Friday, April 29, 2011

When Engagement is Not Enough

One of my goals as a dean of a school of education has been to expand the notion of what teacher preparation includes. To that end, I have been strongly pushing for the development of community engagement courses and academic programs in my own school and across the college. This is grounded in my ongoing academic research and in my belief that one cannot be a good teacher, administrator or staff in a PreK-12 school without realizing (on academic, experiential, and conceptual levels) that schools are deeply embedded within and an important part of their local communities. To that end, I have been working on series of pieces that expands on the notion of community engagement as much more than just service, service-learning, or experiential education. This is the first part of this series.
The community engagement movement – after a generation of activism and research and immense energy and effort – has reached an “engagement ceiling.” It is now time to plot the second wave.

This movement – composed of a loosely inter-related set of programs, practices, and philosophies such as service-learning, civic and community engagement, public scholarship, and community-based research – has become an assumed and expected part of the higher education landscape. More than half of all faculty, according to UCLA’s ongoing American College Teacher surveys, believe that instilling a commitment to community service is a very important or essential aspect of undergraduate education; NSSE data suggest that service-learning is one of very few “high impact practices” that deepen undergraduates’ learning; and the Carnegie Foundation recently released its third round of colleges and universities selected as worthy of the “community engagement” classification, whose membership now numbers over three hundred such institutions.

Yet even as the public face of community engagement becomes ever more embraced, there are troubling signs of its internal malaise. Key groups and scholars have begun to openly talk of a movement that has “stalled.” Strong research suggests that co-curricular engagement continues to be a more meaningful variable than singular curricular service-learning courses in fostering a range of key student outcomes. And the plethora of programs, centers, and practices that intermix community service, service-learning, and civic engagement contributes to frustratingly opaque notions of even basic definitions, categories, and hoped-for outcomes in the field.

The trouble is not that service-learning and its ilk have not been successful enough. The problem, I suggest, is that they have been too successful. Too successful, that is, at positioning themselves as a social movement for the transformation of higher education to reclaim and rediscover its civic purpose and meaningful engagement with, for, and in their local communities. But in so doing, in becoming a movement that attempted to reach everyone across the academy, the community engagement movement has become unmoored from some basic precepts. There is neither a core vision nor an overarching network able to guide or link the disparate centers, groups, scholarly communities, national organizations and activists all attempting to, ironically enough, foster an engaged campus and community. The gap between the rhetoric and reality of the “engaged campus” is ever increasing.

The reasons for this are complex, intertwined, and not easily changeable given the long-term economic retrenchment sweeping across the academy: the expanding demographics of “non-traditional” part-time commuting students; the outsourcing of labor to contingent and adjunct faculty; and the “wickedly” complex and contested problem of engaging with (much less solving) community issues enmeshed within multiple racial, political, economic, social, and historical realities. If the goal of the first generation of scholars and activists was to transform higher education, the real issue is who is transforming whom.

I am not suggesting that we wipe our hands, shut the classroom door, and walk away from the pressing societal problems that colleges and universities must indeed be a part of solving. Rather, we must reframe how we think about the engaged campus: namely, community engagement must become an intellectual movement. If the next generation of scholars, students, and community members are to have a chance in fostering a deep, sustained, and ultimately powerful campus and community collaborations, then we must embrace a second wave of criticality towards civic and community engagement in the academy.

By this I mean what other movements, such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies, have accomplished in the last thirty years. They have created, through majors and minors and interdisciplinary concentrations and research centers, a means to influence and impact the knowledge production and dissemination of their respective areas of study. They have succeeded in the impressive accomplishment that it is no longer possible to speak simply or “obviously” about what feminism or blackness “is,” either within their respective fields, across the academy, or, for that matter, in the larger world.

Interestingly enough, academic programs (such as majors and minors) focused on community engagement have indeed begun to spring up helter skelter across the academy. I helped organize a research institute this past summer for academics interested in developing or expanding such academic programs. We expected twenty or thirty people to show up. Instead, we had to stop registration at ninety, as scholars, administrators, and doctoral students poured in from across the country, as well as a few from Canada, Mexico, and even Ireland. We have now documented over sixty academic programs at varying stages of development across the United States and will be hosting another institute this summer to continue to deepen this dialogue and support such program development.

There are longstanding and deeply impressive programs, such as Providence College’s major in Public and Community Service Studies and UC-Santa Cruz’s department of Community Studies. There is the newly developed Civic Engagement minor at Mary Baldwin College, and the Department of Justice and Policy Studies at Guilford College. In each case, there are dedicated faculty members attached to each program, doing the deliberate, careful, and critical work that is necessary for any successful academic program: advising students, creating introductory courses, questioning the quality of the capstone experience, reaching out to colleagues across the institution and community members outside of it for perspective and feedback and collaboration, advocating for additional tenure-track lines, and questioning whether what they do is ultimately of value and relevance to its critical stakeholders.

This, then, is the face of the next generation of the scholarship of engagement. It is the critical work that cannot take for granted the practice and philosophy of community engagement. For community engagement is a complex and contested practice that claims to engage in “border crossing” and as such engages issues of power, race, and class. It is a practice that has real-world ethical, legal, and political implications as to what our undergraduates actually do out in the world. And it is a philosophy of practice that is seemingly at the heart of a liberal arts education. As such, what we do with, for, and in the community must be open to the same type of scrutiny as any other legitimate academic practice. It needs to be done in academic spaces that foster and strengthen the very qualities we are looking for in the community partnerships we espouse: deep, sustained, and impactful reflection, engagement, and action. That is an intellectual movement.

In the end, of course, this is not an either/or proposition. The academy must embrace both the community engagement and the critical academic spaces. To have engagement without the criticality is to succumb ultimately to a cheerleading mentality of a social movement with thin skin unable to withstand the critique of the academy. To have disciplined academic inquiry without a deep and sustained experiential community-based component is to succumb to an ineffectual model of “hallway activists” where theory and practice are disjoined and disjointed and where the thick skin of academic debate cannot feel or see the needs of the community all around it. But without the next stage, without the second wave of critique within academic spaces, the next generation of the engaged campus will be ever more imperiled.


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