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Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (New Directions for Community Colleges, Number 173)
Date Reviewed: November 16, 2016
New Directions in Community Colleges, may be an unfamiliar journal to many scholars in theology and religion, but growing interest in community colleges as transformational contexts warrants attention. This edition presents scholarship on ethical and pedagogical issues of civic engagement in higher education. Recording workshops at the Kettering Foundation convened by Derek Barker collaborating with editors, Ronan and Kisker, these authors share the conviction that higher education should promote democratic values. Without fully acknowledging controversial aspects of that claim, they explore common ground working for social mobility, civic agency, and democratic practices such as voting, public discourse, and advocacy.
Contributors reflect on two reports, both published in 2012: “Advancing Civic Learning,” representing the work of the U.S. Department of Education, and “A Crucible Moment,” written by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, work of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Both reports address educational goals of preparing engaged citizens who transfer civic skills like capacities for communicating, leading, organizing, and advocating from the classroom to workplace, public, and personal settings. Furthermore, the integration and assessment of civic learning and democratic engagement across educational programs from formal curriculum to extracurricular opportunities offered insight for building institutional support or resources for others innovative programs.
For instance, Carrie Kisker surveyed sixty community colleges asking whether civic engagement was a goal stated in missions or strategic plans with dedicated infrastructure and incentives in tenure or advancement process. She found diversity of approaches but high level of integration in curriculum and encouragement in extracurricular programs. However, her findings document a lack of a standardized instrument to assess civic engagement and the need for more study of institutionalized support. Other highlights include David Matthews’s proposed deliberative pedagogy which he linked to timely questions about authority and legitimacy in the public mandate for institutions of higher education. For example, John J. Theis cited the problems of people losing confidence in each other and in institutions, drawing on Carcasson’s work noting that the “expert model” usually dominates higher education in ways that disempowers collective action (43). The authors connect their work as educators with enduring questions of ethics, cultural identities, and inequality.
Significant numbers of students learning about religious studies and theology are enrolled in classes at community colleges with more racial and economic diversity than most seminary or elite college and university classes. Despite the lack of prestige or attraction these settings may have for many faculty, community colleges are rich in ability to shape citizens and hence the future of our communities. Furthermore, although many seminaries and religious studies departments compete fiercely and perpetuate bitter rivalries to attract students, community colleges seem better able to collaborate with each other and learn together in ways institutions for teaching religion and theology would do well to study. Since religious institutions also need leaders with civic competencies, theological educators concerned with the future will find the journal provocative. Especially those educators committed to promoting the common good, social justice, and public engagement will benefit from reading this book.
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.
Community Partner Guide to Campus Collaborations: Enhancing Your Community by Becoming a Co-Educator With Colleges and Universities
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
Growing up with a father who served as the director of the service-learning experiences at a faith-based college, I heard many stories of the joys and challenges of academic and non-profit agencies trying to work together. Later in my own teaching career, similar stories emerged as I witnessed the power and problems of out-of-the-classroom learning experiences. With a clearly stated goal (12), the authors of Community Partner Guide to Campus Collaboration effectively present an orderly guide for non-academic organizations to begin to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with post-secondary institutions.
Building on the premise that “effective community-campus relationships educate students and enhance communities” (4), the authors provide multiple ideas and strategies for a community group to function in partnership with a post-secondary institution. After a brief introductory chapter, the book lays out in subsequent chapters particular ways for non-profit leaders to explore and establish potential relationships with colleges and instructors. Within the opening chapters, the authors provide a useful definition of reciprocity that notes the differences between charity and solidarity (41) in community-campus relationships. The authors set a foundation on which a mutually beneficial relationship for both organizational and individual involvement in such partnerships can be constructed. The book also presents a variety of examples to explain the concepts of community-campus relationships.
Building on the opening chapters, the authors outline specific steps to assist an agency coordinator in both engaging faculty and empowering students for engaged learning. Again, a variety of practical examples and creative ideas are suggested. The final chapter on evaluation helps community partners, academic instructors, and students evaluate both the impact of their work with the organization and their own personal involvement and learning through such engaged learning experiences.
There is little to criticize about this book since it speaks clearly to both academic and non-academic organizations. The authors’ illustrations demonstrate a breadth of experience working within both types of organizations and their writing style is welcoming to readers who may be unacquainted with how community group and college partnerships work together to produce significant student learning outcomes. Some checklists may have provided a helpful summary, but there are other visual clues in the book to emphasize their key points and demonstrate the benefits of this educational approach.
The authors are clearly convinced that “communities are stronger when campuses and community agencies collaborate because it creates knowledgeable and engaged students who give back to their communities as committed citizens long after they graduate” (108). Their manual, written specifically for helping non-academic people navigate the post-secondary world, also benefits academics interested in connecting their students to experiential learning opportunities.