"If I could find a way to create this kind of experience for all of my students, I would, because it is the space where I see philosophy come alive."
Sarah Holtman is a scholar and professor in the philosophy department. Holtman has taught at the University for over 20 years. One of the community-engaged learning courses she teaches is PHIL 1004W.
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Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! To start, can you tell me a little bit about the community-engaged course you teach?
I teach a few different courses using community engagement, but the main one I’ll speak about today is PHIL 1004W: Introduction to Political Philosophy. It calls into question the role of government: what are its purposes, the limit on its authority, its responsibilities to citizens (and vice versa). In the course we also discuss the ways that freedom, equality, rights, property, punishment, and justice are woven into those roles. I have taught this course for more than 20 years – since I first came to the University.
How has the course evolved over time?
The course content lends itself well to incorporating work in the community, and it has always had an optional service-learning component for students, but when I inherited it I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I think a part of it was because I was new to the Minneapolis community and didn’t know the organizations or the city itself very well, and another part was that I was new to this teaching style. At first, I just had a few students each semester completing community engagement in different places throughout the city and it felt pretty disconnected.
It wasn’t until I taught an honors section of the course that I realized the potential of this pedagogy. The students in the honors section knew each other pretty well and many of them ended up choosing the community engaged option. Additionally, they all went to just a couple of different places which meant that they came back to the classroom discussions having shared experiences and ultimately our discussions were richer and more meaningful. For the first time I felt that the experience was helping them to better grasp course content and that’s what started me down the path toward place-based learning.
Before we chat a little about place-based learning, tell us about the structure of your course – how do you make this work?
The philosophy department has a 1-credit add-on course that accompanies the political philosophy course and it’s used for the students who want to complete service-learning. Although I believe that there are good ways to imbed a service-learning option into a course without an add-on credit, this model has worked well for me and our department. Each semester, out of a 128-person course, I have around 30 students sign up for the additional credit course.
After the students in that course are finalized, we pick three times to meet throughout the semester for check-ins as well as reflective discussions. In the first meeting I share with them a history of the neighborhood, in the second we discuss and reflect on material from the first half of the course, and in the third meeting we discuss material from the second half of the course.
The students are required to complete two 3-4 page reflective essays where they engage and analyze some of the philosophical concepts from the course. My expectation is that they will complete 26 hours of work in the community throughout the semester, knowing that I will be flexible if they don’t quite reach that amount for legitimate reasons. Typically, I like to see students complete at least 22 hours, but it is not uncommon for students to do many more than even 26. If the students successfully complete these requirements, they are able to replace their grade for the final with their grade from their community-engaged learning experience which is certainly an incentive!
Tell us more about place-based learning. What does that concept mean to you?
This type of commitment grew largely out of the dissatisfaction I had with how the service-learning component was going in the beginning and how disconnected it felt from the course material. As I mentioned earlier, after the experience with my honors section I realized the benefit of students working together in the same location, but it also got me thinking about what was going on in my own neighborhood. For me, place-based engagement is about working with people and organizations that are all located in the same community, working on issues pertinent to that community year after year and with a long-term commitment.
Over time, it started to make sense for me to connect my students with organizations in the Prospect Park Neighborhood because that is where I live and where my children attended school. For these reasons, I was acutely aware of some of the political challenges in the neighborhood, and I wanted my students to be a part of learning about those challenges and applying political philosophy to them, but at the same time supporting the overall mission of organizations working to make change.
Say more about how this is beneficial for your students and how their work in the community teaches them about political philosophy.
In general, no matter which organization in the neighborhood my students are working with – be it Pratt School, East Side Neighborhood Services, South East Seniors, or if they are working with an advocacy group – my students learn about the historical disparities in the neighborhood between the white, upper-class residents and the residents who are recent immigrants and often low-income. They see these disparities at play and it allows them to think about who has power and the impact of that power.
Layered on top of that face-to-face interaction are salient issues I can bring forward. Since I am aware of current events in the neighborhood I can easily plan discussions to unpack concerns in the neighborhood including school closing disputes, issues that were raised with the light rail, and most recently around housing security issues regarding the Glendale Townhomes. All of these concerns raise real worries for people in the neighborhood, particularly for those that have less of a voice and less power, so we are able to cultivate conversations about who has the authority to make policy and why, what might undermine that authority, and what circumstances might create abuse of that power.
Through all of this, students begin to see the connections – both historically and currently – between different organizations and how they operate (or not) together. If we don’t understand the various connections and disconnections then we aren’t going to understand the various benefits and problems of being and living in a community. Communities are a very complex phenomenon, and I believe this way of teaching offers an opportunity to get just deep enough into the root of understanding to begin applying political philosophy to the tensions that exist.
I can see that you are deeply committed to this work and to your students. How does this work energize you?
I am a political philosopher but my interest is in the ways in which political philosophy hits the ground. I was a lawyer before I was a philosopher and I was a lawyer because I was interested in the ways that laws impact people – the ways they make people’s lives better and the ways they make people’s lives worse. I care about the way in which philosophy has things to tell us about how societies operate and the way people and institutions engage with each other.
Having my students do this work allows me to stay grounded in the community and stay grounded in the ways philosophical concepts matter to me. If I could find a way to create this kind of experience for all of my students, I would, because it is the space where I see philosophy come alive.
Thanks again for your time, Sarah! We appreciate all you have shared and all you offer our students.