Toward an Innovative Civic Engagement Pedagogy

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Birds on wires, one bird sits alone from the rest

By Nicholas D. Hartlep, Early Childhood and Elementary Education Department, Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota; Danielle Lake, Liberal Studies Department, Grand Valley State University; Jennifer W. Purcell, Department of Leadership and Integrative Studies, Kennesaw State University; Adam Bush, College Unbound; Lane Graves Perry, III, Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, Western Carolina University; Bethany Fleck, Psychology Department, Metropolitan State University, Denver, Colorado; Brandon W. Kliewer, Staley School of Leadership Studies, Kansas State University; Emily M. Janke, Peace and Conflict Studies Department, University of North Carolina Greensboro; Paul N. Markham, Founding Partner, Sova; Cecilia M. Orphan, Higher Education Department, University of Denver; John A. Saltmarsh, Department of Leadership in Education, University of Massachusetts Boston.

This article shares the thoughts of recipients of the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement. The contributions appear in the order in which authors received the award (from most recent to earliest): Hartlep (2018 award recipient), “Critical Storytelling: Publishing as a Vehicle for Increasing Civic Engagement”; Lake (2017), “Activating a Community-Campus Read”; Purcell (2017), “Beyond Pedagogy: Community and Civic Engagement Leader Identity and Its Broader Educative Role”; Bush (2016), “What You Can Learn From Campus Tours”; Perry (2016), “Ripples Have to Start Somewhere: Social Entrepreneurship and Social Justice for Teaching Civic Engagement”; Fleck (2015), “Civic Engagement Enhanced Online”; Kliewer (2014), “Leveraging Leadership Coaching to Disrupt Authority and Enable Conditions for Civic and Democratic Learning”; Janke (2013), “Listening, Dialogue, and Empathy: Hallmarks of Community, Tools for Listening Across Differences”; Markham (2012), “Finding My ‘Community’ in Community Engagement”; and Orphan (2011), “I Believe in Expansion.” The article concludes with thoughts from John A. Saltmarsh about pedagogical practice.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Nicholas D. Hartlep, Associate Professor, Chair of Early Childhood and Elementary Education Department, Graduate Program Coordinator, School of Urban Education, Metropolitan State University, Midway Center 100B-1, 1450 Energy Park Drive, Saint Paul, MN. Phone: (651) 999-5936. E-mail:

Given annually by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the John A. Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leadership in Civic Engagement recognizes exemplary early-career leaders in higher education who are advancing the wider civic engagement movement in an effort to build a broader public culture of democracy. I am honored to have been selected as the 2018 recipient.

In my nomination materials for the award, Greg Mellas, director of the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship at Metropolitan State University, wrote about my collaborative leadership: “An armchair activist he is not. His passion for this work is fueled through his teaching, research, and collaboration with colleagues both local and national who share his commitment to realizing a just and inclusive society.” He also wrote:

While it is common for teacher educators to encourage future teachers to be compliant and apolitical, Dr. Hartlep develops teacher activists who will transform the field of education. Dr. Hartlep has an established record of collaborating with his students and co-authoring with them. He believes that having his students write and publish as undergraduates is an important form of civic learning. Understanding the politics of publishing and how knowledge is deemed credible is fundamental to his understanding of civic learning. Dr. Hartlep’s students have learned many valuable lessons through their co-authored projects. For example, in his Critical Storytelling in Uncritical Times, stories of marginalized undergraduate students and educators in U.S. higher education are made visible.

Each year, award winners are invited to submit an article to the eJournal of Public Affairs; however, in keeping with my ethos of collaborative leadership, I invited previous award recipients to co-author with me. Because this special journal issue focuses on innovative civic engagement pedagogy, our article highlights curricular and co-curricular activities and/or assignments that award recipients have employed. The individual contributions appear in the order in which authors received the award (from most recent to earliest), and ordering that seemed more equitable than by last name (or any other ordering that I could think of). The activities and assignments shared in this article all speak to ways that award recipients have worked—and continue to work—to increase civic engagement.

Critical Storytelling: Publishing as a Vehicle for Increasing Civic Engagement (Nicholas D. Hartlep, 2018 Award Recipient)

I teach at Metropolitan State University (MSU), a minority-serving institution (MSI). Before coming to MSU, I taught at Illinois State University (ISU), where, along with a doctoral student of mine, Brandon O. Hensley, I co-edited Critical Storytelling in Uncritical Times: Stories Disclosed in a Cultural Foundations of Education Course (2015). The book was written by all but two of the students enrolled in the doctoral-level Cultural Foundations of Education course that I taught in the summer of 2014 (Dr. Hensley also authored a chapter). The book project turned out to be a wonderful experience for the students. Since the book’s publication, Dr. Hensley has gone on to edit two other books with me: Critical Storytelling in Uncritical Times: Undergraduates Share Their Stories in Higher Education (2017) and The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education (2017), which was nominated for a Grawemeyer Award in Education and received an Outstanding Book Award from the Society of Professors of Education.

Although I have left ISU, I have continued this storytelling work. At the time of writing this article, I am teaching a master’s-level research methods course at MSU. The students are writing chapters for another Critical Storytelling book that I am co-editing with Dr. Hensley, who is now a lecturer at Wayne State University in the Department of Communication Studies. My hope is that one of my MSU students will, like Dr. Hensley, continue to write critically and will ultimately go on to mentor future civically engaged scholars.

