Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Community-Engaged Signature Work

In his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson relates an anecdote that speaks to the power of taking pride in one’s contributions to collaborative work. When the team behind the original Macintosh finished the computer’s design, Jobs gathered the team members together to sign a sheet of paper. These signatures, Isaacson writes, “were engraved inside each Macintosh”—invisible from the outside, but suggesting the artistry that went into the product. In the words of Steve Jobs, as quoted by Isaacson: “Real artists sign their work” (134).

In undergraduate education, the key artistic “product” of a person’s endeavors is arguably the self—always a work in progress. But in creating the self, one also creates a variety of more concrete outcomes (such as papers, projects, or artworks), each in some way signifying the changes that have occurred within. Ideally, these outcomes illustrate not only one’s learning, but also one’s positive contributions to the world—a key idea behind “signature work,” as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has conceived of it. In signature work, through integrative projects lasting at least one semester, students pursue questions that matter both to themselves and to society, with the goal of strengthening both (AAC&U 2016).

Through this dual focus, it might be argued, all signature work could, and perhaps should, involve elements of community engagement. With this issue of Diversity & Democracy, we are asking what it means for signature work to explicitly and intentionally ask students to reflect and act on their roles within a community. Joining us in this exploration are our partners at the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, which empowers students—particularly low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color—through community engagement scaffolded across their undergraduate years. We believe that something can be gained by putting the Bonner Foundation’s developmental model of student learning and AAC&U’s conception of signature work in conversation with each other. By braiding together these approaches, higher education can deepen the role that signature work can play in students’ lives and in the public sphere.

In their article framing this issue of Diversity & Democracy, Ariane Hoy and Kathy Wolfe interweave these threads as they describe community-engaged signature work and argue for its importance in advancing higher education’s civic mission. Robert Hackett explores the need for effective leadership to support this work. Contributors from Allegheny College share lessons they have learned about structural and cultural change, and staff at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement describe an innovative and creative approach to assessing student learning. Researchers Ashley Finley and Robert Reason share promising evidence suggesting possible connections between community-engaged signature work and student well-being. Authors from Emory & Henry College, Portland State University, Rhodes College, and DePaul University share innovative program models, while two recent graduates reflect on their learning experiences.

Together, these authors have lent their own signatures to a collection that we hope will provide support for new approaches to student learning across higher education. These approaches will prompt students to work in reciprocity with community partners as they build culminating projects to which they are proud to contribute, projects that advance community goals and launch students into meaningful lifelong civic engagement. If offered equitably—as opportunities for signature work should be—these approaches will help ensure that all students, regardless of social identity or relative privilege, experience the optimal benefits of their undergraduate educations.

Much like the original Macintosh—although perhaps crafted with more careful consideration of community assets and needs—community-engaged signature work should have lasting effects on the world at large, and on the students who create it. And just as computers have become pervasive across our classrooms and campuses, opportunities for community-engaged signature work should become networked across our institutions, essential infrastructure for college learning that affects every student. We hope this issue will help you envision a world where such change is possible, and where student learning changes not only the self, but also our society.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Editor, Diversity & Democracy



AAC&U. 2016. “About LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise).” http://www.aacu.org/leap.

Isaacson, Walter. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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