At Howard Community College, students in Rick Leith's English class are learning to improve their writing through documenting the history of Columbia, and specifically the significance of Merriweather Post Pavilion to Columbia.
For the past four years, Leith has had students in his English 121, college composition, class work on a semester-long project surrounding Merriweather that culminates with students submitting audio and written history documents to the Columbia Archives.
"My goal is to collaborate with the community in a real, meaningful way, so that the students can understand that they are a member of a community and that they need to be civically engaged in the community," Leith said.
At the beginning of the semester, students are asked to create a playlist of their life, including songs that date back to the opening of Merriweather in the 1960s, but students' lists are only to include songs from bands that have performed at Merriweather
From there, working in groups, students interview a community member, such as elected officials, concertgoers, Merriweather employees and others about their experiences at the Columbia concert venue. Students then transcribe their interview — anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes — before submitting the audio recording and written transcription to the Columbia Archives, which was founded in the early 1980s and serves as the primary resource on the history of Columbia.
In addition to the Merriweather project, Leith has his students visit each village of Columbia to research an asset or issue of that area and produce a blog or video that makes suggestions on how to address the issue or best promote the asset.
"The whole semester is Columbia based," Leith said.
Barbara Kellner, director of the archives, called Leith's class a "wonderful partnership," which has contributed about 30 submissions to the archives.
Those contributions include testimonies, such as one employee's interaction with Katy Perry, stories from a cook with the Dave Matthews Band, the impetus behind the Save Merriweather initiative in the early 2000s and other stories from various concerts or how Merriweather has changed over the years.
"The opportunity to expose the students to the history of Merriweather and the history of Columbia is really a wonderful opportunity," Kellner said.
Students, too, are excited about the opportunity to contribute work to the archives and to research a topic that everyone can relate to — music.
"I've never actually done anything like this before," said Ronald Orozco, a sophomore at Howard Community College. "I feel that it's unique in the way that we're sharpening every single skill you can learn in English, just in one project."
Leith has taught at Howard Community College for 15 years and started this project as a joint venture with the school's center for service learning after a colleague brought in a book by Rob Sheffield, "Love is a Mix Tape," an autobiography on how music helped Sheffield meet his wife.
Leith enjoyed the concept and soon after began pondering ways to incorporate this into his class with a service learning aspect.
Driving past Merriweather one day, it dawned on Leith — connect Merriweather and the archives.
Brittany Budden, director of service learning at Howard Community College, said this initiative is unique at the college as no other class has reached this level in terms of recording history and producing archival material.
"This project allows students to dive into the English subject matter and have meaningful things to write about in composition, meaningful subject matter," she said
Leith's students agree, and that's something the professor is hoping they will take with them after the semester.
"Writing isn't always about the drudgery of writing a term paper, it's more than that," Leith said.