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Community Engaged Teaching

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Opp
June 8, 2018

As highlighted in the PA Times article “Transforming the role of higher education: Engaged Scholarship,” many universities are focusing attention on community engagement activities. For tenure track public administration scholars, community engagement activities are often part of all three of their typical workload dimensions: teaching, research and service. Engaging with the community in each of these three areas provides important benefits to students, the community, the faculty member and to the discipline as a whole. This article focuses on one of these three dimensions—teaching—in order to highlight some of the ways that public administration scholars can begin to engage the community in their teaching activities. Observers have recognized that pursuing community engaged teaching is significant and valuable. According to the article by Fitzgerald et al in the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, “The centrality of engagement is critical to the success of higher education in the future. Undergirding today’s approach to community engagement is the understanding that not all knowledge and expertise resides in the academy, and that both expertise and great learning opportunities in teaching and scholarship also reside in non-academic settings.”

Before highlighting some examples of community-engaged teaching practices, it is important to note the difference between community engagement and community outreach. Community outreach is usually a limited and one-sided endeavor that does not include the community partner in the design of the project. Community engagement, on the other hand, is fundamentally about long-term, reciprocal and inclusive relationships. To be a community-engaged teacher implies the community partner is included in all aspects of the relationship/project from the planning to the actual execution. Furthermore, community-engaged teaching would also be collaborative and reciprocal in nature as opposed to being a one-sided relationship whereby the instructor or student approaches the relationship like a transaction meant to simply “get something done.”

Teaching public administration through a community-engaged perspective can take many forms that all at least partially align with what has been termed “high-impact educational practices(HIP).” The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) published a series of teaching practices that are believed to improve student learning, increase student retention and ultimately benefit students in a way that is worthy to pursue. The eleven HIP’s are available here and include practices both explicitly directed at community engagement (i.e. community-based learning) and also include practices that are able to be approached through an engaged teaching perspective (i.e. collaborative projects).

The service or community-based learning HIP is the most directly related to community-engaged teaching and is likely the starting point for public administration educators seeking to delve into this area. However, other HIPs—such as collaborative assignments or global learning—can be easily integrated into these types of projects. Most service-learning programs are designed to expose students to community members through an assignment or a major project that requires the students to work with collaborating partners on a task related to the topic of the course. An example of this could be having students enrolled in a non-profit administration class work with a local nonprofit organization to assist in the development or the execution of a fundraising strategy as a major class assignment. Another example could include designing the major assignment in a policy analysis course to require that students complete professional analyses of policy problems provided by real-world clients. Under this model, the community participants would not only provide the policy problem prompt for the student based on their needs but could also serve as the mock-supervisor for the student to guide them in a way that mirrors how the process would work in the public sector. This mock-supervisor model would also ensure that the community partner has input throughout the design and execution of the project to help ensure the project meets their needs. Ultimately, teaching with service-learning or community-based learning projects provide students with a chance to practice the academic content of the course while also receiving feedback and insights from the community partners they are working with. Furthermore, this type of learning will also provide important reciprocal benefits to the participating partner through the actual assistance the students and instructor provide to them. For example, in the case of the policy analysis community-based learning project mentioned above- the public sector partner receives important and likely very much-needed research assistance that has the support and guidance of a highly trained expert (the instructor). By going beyond the transactional relationship of simply asking for the project topics- the instructor can develop a long-term relationship with the community partner that carries over into research and service activities while simultaneously supporting student learning. As mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, these projects can also integrate other HIPs to add to the learning experience. For example, the policy analysis project can easily be approached as a collaborative assignment whereby teams of students are responsible for completing the assignment as opposed to individual students. These types of collaborative projects can help students practice working as a team, how to effectively communicate, overcome disagreements and ultimately solve these wicked policy problems.

Author: Susan Opp is an Associate Professor at Colorado State University. She is a pracademic that focuses on questions of local sustainability, economic development, and urban affairs. She had the distinct pleasure of being one of the inaugural APSA “Pracademic Fellows” at the Environmental Protection Agency working in the Office of Policy in 2016- thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Dr. Beryl Radin. [email protected]

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