"Community engaged activities can help abstract and theoretical ideas come to life in fresh, new ways."
Dr. Eric Daigre is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and is an expert in combining experiential learning and academic study. He helped to create the department's signature service-learning couses in 2002 and continues to teach those courses today. He also teaches ENGL 3741: Literacy and American Cultural Diversity with an engaged component.
To start, tell me a little bit about yourself. How long have you been at the U, how long have you used engaged methods in your courses? Which courses do you teach with a Community Engagement component?
I came to the U as a grad student in 1995, and have been teaching here as an adjunct / lecturer since 2002. In the late 1990s, I started getting involved in some education projects around the Twin Cities (the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, the Jane Addams School for Democracy, and the West Side Youth Farm and Market Project). I found this work very inspiring, and started to experiment with incorporating community-engaged learning in my undergraduate Composition courses. My department (English) was very receptive to this, and after getting my degree I was able to return to the English Department as an adjunct / lecturer to teach some existing community engaged courses and to help develop some new community-engaged courses. The courses I currently teach are “Literacy and American Cultural Diversity,” “Protest Literature and Community Action,” and “Social Movements and Community Education.” I’m slated to teach “Literature and Public Life” next spring.
Each semester we have several new faculty teaching Community Engagement Courses. What would your advice be to them?
My advice would be threefold:
1) Talk with the Center for Community-Engaged Learning! As you know, your office is an incredible support network. Plus, many of the staff have worked at the office for many, many years. That means they have long institutional memories and deep relationships with campus units, community partners, and individuals. The Center for Community-Engaged Learning basically provides the entire infrastructure for community-engaged learning.
2) I’d suggest that anyone considering teaching community engaged courses know what their motivations and purposes are, have “some skin in the game,” and know what the stakes are. At its best, community engagement is about effecting social change, and thus it can be helpful for instructors to think about how their courses and disciplines can contribute to this process.
3) It can be helpful if instructors have spent some time doing the kind of community engagement work they’re asking their students to do. Especially if the work is organization-based, they’ll get a sense of what their students may likely experience – the ups and downs of the work, the benefits and challenges, and even just the rhythms of a particular organization – and they can utilize that awareness in designing courses, assignments, and activities. It may help them relate to students and advise them. A more modest version of this is simply to visit some of the organizations that their students are working at or attend an event the organization hosts.
Do you have a favorite reflection activity?
I really like when students do organized presentations on their community work. They explore the connections and disconnects between their community work and our course concepts. They also pose questions for class discussion. We always invite community partners to these presentations – they tend to appreciate the reflective space and see how U students are processing their community work. And we appreciate them! The community partners have knowledge, insights, and ideas that the students and I don’t have, and they can share some of these in the discussion period. The students are learning, but their presentations give me the opportunity to learn from the students and community partners as well. The teaching and learning processes are really intertwined multidirectional.
How do you assess reflection in your course?
In general, I try to tie reflection to the concepts and analytical frameworks we’re reading about and discussing in class. That means I’m looking at how students are making sense of their community work in terms of the texts we’re reading and the academic discussions we’re having. I also look at how students’ community work might complicate or problematize the texts we’re reading, too. In terms of a theory-practice dynamic, it’s as much about how our theories (what we read in class) might inform our practices (what we’re doing at our community sites) as it is how our practices might inform our theories.
What are the benefits to including engaged activities in your courses?
Community engaged activities can help abstract and theoretical ideas come to life in fresh, new ways. It’s an interactive, experiential mode of learning that really has the power to galvanize students and get them to critique or re-examine their education goals or even the educational system we operate in. At its best, the benefits of community-engaged learning can be that students and community partners build their collective power and agency, combating oppression and working on projects that lead to change.
What are the challenges or drawbacks, if any?
When I was first starting out doing community engaged courses, I remember Nelda Pearson describing the “elephant and the mouse” problem. Universities are these big, clumsy elephants bumbling around and inadvertently stepping on community partners. All of us at universities (teachers, staffers, students, others) need to develop good practices for understanding and trying to address these disparities lest we reproduce them in our community engagement efforts. No one in the community wants to hear about our “good intentions.” To put it even more critically, the University of Minnesota is a colonial institution, a white space, basically a corporation run by the Regents. Who in their right mind would trust such an institution? That means “community engagement” can be exploitative, evolving out of missionary mentalities that depend on lots of other-ing, that subject community organizations to the white gaze, the academic gaze. This is the system we live in, so it’s not surprising. And I don’t mean to imply that this is a purely one-way process. Lots of U students of color have pointed out that the white leadership in the nonprofit / grassroots sector doesn’t correspond to the racial, ethnic, or class composition of the rank and file at their organizations. I don’t mean to exempt myself from these systemic problems, either. I am a white, middle-class man (among a host of other privileged intersecting identities), so I still have a lot to learn and unlearn. Luckily, I have students, community partners, colleagues, and friends who challenge me and help me grow. I am very grateful for them.
Are there any resources that you’d recommend other faculty (in your field/department or otherwise) use or consider using (conferences, organizations, books, websites, etc)?
As I’ve already mentioned, you and your colleagues at the Center for Community Engaged Learning are indispensable, along with the Office for Public Engagement. I’d also recommend Tania Mitchell’s work (and she’s right here at the U!). Beyond our campus, the Minnesota Campus Compact is also an excellent resource.
Have you ever published or presented about your engaged work?
Yes, in small venues here and there. But as an adjunct instructor, publishing and presenting is not a requirement of my job. That frees up some time and energy to be redirected to community organizations. I volunteer with Communities United Against Police Brutality, and I’ve been able to contribute some of my research and writing abilities to the benefit of the organization and the cause more broadly.
Thank you for sharing your expertise with us, Eric! We appreciate it.