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The Community Narrative Research Project: Harnessing the Power of Reflection for Student Learning and Structural Change
At Rhodes College, a small liberal arts institution in the heart of midtown Memphis, Tennessee, students selected as Bonner Scholars are encouraged to become lifelong engaged citizens by participating in a program that begins with entry-level service in the first year and culminates with capacity building and advocacy work in the senior year. These students engage in meaningful, sometimes intense, ongoing reflection, through which they connect their experiences in Memphis communities to their classroom learning and personal development. To support such reflective practice, and to strengthen civic learning outcomes and assessment across the institution, we created the Community Narrative Research Project (CNRP).
Grounded in principles and practices of developmental, community, and cultural psychology, the CNRP aims to produce interdisciplinary scholarship on student identity development and advance organizational learning and institutional change at Rhodes. At the center of the project is the collection and analysis of narratives written by Bonner Scholars about their experiences during their four years spent working in the community. Over this time period, students engage in a developmental learning process that includes experience, reflection, abstract conceptualization, and implementation (Kolb 1984). CNRP team members engage in a secondary level of reflective practice that has led to changes in programming and research processes at Rhodes.
The CNRP unites individuals from across the college who are interested in how student learning is occurring within the Bonner Scholars program. The project is now in its fourth and final year of data collection, and our research team continues to evolve as some students graduate and others join the team. While individual participants may change, our collaborative framework remains constant, involving psychology and urban studies faculty and students as well as staff and student leaders in the Bonner program. The project benefits from the differences in experience and expertise of these team members.
We have intentionally constituted our research team as an interpretive community (Way 1997). In weekly meetings, we formulate and refine research questions, plan data collection procedures, develop analytic approaches, and consider multiple interpretations of the data. Our collaborative approach is consistent with the goals and underlying philosophy of the Bonner program, in which (1) students develop new skills while simultaneously using their current abilities, (2) reciprocity of benefits among students and community partners is an explicit expectation, and (3) constant reflection promotes program revision and innovation.
CNRP students develop research skills as they share their insights and contribute to the research project. One student, for example, served as a research fellow while also serving as a community partnerships intern on the Bonner student leadership team. Another student completed a psychology honors capstone research project examining organizational learning and change and is now enrolled in a doctoral program in community research and action. These student researchers are pursuing community-engaged signature work and learning alongside faculty and staff mentors over an extended period of time as they connect their scholarly interests, their experiences as Bonner Scholars, and their vocational aspirations and plans.
Seeking Institutional Change
Academic institutions tend to compartmentalize expertise and construct boundaries that minimize communication between faculty and staff. They also tend to encourage hierarchical faculty-student relationships wherein knowledge and insight flow one way, from faculty member to student. We have sought to build a research team that dismantles these structures and practices. To accomplish this, we have positioned the Bonner Scholars and Bonner staff members as full participants in our research team.
There are challenges to making full collaboration a reality. Our commitment to maintaining the confidentiality of the Bonner Scholars who share their stories conflicts with our commitment to sharing our data so we can benefit from the interpretive insights of students and staff. Our efforts to position each Bonner Scholar as a collaborator are also constrained by the reality that these students hold multiple commitments, on campus and in the community, that may limit their time and ability to engage with the CNRP. We consider these tensions to be part of a productive struggle that enriches our work.
Even with these challenges, we are seeing the possibilities for enhanced student learning in the Bonner program and across campus. Students on the CNRP team have brought insight to aspects of the Bonner program that have seemed cumbersome to Bonner students, including the requirement that students work exclusively with community partners with whom we have long-term commitments. CNRP students have used the knowledge and confidence they gain through participation to advocate for institutional support for the Bonner Program. Finally, our work is helping us develop clearer pathways for more students to complete community-engaged signature work at Rhodes.
Lessons about Identity
Student narratives gathered through the CNRP are providing valuable lessons. For example, the narratives have allowed us to examine how students position themselves. How do they describe themselves as learners and thinkers—as individuals developing skills and formulating ideas and plans? How do they describe themselves in relationship to others (clients, professionals, and staff at their service sites; other students; etc.)? And how do they position themselves in relation to larger social and political discourses—as members of communities of practice, or as agents of social change?
The narratives have also revealed several tensions that Bonner Scholars experience. The program puts students in situations where their understanding of self is complicated by differences between their own and others’ perceptions of their identities. For example, Bonner Scholars often hold lower socioeconomic statuses than the majority of Rhodes students, and yet when they interact with economically distressed communities, they are perceived as representatives of a wealthy college campus. This juxtaposition disrupts a linear understanding of self and raises a number of ethical and equity dilemmas for students. The reflective aspects of the Bonner program force students to notice these multiple notions of themselves across different contexts, leading to a deeper understanding of self in connection to place.
Over time, we hope to see changes in how students conceive of their individual identities as well as in how the Bonner program facilitates identity development. We will be able to look across levels of analysis, investigating how students change as they participate in the Bonner program, how the Bonner program changes, and how the college is influenced by these changes. Our work is iterative, a reflective process in itself, and we continue to adjust our teaching and community engagement strategies in response to lessons learned through our participatory, collaborative methods.
The Bonner program puts students in community-based settings that greatly affect them intellectually and emotionally. Our investigation of the impacts of these settings on students enables the CNRP team to make structural recommendations to the Rhodes Bonner program. Our commitment to participatory research methods is aligned with the philosophy and goals of the Bonner program, and it informs broader discussions about institutional commitment to civic engagement and to community-engaged signature work—strengthening both the quality of student learning and the quality of civic engagement experiences campus-wide.
Kolb, David A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Way, Niobe. 1997. “Using Feminist Research Methods to Understand the Friendships of Adolescent Boys.” Journal of Social Issues 53: 703–25.
Shannon Hoffman is community service coordinator in the Bonner Center for Faith and Service at Rhodes College; Natasha Main is a Bonner Scholar and undergraduate student at Rhodes College; Anna Manoogian and Dani Plata are undergraduate students at Rhodes College; Elizabeth Thomas is associate professor of psychology and Plough Chair of Urban Studies at Rhodes College; Marsha Walton is professor of psychology and Winton M. Blount Chair in Social Sciences at Rhodes College.