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Engaging Higher Education: Purpose, Platforms, and Programs for Community Engagement
Date Reviewed: August 23, 2017
The standard perception of higher education in the United States is that it is only for the elite (or those middle-class folks who are willing to take out massive loans to pay for their education). However, the founding concept behind public higher education was to allow all who wish to earn an advanced degree the opportunity to do so. Obviously, the schema appears to have changed.
Financial considerations, admissions standards, and other limitations can produce obstacles to admission. One way to overcome these obstacles is the Community and Technical College system. This system has flourished as a result of offering skills-based training in a number of readily employable fields. Another way to surmount obstacles to higher education, and the one that is the subject of this review, is through community engagement. Community engagement occurs when an institution of higher learning opens its doors to the general public and seeks to partner with them in providing academic and professional training. Community can occur in one of two ways: the institution can seek partnerships with the public through campus events or community service, or the public can seek partnerships with the institution through fieldwork arrangements or training programs. Obviously, this can also be a two-way street where the institution and the community collaborate in the engagement process.
Welch’s volume is based on the Carnegie Foundation’s significant research study on existing community engagement offices at several major American universities and the conceptual writings on community engagement by John Saltmarsh. Welch outlines the purpose of, platforms for, and programs involved with community engagement. The strength of the volume is Welch’s thorough analysis and systematizing of the Carnegie report. However, the volume promises more than that; it promises to provide practical direction for how schools can connect with their community to implement these platforms and programs. This is where the volume falls short of expectations.
As mentioned previously, this book is quite voluminous when it comes to the analysis and quantification of the Carnegie study. And if it had simply stayed there, this would have been an insightful and thought-provoking volume that naturally leads to two other volumes by the same publisher that appear to be connected (Publically Engaged Scholars edited by Post, Ward, Longo, and Saltmarsh, and Community Partner Guide to Campus Collaborations by Cress, Stokamer, and Kaufman). However, the book also attempts to craft an implementation plan for community engagement. It waffles between institutions partnering with community liaisons to provide internships for human services or business students on the one hand and developing institution-based think-tanks that, through strategic partnerships, craft economic and political policy through instructor-student-sponsor relationships on the other. Ultimately, Welch’s volume becomes a never-ending firehose that could lead to bloated institutions scrambling to keep their doors open or to anemic institutions beaten down by unnecessary feelings of academic and professional inferiority.
Publicly Engaged Scholars: Next-Generation Engagement and the Future of Higher Education
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Preparing citizens through education is not a novel idea. Its origins lie in Greco-Roman approaches to the task, and in American history the goal of educating the citizenry can be traced back to Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey, who was perhaps the most articulate about the implications of pragmatism for education, saw academic preparation for life in a democracy and the moral education of children as part of the same endeavor.
The contributors to this volume acknowledge Dewey’s role in this enterprise, but do not explicitly explain why these essays represent the “next generation” of educators inspired by his vision. The best explanation, perhaps, is that they emphasize academic advocacy, as opposed to broader social wellbeing; engagement with society over preparation for engagement with society; and social location over citizenship as a point of departure for academic work.
With that set of assumptions in mind, it is easier to discern the larger purpose of the sixteen essays in this volume which include an introduction and afterward, along with chapters devoted to three subject areas: (1) “The Collaborative Engagement Paradigm”; (2) the work of “New Public Scholars”; and (3) thoughts on “The Future of Engagement.”
The vast majority of the contributors to this volume are specialists in education and programs in community engagement, and there are individual writers from the disciplines of art and political science. For that reason, some seminarians and seminary faculty will find more immediate points of contact with their work than others. Both groups will also find themselves asking – if education driven by engagement is appealing or necessary – whether the more natural point of contact for seminaries is the community, the church, or both.
A critical evaluation of the essays will also raise other questions to which there are no simple answers:
- What is the place of “social relevancy and public legitimacy” in shaping the curriculum of higher education (1)?
- Can engagement as a model for learning set aside more abstract, disciplinary concerns (17)?
- What role has commodification played in shaping higher education and is learning through engagement immune to commodification (24)?
- To what degree do faculty members remain accountable to the disciplines that they represent when using engagement as a model for teaching and, if so, how is that accountability achieved?
The answers to those questions will all look potentially different in theological schools and seminaries where faculty regularly grapple with the relationship between the work that they do and the needs of the church. Indeed, that realization may point to the most important question that the subject matter, but not the book itself, raises for theological educators: What does it mean for seminaries to engage the church “as reciprocal partners and coeducators” (5)? Answering that question is one that everyone who cares about theological education would do well to answer.
Inclusive Teaching: Presence in the Classroom (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 140)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
In his opening essay in the collection, editor Cornell Thomas of Texas Christian University invites readers to envision a new type of pedagogy that sees each student as a “unique being with the potential for great growth” (2). The educational philosophies of John Dewey and bell hooks grace the pages of this volume, even when they are not cited directly. The strength of this small collection lies in its variety. Ranging from an existentialism-inspired clarion call for the importance of “presence” in the classroom (Don Hufford) to a challenge posed to teachers and other mentors (in and out of the classroom) to integrate “criticality” and identity development in order to better meet the needs of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Anthony Walker), the essays are unfortunately a bit uneven when it comes to offering specific strategies and details about best practices.
Prophetic calls for practicing “intellectual hospitality” and the value of more robust “connectedness” with our students are preaching ideas to the already converted, I suspect. Most readers of this journal likely already practice such pedagogy and are committed to creating “environments that maximize learners’ academic and social growth” (back cover). Some of the essays rely upon the briefest of anecdotes. The shining counter-example to that trend is the longer piece by Freyca Calderon Berumen and Cecilia Silva (also from Texas Christian University), describing a creative example of civic engagement for preservice teachers in an ESL class: students were matched up with newly resettled refugee families from Nepal and Burma in order to help with initial visits to local schools. The unexpected successes of their “Refugee Family Project” offers a nice example of why it is important for us to be authentic and creative if we are truly committed to more inclusive teaching.
The essays offering concrete advice or descriptions of successful projects are the most rewarding, and some of the bibliographies offer further resources for anyone interested in exploring how critical race theory might be applied to our pedagogies and practices in higher education. In this vein, Kimberly Diggles’ essay is particularly helpful, as she lays out specific suggestions for implementing cross-institutional efforts that are not just racially aware but actively anti-racist in their intent and in their transformative effects on campus culture and student learning. I also appreciated Anthony Walker’s call for involving students in curricular reform as an antidote to what is otherwise “a propensity for an ideological stasis” (78). Walker goes on to state that, “a curriculum built for the integration of students’ thoughts and experiences has the ability to create a learning environment in which students are connected and engaged” (79). To the degree that teachers in religious studies have worked to develop such learning environments in their classrooms in recent years, Walker’s insights suggest that we should take the lead in larger curricular change.
Unfortunately, given its brevity and the uneven quality of the essays, the collection does not ultimately deliver what is promised by the summary on the book jacket.
Working Side by Side: Creating Alternative Breaks as Catalysts for Global Learning, Student Leadership, and Social Change
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Sumka, Porter, and Piacitelli offer both the history and strategy of an emerging educational model that crosses borders between disciplines to develop competencies and leadership characteristics for social change. The authors document “short-term, student-run immersion service trips” designed to sharpen critical thinking and deepen commitment to future action for social justice (8). In this study their primary example of the alternative break movement is an organization called Break Away that grew out of Vanderbilt University. This and other new programs like the Alternative Break Citizenship school (ABCs) are rooted in efforts from the 1960s that experimented in transformational learning experiences combining travel, intercultural dialogue, collective action, and critical theorizing. A common denominator of these programs is the goal of social justice education.
One theoretical framework undergirding these programs is an “active citizen continuum” pointing the way toward authentic relationships for life-long reflection, action, and community enrichment (10). The integration of critical theory and practice moves participants beyond charity and critical theorizing to active citizenship and intercultural competence. A key component of these programs is student leadership. By practicing the actual implementation of the model from the planning and training stages, students gain confidence and facility with each step of the work. In addition to providing the history and theory behind the programs, this book offers practical details contributing to the success of the learning. Readers find pointers on working relationships between staff and students as organizers and leaders of the trips, the alcohol and drug free policy, clarification of the roles of staff versus student leaders, as well as ideas about training, assessing, and fund-raising.
The study would be strengthened by further development of the concept of justice. Despite the significance of social justice to this work, little attention is given to making explicit what is meant by justice. Similarly, the concept of global learning could be explored in relationship to literature on intercultural dialogue, collective action, and transcending political borders. Although this book provides an introductory discussion of what community means, contrasting communities of affinity versus communities of geography, the extensive body of work in philosophical and critical theory developing that distinction is not acknowledged (351). In other words, the academic and intellectual strands contributing to this model are not noted with as much care as the recent history of the particular program.
