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How to Get Started with Community Engagement

November 27, 2017

By Michelle Catalano (Department of Philosophy)

  How Do We Do It?
“What was your favorite assignment in college?”
The presenter asked this question to a group of higher education professionals at a session called “Awakening learning through community engagement activities: An easy 6-step method” at the Teaching Professor Conference that I attended this past summer.  All the responses to this question had a common theme: they involved words such as “doing” and “making” and “creating” and “engaging” and so on. These words suggest assessments that involve active learning.  Community engagement is an instance of active learning that can potentially infuse your courses with assessments that are both effective at achieving your teaching objectives and also meaningful to your students.
According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, community-based learning and experiential engagement are considered “high impact educational practices” (Kuh, 2008). I teach philosophy and it is often characterized as one of the most abstract, analytical, and solitary of disciplines. It is true that my discipline (like many others, let’s be honest…) relies heavily on traditional forms of instruction such as lectures, discussions and written examinations. That said, my message to you is this: if a philosopher can implement community engagement in her courses (with 40 freshman students each), then it is very likely that you can, too. Here’s how I did it with the help of Dr. Janet Pritchard’s “6-step method.”
This fall was the first trial semester that I implemented community engagement in my courses and I used Dr. Pritchard’s “6-step method” as the starting point for designing projects for my students.  Her framework is as follows:
 6 Step Framework
Source: Pritchard, J. (2017). Awakening learning through community engagement activities: An easy 6-step method. Presentation at the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference
Given my constraints such as enrollments and grading loads, I began by defining “community engagement” as broadly as possible: any form of activity that would require my students to make an impact/interaction in the real world. The course I mainly teach is Reasoning & Argumentation 101 and I envisioned a “praxis” version of the course inspired by the question “what would a course in reasoning and argumentation look like if every weekly lesson required going beyond the classroom walls?” My answer, then, was to translate theories into actions through a series of activities that balanced course concepts with experiential activities.  As for an example of on-campus engagement, we conducted small-scale experiential projects where groups of students would spend class time walking around campus and searching for a flyer or advertisement with an error in reasoning (i.e. a fallacy). They uploaded pictures of what they found to a BlackBoard discussion board so that we could instantly analyze the examples together with the larger class. As for off-campus community engagement, my students were given a high degree of freedom (with guidance and an approval process) to self-select a debatable issue that they could explore throughout the semester and then ultimately conduct a culminating project that allowed them to advance their position on the issue. In short, given my enrollment and grading constraints, I turned a portion of the “6-step method” over to them.  Many of them chose interesting projects to donate, to raise awareness, to conduct interviews, to volunteer, and much more.  At the end of the semester, students publically posted their engagement projects on a wall in Peck Hall (pictured below) to publically display their accomplishment in going through the process of 1) identifying a theoretical issue and 2) developing a position on it and 3) transforming it into action.
Some of my students opted to participate in a project option that I managed for them (instead of designing their own project). This was a project on a weekend that consisted of a hike on a local property in order to have an informed discussion with guest speakers of the reasons on both sides of a debate on whether potential nearby commercial development should or should not be approved. Students voted for or against the development at the end of the discussion and then defended why they voted the way they did in a journal reflection that prompted them to also consider other broader questions of civic involvement. I cannot overestimate the importance of requiring students to observe and reflect upon their experiential project- the part that Dr. Pritchard calls “structured reflection.” Observation and reflection is needed to integrate their experience back to the course material and bridge the gap between theory and action. Stated another way, a field trip WITH a carefully designed reflection can transform a “hike in the woods” into a legitimate educational opportunity.
Besides using the framework of Dr. Pritchard’s “6-step method,” I gathered some other helpful information on getting starting with community engagement that is specific to the classrooms of our institution.  In the true spirit of sharing faculty development wisdom, here are the most valuable tips that I accumulated along my way as a “first-timer.”  First, our very own Kimmel Student Involvement Center has a helpful “Service-Learning Handbook” available on their website. Second, you should be very clear about including some kind of project statement in your syllabus so that students understand their expectations of participating in activities as part of the course requirements from the very first day (and also so that you can begin conversations with any students who require any disability accommodations). Third, leverage the power of interdisciplinary collaboration!  I received indispensable information simply by having conversations with members of other departments who have more experience doing community engagement projects (speaking of which, I owe a special thank you to both Dr. Rehg and Dr. Schulz for their advice and willingness to help me). Fourth (and perhaps most importantly), you will need to acquire and distribute official university liability waiver forms before students participate in a project. It took me quite a while to locate a copy of this form when I first searched for it; however, you can download the version that I obtained with gratitude from Dr. Agustin right here (for over 18) and here (for under 18).
In higher education, we are facing increased pressure to respond to the demand of reaching beyond our ivory tower and of integrating our classrooms with the broader society at large. Over the decade that I’ve been teaching in higher education, I’ve seen a shift in emphasis away from lecturing and more towards active and experiential learning. Further, the effectiveness of experiential engagement on learning is a reality that is supported by evidence from the SOTL literature. So, now is a better time than ever to start incorporating community engagement in your courses if you haven’t yet.
Lastly, thank you to the Center for Faculty Development and Innovation for funding my attendance at the Teaching Professor Conference.

References & Further Reading:
  • Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges & Universities.
  • Oxley, J. and Ilea, R. (2016). Experiential Learning in Philosophy. Routledge.
  • Pritchard, J. (2017). Awakening learning through community engagement activities: An easy 6-step method. Presentation at the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference.
  • Post, M., Ward, E., Longo, N. and Saltmarsh, J. (2016). Publicly Engaged Scholars. Stylus Publishing.
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