Toolkit Resources


Clark University: Community, Youth, and Education Studies (CYES)

Eric DeMeulenaere
Associate Professor, Urban Schooling, Department of Education

Sarah Michaels
Professor of Education and Senior Research Scholar, Hiatt Center for Urban Education

Jie Park
Assistant Professor, Department of Education

Clark University is a small research university in Worcester, MA, located in the poorest neighborhood (Main South) of Worcester, the second largest city in New England. Clark University currently enrolls approximately 2,200 undergraduates as well as 1000 graduate students enrolled in doctoral and master’s programs. Clark recruits students from across the country and has a significant enrollment of low-SES, minoritized, and international students in its undergraduate and graduate master’s programs.

Clark University is unusual in its status as a small research university, emphasizing “elbow teaching” linking undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty as its signature program, “Liberal Education and Effective Practice” (LEEP). Moreover, Clark has a reputation as a civically-engaged campus. Students have the opportunity to participate in approximately one hundred clubs and student organizations, ranging from Peaceworks, Model UN, to neighborhood “activist” programs, such as “All Kinds of Girls,” “In Our Own Words,” to “Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) that promote collaboration and social change with neighborhood youth, schools, and community leaders. While course-embedded opportunities for civic engagement do exist at Clark, they are few and often grow out of an individual faculty member’s interests and research activities. They are typically not deeply integrated in a major, except as they are in Clark’s newest interdisciplinary major—dedicated to civic engagement and social responsibility—Community, Youth, and Education Studies (CYES).

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
The Community, Youth, and Education Studies major is an interdisciplinary major, located in the Education Department. The major is built on a carefully designed developmental trajectory that students to go beyond knowledge development and “beyond critique” to theorized transformative action in the world.

The CYES major is designed to put Clark's motto into action—"Challenge Convention and Change Our World"—so at its heart is positioning students to become engaged actors/scholars and agents of change. For this reason, we see civic and social responsibility as the foundational goal and design of the major.

A Developmental Trajectory: The CYES major is an 11-course “course of study” which is deliberately sequenced, reflecting our approach to scaffolding the development of complex practices. The developmental sequence is made up of educational experiences (offered through a combination of courses, extra-curricular experiences, mentoring, and faculty advising) in which students link theory, ideological critique, reflexivity, and activism to critically interrogate their social world, reflexively examine their social location within that world, and engage in social change. Throughout the major, we emphasize—as a guiding principle and commitment—the notion of praxis which Paulo Freire describes as "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." Praxis represents an on-going cycle of collectively theorizing the world and then acting to create change based on that theorizing. As a result of the impact of our actions, we refine and re-develop our theories to better guide our actions. All of the CYES courses are designed as spaces of reflection and theorizing that guide students to theorize, enact, and reflect on their community-based work.

The major begins with a core course that everyone takes, which supports the development of a shared conceptual framework, and introduces students to a set of foundational (or touchstone) texts. This course is run like a seminar (capped at 18 students), but also involves everyone in extensive (observational) fieldwork in urban contexts. After the core course, students take three theories of understanding courses (which we describe in greater detail below), interspersed with a research methodology course that foregrounds socially just, participatory research practices. This, along with a set of three electives from a designated list of relevant courses, in a variety of departments, leads to a year and a half-long praxis sequence, ending in a demonstration project, portfolio, and demonstration/documentation symposium for the public. One innovative feature of the CYES major is a cohort model for this capstone praxis project sequence. Each cohort is advised and mentored by the same faculty member, on a rotating basis, to ensure close collaboration with faculty and members of the cohort. Another innovative feature is that when students declare the CYES major, instead of simply filling out a form, getting a signature from the department chair, and submitting it to the Registrar, we ask students to write two reflective essays: one looking back at what they’ve done that has brought them to declare CYES as their major and the other looking forward to what they hope to accomplish after graduation and how the CYES major will support them in this. These induction essays form the basis for a formal CYES induction process where students share their essays and build a sense of community with CYES faculty and peers.

Below we provide more detail about the 2 cornerstone sequences in the major: Theories of Understandings requirements and the Praxis Project sequence.

Three Theories of Understanding: The program is framed around three theories of understanding that, when integrated, form the overarching theoretical framework for the program. As illustrated below, the first two theories, critical social theory and positionality and identity in social context, provide the analytical framing for developing effective theories of change that avoid replicating the very inequities they seek to address (see the visual below). Ideally, the first two theory courses should be taken before students take one of the social change theory courses. This flow of coursework reflects this major’s developmental model rooted in research on how people learn in complex practice and consistent with our development model.

