It was written by the following:
John Carlson, Economics and Management, Albion College, firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy Bloeser, Political Science, Allegheny College, email@example.com
Ryan White, Registrar/General Education, Hope College, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessie Mills, Theater, Wabash College, email@example.com
Kenneth Kirkpatrick, Registrar’s Office, DePauw University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Definition and Phases of Civic Engagement
Civic engagement refers to “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes” (Thomas Ehrlich, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2000, p. vi). At its essence we envision an overarching outcome of civic engagement to be connecting student gifts and needs with community gifts and needs.
In an attempt to identify student learning outcomes centered around civic engagement, we created a potential framework for the broad phases of undergraduate work in this field. These five phases are: Positioning of Self, Understanding Civic Engagement, Tools & Strategies, Student Needs & Gifts meet Community Needs & Gifts, and Action. None of these phases can stand alone and, rather, are (and must be) deepened and strengthened when embedded and folded into one another. This work is a continuous process and, as such, we see this as a cyclical and recursive structure, where Action is followed by Position of Self and where each phase both reinforces and is reinforced by the phase before.
Additionally, we acknowledge how broad these phases are and, indeed, purposefully selected expansive categories to work as a framework for a number of institutional needs. Action, for instance, may be defined as broadly as a sweeping, enduring community initiative or as simply as shoveling a driveway or posting a single tweet.
Positioning of Self
Positioning of self is a process inviting students and participants to reflect critically on their understanding of self with regard to their interests, strengths and gifts. The phase recognizes that empathy is often preceded by awareness of others and others’ perspectives, which in turn is often preceded by an understanding and awareness of self. This self-reflection is a means to help students understand how their strengths, interests, and gifts might relate to their context, the needs (and gifts) around them in their community and broader world, and their undergraduate experience. We also know from the Wabash Study of Liberal Arts Education that students engaged in reflective learning activities show greater gains in intercultural competence, socially responsible leadership, and civic engagement.
As part of this positioning of self, students may for example be asked to engage in a variety of self-awareness practices:
- Complete personality, strengths, or interest inventories.
- Complete pre-action reflections and predictions on:
- the issues, people, potential solutions, and resources surrounding an area of civic engagement (e.g. What are the issues? What are the opportunities? Who is affected? What does the community think and feel about the issue? What does the student think and feel about the issue?);
- student self-perceptions of strengths, interests, and gifts.
- Complete post-action reflections:
- using a “meaningful learning” (i.e., putting their prior knowledge and experience into conversation with their new knowledge and experience) approach on the issues, people, potential solutions, and resources surrounding the area of civic engagement (e.g., How did this issue or group of people inform me about this area? Did our efforts make any positive or negative difference, and how do I know? What other information do I need to learn to better understand this area moving forward? Have your feelings about this area changed throughout the course of the civic engagement?);
- about how the civic engagement experience affected the student’s understanding of their interests, strengths, gifts, and their role in their community (e.g. Did I contribute anything potentially valuable? Did I do any damage? What else did I learn about myself? What are some aspects of this project that you feel particularly connected with and what might this reveal about your interests?).
Understanding Civic Engagement
The purpose of civic engagement is to match the strengths, interests, and passions of individuals with the needs of the community. This involves asking several questions: What are the community’s needs? How can I help? Am I being sensitive to the possibility that the community doesn’t want our help?
Depending on the task at hand, civic engagement outcomes could be measured at various levels – the classroom, across campus, and at the institution. Further, community partners, in addition to instructors, could be part of the assessment process. Having immediate feedback from community partners may in fact create opportunities for these partners to have more influence over decisions that affect their lives.
Tools and Strategies
Evaluating what tools or resources the student and the institution brings to civic engagement should be a pragmatic extension of positioning oneself. Evaluating what strategies will work best similarly extends from understanding civic engagement. If civic engagement were a film production, this would be the stage where the shooting script is developed–where cameras are positioned and actor movements choreographed. There are two facets to this:
- Structural: the facilities, resources, etc. to support the civic action., and
- Situational: the social structures that provide the context for the action.
For example, if you’re doing a food service for the elderly, do you have the food storage and cooking facilities to handle the food donations (structural) and is there a community gathering that brings the population you want to serve together?
Student Needs and Gifts Meet Community Needs and Gifts
Ultimately, civic engagement requires students – and citizens, more generally – to take action. More specifically, it requires making decisions about what kind of action can help build or maintain a community – a collective of individuals that shares a common purpose and common sense of well-being. Community, in this sense, does not “just happen.” It must be created and sustained by the individuals who share in it.
This raises two important questions. What actions can build and sustain community? How can we know whether the actions we have selected have helped our community rather than hindered it? Each of these questions can guide assessment.
