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Community Engagement in Higher Education: Policy Reforms and Practice
Date Reviewed: May 30, 2017
Towards the end of their introductory chapter, the editors of Community Engagement in Higher Education succinctly state the broad concern holding the volume together: “More emphasis should be made to link teaching and research with community initiatives” (17). The remaining seventeen chapters show what this can look like across a variety of higher education institutions, from community colleges to urban universities and from regional systems to global partnerships. Though divided into three parts – thematic issues, U.S., and international cases – the basic approach throughout the volume is descriptive case study written by persons with firsthand knowledge of the specific program or community engagement initiative. So, for example, contributors to part one raise “thematic issues” by reflecting on particular cases of the role of technology in enhancing university-community partnerships or service learning in disaster recovery. Similarly, scholars in parts two and three identify thematic issues in their interrogation of case studies focused on sustainable partnerships or the limits of current institutional commitments to critical community engagement.
The subtitle of the book, “Policy Reforms and Practice,” suggests a more robust discussion of the way forward. However, most of the authors focus on their own institutional practices, relegating the larger questions of education policy reform to brief historical overviews of policies (such as the Morrill Act) and commissions (for example, the Kellogg Commission) that have served to legitimate the community engagement role of higher education. Given the parochial focus of individual chapters, the absence of a concluding, forward-looking synthesis chapter is conspicuous – even more so given the increasingly narrow metrics employed to measure the value of higher education institutions and persistent suspicion about the value-added of service learning.
As many of the chapters remind readers, community engagement is not new, and many institutions support a range of initiatives. But therein lies the rub. In one of the strongest chapters – theoretically and practically – Seth Pollack critiques the “pedagogification” of service learning, a process through which service learning becomes primarily a method for teaching traditional content, rather than an “epistemologically transformative educational practice” aimed at forming students for critical civic engagement (170). Pollack’s chapter stands out as one of the few in the volume to find the sweet spot in case study research, using the case to illustrate theory and theory to illumine both the case and the wider social context in which the case is situated. Unfortunately, many of the other chapters do little more than report out on initiatives in which the authors played a significant role. As a result, the volume struggles to assert critical leverage in two important ways: self-critique and social critique. That is, the chapters would benefit, on the one hand, from a bit more critical distance from the programs discussed and, on the other hand, from critique of the wider social forces and structures that significantly shape the societal fault lines along which most community engagement initiatives are carried out.
Taken together, the various case studies suggest that two challenges consistently threaten the success of community engagement: (1) alignment of both resources and vision between a large educational institution and diverse community stakeholders and (2) integration of the community engagement function into the identity of the university. A fair amount has been written in the past five years about the role of universities as anchor institutions, or institutions that are embedded in a particular place and committed to leveraging their resources and the community’s assets for community development, neighborhood revitalization, and so forth. The discussion of anchor institutions has catalyzed a conversation about both of the pressing challenges noted above, offering up a way to think about community engagement as more than just one-off service learning experiences or the aggregate of individual student volunteer hours. Yet, the volume has little to say about this current conversation.
I looked forward to this volume, in part because we had just begun a conversation about how our small, religiously affiliated university could be a better neighbor to those in and around our campus. For those teaching religion and theology, such conversations are opportunities to draw from the deep well of religious reflection on who our neighbor is and what our obligations to one another might be – individually and as institutions. This conversation is not on the radar for the contributors in this volume, an omission that may have to do with the particular interlocutors in the Pittsburgh Studies in Comparative and International Education book series of which this book is a part. (The case studies are drawn primarily from public institutions, with the exception of a chapter on Duquesne University.) Yet religiously affiliated universities are often located in urban centers facing considerable challenges or negotiating difficult transformations. And these institutions articulate a purpose that, in mission statements, at least, resonates with the distinctive moral arc of public serving universities in the United States. These colleges and universities are also often anchors in many small town and rural communities, both of which merit more attention than is afforded in this book (as well as in the broader community engagement literature).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one final concern: the appearance of sloppy scholarship in many of the chapters, beginning in the editors’ introduction. Issues include misidentifying the town in which a university is located, to quotations without citations, to grammatical errors. These could, perhaps, be dismissed as the collateral damage of publishing in an era with limited copy editing support. However, in light of the constant need many of us feel to defend community engagement and service learning as rigorous, such writing style concerns bear additional weight insofar as they detract from the credibility of those whose commitment to scholarship for social change can – and should – be a catalyst for revitalizing the service mission of higher education institutions.
Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The double entendre in this book’s title may be clichéd but it is often apt, and in this case Randy Stoecker makes a strong argument that service learning and the rest of higher education civic engagement (“service learning” functions as a catch-all term) is in need of liberating so that it can be liberating. Stoecker accuses “institutionalized service learning” (ISL), as he calls the prevailing practice, of reinforcing an oppressive neoliberal political-economic order. As a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin, he speaks from experience.
What keeps most service-learning practitioners captive, Stoecker asserts, is a failure to theorize about how service learning does and/or could operate. He offers a theoretical view that enables him to (1) reflect on and criticize ideas in current practice and (2) project alternative ideas as points of articulation for liberating service learning – in both senses alluded to above.
Stoecker develops his vision in twelve chapters divided into three parts. A “prelude,” “interlude,” and “postlude” provide other vantage points, ironizing Stoecker’s implied authority on the matters at stake and illustrating metaphorically the problems and promises of service learning. An index of names and topics is also provided.
Part I, “The Problem and Its Context,” surveys the current state of ISL. In chapter 1, beginning with a critical incident from September 2013 – a disciplinary hearing for students who, in support of labor unionization efforts at the University of Wisconsin, occupied the Chancellor’s office – Stoecker explicates his worries about who ISL truly serves. In chapter 2 he recounts the emergence and eventual institutionalization of service learning in U.S. colleges and universities from the late nineteenth to early twenty-first century, emphasizing evidence that suggests ISL has come to serve bureaucratic requirements rather than community initiatives. Chapter 3 makes a preliminary analysis of the avowed and actual theoretical commitments of current practice, pointing to a need for sustained examination of the meaning of four core concepts: learning, service, community, and change.
Part II deepens the analysis. The author argues that ISL supposes “learning” is for students to accrue from service. “Service,” then, means charitable giving, rather than helping communities learn how they might wield their own power. So concepts of “community” in ISL neglect political-economic issues of structural injustice. Accordingly, “change” comes to be seen as a matter of advancing individuals within an unquestioned neoliberal order.
Part III re-envisions the core concepts. The crucial move is to start with a critical theory of “change” as social change. In this light “community” may be grasped not as a vague given but as a goal; “service”is seen not as charity but as casting our lot together to form community and effect change; and “learning” means learning to be learners in service to a shared struggle for change – in short, learning to be liberated.
Although Stoecker offers something to annoy everyone, I still recommend Liberating Service Learning for its challenging examination of the spirit of service learning, in its present state and as it might be in future.
Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities, 2nd Edition
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
First published in 2005, Learning through Serving is a collection of critical thought on the nature of service-learning, as well as a practical field guide for educators looking to expand their skills in this arena. Cress, Collier, Reitenauer, and their colleagues at Portland State University seek to respond to the organic growth of service programs in contemporary higher education – both curricular and extracurricular. Fundamentally, the authors consider service-learning as a liberatory pedagogical tool that induces students to take control of their own learning, and deconstructs the banking model of schooling (famously attacked by Paolo Freire) that remains dominant in much contemporary education. Learning through Serving is intentionally transdisciplinary, and will certainly be helpful for religious studies or theology educators who employ community-based learning or service-learning models. The wealth of experience the authors share, their diverse voices, and lucid consideration of socially-engaged pedagogy yield great value for those seeking to deepen their practice of service-learning.
