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From the Discovery Classroom: Bill Ross and the Big Easy

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The idea for the Discovery course Bill Ross teaches on New Orleans was born in the city known as the birthplace of jazz, as the Big Easy and, in Ross’ mind after his very first trip there, as a dirty, rundown place full of rowdy people and loud music.

But a couple of visits later, in August 2005 just a few days before Hurricane Katrina hit, before the levees breached and lives were lost, New Orleans began to work its magic on him. The following spring, Ross returned again, this time to help rebuild the devastated city. And the seed for the inquiry class "New Orleans: Place, Meaning, and Context" took root.

During spring break in 2006, Ross, an American studies professor and head of the Milne Special Collections and Archives, traveled to St. Bernard’s Parish where he connected with Habitat for Humanity. 

“There was the Battle of New Orleans site right next door and it made me realize how much American history was there—not just the history of Louisiana or New Orleans but America,” Ross said. “I came back and started thinking about teaching a course that encompassed that history.”

"New Orleans: Place, Meaning, and Context" is an inquiry class geared toward first-year students that has them traveling to Louisiana’s largest city to do community service work during spring break with UNH’s Alternative Break Challenge. After six weeks in the classroom, the interdisciplinary course takes what students have been studying to the streets.

“Before we go they learn about history, culture, and facts about New Orleans. Hopefully what I’ve taught them in the classroom gives them plenty of pegs to hang things on when we get there,” Ross says.

It’s when they return that the inquiry begins in full. Students look at “the big questions; the big picture,” Ross says, with new eyes.

“With inquiry learning, students look at one question deeply,” Ross says. “In this case, it’s the history, the culture of New Orleans. We may focus on whether the federal response to Katrina would have been different had it struck South Beach, and if so, why? Or, where do you start improving a city that has so many problems? It goes to the core of Discovery, learning to ask and trying to answer open-ended questions.”

As part of the course requirements, students keep a New Orleans journal. They start it the week before they leave, talking about their anticipations, what they’re looking forward to, what they’re afraid of; what it might be like. They write in it while they’re there and for a few weeks after they return.

“Reading those journals is a real learning experience,” Ross says. “I learn about them and I learn about the impact the trip has on their learning. This is my sixth trip with students and I get so much out of it each and every time.”

Next week he and 20 students in the honors-level course will spend a week volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany Parish, where thousands of homes were destroyed or severely damaged by flood waters and Hurricane Katrina’s high winds. Weekends and most nights will be spent experiencing the city of New Orleans. 

“Telling students the history of New Orleans is not as exciting as seeing it,” Ross says. “It makes it real. You can talk all you want about architecture but walking through a shotgun house and scraping paint on a front porch is a whole different thing. You can talk about the cuisine but it’s not like ordering a po’boy. You can talk about the music but listening to it—there’s nothing like the tangible experience of hearing live music.”