To assess whether students can identify actions that build and sustain a specific community, we suggest using the words of theologian Frederick Buechner as a guide. To paraphrase Buechner, our learning objective is to match our personal needs and gifts with needs and gifts of others in the community (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Harper & Row 1973, p 118 ). Building on “self positioning,” this requires students to reflect on their personal needs and gifts. They must demonstrate an ability to understand what they need from others to develop their abilities. They must also demonstrate an ability to understand what they can offer to others in their community that genuinely addresses the needs of others.
In the context of community-based work, arriving at conclusions to these questions requires communication with others in the community. This suggests the value of assessing students’ ability to communicate with community members. Assessment of this sort may focus on students’ ability to develop questions about what members of the community need and questions that invite community members to suggest ways that students can do their work more effectively. In very remedial terms: Did students think to ask community members about community needs or ways students could learn from the community? Did students think to ask community members about what kinds of goals or action strategies might work well in their community? More advanced assessment questions might include the following: After communicating with community members, can students identify what resources, knowledge, and talents community members have that could contribute to solving a problem? Can students identify resources, knowledge, and talents they possessed? As a general matter, this type of communication should occur before action is taken because this sort of communication is useful (and arguably quite necessary) for deciding what kinds of action take to take when confronting a problem.
Likewise, similar questions can guide assessment when we ask: How can we know whether the actions we have selected have helped our community rather than hindered it? This question arises after students’ and community members have taken some form of action and are attempting to evaluate its effectiveness. Here again, considering the needs and gifts of both students and community members remains important. In this circumstance, it becomes especially important to include community members directly affected by problem in the assessment of action. Are they satisfied with the result? Are they satisfied with students’ efforts? What criteria for evaluating success (or failure) are most important to them? Meanwhile, educators might also devise questions to assess what students gained from their interactions with others in the community. Students should be able to communicate specific lessons learned from their experiences with civic engagement. They should also be able to communicate why they believe the lessons they have learned are useful and can inform their future efforts.
By focusing on the personal needs and gifts of students and the needs and gifts of communities provides, an ethic for guiding and assessing action comes into view. Even so, this approach is inherently recursive. It involves people – individually and collectively – reflecting on what they want to do and what they have done. It involves people – individually and collectively – reflecting on the criteria they believe are best to guide assessment. This is inevitable. In the context of community-based work, community members must decide what to do, how to do it, and how to evaluate it. The challenge is being as mindful and clear-minded as possible when approaching this work.
To this end, we suggest the following criteria to assess whether students and community members have selected useful actions and executed them effectively. More accurately, we recommend three criteria advocated by the Midwest Academy for Social Change:
1—Create concrete changes in people’s lives;
2—Give people a sense of their own power;
3—Change the relations of power.
Simply put, successful actions must be measurable. Something must change in people’s lives and change for the better. The people directly experiencing a problem will often have useful insight into what criteria are most appropriate for assessing whether beneficial changes have happened for them, but we believe the general notion of focusing on concrete and measurable outcomes can help anchor the assessment process. The second criterion – give people a sense of their own power – gives greater specificity to the notion of recognizing the gifts that students and others in the community can offer one another. This criterion suggests the value of asking assessment questions that focus on what people believe they have contributed to a collective effort and why their contributions are important. Lastly, for long-term efforts, it can also be useful to assess whether the relations of power have changed. In other words, do people previously excluded from decision-making now have a voice? Has the process (i.e. rules and procedures used for making decisions) become more inclusive and transparent?
Moving forward, we recognize that this framework requires ample further consideration and assessment. To this end, we urge instructors and students to give especially careful consideration to how civic engagement efforts can incorporate the voices, perspectives, and experiences from the community in which students were expected to engage. The framework we have proposed highlights some student-centered learning outcomes that are connected to activities commonly associated with civic engagement. However, the phases of civic engagement we have highlighted do not exhaust all possible dimensions of civic engagement worth attempting and assessing. Rather, we intend this document as starting point for educators interested in thinking about what to assess and how to assess.
Questions for Consideration
Please consider joining the dialogue on approaches to incorporate Civic Engagement as a key learning goal for liberal arts education. Possible avenues of exploration include:
- What experiences have you had in introducing a component of experiential civic learning into a course you teach, with what results?
- Are there guidelines to observe – or pitfalls to avoid – in preparing students for civic learning beyond those mentioned in this article?
- Are there approaches, beyond a student’s self-report, to ascertain the impact that the experience of civic engagement has had on his/her learning?
We encourage you to write to the authors of this article with thoughts or questions about the topic of Civic Engagement as a core liberal arts learning goal. We also invite you to write a response to their essay for possible publication in the GLCA-GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning. Please send your text to Gregory Wegner (email@example.com), or Steven Volk, (Steven.Volk@oberlin.edu), co-directors of the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning.