Out of the Classroom, Into the Community
CCE facilitates community-engaged learning
By Christie Zwahlen, MA '09
“To be honest, when I first saw the faculty engagement job posting, I wasn’t even sure where Binghamton was, but I turned to my husband and said, ‘I have to apply to this now’,” says Jessica Arends, the new faculty engagement associate in the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). Created to support community-engaged teaching and scholarship, Arends’s position is the first of its kind at Binghamton University, where momentum for publicly engaged education and research mirrors its national groundswell.
“I’ve always been passionate about social change,” says Arends. “The more I used community-engaged learning in my own classroom, the more intrigued I became about peers who I saw using the pedagogy. They were so enthusiastic, but I realized many of them didn’t have the skills or theoretical backing to use community-engaged learning well. That’s why I went back to grad school for my PhD — to learn more about the theory and help others put it into practice.”
Arends earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Penn State, where her research focused on the impact of community-engaged learning on students and communities in Africa and Pennsylvania.
Her expertise in both teaching and assessing community-engaged courses makes her a valuable resource and advocate. Since joining the CCE in August 2014, she has met with more than 70 faculty members, launched a faculty fellows program (Engaged Faculty Fellows for Teaching Excellence), presented at the new faculty orientation and hosted a number of workshops and roundtable faculty luncheons on various aspects of community-engaged work. Arends also helped plan the inaugural Institute on Community-Engaged Teaching, Research & Scholarship.
Institute on Community-Engaged Teaching, Research & Scholarship
Launched in March 2015, the Institute on Community-Engaged Teaching, Research & Scholarship was the first campus-wide discussion of its kind at Binghamton University. Along with CCE staff, a dedicated group of faculty members developed institute sessions that explored best practices for creating community partnerships, teaching community-based courses locally and abroad, conducting community-based research, assessing student learning and securing resources and funding.
The keynote address, delivered by Richard Kiely, director of Engaged Learning + Research at Cornell University, challenged participants to consider how community-engaged pedagogies move learning from subject-based topics to problem solving. An engagement expo showcased University-community partnerships involving faculty, students and community partners, with exhibited projects ranging from geothermalheated aprons at the regional airport to historical soundwalks exploring Binghamton’s sonic history.
The institute attracted more than 230 attendees including Binghamton University faculty and administrators, as well as faculty members from four other colleges and universities across New York state.
Of the institute’s many focal points, service-learning course design and implementation ranked as one of the most significant. Faculty members from diverse backgrounds showcased their work, asked important questions of themselves and each other, and made connections with both on- and off-campus entities for the purposes of integrating service components with academic content.
Beyond a classroom-based pedagogy
Sumantra Sarkar, assistant professor of management information systems (MIS) in the School of Management, teaches an MIS class on developing information technology (IT) solutions. Rather than studying examples out of a textbook, he prefers to have his students work with real organizations in need of assistance, analyzing their system requirements and offering recommendations.
“I was introduced to Jessica, I gave her a snapshot of what I wanted and after that was contacted by about 30 nonprofit organizations and small businesses,” says Sarkar. Several of the projects were very successful. “One in particular was for Verde View Equestrian Center, a local nonprofit that helps people with mental and physical challenges ride horses for therapy.”
Sarkar’s students helped Verde View streamline processes for organizing client and programmatic information and overhauled its client check-in procedure. “In doing so,” says Sarkar, “the students had to interview the staff, which provided them with good exposure to real-life interview techniques — a skill they will use in the future as they analyze an organization’s IT needs.”
For Susan Appe, assistant professor of public administration and co-director of the University’s Service-Learning and Language Immersion Program in Peru, service-learning is a way to keep classes fresh and exciting while providing mutual benefit to both students and the community. “I have always been interested in innovative pedagogy,” says Appe, who has worked with the CCE in several capacities — refining the course syllabus attached to the Peru program, developing service projects abroad and planning the March 2015 institute.
