Community Engagement at Sewanee with Examples

Since 2006, through a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, which matches funding from the Lilly Endowment, CEL (Community Engaged Learning), a group of faculty and staff have been exploring how to integrate community involvement into our regular coursework.  Our local engagements vary widely in kind (tutoring youth, getting to know the elderly, researching local issues, developing health and end-of-life programs, etc.), pedagogy (service learning, civic engagement, problem-based learning, field studies, etc.), and counterpart (local schools and churches, Folks at Home, Grundy Health Council, etc.).  Diverse as these efforts are, they all raise similar practical, ethical and curricular issues.  We thus group them together as ‘community engagement,’ or ‘CE’ for short.

Over time, the CEL faculty group has adopted a “big tent” approach to community engagement in the classroom. Sewanee’s interest in community engaged learning focused on “service learning” in local venues. The supported courses had this orientation, but subsequent discussions of the meaning of service, and the advantage of a range of approaches to community engagement caused the CEL faculty to shift its focus.  One basic commitment from the beginning, however, was that the various forms of community engagement should be well integrated into the content of the course, enhance student learning, and enhance, and at very least, not diminish academic rigor of class. The typical CE class involves sustained engagement in the community throughout the duration of the class, not just one or two field trips. Some CE classes involve service, and some do not.

One way to clarify the range of CE classes is to clarify the general term “community engagement” and then to list some different forms of community engagement.  ‘Community engagement” refers to engagement by the class, specifically the students, with the community or community members, as a mechanism for achieving the specific goals of the class. Typically “community” means the local community, but in some cases the defined community for the class has been service partners and their clients in a foreign country.  For example, Partners in Health, the Episcopal Church, and their clients in Haiti, or the Grameen Bank and its clients in Bangladesh. In addition, Deborah McGrath’s Human Health and the Environment class and Pradip Malde’s 'Studies in Documentary Photography' classes still stand as models both for partnership abroad with non-profit international community organizations and for interdisciplinary collaboration between disciplines that might seem unbridgeable: Biology and Studio Art.

In some CE classes, community engagement involves service, but even here there are differences. For example, consider Professor O’Connor’s Anthropology 104:

Students are required to spend ten hours 'on site' in the community.  At the end of the semester, they write a five to seven page paper that applies anthropology to their experience in community.   Some projects are unique [e.g. coaching youth soccer] but most are through Folks at Home, Sewanee Sr. Citizens Center, or the Cowan After-school program.

The goal of CE in this class: Students use anthropological theories and methods to analyze their community engagement experiences and thereby have a better understanding of the goals and methods of anthropology.

In this course, the service placement is used, beyond the help it provides community partners, as a means to provide students with ethnographic data, which they then analyze as a means to understand what it would mean to generate and justify anthropological insights about their engagement with community partners and their clients.

Professor Schneider’s class, Politics of Poverty, has an orientation similar to Professor O’Connor’s class but differs in that the students in the class actually organize activities designed to help the clients of a local community group.

For the Politics of Poverty, the community engagement component consists of students programming activities/events for, and mentoring a group of about 30 children from 3-18yrs who participate with their grandparents in attending the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program of the Franklin County Prevention Coalition. Programming includes 'College Day' at the University for middle school and high school aged children, attendance (along with grandparents) at a Sewanee Performing Arts Series performance, modules on 'bullying' issues for the younger children, a "Fall Fest" for the younger children and several other activities.

Because almost all of the students at the University of the South have little to no exposure to populations living at or below the poverty line, interacting with the participants of Grandchildren Raising Grandchildren is essential to helping students truly understand the challenges and hurdles faced by lower income Americans. These challenges include: access to adequate food with good nutritional value, challenges of learning disabilities in educational settings, childhood trauma, substandard housing, poor educational opportunities and outcomes, unemployment and underemployment, interfacing with criminal justice system and alternative schools, domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependency and other social problems/issues that disproportionately affect low income Americans. (Unfortunately) all of these issues/problems are represented in one or more members of the population of the GRG group.

When students observe in 'real life' what they are learning about in texts, they seriously engage the material realizing they are learning about issues, public policy decisions and political conflict that really matters to the lives of real people. They easily make connections between what they see and hear about from GRG participants on the one hand, and what they have learned about the evolution of social welfare policy in the US, and current conflicts and debates on the other hand.

Other courses that emphasize service see the service itself as a goal of the class. Consider professor Bateman’s Psychology 357: Child Development:

The community engagement component of the class is a participatory action research community project called "Healthy Bodies and Healthy Minds". The overarching goal of the project is to help school age children and their parents learn more about healthier lifestyles with a focus on nutrition and physical activity. Students in this course spend 3 hours per week in the schools teaching and interacting with children in addition to approximately 2 hours per week they spend preparing materials for the HB&HM lessons and activities.

Community engagement is an integral part of the course for a variety of reasons:

1. By trying to understand the problem of childhood obesity students have an opportunity to research a very complex, multi-dimensional problem that is facing children today. They review existing research and evaluate existing programs thus gaining experience in critically evaluating research in an area of child development.

2. Having hands-on experiences in trying to address this problem by developing lessons and materials, applying them, and evaluating their efficacy enables students to utilize their existing knowledge on child development in real-life situations.

