Reimaging and Rebalancing Community-Engaged Learning Structures

Sarah Snider, Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing, English Department, Marian University.

Community-engaged learning often involves service-learning components through course-mandated volunteerism, a form of cultural study through sociological exploration, or a combination of the two. These sorts of structures help students better understand and connect with a certain community or issue, providing them with the intellectual and practical resources to make a difference. They also benefit community partners, who are lent extra hands to perform volunteer labor and/or the opportunity to share their experiences with an engaged and interactive group.

While certainly informative and valuable in many ways, these learning frameworks often result in an inherent imbalance in power. Organizations may be positioned as recipients of aid and community members are asked to perform often one-sided emotional labor, whereas students are positioned as assisting or studying those less privileged than themselves. Despite all instructor efforts to mitigate this imbalance, the potential misunderstanding by students of their roles as learners, rather than givers or receivers, may remain.

This Spark Session reimagines Community-based course structures such that students and community members meet at least once in a neutral space to perform a common activity that levels the power structure. In one model, as the culmination of the speaker’s Interfaith Community-Based Writing & Rhetoric course, students and interfaith community members read letters and performed together at an open mic night held at a café off campus. This “Interfaith Open Mic Night” was advertised locally, and thus students and course-affiliated interfaith leaders, along with interested unaffiliated attendees and participants, were able to express themselves equivalently.

This session asks participants to imagine parallel ideas or models that ensure that community members and students are able to leave the semester feeling heard, understood, and most importantly, on equal footing.

This presentation will help participants reimagine more equitable and balanced methods of bringing together students and community members within community-engaged courses. In this Spark Session, audience members will first learn about the speaker’s original community-based course structure, and then will spend the second part of the session in small groups to brainstorm and record on a shared document parallel ideas and structures that seek to rebalance the power structures of community-based learning.

I created the course under examination, Interfaith Community-Based Writing and Rhetoric, and taught it twice at the University of Notre Dame with highly positive and productive results. Additionally, I have a leadership background in volunteer-based disaster relief and service-learning work, and these experiences have strongly informed my classroom pedagogies. I am therefore prepared to both facilitate this session and engage with the novel ideas and suggestions of those who participate.

The audience for this session consists of those interested in working practically with others to form new ideas, course and activity structures, and even potential partnerships in community-based learning. While its central aim is towards a more practically-minded audience who want to create course structures and activities, those interested in engaging with the more theoretical aspects of community-based learning as it relates to structures of power may be interested in participating as well.