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Karen Ruggles ’08 discusses the documentary she is making for her interdisciplinary honors thesis

Karen Ruggles ’08 (Easton, Pa.) is majoring in English and art. For her interdisciplinary honors thesis, Ruggles is producing a documentary video about the juvenile justice system in Easton. Her advisors are Andrew Smith, assistant professor of English and chair of American studies, and Karina Skvirsky, assistant professor of art. The following is a first-hand account of Ruggles’ experiences with her honors thesis.

“All right guys, listen up!”

It was not my first time in a classroom or in front of a group of people, but it was my first time when the lesson plan was up to me. This was a thrilling but somewhat terrifying experience, especially in an alternative education setting like our local Easton Area Academy (EAA) where I taught high school students for the first time.

EAA is an alternative education facility where all of the students are recommended to attend via their grade level principal in Easton Area High School. Referrals are usually based on poor attendance, not coming to school, fighting in school, or similar occurrences. I went to teach the students about film and how to capture on film what you want to share visually.

During the hour and 20 minute class period, I scheduled an activity. It was simple but effective: each student was given an 8×10 print out of a dense crowd and a small one inch by two inch “frame.” The frame was to represent a camera’s visual boundaries whereas the 8×10 photo of the crowd was the subject. I instructed the students to find someone in the crowd and put that person in the frame in a way that looked good to them. I checked each frame and drew their attention to what was inside—half of a head on the side, a strangely positioned mouth in the upper corner. By helping them to move the frame to eliminate these distractions, we focused on their subjects.

When we found our frame I would say, “This is what your audience will see,” and they nodded in reply. Then I took the frame away, leaving the 8×10 photo, and said “as a director this is what you see when you come onto the set. Look at all these people but,” I said returning the frame to its proper place, “this is what your audience sees. How would you show them what you see as a director?”

In a way that is exactly what I’m doing with my dual honors project in English and Art. I am learning how to show what I see and, most importantly, I am learning what is worth seeing.

My topic relates to many of the students I worked with at EAA: the juvenile justice system. Many people ask me why I chose such a serious and difficult subject, but to me it was logical. My experiences in the foster care system led me to think about choices kids have today and what punishment looked like. I also know very little about the juvenile justice system and wanted to learn about it and relay that information in video because I don’t think a lot of people know about it either.

It turns out I wasn’t far off with my assumptions of common knowledge. The only way to truly learn about the system is to go inside. So I did just that. No, I did not get incarcerated, but I did get permission to “take a tour” of the Northampton Juvenile Justice Center, located in downtown Easton, and I also got special permission to bring a camera crew along with me to film what I saw.

Much of what I do for this project is exciting because I am essentially telling a story and learning about it at the same time — you should see the piles of books on my desk labeled “Bad Youth,” “No Minor Matter: Children in Jail,” “Securing Our Children’s Future.” Looking at those titles now is ridiculous because of what I’m learning both through my research and with contact of the juvenile justice system itself.

One particular thing that stuck with me is that the idea of justice reflects the community. Its prejudices, values, loves, and hates are all reflected in what is thought of as justice; therefore, if the community is flawed, so too will be the justice that holds its “criminals.”

With books upon books in my head, EAA students asking when I’m coming back, and filmed interviews and footage, this semester has created a great foundation of learning and experience. I can only imagine what will happen next semester.

Ruggles has served as an EXCEL Scholar, a Rothkopf Scholar, and a McKelvy Scholar. She has studied abroad in Florence, Italy, has participated in interim trips to Hawaii and Ireland, and took an Alternative School Break in New Mexico where she worked with the National Indian Youth Leadership Program. On campus, Ruggles has been a member of WORDS (Writing Organization Reaching Dynamic Students), a producer and student director for ENvision, a member of America Project, a teaching assistant for photography, and a member of the Technology Clinic.

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