Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning

Tania Boster, Director of Bonner Center Curricular Initiatives, February 13, 2017

Michel Fanoli - Politics in an Oyster House Dedicated To HB Latrobe Esq, 1856. Public domain.

Michel Fanoli – Politics in an Oyster House Dedicated To HB Latrobe Esq, 1856. Public domain.

Does higher education have a role in creating civically engaged students? Do colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare all our students in the theory and practice of democratic, civic and political engagement? Do colleges have a responsibility to the be a part of the localities, whether big cities or small towns, in which they reside? What is “education for political engagement” and can it work as a pedagogy to enhance student learning?

These questions have a long history in higher education (as well as the K-12 world), particularly in the United States. So it is not surprising that they would be raised at moments of significant democratic distemper, political turmoil, and division; nor should we be surprised that they would generate both positive and negative responses. On the negative side, two different discursive threads predominate.  The first, a view long-championed by Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar who turned to legal studies and is now a  visiting professor of law at Yeshiva’s Cardozo Law School, argues for a strict separation between academic and political goals: “Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because…it is a political goal.” Higher education, Fish has long insisted, has no business fostering political goals or “shaping” any form of citizenship.

The second, championed by an organization of conservative academics and intellectuals, the National Association of Scholars, largely supports the intent of civic engagement, but argues that the wrong kind of civic engagement is being fostered, and that community-based work is nothing more than a leftist plot designed for the ulterior purpose of “radically transforming” the United States. In its recently released 525-page report, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, the NAS argues that “The New Civics [i.e., community-based learning and research] hopes to accomplish this [transformation] by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.”

Oberlin, along with many other liberal arts colleges and universities, has long answered in the affirmative. Oberlin’s recently articulated learning goals are quite clear about the value we give to John Dewey’s concept that education is “the midwife of democracy,” and that educators have a broadly affirmative role to play in the advancement of community goals, the furtherance of social justice and the deepening of democracy. In other words, those things a college or university can do to promote such end objectives are to be supported.

What is more, the promotion of a democratic citizenry, and democratic engagement, is more than a goal to be attained; it is a means — a set of pedagogical approaches — that can broadly support student learning. In other words, besides impacting the students’ understanding of democratic engagement, research has underscored that “Community-Based Learning,” also referred to as Service Learning, is a valuable pedagogical approach because of the positive and measurable impact it can have on student learning outcomes. Researchers at the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), consider this approach to be a “High-Impact Practice” with the ability to yield significant learning outcomes. The literature on student learning outcomes related to CBL is extensive (see, for instance,  Moely, Barbara; Ilustre, Vincent, “The Impact of Service-learning Course Characteristics on University Students’ Learning Outcomes” Michigan Journal of Service Learning 2014; Harper, S. R., “Race-conscious student engagement practices and the equitable distribution of enriching educational experiences” Liberal Education 2009; “Civic Engagement and Student Success: A Resonant Relationship” Diversity & Democracy 2012).

Ninde Scholars Program, part of the Bonner Center's programs.

Ninde Scholars Program, part of the Bonner Center’s programs.

What is the value of Community-Based Learning?

In fall 2016, the Bonner Center launched a multi-year initiative to expand Community-Based Learning (CBL) at Oberlin College & Conservatory, with a particular focus on faculty engagement. Recognizing that several Oberlin faculty have incorporated CBL into their course design over the years, we have refocused our aim as a center to go beyond simply bringing more faculty on board with this pedagogy, though we do see value in an institution-wide scholarly commitment to our community partners in Oberlin and elsewhere. Rather, we are striving to build infrastructure for a more interconnected approach to CBL, one that supports a community of publicly engaged scholars at Oberlin and establishes ties with a broader network of CBL practitioners, positioning Oberlin faculty in the national and international conversation on CBL (through professional organizations such as International Association for Research on Service Learning & Community Engagement IARSLCE and Imagining America).

America Reads, a program supported by the Bonner Center

America Reads, a program supported by the Bonner Center

It is our understanding that when the work of Community-Based Learning is done well – when the community partner and the faculty member work collaboratively to design the community-based component of a course – the value extends beyond the classroom. As both a pedagogy and a method of doing research, there have been significant advances in research aimed at identifying some of the most effective, culturally relevant practices in CBL across disciplines. Chief among these is a decisive shift away from course design in which mandatory service hours are neither explicitly linked to course goals nor responding to community-expressed needs (what is referred to in the field as a “transactional”model of service). Students’ and instructors’ engagement with the underlying issues informing community-based course projects, identifying connections between readings and lectures and the experiential course component, becomes a significant learning opportunity, Mandell, Wagner, and Pérez-Manrique describe this as:

…critical service-learning, where students work to understand and change fundamental structural inequalities. Students also come to see how privilege is often shaped by the complex interplay of race, class, gender, and other factors. Instead of a ‘feel good’ activity in which students simply help the poor, critical service-learning for social change becomes an uncomfortable activity as students and communities ask deeper questions about power, knowledge and unequal distribution of resources,” (Joyce Mandell, Mark Wagner, and Ana Pérez-Manrique, “Service-Learning as Social Change: Does Higher Education Have a Larger Purpose?” Currents in Teaching and Learning Vol. 7 No. 1 Fall 2014).

