later projects,” McGowan says. “I learned project management, but more importantly how to meet people where they are in their lived experiences. I use it as a passageway to connect with people.”
Listening Is Important
The Meadiaville Listening Project results from work done in Yochim’s Communications Arts course called Media Consumption. Students prepare for their work by spending the first few weeks reading and discussing scholarship and theory about the current semester’s topic. The first two seasons of Meadiaville explored Meadville’s youth media makers and local community organizers. They also read work on doing ethnography and creating podcasts. To get up to speed on how to edit a podcast, Yochim turned to Allegheny communication arts alum Nick Ozorak ’13, who lives in Meadville and hosts “The Roundhouse Railroad” podcast. Ozorak generously developed a presentation on podcasting basics for the first semester of the class, and Yochim has drawn on his knowledge ever since.
Students then set the listening project theme for the semester, develop interview questions, contact potential interviewees, conduct the interviews, analyze the interviews and find common themes. They use all of this material to build a mini-series of podcasts about the theme, and they share these with the community. Students are encouraged to do timelines and profiles of the interviewees as well.
“The important thing is they are creating the course with other students, spending time with them and learning from them,” Yochim says. “Conducting long interviews is a great way for the students to get to know Meadville. Listening to community members forges important connections between the students and Meadville. They really begin to take ownership over the project and start to feel a true responsibility for the work they’re creating with the community.”
The students break into teams to handle different aspects of the project. “They start assigning themselves tasks because they are invested in the project,” Yochim says. “They can’t wait to share the final product. It’s really the students who become inspiring.”
Yochim’s class completed the project’s third season in the fall of 2018. Over the course of 14 weeks, Yochim and her students created a website, produced podcasts, created marketing materials, and published ethnographic analyses, all grounded in communication arts theory. It culminated with the release of “North Main Narratives,” an oral-history podcast that features the college’s recently retired staff and professors. The podcasts aired on WARC-FM, and the students planned and hosted a listening party in December in the Meadville Public Library.
Season Three explores the lives of Allegheny’s educators on campus and throughout the Meadville community. In a series of four podcasts, the season explores structural changes in higher education, employees’ personal experiences as educators, and the many interactions between the College and Meadville.
“Ethnography and oral history encourage students to listen deeply and carefully,” says Yochim. “So many folks retired after Allegheny’s retirement incentive last year, and so this year I wanted to give students the opportunity to learn from those retirees, to capture their voices, and to explore with them the unique lives on a liberal arts campus in a small town.”
What the Students Take Away
“Working on this project has been an amazing opportunity to work with and get to know more about these retired professors and faculty members, as well as what they do in and for the Meadville community,” says Emily Brady, a sophomore from Medford, Massachusetts. “Overall, this project has opened my eyes to the connections Allegheny has with the Meadville community, and vice versa.”
“My peers and I are certainly excited to have the opportunity to share the stories of those who gave many years to the college and have much to share in regard to their experiences,” says Alex Hasapis, a senior from Wooster, Ohio. “I think the community will be able to fully immerse themselves in these podcasts and come out with a rich perception of both Allegheny and Meadville.”
Visitors to the website can listen to the current season of the project and can visit anytime to find Seasons One and Two, which focused on Meadville’s youth media makers and community organizers, respectively.
Emily Hayhurst, a junior from La Crescenta, California, who was part of Meadiaville’s Season Two, says, “I think the project gives Allegheny students a unique opportunity to get to know the Meadville community while learning important skills such as interviewing, analyzing ethnographic research, and putting together a project for a public audience. I was especially excited to learn about the community because my mom grew up in Meadville and I used to come and visit every summer. I never knew a lot about the community then so I loved learning about all the awesome people and initiatives that are here.”
Senior Mark Myers has worked closely with the Meadiaville project for three years, working on its first season as a first-year student in the spring of 2016 and then as a teaching assistant for the last two seasons. “Since Meadiaville’s first rendition, the project and its breadth have grown exponentially, and I have had the opportunity to watch as different groups of students have expanded it, and pushed it,” says Myers. “I look forward to seeing how the project evolves moving forward, and have no doubt that it will continue to reach new highs, and continue to reflect the experiences of those within the Meadville and Allegheny communities.”
The Meadiaville Listening Project is made possible by the Meadville community, Oral History in the Liberal Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Allegheny Department of Communication Arts and Theatre, and Allegheny College. More information on this project can be found at meadiaville.com.