Development Model

  • Critical Social Theory: We must carefully and critically investigate the social world to understand how inequality occurs. We draw from social theory rooted in experience and historical analysis to make sense of the overt and hidden systems that create the social order as experienced differently by different people. Only with a critical understanding of our social world can we challenge the conventions and assumptions that maintain the status quo and effectively create a more just society. Questions we consider: How do we make sense of the world? How do we explain the inequalities that are connected to race, class, gender, nation, religion, and other forms of social difference? How does power and privilege work in the world?
  • Positionality and Identity in Social Context: This theory of understanding recognizes that larger macro structures shape individuals’ personal identities. In this theorizing, we explore how our situated identities are mediated by the social world. Further, we embrace reflexivity about our own social identities to understand the ways in which each of our social locations shapes our experience of the world and our ability to interact with and effect social change. Questions we consider: How does social identity shape people’s experience in the world? How has our own social identity helped to shape our trajectory in the world? How does our social identity affect our interactions with others across social differences related to race, class, gender, nation, and more? How does who I am shape what I can do?
  • Theories of Social Change: This theory of understanding integrates the previous two theories to figure out our personal theory of social change. How does our critical understanding of the world combined with our social identity and our personal passion help us to understand how we can affect change in the world? Through the exploration of different change theories, we attempt to articulate our own theory of change. Questions we consider: In what ways does positive social change occur? Who defines what counts as positive? What are the complexities and tensions associated with social change? How am I best situated to promote and enact social change?

The Praxis Project Sequence: All CYES students are expected to complete a praxis project over the course of three semesters. Majors can work on praxis projects alone or in small collaborative groups. Each praxis project must have both an activist and research component. Each major writes an individual final thesis paper based on the research conducted in their praxis project. Three courses are designed to support students to complete their praxis project: 1) Praxis Design Seminar, 2) Praxis Project Seminar, and 3) Praxis Capstone seminar.

Exemplary Courses That Highlight a Civic Lens
Course Title: CYES 153: Participatory Action Research with Youth
Course Summary:
In the context of CYES 153, Clark undergraduates learn and research with (rather than conduct research on) high-school aged youth from Main South, Worcester. Worcester, MA is the second largest city in New England, and the Main South neighborhood is, demographically, the poorest neighborhood in Worcester, and where Clark University is situated). Participants form collaborative, intergenerational research groups to design, carry out, and present to the public a participatory or participatory action research project. The course is designed to apprentice students into the meaning and practice of participatory action research. Thus, students grapple with what youth participatory (action) research is and how it differs from other qualitative research traditions. They learn to enact the stance and tools of research, such as observing/taking field notes and interviewing. They also explore ways of analyzing and representing data, taking into account issues around ethics, power, and the responsibilities of representation. This class is also about what it means to work with and learn from youth. As such, the class will focus on how youth produce knowledge, understand their realities, and position themselves.

Course Title: CYES 295: Praxis Design Seminar
Course Summary:
The overarching purpose of the Praxis Design Seminar is to prepare CYES students to develop their portfolios and prepare them to launch their community-based praxis project. The praxis project is a long-term action research project in which students, deeply immersed in a community space, will engage with others to create greater social justice and document the process in a large socially just research model. Hopefully, students enter the Praxis Design course already well-situated in a space where they want to conduct their praxis projects. If not, they will need to find their sites and become situated in the first few weeks of the course.

The course is designed so that students will finalize their own theorizing on the three theories of understanding that guide the CYES major: 1) a critical theory of social inequality, 2) a reflexive analysis of social and cultural identity and 3) a theory of social change. As such, they are expected to revise and finalize their earlier thinking about each theory of understanding, producing final portfolio pieces for each. Students will draw from writings created in earlier coursework to develop their final portfolio pieces. Class time will be devoted to discussing course readings, interrogating the linkages between theory and practice, and workshopping their portfolio pieces. Students will develop and publish their final portfolio pieces in the first half of the semester. These larger and more general portfolio pieces will then become situated as students develop their Praxis Project Proposals, negotiate the IRB process, and get fully prepared to launch their Praxis Projects.

Exemplary Project Descriptions
Local faculty (DeMeulenaere, Park, and Michaels) have been piloting elements of the new program -- the Praxis Sequence -- over the past three years. This sequence entails three courses, over a year and a half, which student participate in as a cohort -- mentored by a single CYES faculty member on a rotating basis, with input from all CYES faculty. It includes a Praxis Design Seminar, Praxis Project Seminar, and Praxis Capstone Seminar, each of which is explained in more detail in the Exemplary Project section.

