English Major Links Theory and Practice in Service Trip

What follows is a redaction of a report which recent English major graduate Caitlin O’Donnell wrote describing her experiences working on poverty issues in the Caribbean. Caitlin addresses the relationship between the “theoretical” study of literature and the “praxis” of the fight against global poverty.

Caitlin with two participants of the Barbados YWCA day camp
Caitlin with two participants of the Barbados YWCA day camp.


As an English major with a minor in Global Poverty and Practices, I am on a quest to achieve the kind of praxis emphasized in my study of Global Poverty and Practices in conjunction with the study of English literature. I know that the longer I study and practice the two together, the more linkages I will be able to make and the closer I will be to concretizing my answer. For example, it is because of Chaucer that I can look back upon the stories of my childhood summers and distinguish between a formal and informal canon. I first learned about and explored the politicization of the distinctions between non-canonical and canonical literature in Professor Jennifer Miller’s Chaucer class. In this class, Professor Miller choose to work with a particular Chaucerian text that is largely ignored by mainstream Chaucerian scholars because of its atypicality: the scribe’s handwriting is hard to read, there aren’t any aesthetically pleasing flourishes or illustrations, and the very content of the text puts into question the “canonical,” modern understanding of what Chaucer stands for. After squinting my way through the first few weeks of translating and transcribing this antiquated text, I came to see how choosing to ignore some texts and (over)emphasize others distorts modern perceptions of our literary and political history. My Chaucer studies, which began as an inane and sometimes frustrating task about bizarrely pronounced Middle English, knights, and cuckoo birds, morphed into a framework of understanding a rooted history of how our access to particular types of stories, knowledge, and information is politicized and shapes our contemporary social realities.

Exploring this link became one of the priorities of my practice experience. I wanted to think about the linkages between early nineteenth century African American literature (my English concentration) and the contemporary social, political, and economic realities of the Caribbean as well as engage with a particular mode of development called “participatory community development.” In this mode of development, community members themselves identify problems and define and implement projects to solve them. Global Poverty and Practices Professor Percy Hintzen put me in touch with two partner organizations in the Caribbean: WAND (Women and Development Unit), an organization affiliated with the University of West Indies, Cave Hill in Barbados and LPDC (La Pointe Development Committee), an organization based in the community of La Pointe in St. Lucia. These NGOs have been partners for over two decades and collaborated with each other to build St. Lucia’s only community-ran preschool. While working with these organizations, I conducted interviews to gain a better understanding of their projects and the methodology of participatory community development. I then worked with the Barbados YWCA as a summer camp counselor. Due to the high percentage of single mothers trying to support their families on one income, affordable childcare is a high priority in the Eastern Caribbean. It is this priority that links the two segments of my Practice Experience; La Pointe’s pre-school project and the Barbados YWCA’s day camp are both aimed at providing affordable early childhood education and a safe space for children while their mothers are at work.

My plan was to spend one week conducting background research at the University of West Indies in Cave Hill, Barbados to create an extensive project history of WAND’s pre-school project in La Pointe, St. Lucia. During the remaining four weeks, I intended to conduct interviews and evaluate the process of participatory community development in La Pointe. It was my hope to dialogue with the women of La Pointe to create a participatory history, a history written with rather than about. Indeed, the issue at the crux of participatory community development is voice. As an English major, the question of voice is one that I have constantly labored over and pondered: first, second or third person? Omniscient or limited? Free indirect discourse? Author versus narrator? It is these questions to bring to the table when looking at the questions participatory community development both asks and answers – Whose hands? Whose brains? Whose heart? Whose voice? In the narratives of development, how is the narrator constructed and how do we construct self-identity and the identities of others?

Caitlin with members of the La Pointe Development Committee and Judith Soares, WAND Director
Caitlin with members of the La Pointe Development Committee and Judith Soares, WAND Director

Given the problem of voice, how was I to write this history? Concerned about my inability to wring out every drop of this story from mind without contaminating it through forgetting (amnesia) or retrospective romanticizing (nostalgia), I did not know how to tell this story because I was so concerned with, as an English academic would say, the unreliability of the narrator. I realized that to claim the history and story wrung from my mind in the paradigm of participatory community development would be false. As WAND director Judith Soares pointed out, I was not part of the community. Yet, I hope that the self-consciousness of language, narrative techniques and textual transmission which my training as an English major has taught me helps me to position my narration of this story outside the paradigm which situates the “poor” versus privileged, the interviewee versus interviewer and the “poor” versus the poverty evaluator as it asserts the desire to achieve true dialogue and understanding.