Saturday, September 29, 2012
Land use professors have aptly observed that the subject of land use lends itself well to the integration of theory and practice. (See, for example, past Land Use Prof postings on Nolon & Salkin’s scholarship and conference work dedicated to this topic). Each city offers up a wealth of land use proposals that can be observed through public hearings and brought into the classroom in various ways, including papers and simulations. Some professors have even used their land use courses as a practicum in which students draft land use legislation or policy-related documents.
In this posting, I propose a slight twist on the theory and practice concept; one that actively involves students in an ongoing land use matter but also provides “real time” benefits to the community by fostering education and dialogue before a land use decision is made. My proposal is to integrate student writing requirements with real time blogging about community land use proposals.
As one recent example, a student of mine named Ada Montague wanted to fulfill her advanced writing requirement through a traditional student paper. She proposed writing on the issue of private investment companies acquiring municipal water supplies. Her topic was inspired by a real life example--the pending purchase of the City of Missoula’s water supply by The Carlyle Group, a multinational private equity investment firm. After putting our heads together and meeting with a colleague in the School of Journalism, we decided to transform the writing proposal into a blog format where the student would write a series of informational pieces on the purchase and cover in "real time" the proceedings of the Montana Public Service Commission as it reviewed the proposed sale. The journalism professor would train the student in the basics of journalistic blogging and help with the technical aspects of uploading content. (Thank you, Prof. Nadia White). I, in turn, would review the postings for their legal content in much the same way as I would review a traditional AWR. The stories would be housed on the School of Journalism’s Et Al. Blog, which is a site dedicated to environmental legal news. Here is the link with the end result: http://etalnews.org/missoulawater/.
The blog’s impact exceeded our expectations. The community began using the site as the go-to source for information on the sale, and the quality of the public discourse shifted from fear-based to fact-based. The key players in the proceeding read the blog for analysis and shared items for posting. When the student gave a final presentation of her work (a requirement for our AWR), the large audience included a member of the Public Service Commission, who was there to glean insights on the issues. And the site’s content remains in place for use by other communities that may face a similar type of private equity purchase.
Needless to say, it was a powerful teaching experience to supervise this project in collaboration with my journalism colleague. Most importantly, I realized that there is no need to relegate our students' work to the standard law paper that never sees the light of day, or that reaches completion well after a land use issue has resolved itself. Both our students and our community can benefit from embedding these capstone writing experiences within the living discourse of the community. My concluding questions are: Have others tried such “real time” experiences, and what potential do you see to collaborate regionally and nationally to expand upon this local idea?