Process for Adoption
Civic and social responsibility was at the heart of the new major from its inception. This was a non-negotiable element we designed for in courses and in the innovative features of the major. The process of getting this program from vision to reality has been a three-year process. A few members of the Education Department, which had only a Masters degree program and a minor, but not a major, along with several other faculty from different departments (IDCE, Sociology, Psychology) began meeting to discuss the possibilities of an innovative major with activism and theorizing social change at its center. Over time, these meetings led to the generation of a student handbook and proposal for the Education Department, which was to become the home department for this interdisciplinary major, as well as for the various institutional committees that approve new programs (Undergraduate Academic Board -- UAB, and Policy and Budget Review -- PBR). The process was an iterative one. The core faculty committee for the Community, Youth, and Education Studies Program met with the UAB three times, each time getting feedback and suggestions, followed with a refined program and documents exploring the financial and pedagogical implications. The process proved to be a very productive one for those of us at the center, and for those faculty who would be more peripherally involved. It was an incredibly inclusive and dialogic process, encompassing over 100 hours of deliberative engagement with faculty, staff, department chairs, and faculty boards. Moreover, several key faculty members have been piloting courses for the major as part of their on-going teaching, so we have a track record with the kind of programming and pedagogy we hope to implement throughout. This past spring, the program was approved and began with its first cohort of students in Fall 2017, and the Praxis Project sequence beginning in Spring 2018.

Internal and External Influences
Clark University's motto is: “Challenge Convention and Change Our World.” Many students come to Clark because of its motto. They find, however, that most of the available majors emphasize knowledge accumulation and critique without the opportunity to put ideas into the world as a form of engaged and critical scholarship. The larger institutional climate is supportive of the work of engaged and activist scholarship, and the administration and various faculty-run academic committees were supportive and excited about this new major. The biggest challenge we faced on an institutional level came from within the Education Department itself. A few faculty members (but primarily just one) expressed concern about whether this new undergraduate program would distract and detract from our graduate MAT program in Urban Education. Over time, through many, many hours of discussion, we came to see the possibility of productive synergy, with faculty committed to both programs enhancing the other rather than diminishing either. This has turned out to be an important element in our design. How successful we are at integrating the undergraduate and graduate urban teacher education program so that we achieve productive synergy is something we hope to document and investigate.

Our major, Community, Youth, and Education Studies, was approved in the spring semester of 2017 and launched in the fall semester of 2017, with our first cohort of students and official CYES courses beginning in spring, 2018. Therefore, we do not yet have evidence of student learning gains. We can speak a little about the interest shown towards the major. We have six juniors who, although they had to declare before the end of their sophomore year, have either switched this past fall into CYES or added it as a second major. In terms of the current sophomores, who have mostly heard about this new major via word of mouth or through the Clark website, we have had seven students already declare and six others who have attended our first information session and indicated that they intended to declare before the end of their sophomore year. Anecdotally we have heard of another half dozen sophomores who are considering CYES for their major. From two professors who have first-year seminars in fields related to education, they have indicated that nearly forty students in the first-year class at Clark are looking to major in CYES. This interest in just one semester of being an official major reveals a deep interest in civic/community engagement among Clark students.

Since we lacked quantitative data on the impact of our major, we invited our six undergraduate juniors to comment on what drew them to the CYES major and what they have learned from the coursework they have already completed. Here is what one of the respondents stated: “The Community, Youth, and Education Studies major demands that we take what we learn in our classes and from each other to not only grow ourselves but the community around us. I had the opportunity to work in a classroom at a local public high school in Worcester. With the advisement of my professor I was able to learn about participatory action research while conducting a poetry translation program in the classroom. In this experience I could easily see the ways that the CYES major was pushing me to think past my own individual success but the success of the community I was a part of. This demand for us to be in constant praxis with our learning is challenging but has become essential for my holistic educational experience.”

Words of Advice
We are at the beginning of implementing this new interdisciplinary major and have much to learn. Therefore, we refrain from offering advice to others. However, we are documenting the launch and early stage of this major carefully, engaging in practitioner research: audio recording all of our planning work, sessions with affiliated faculty, information and induction sessions with new majors, cohort activities, and our signature praxis sequence courses. 

Looking for more information on the courses and projects? Please return to the top of the page and click on the “Exemplary Course Specifics” and “Exemplary Project Details” buttons found under the campus logo.