"It was super helpful having someone to talk with about service-learning syllabus design and curricular content,” says Appe. “On a fun note, we actually integrated social media as a reflective component to the course. Since students really prefer digital communication, we thought it would be a cool way to make them more comfortable reflecting on their service projects while keeping the public informed of their community impact. It’s been a total success.”
Sarkar and Appe are just two of many faculty members who have embraced community-engaged pedagogy, and both are setting the bar high for their peers. Promoting the work of engaged faculty is part of the CCE’s strategy for encouraging others to take up the mantle, and Sarkar and Appe are fine exemplars. To bolster the momentum of faculty pursuing this work, the CCE has developed a fellowship program, which recognizes and showcases academic course integration with community projects.
Engaged Faculty Fellows for Teaching Excellence
Each year, five to seven Engaged Faculty Fellows for Teaching Excellence are selected to develop innovative, applied-learning classes that address community issues from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives. The CCE provides guidance, resources and a space for the fellows to share in each other’s ideas, challenges and camaraderie. Fellows also receive a stipend and the ability to apply for teaching-enrichment grants to support their community-engaged courses.
Designed to ignite innovation and enthusiasm, the fellows program puts faculty members at the helm with CCE staff contributing ideas, support and expertise when necessary. “If done right, the fellows learn much more from each other than they do from me,” says Arends. Part of the 2014-15 fellows cohort, Lisa Yun, associate professor of English and Asian and Asian American studies, teaches a research-intensive, community-engaged learning course on Asian diasporic communities. She found her experience as a fellow empowering. “It gave me license to radically change what I do in the classroom,” says Yun. “What we’re doing is recognized and supported and valued and that makes a difference in how I approach my work.”
“Teaching this way requires a total paradigm shift in thinking,” says Arends. “It’s a given that both the students and faculty experience some discomfort with it at first, but we know that as a symptom of any deep learning. What’s more, when you’re involving an outside entity such as a community organization, there are sometimes unexpected hurdles. It takes a significant commitment of time and energy — both intellectual and emotional.”
The 2015-16 faculty fellows cohort is composed of professors from the departments of art history, history, and Asian and Asian American studies, as well as the Graduate School of Education, the Decker School of Nursing, and the College of Community and Public Affairs.
On the road to institutionalization
On campus, community engagement is increasingly being recognized as rigorous, effective and worthwhile for faculty, students, administrators and community members. Research shows that applied-learning experiences have richer, deeper impacts on students than traditional classroom learning.
“Community-engaged research and scholarship are vital for creating ‘high-impact learning opportunities’,” says Tom Sinclair, associate professor of public administration. “It’s important for there to be champions of this work who can share their expertise and support the growing network of faculty and students who include these activities in their work. Ultimately, Binghamton will not be known just for doing engagement, but for doing it rigorously and well for the benefit of communities, students and researchers.”
Sinclair’s forecast is on its way to becoming a reality, as several important steps have recently been taken to cement community engagement within the University’s institutional framework.
Faculty can now apply to have their community-engaged courses designated as such in the campus’ course-registration system, enabling social justice-oriented students to search and register for classes that require significant work with the community. Courses are submitted for designation and reviewed by at least two faculty advisors and staff in the CCE before approval. All approved courses become eligible for the CCE’s Teaching Enrichment Grant funding.
“Working with the community has added benefits, but also added costs. These grants are meant to offset those costs so faculty aren’t left paying class-related expenses out of their own pockets,” says Arends. In addition, faculty awards for exemplary community-engaged teaching, research and scholarship are awarded on a yearly basis alongside students and community partners. Allison Alden, CCE director, sees the awards as part of a necessary culture shift. “It’s a message to the campus and community that this type of work is valued.”
In the next year, the CCE plans to continue its support for faculty and staff via workshops, a speaker series and another institute. Its goal is to engage faculty in work well beyond the current scope of traditional service-learning, research and scholarship. “We’re working toward breaking new paths,” says Alden.
If it works, it’ll put Binghamton squarely on the map for faculty engagement nationwide.
For more information about service-learning and faculty community engagement at Binghamton University, visit the Center for Civic Engagement's Faculty Engagement webpage.