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Tips for Teaching Community-Engagement Projects in the College Writing Classroom

By Bradley Smith

Last spring, I asked students in a section of my Composition II course to work with campus faculty members who were studying how other students made decisions to buy and use textbooks. The study seemed like the perfect opportunity for my students to work on a real problem that faced our campus—and is faced at pretty much every college campus in the United States. The project helped students think about the role that literacy plays in their lives and to advocate for the needs of a community (their community!). If the faculty group needed information about why students weren’t buying or using assigned textbooks, the students in my class were well-positioned to investigate the answers to that question and to meaningfully contribute to solving the problem. When done successfully, community-engagement projects like this one can be fulfilling for teachers and students alike and thus worth the effort.

Students taking my course read personal essays and scholarly articles that discussed the issue from various perspectives—those of faculty members, students, textbook writers, and textbook publishers. I also asked my students to conduct informal interviews with faculty members and to use some basic participant-observation methods to pay attention to how other students interacted with textbooks.

After reflecting on what they learned, my students began to reassess the problem, and with the help of the faculty members who served as community partners, I talked to students about engaging in authentic rhetorical strategies for bringing about change on campus.

As I set about drafting the syllabus for this spring’s course, I received a twelve-hundred-word e-mail from a student who was enrolled in last year’s section. She had some further thoughts about the project and wanted to share them with me. Imagine: a student in first-year composition so engaged in the work of the course that she essentially wrote an additional, unsolicited essay a year after that course had ended!

High-impact practices like writing-intensive courses and community-engaged pedagogy (sometimes referred to as service learning), where students work with members of a particular community to solve difficult problems, can mean a lot of extra work for teachers and students—particularly for those who haven’t regularly had these kinds of teaching or learning experiences. Also intimidating are the logistics involved in finding a group or organization to partner with and figuring out how students can be useful to their partners while engaging in meaningful work that fits the learning goals for the course. It’s daunting to say the least.

Yet research conducted by George D. Kuh, the founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, and the leaders of the related project Liberal Education and America’s Promise demonstrates the effectiveness of these teaching and learning strategies. And, when combined, writing and community-engaged pedagogy can have an exponential effect on helping students stay engaged with their college experience, ultimately keeping them in school and working toward graduation. Now this isn’t true of every student (I didn’t get fifteen twelve-hundred-word e-mails). But generally there are clear benefits to this pedagogical practice.  

If you’re on the fence about using community-engagement pedagogy, here are some tips to help you get started and some advice to guide your work:

  1. Don’t expect to get everything right on the first go-around. And don’t assume any community-engagement project will go flawlessly. Using community-engaged pedagogy is a messy but rewarding process. Knowing about the positive effects and understanding that things are not going to go perfectly mean that you can take a bit of the weight off your shoulders and dive in.
  2. Continually develop an affiliation with community partners over time. The best projects grow out of a sustained connection with the community at the heart of the project (Cushman). Feel things out for yourself before you get your students involved. Pick a project that fits with your scholarly interests. But also be aware of your students’ interests and internal motivations. Choose a project that they are willing to engage in and that they see as relevant to their own lives.
  3. Carefully consider the needs of the community you are serving. As teachers, we work to teach our students specific habits, strategies, and skills. But the kind of help that community partners need may not fit neatly into the assignments we envision. So teachers must also consider how to create a community-engagement component that will provide reciprocal benefits for community partners and student participants.

    Ultimately, the goal is to help students create authentic rhetoric. This work can take many different forms depending on the needs of the community partner. As Kendall Leon and Thomas Sura note, sometimes community organizations don’t need any more brochures or the other kinds of traditional deliverable writing projects that seem like ready-made assignments. Instead, work with community partners to determine their needs, and collaborate on designing projects for students that will fit where the learning experience and the needs of the community intersect. Forming a lasting partnership will ensure that you are better positioned to understand what is needed and how it might work within the scope of your course.

  4. Finally, be flexible. Community-engagement experiences should adapt to an ever-changing context.

    As your affiliation with community partners continues to develop, project goals and the contributions of you and your students will evolve: working collectively will lead to bigger goals and timely rhetorical action.

Works Cited

Cushman, Ellen. “Sustainable Service Learning Programs.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 54, no. 1, Sept. 2002, pp. 40–65.

Kuh, George D.  “High-Impact Educational Practices.” Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2019, www.aacu.org/leap/hips.

Leon, Kendall, and Thomas Sura. “‘We Don’t Need Any More Brochures’: Rethinking Deliverables in Service-Learning Curricula.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 36, no. 2, Spring 2013, pp. 59–73.

Published 19 February 2019

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