3. These real-life situations bring what they learn in class "to life". In this extremely valuable laboratory of "life" research studies students have read become faces of real children with names and voices. This is an extremely enriching and motivating force for the students.

4. In addition to gaining benefits related to this specific field of study (i.e., childhood obesity) students also gain a better understanding of communities other than their own, come in to contact with children from different SES, and by doing so broaden their understanding of the diverse needs of children in our society and increase their level of sensitivity to people who may be different.

5. They experience the satisfaction of community service, and learn how intrinsically motivating, and meaningful such service can be.

This class emphasizes the way in which serving the elementary school students, the students in Psychology 357 have to utilize the knowledge they have gained from their coursework. Here service becomes the goal of the class, and the mastery of the class material, although an academic goal in itself is also the means by which students become effective agents for change.

A similar orientation can be found in Professor Mae Wallace’s Introduction to Educational Psychology.

In the Introduction to Educational Psychology, students study research on and theories of human development and learning. An important goal is for students to be able to apply these theories and research results to teaching and parenting situations.  Having students tutor children at nearby schools allows them opportunities to test out the theories right away.  In this case, community engagement, which takes the form of service learning, encourages more robust learning of course material as well as provides opportunities for students to meet their needs to serve others.

Professor McGrath’s Biology course, Human Health and the Environment, like Professor Bateman’s class, pursues both the goal of service in the community as well as using community engagement to enhance student understanding.

This class has two community engagement components: 1) A community service research project in which students work in teams to research and summarize balanced and well documented information to help guide decisions on campus environmental health issues (identified by Sustainability Director Marvin Pate).  These projects are summarized in a written paper that is submitted to Marvin, and presented in a PowerPoint presentation to different stakeholder groups; and

2) A community engagement project in which students observe, learn about and interact with a local community organization.   The project may eventually involve some sort of volunteer experience; however, the primary goals are to learn and apply effective observational and communication skills for sensitive entry into community engagement and to learn about environmental health issues faced by professionals and residents in our larger community. The visits are documented by submission of e-journal entries that serve as means for self-reflection and information sharing with others. 

The community service research project allows students to focus on one narrowly defined local environmental health issue, its causes, consequences and potential solutions.  Students conducted in-depth problem-solving oriented research that ties the local issue into a larger context and provides students with the satisfaction of having contributed to solutions (instead of just investigating problems).

The community service engagement project helped students (and me) become familiar with the range of community-based organizations that exist in Franklin and Grundy counties, and their goals. In some cases, student involvement helped build longer-term relationships:  Student interaction with the Grundy County Health Council began with firewood delivery to families in need and student participation in a RAM clinic.  As a result of this new relationship, the University is now providing space for a day long exercise and nutrition clinic put on by the Grundy County Health Council for the county's fourth graders and their families.

In summary, the CE projects not only helped provide hands-on education about local environmental public health issues, but also allowed students to participate in finding solutions.  Most importantly, CE projects forged and strengthened ties between the University and local community-based organizations.  These new relationships will enhance future CE collaborations and learning.

A third type of community engagement involves engagement with community members, but not with the specific goals of providing them with any specific service. Consider Professor Willis’s History 229, "The Many Faces of Sewanee," which we see as involving a form of community engagement because it is dedicated to understanding a variety of aspects of local history.

In this class, the engagement with the community is there from the beginning.  It is manifested in what we read about earlier peoples, institutions, customs, and events – both in Sewanee and connected with the University, as well as those beyond the gates.  It also crops up in the excursions we take to assess the interactions of human and natural systems; how and why people live as they do in this area, and how that has changed over time.  Each student chooses a research topic on some aspect of local life.  In that project, they are required to conduct at least one oral interview with a member of the community (and usually, they will conduct several).  Finally, the students present what they have learned in their research to the rest of the class, and their final papers go to the Archives to support future research (or curiosity) about Sewanee.

The community partners who participate in the interviews have been an invaluable resource for the students.  Some provide unique details about earlier times, others help the students find additional evidence, and a few have gently helped students understand that some of the questions they want to answer in their research are actually contested topics – where one section of the community might have a very different view from the dominant or college-connected perspective.

Students leave the class knowing more than what happened, when, and why.  They have also developed skills for interpreting the past.  And in their interactions with members of the community, they have also formed human connections to the place, its past, and its future prospects.

In this class, student engagement with community members does not directly serve these members.  Instead, student interactions with community members help provide local knowledge and wisdom about the student’s research topic.  Because student research is placed in the University archives, this work provides a service to the University and those involved in various University history projects.

These examples illustrate CEL’s “big tent.” We do not claim, however, that these examples exhaust the range of community engagement in Sewanee’s classrooms. Environmental Studies has as one of its central tasks community engagement and problem-based service learning. CEL believes that the College would benefit from taking an inventory of the full range of its courses involved in community engagement and determine the extent to which this information can be used to explain the way in which the University is achieving the goal of service, set out in its mission statement, make a case for funding support, and investigate forms of cooperation in community engagement across the curriculum. Moreover, despite our efforts to forge relationships between academic course and Outreach service trips, CEL believes that using our existing international partnerships are a natural fit for any CE classes in International and Global Studies to develop a civic engagement component.