Looking Ahead: Envisioning the Next Generation of Civic Work

Editor's note: What potential pathways lie ahead for the next generation of civically engaged faculty and students as they work to realize a vision where educating scholar-citizens is central to higher education policy and practice? For perspective on this issue, Diversity & Democracy's editorial team reached out to two emerging leaders in the civic engagement movement: Brandon W. Kliewer, 2013 recipient of the American Democracy Project's Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement, and Shan Mukhtar, past co-director of Imagining America's Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) program.

What do contemporary issues facing students and institutions suggest about the challenge of preparing the next generation of engaged scholar-citizens?

BWK: It is impossible to discuss the next generation of engaged scholar-citizens without addressing student debt and public disinvestment of higher education. When paying for college becomes an individual burden, students and families increasingly see learning only through the lens of job preparation. As a result, in the current consumerist context, civic learning often moves to the periphery of undergraduate studies. Higher education needs to respond actively to consumerist understandings of its mission by creating accessible funding and curricular structures that encourage students to participate in rigorous community-engaged teaching and learning.

SM: The pursuit of higher-order learning and civic-mindedness requires that we engage fully with the economic, social, and political power relations in which higher education is implicated, rather than accepting for higher education a wholly symbolic role in contributing to the public good. One place where symbolism is not enough is in the area of diversity in higher education. Diversity on college campuses is sometimes seen as an add-on benefit that enhances what the US Supreme Court has called the "business of [a] university" (2013). But to truly address the sociopolitical identities and inequities present within and produced by educational spaces, institutions will need to make deeper commitments than a focus on "business" might suggest. 

BWK: I agree; institutional commitments need to be more than "wholly symbolic." The funding decisions that institutions make in difficult economic times often reflect their values and commitments more accurately than their institutional missions and visions. This disconnect between aspiration and practice affects the way undergraduate students approach their educational experiences. Colleges and universities need to counter the common perception that undergraduate education is a consumer transaction. Higher education will find its relevance in the twenty-first century by preparing undergraduate students not just for their first job, but for the type of thinking, content knowledge, and civic leadership necessary to address contested ideas and processes. Higher education ought to work with communities to move toward a higher moral, social, political, and economic plain.

What would higher education's curricular structures look like if they were redesigned with the explicit purpose of cultivating student interest in civic and public work?

BWK: In my experience, undergraduates are already unsatisfied with traditional models of teaching and learning. For many students, teaching and learning often seems disconnected from the issues they encounter outside of the classroom, such as the ever-present threat of financial crisis and economic insecurity, weakened civil rights and liberties, and climate change—all of which inform the student experience in new ways. By creating academic programs that are interdisciplinary, issues-based, and deeply connected to forms of community-engaged scholarship, colleges and universities could cultivate students' desire to understand and engage with civic society. Instead of participating in episodic opportunities through elective service-learning courses, students ideally would experience community-engaged scholarship at every level of the undergraduate curriculum.

SM: Certainly, colleges and universities have a history of incubating political and social movements globally. What is more, political and legal action—for example, action taken by victims of sexual assault that has prompted federal investigation and legislative oversight of institutional policies and practices—has been a major source of change in higher education. An important part of civic engagement is dissent; it is the antecedent to community-based organizing and systemized reform. Redesigning higher education to support civic and public work would involve teaching and learning about traditions and techniques of social movements and engaging in critical forms of education. It would require institutions to recognize that, as Ellison and Eatman have written, "publicly engaged academic work ... contributes to the public good and yields artifacts of public and intellectual value" (2008, 1). How colleges and universities formally evaluate the work of faculty and students shows the extent to which they value public and community service.

Are there places where such designs are already being implemented? What do these changes look like in practice?

BWK: Kansas State University (KSU) and Points of Light (POL) have partnered in an effort to define a vision for community-engaged teaching and learning that advances a higher calling for civic leadership. The KSU/POL Certificate in Community-Engaged Leadership seeks to help students connect their academic interests to robust forms of community-engaged scholarship and leadership. The program, which runs continuously for forty-eight weeks, connects students across the country with Points of Light's national network through a virtual learning platform. This structure allows students to partner with their local communities to practice co-creating and designing participatory civic and public work through their specific academic interests. The partnership is based on the premise that if students are provided space and infrastructure for rigorous community-engaged scholarship, they will have the freedom to engage in the deeper learning that is necessary to address challenges from a civic leadership lens.

SM: Maria Avila (2010), assistant professor of social work at California State University–Dominguez Hills, has created a model for civic engagement that draws on the philosophies and techniques of broad-based community organizing to advance civic and public agendas in higher education settings. At the core of this work is relationship-building: the practice of identifying people who have power and influence over community issues, fostering a sense of collectivity and support for change, developing skills in how to be with others in both unity and conflict, and identifying tangible short-term goals and radical long-term visions that harness the power of community-based organizing. Models like this represent a canon of knowledge that could both help shape how undergraduates envision civic and public engagement, and give students practicable skills for building a sense of purpose and inspiring action.

What is your vision for future colleges and universities that have taken the necessary steps to advance civic and democratic engagement?

SM: In order to meet students' needs, colleges and universities will need to develop strategic and sustainable support, incentives, and social spaces for civic and public engagement—not as enhancements, but as lasting structural components. Too often, colleges and universities gain prestige from their institutional missions and visions without making real commitments to supporting community-based and community-focused scholarship, engaged teaching and learning practices, and innovative approaches to programming. In the civically and democratically engaged institutions of the future, those practices will actually follow from the institution's stated values.

BWK: Undergraduates will demand, and society will require, access to high-quality educational experiences that support continuous work toward a more just and fair society. Higher education professionals need to work with their communities to create and support critical approaches to community-engaged scholarship. With these developments, higher education and community-engaged scholarship will more closely align with movements advancing a more just society.

SM: Most importantly, colleges and universities will need to change the way they conduct "business" if they do not want to see their student populations segregated by income, racial and ethnic identity, gender, and ability, with only the most privileged able to access opportunities for civic and democratic engagement. If higher education institutions are indeed enterprises, they are at heart social enterprises, and should conduct themselves as such.

References

Avila, Maria. 2010. "Community Organizing Practices in Academia: A Model, and Stories of Partnerships." Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 14 (2): 37–63. http://openjournals.libs.uga.edu/index.php/jheoe/article/view/43/38.

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America.

US Supreme Court. 2013. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et. al. 631 US 213.


Brandon W. Kliewer is assistant professor of civic leadership at the Staley School of Leadership Studies, Kansas State University and associate scholar at Points of Light; Shan Mukhtar is adjunct instructor at the Institute of Liberal Arts and 2013 Imagining America Fellow at the Center for Community Partnerships at Emory University.

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