This suggests, importantly, that what is best for the community partner, defined on their terms, holds at least equal value for student learning outcomes and even advancing social justice. In other words, paying close attention to the value and capacity-building outcomes a CBL project contributes to a community partner contributes significantly to student learning.

The George Jones Farm in Oberlin, one of the organizations affiliated with the Community Service-Work Study Program at Bonner, Oberlin

What distinguishes CBL from other pedagogies and methods?

Many academic disciplines have developed their own sub-disciplinary fields of publicly-engaged scholarship and, indeed, nearly every field within a liberal arts curriculum can potentially adopt such approaches as one means of developing students’ capacity for self-knowledge, positively engaging them with larger processes of social change, or even contributing to important paradigm shifts in their fields of inquiry. The American Historical Association, for instance, has in recent years issued a set of guidelines for Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian. The recommendations address publicly engaged historical research that extends the scope of the sub-field of public history to include other forms of knowledge production with public benefits: “Community engagement infuses the work of public historians, but most historians now are doing community-engaged work at some level, bringing their ‘disciplined learned practice’ to interactions with various communities.” According to the Carnegie Foundation, the distinction between academic scholarship that occurs in a public setting and community-engaged or public scholarship is that “Community Engagement [including Community Based Learning/Teaching and Research] describes [a] collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” In other words,the concept of “community engagement” is being expanded to encompass a range of practices that bridge multiple disciplines within the notion of Civic Professionalism, “mark[ing] the intersection of formal knowledge, vocational exploration/development, and a commitment to the common good.”

Is Community-Based Learning too ambitious?

BooksCBL is more widely available and accessible than you may think, but it also isn’t imperative or appropriate in many classroom contexts. Successful CBL projects are developed in close conversation with community partners with whom trust and relationships have been well established to ensure that the partner’s time and expertise is respected and that student projects are actually meeting their needs and not just those of the class. A well thought out project, with at least the CBL component co-designed with the community partner/s you intend to work with (again, building trusting working relationships and collaborating as co-educators) is of more value to everyone involved than assigning students to execute service projects without offering them the proper skills and preparation, intellectual and ethical frameworks, and insight into navigating and attaining cultural competencies.

At the same time, you should be aware that CBL isn’t an “all or nothing” pedagogy. There are a range of possibilities for engaged learning available to faculty who may not have time or capacity to develop collaborative relationships with community partners. The Bonner Center staff can help you think through course design and develop models that align with your teaching and research interests, connect with community partners around particular issue areas, and map out how a particular community-articulated project, site visit, or guest speaker can be extended into the classroom in a way that is ethical, impactful, and that mentors your students to approach communities that aren’t their own with a respectful orientation to learning and growing.

I’ll close with some keen insights from one of the current leaders in the field of Community-Based Learning that encompass some of the most pressing and promising next steps for scholar-practitioners. In her keynote address at the 2015 International Association for Research on Service Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE) conference, Dr. Tania Mitchell identified the following among areas in which the field will benefit from fresh attention:

The initial critical community engagement literature created space to ask hard questions—different questions—about service-learning pedagogy and practice. It gave us permission to challenge colleagues and students about the haphazard deployment of students into communities. It ignited a different kind of community-engaged practice, one that does not assume that service is good simply because it is service (Davis, 2006) but requires us to align our intentions and actions to ensure that our community engagement work is justice-oriented. As excited as I feel about this more critical service learning practice (Mitchell, 2008), I know that it is still a marginalized approach. Most service-learning practice continues to prioritize the needs of the institution and its stakeholders (i.e., students, faculty, and staff) above those of the community. In considering who participates in community engagement experiences, our research still normalizes—in fact, emphasizes—Whiteness by frequently ignoring the experiences of students of color, even as engagement research has shown that service-learning is the one high- impact practice in higher education in which students of color participate at higher rates than White students (Harper, 2009). Much of our research focuses on student learning and development, with scant attention devoted to the impacts and implications of our work on the community (Butin, 2010; Cruz & Giles, 2000). I am challenged by that discrepancy in our work. I am challenged by that discrepancy in my own work,” (Mitchell, “Moments to Inspire Movement: Three Seminal Moments in Community Engagement,” The International Journal of Research on Service Learning and Civic Engagement (2016).

In my estimation, we at Oberlin College & Conservatory are well positioned to take up Dr. Mitchell’s challenge.

Those who are interested in the variety of ways that community engaged projects can be pursued can consult the following courses (and we’ll add others to the list):

Carol Lasser (History): “Digitizing American Feminisms”

Gina Perez (CAST): “Latina/o/x Oral Histories of Northeast Ohio”

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