Breaking down barriers between university students and the wider community, and between ideals and action is the goal of the Green Room, an upcoming lecture series at the Englert Theater.
The lectures are part of a class for University of Iowa undergraduates, named for the room where TV talk show guest wait before an appearance.
“The green room is the place in the back. It’s where the real conversations take place, and the real questions are asked,” explained David Gould, the instructor for the course. Gould is of the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and the director of Programming and Events for the Provost’s Office of Outreach and Engagement.
Last year’s class was limited to 30 students, but students were allowed to bring guests. “Anybody who wanted to come to class was welcome,” Gould said. “At the end of the first version of the Green Room we almost had as many community members as we had students.”
This year the class has been expanded. There will be 85 students, and the Monday night lectures are being held at the Englert to accommodate as many other people who wish to attend as possible.
Confirmed speakers for the lecture series range from Iowa City’s own Zach Wahls, a national leader on LGBTQ issues, to Khizr Khan, who received international attention for his impassioned speech on American values at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which led to Donald Trump repeatedly attacking him.
“They’re all inspiring speakers who will help you think of your life differently, and help you to think of the community around you differently,” Gould said.
Gould created the Green Room in 2016 as an eight-week course for students in the UI honors program.
“The Green Room was built on the idea that maybe higher education is no longer asking the right questions,” Gould said. “Too often the experience students have is narrowly focused. The notion of getting a job, or figuring out what graduate or professional school you want to go to is not the whole ballgame.”
A narrow focus can prevent a student from asking themselves important questions, according to Gould. He designed the Green Room to get students to ask questions that will help them decide what is most meaningful to them.
“When you are able to connect students with things they see as meaningful, they become excited and enthused,” Gould said.
Many of the 30 students from last year’s class still feel that enthusiasm. Thirteen have volunteered to be teaching assistants (TAs) for the new course, even though they will not receive any credit hours for it.
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“It was a no-brainer for me. I actually emailed [Gould] and asked if I could TA for the class,” Laura Schwager said. Schwager, a UI junior who was part of the first Green Room, said her fellow TAs had the same reaction.
“We’re all extremely busy students, yet we all jump at the opportunity to be a TA for this course, even though it’s a huge commitment.”
Schwager said the course changed the direction of her academic life, as well as her life in general.
“It helped inspire me to see what was possible,” Schwager said. “It helped break down the compartmentalization of a student’s life.”
Like this year’s version, the earlier Green Room built its classroom sessions around a series of guest speakers.
“The idea was to invite the brightest thinkers we could find, and ask each to address the most important question they believed college students should be asking themselves,” Gould said. “The students were divided into groups that curated the nights. The whole was engagement was absolutely in the hands of my students.”
Engagement, both in and outside of class, is a key aspect of the Green Room. As a brochure for this year’s class explains, “elements of music, theater, art and dance will be interwoven into the evening. At the end of each Green Room session, an activity will be revealed for the group to complete within 24 hours — a collective push intended to generate momentum for change.”
The activities will be designed by Green Room students, and are intended to get the students and interested members of the community to turn the inspiration they receive from the lectures into action.
“Any time you go to hear a great speaker, you end up feeling inspired,” Gould said. “But then what happens is that if you have no place to plug it in, no place to apply it, that inspiration dissipates.”
“None of these are major projects, but they will allow the ideas and the experience to resonate beyond 8:30 on Monday night,” he added. “And small acts add up, and can make a real difference in a community.”
“Commitment to community is in some ways the heartbeat of what we are trying to do.”
Schwager said she’s hoping this year’s Green Room leads to new connections between the university and the broader community in Iowa City.
“Before I started school, I know that my perception of people who went to the university was a lot more negative than it is now,” Schwager, an Iowa City native, said. “I want to change that perception for the community members, too. I know it’s going to change their perception of what an academic institution is, and the type of people who make up an academic institution.”
Gould believes common interests will make the Green Room meaningful to both his students and anyone else who chooses to attend.
“Everyone wants to find what is really meaningful in their life,” Gould said. “And even though this is a class, we want it to be a dialogue of friends and neighbors rather than something too scripted, or too academic.”
The first Green Room lecture will be on Monday, Aug. 28, at 7:00 p.m with Wahls, who will speak about the housing first approach to addressing homelessness.