This is a compelling read for anyone interested in learning that fosters authentic relationships rooted in “values of social justice, dignity, empowerment, and capacity building” (33). Although religious and theological frameworks are not discussed directly, schools or educators who offer immersion or intercultural learning experiences will benefit from reading this research. The authors’ caution about the tendency to slip toward do-gooder tourism, poverty tourism, and forms of educational travel where privileged students unwittingly perpetuate legacies of colonialism is timely and relevant.The conclusion of this book includes observations about the “need for inspiration and collective action” (359). If faith communities hope to be known as sources of inspiration and collective action in the future, this book offers potential for fertile common ground.
Teaching Civic Engagement
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This collection of fourteen essays, most of which originated from a faculty workshop on Pedagogies for Civic Engagement sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, is divided into three sections. The collection represents a variety of perspectives and the authors engage that diversity through a distinct set of questions. “What is the civic relevance of the academic study of religion, considered on its own terms and in its increased diversity? What unique contributions does religious studies offer the public sphere, especially when seen as separate from the work of religious communities who concentrate on religious belonging? How might the disciplines dedicated to such study offer a distinctive shape and response to the civic mission of the contemporary university?” (xiv-xv). Further uniting the individual contributors’ perspectives are their insights offered towards the development of a model of civic engagement that answers these questions.
Section I describes the CLEA model of civic engagement. The employed acronym is drawn from the terms complexity, location, empathy, and action. The terms refer to dimensions, better still, capacities essential for civic participation emerging from the “virtues of civility, reasoned deliberation, and commitment to the common good” (xiii). The intellectual capacity needed for democratic society is evident when persons achieve awareness of the complexity of the world, especially a view of the world beyond the way the powerful control the interpretation of social reality (8-10, 14, 25). As democracy blossoms into pluralism, the person who would be a responsible citizen must exhibit awareness of his or her social location and point of view relative to that of other persons (15, 27-28). Beyond awareness of difference, he or she must have empathy, namely a sense of connection to others as all are (or should be) in pursuit of the common good (15-16, 31). The responsible citizen must act on what he or she has come to know as true (16, 34).
In Section II, various strategies for teaching civic engagement are described. Among the various methods used for teaching civic engagement is reflective writing which is summary and evaluation of different points of view relative to one’s own view (49, 50-53). In critical assessment of texts and media, students learn to interrogate symbols, internet (websites), newspaper and news programs, visual and performing arts, and various forms of entertainment (49, 53-54, 88-89, 95) but also learn how they may be used responsibly (100-102). Field trips are immensely helpful aids in teaching (49, 54-55, 77-80, 119-121). Another method of teaching civic engagement is community-based learning which involves teachers and students going into the community as well as representatives from the community visiting their classroom (49, 55-56, 66-71, 110, 112, 136-137). Engagement may also be taught through students’ involvement in community service projects designed to address a need or problem in a community (49, 57, 110, 112). Ascetic withdrawal, for example, in the form of abstinence from or limiting use of cell phones, smart phones, email and texting, impulse buying, consumption of fast-food, use of products made through exploited labor, may enable students to empathize with other persons adversely affected by American consumerism and to discern and cease the unhealthy habits they have formed through compulsive behaviors (93-94, 151, 155). Successful teaching requires creativity in the selection of instructional methods as well as discernment of the combination of methods, two or more, that will lead to achievement of specified learning objectives (58-59).
Section III goes further into defining civic engagement and locating it within the curriculum. Civic engagement is defined as participation in political processes such as voting, development of relationships, and collaborations or partnerships that lead to policy that contributes to the common good (165, 167, 170, 175). Civic engagement is not only local and national but also global (184). It is connected to, inseparable from, the idea of social justice (185). Also, it is connected to advocacy, not taking a political position but rather “taking a side in a debate and arguing for it” (209-210). Disagreement about the relation of and distinction between religious studies and theology is resolved in the consensus that both function best as means for analysis and critique of societal and cultural traditions that result in privilege and inequality (236). Whether in religious studies or theology, the course offered in civic engagement is an opportunity for students and teachers to practice democracy (17, 188-190, 246-247).
In spite of the charge that the described teaching methods are difficult to grade and are not academically rigorous (37-39, 218-220), this volume of essays merits consideration. It is a rich resource on instructional methods. The combined essays offer a substantive definition of civic engagement. Most importantly, the collection correlates teaching method to the cultivation of capacities needed for life in democratic society.