The authors’ goals are to assist educators and students in thinking through their community service experiences, in the interest of holistic conscientious formation: “In sum, the book is about how to make academic sense of civic service in preparing for students’ roles as future citizen leaders” (xix). Although some readers might balk at the emphasis on “leadership” – and even the use of the term “service” itself – the authors consider a variety of leadership styles suited for different contexts, and make considerable effort to attend to questions of privilege and social justice. This is interspersed throughout the text, but the authors also dedicate a full chapter (“Creating Cultural Connections”) to addressing these issues explicitly.
This guide was constructed with the intention that it would be read in the context of an academic class – thus the chapters are arranged to build on one another throughout the course of a semester. Learning through Serving is composed as a textbook, placing great emphasis on clarity and structure, without sacrificing substance for the sake of readability. The different chapters oscillate between hands-on course planning and more theoretical treatments of civic engagement and democratic philosophy. The new edition makes a particular effort to attend to the global interconnectedness that increasingly defines contemporary digital realities. Service-learning courses have traditionally cultivated porous boundaries between “town” and “gown,” but in an academic climate that increasingly embraces remote student enrollment, service-learning benefits from critically considering how it might adjust to accommodate – and even take advantage of – new developments in university structure, while empowering students to be responsible citizens.
Cress and her colleagues are experienced enough to know that, in practice, service-learning courses rarely go as planned, and that for a variety of reasons, instructors may have to adjust their approach mid-semester. Ultimately, the service component of a class aspires to be interwoven into the fabric of the more formal coursework, integrating the two elements into a mutually-enhancing, symbiotic whole. Learning through Serving offers a wealth of pedagogical advice for service-learning courses, but also situates service-learning within a larger commitment to civic engagement and building a more just society. It contains invaluable nuts-and-bolts course planning assistance, and gives wise counsel on how to develop enduring, reciprocal community partnerships that build capacity for the long haul.
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.
eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement Through Online and Hybrid Courses
Date Reviewed: March 13, 2016
This bookadvocates civic engagement and service learning in higher education to provide students with transformative learning experiences. Linking service learning with online learning the authors present eService-Learning – a high-impact modality of learning for the twenty-first century. Contributors to the volume present research on teaching and learning as it relates to eService-Learning and provide best practices on how to incorporate eService-Learning experiences in courses and curricula.
Divided into three parts, the first part of the book consists of four chapters setting forth “Essentials, Components, and Nuts and Bolts of eService-Learning.” Contributors present a rationale for civic engagement and service learning in higher education (7-19) and provide theoretical foundations for service and experiential learning, coupling both theory and practice to the emerging field of online learning (20-39). Authors guide readers in creating syllabi and learning experiences that facilitate the development of aptitudes and skills for service in online courses (40-57) and address the technology requirements for implementing eService-Learning (58-66).
The second part, “Models for eService-Learning,” introduces readers to five different models for implementing eService-Learning as illustrated by universities that have implemented it at course or program levels. Models described leverage online and on-site learning in the following ways: (1) instruction online, service-learning on-site (69-88); (2) e-portfolio and reflection online, instruction and collaboration with service partners in class (89-104); (3) instruction and service partially on-site and online (105-118); (4) instruction and service conducted online (119-129); and (5) a mixed hybrid of models (130-143). Research in part two provides a critique and analysis of these five models of eService-Learning and step-by-step guidance for implementing each model.
The third part, “Next Steps And Future Directions” provides advice to administrators and faculty interested in implementing eService-Learning at the course or program level. The first of two chapters describes the challenges that universities face if they question the relevance of higher education. The author skillfully argues that eService-Learning can reassert the relevance and worth of higher education in the twenty-first century (149-163). The final chapter expands the horizons of eService-Learning beyond the borders of higher education, suggesting possible applications for K-12 education, workplace training, learners with disabilities, and senior adults (164-166).
This book is to be commended for articulating a rationale for including outcomes related to civic engagement and service-learning in higher education and best practices for using online technologies to implement eService-Learning in courses and curricula. A conspicuous strength is the description of various eService-Learning models. As such, the volume is particularly valuable for faculty and administrators in higher education.