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The Trinity Reporter Spring 2003

Connecting with Hartford

An interview with James Trostle
Director of Urban Initiatives

Photo: Nick Lacy   

Associate Professor of Anthropology James Trostle has been appointed to the new position of director of urban initiatives at Trinity. In this role, he will coordinate existing programs, develop new initiatives, promote support for urban programs, and serve as a spokesperson for the College’s urban agenda.

Trostle received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in anthropology from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in public health and Ph.D. in medical anthropology from the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley. He serves as a consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization. In addition to his ongoing work as a teacher and administrator, Trostle remains actively involved in his own research. He is coauthor of a five-year, $2.8-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the health status of inhabitants of remote Ecuadorian villages that are being affected for the first time by that country’s expanding road system. Trostle was interviewed by Reporter editor Drew Sanborn.

Q. What are your responsibilities as the director of urban initiatives? What does the job entail and why was it created?

A. For some time now, the College has been coming to terms with the challenges and opportunities inherent in its urban location. Part of my job is to help students and faculty members understand the vast array of urban resources that are available on campus and in the city of Hartford. Another part is to help the administration better understand how it can help the faculty and students do work about the city and work in the city. In this respect, I am in some ways a facilitator, in some ways a focal point, and in some ways even a lightning rod.

We’re building on a solid foundation. There is already a great deal of faculty and staff involvement in Hartford—the churches they belong to, the political work they do, the organizations they’re involved in. There is a deep, longstanding connection—people at Trinity are very deeply involved in the city.

Q. How does being an anthropologist help you in your new position?

A. When I first came here, I started doing fieldwork right away to find out how Trinity works. Any time there is an institutional culture, there are actually multiple, competing cultures at work, so I wanted to figure out the different rhetorics about this place. Above all, I wanted to understand how Trinity was coming to terms with its newly articulated image as an institution that is deeply and purposively becoming involved with its urban surroundings.

As far as the community side goes, just as there are multiple Trinitys—by which I mean varying academic cultures—so, too, are there are multiple communities. As an anthropologist, I am uncomfortable with the notion that the College can connect with “The Community,” as if there were only one Hartford. There are multiple communities—formed by neighborhoods, formed by language or ethnic background, formed by commonalities of aspirations. Of the many different kinds of communities that surround Trinity, I wanted to understand which ones it was already linked with and which ones it was not so well linked with, and why.

Q. What are your plans for encouraging students to become more deeply involved in Trinity’s urban programs?

A. I’m working with the admissions office on attracting more students who are interested in Trinity as a college in the city, and I’m working with people in the First-Year Program to increase the proportion of First-Year Seminars that engage students in urban learning. I’m also working with the new-student orientation program to encourage new students to think about getting engaged in Hartford. While we don’t require students to take urban-oriented classes, we do hope that, eventually, everyone will want to take a course with an urban learning component.


"There is already a great deal of faculty and staff involvement in Hartford—the churches they belong to, the political work they do, the organizations they're involved in. There is a deep, longstanding connection—people at Trinity are very deeply involved in the city."


Q. What other new urban initiatives are you looking at?

A. We’ve created a new community action minor, which is intended to help students understand how a variety of courses can help them learn more about working in the city. I’m also faculty coordinator of the Community Learning Initiative (CLI), through which we are helping faculty members come up with ideas about how to take their courses outside the classroom and how to bring the community into the classroom. It’s exciting, because faculty members who have been here 25 years are saying, “I want to try teaching this way.” And the students are saying, “We love learning this way!”

Ultimately, we want to have a full toolbox of ways the faculty can get involved in urban learning. It doesn’t matter whether they are in philosophy or biology or any other discipline, there are many ways in which they can become involved in using urban issues as a resource in the classroom.

Q. In your view, how does this focus on urban involvement fit in with the administration’s emphasis on academic excellence?

A. One bolsters the other. We have built an array of new programs centered around urban involvement, and what we need now is to understand how to build them more deeply into the curriculum. This is an educational institution, and until those urban programs get built into how the faculty teaches and how the students learn, they won’t become an integral part of the College culture. They have to become a core function of our teaching and learning. We have a chance now to catch up to the growth of the past several years and to envision the future together. Opportunities for urban engagement are so available and so pervasive that it just makes sense to take advantage of what is right in front of us.

Q. Why is Trinity’s location in Hartford an advantage?

A. Being in a city allows students to get involved with a broad array of different types of organizations, and because we are in a capital city, we’ve got a range of possibilities that go from government policy-making organizations to state-level associations and service organizations to industry and so on.

Hartford has a great scale as a city. It’s small enough so that everybody knows somebody and can help you make all sorts of useful connections. It’s a city with a strong history of organizing and strong neighborhoods, a long history of serving as a site of in-migration—groups make it here and then move out.

There is a rich variety of kinds of people here in Hartford, more so than in many cities this size.

Working at the level of a small city enables students to get involved more deeply than they would in a larger urban setting. At the same time, the city organizations we partner with can learn more from us as an educational institution because the level at which we are working is pretty much what they need. This intimate scale means that our undergraduates are able to learn things that graduate students would give their eye teeth to be involved in.

Q. What lessons can Trinity students learn from their involvement with Hartford?

A. Some of the city’s tougher problems offer opportunities for challenging complacency. Students will find plenty of chances here for self-examination and increased self-knowledge. Hartford may be very different from the backgrounds of many of our students. That offers fantastic opportunities for learning about what the city is, where it came from, why it’s quite poor amid such wealth, and what our social responsibilities are in this setting.

Q. As a teacher, how do you bring the city into the classroom?

A. I’ve taught four different courses with a city component. Hartford comes into my classroom through students providing services or creating products for community organizations, listening in structured ways to community voices, or doing applied research projects.

One of the ways research makes a difference is by creating a climate in which people know about research results and care about them. And not just policy makers, but the general public. It’s important to help undergraduates learn that they can participate in—and influence—the public climate. If they start as undergraduates, they are likely to go on doing so as they continue in their careers. Those who become practicing scientists will be better able to participate in civic discourse, in public conversations about science, about what kind of knowledge matters and what we should do with it.

So I try to help my students realize that they have to be able to communicate with a wide variety of audiences. All the understanding gained through research is meaningless if you can’t communicate what you have learned, which is why my students not only write papers for me, but also write for each other and write things like letters to the editor.

This is one of the reasons why Trinity’s urban learning initiatives are so important—direct engagement with other audiences and other collaborators in Hartford offers opportunities for students to learn in ways that are beneficial to them and to the community.


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