Increasing civic engagement is a process that requires instructors to provide opportunities for publication to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. While at ISU, I taught undergraduate and doctoral students. Now, at MSU, I teach undergraduate and graduate students. My belief is that encouraging students to write about issues of justice, oppression, and peace is vital for cultivating more civic-minded and grounded citizens. The Critical Storytelling project, for lack of a better term, increases civic engagement by encouraging students to be readers and writers of the world.

Activating a Community-Campus Read (Danielle Lake, 2017 Award Recipient)

The following course project seeks to close the gap in student preparedness for democratic engagement and activism by partnering, scaffolding, and activating a first-year general education course with a campus-community read (CRP). A CRP is designed to draw people from across the campus and the community into conversation about relevant challenging topics. By activating the CRP, this project seeks to generate awareness, create opportunities for listening across differences.

The pilot project required first-year students to first reflect upon the relevance of the issues raised in the CRP (on feminism, the history of women’s activism, and the impact of race, class, place, and culture on women’s sexual, social, and economic independence) and then brainstorm—and act upon—at least one opportunity for local engagement in the surrounding communities. However, it is the spaces between initial reflection and end-of-semester action that I want to emphasize here. Students explored their own positionality in relation to these issues; got out on campus and invited various communities in, meeting with the on-campus archives specialist, the Title IX coordinator, a peer theatre sexual assault prevention performance group, the local Women’s History Council, recent alumni, and me; created and integrated a vision of the challenges involved; shared publicly accessible Wakelet pages hosting multimedia and interdisciplinary research; submitted blog posts for the campus’s Center for Women and Gender Equity; and engaged in a self-selected (instructor-supported) advocacy- and/or engagement-related project. Some students designed and hosted dialogues with friends and family, others participated in on-campus protests around Title IX violations, and still others created a campaign to honor local women activists in the surrounding communities.

Such projects encourage students to develop the skills and values of lifelong learners—reading critically, thinking deeply, dialoguing across communities, and then acting with intentionality in order to build the world they want to live in. They help students see systemic social challenges as critical spaces for stepping in and across, listening for and valuing intersectionality, exploring their own agency, learning from setbacks, and continuing forward. Partnerships across the university and carefully planned scaffolding support such projects, ensuring they meet course learning objectives (i.e., to explore how education can support and transform students’ personal, professional, and civic lives and have an impact on society) as well as the CRP’s goals (i.e., to bring the campus and community together through dialogues and activities intended to draw people into conversation about current social issues).

Additionally, the collaboration between faculty and staff and the extended network of campus, community, and alumni partners can offer vital opportunities for first-year students to bridge curricular and co-curricular knowledge and experience, creating the conditions for the academic and social integration that research on student retention suggests leads to student persistence (Davidson & Wilson, 2013). Creating opportunities for academic and social integration through campus and civic engagement is critical to building an inclusive and liberatory campus climate. In this vein, it is important for faculty and staff to consider how they might encourage first-year students to:

  • explicate issues but also intentionally expand beyond initial frameworks;
  • self-reflexively uncover their positionality, examine historical and current frameworks;
  • explore the real-life impact of a particular course across locations;
  • invite others in and get out;
  • brainstorm opportunities to engage and transform; and,
  • decide, act, and reflect.

Beyond Pedagogy: Community and Civic Engagement Leader Identity and Its Broader Educative Role (Jennifer W. Purcell, 2017 Award Recipient)

As stated in the introduction, the Saltmarsh Award recognizes emerging leaders whose work contributes to the “wider civic engagement movement” in order to “build a broader public culture of democracy.” The commitment of scholars and educators to civic learning is readily evidenced in curricula and research. As recognized leaders in community and civic engagement, however, their most impactful contributions may occur within the learning and development spaces beyond traditional classrooms where teaching excellence is nonetheless valuable. As Palmer (2007) noted, “Good leadership sometimes takes the form of teaching” (p. 166). In my own experience, positive change leadership within the academy has consistently emerged from educators whose first commitment is to sound pedagogy, as evidenced among leader-educators and leader-scholars who continue to expand the civic engagement movement by reaffirming their respective institutions’ civic missions. Informed by this observation, I have challenged myself to reimagine my community and civic leader identity, and the ways in which I can fill a broader educative role. University-wide faculty development and strategic planning are two ways in which I have recently expanded the impact of my work.

I first experienced the rewards of creating professional learning and development initiatives for faculty and staff to advance civic learning through my dissertation research. As an action researcher in training, I collaborated with members of an institution to establish professional learning priorities related to community engagement. More recently, I applied those same skills—further refined by lessons gleaned from my teaching practice and scholarship—to co-create a faculty learning community focused on community-engaged pedagogy and civic learning outcomes. The quality and significance of the collaborative scholarly products and community impacts produced by the first cohort is remarkable. For example, two participants from different colleges collaborated on a grant-funded project that produced a book co-authored with community partners to give voice to immigrant youth. Similar to students’ final portfolios submitted in a service-learning course, these colleagues’ scholarly products and reflections demonstrate the value of pedagogy for civic learning, whether for students or for colleagues.

In a separate opportunity, I applied my expertise in civic learning pedagogy as a contributing author for my university’s next 10-year comprehensive plan for student learning outcomes. Multiple proposals were vetted through a university-wide competitive review process, including campus presentations, in order to finalize the selection. This process provided an opportunity to advocate for civic learning and community engagement as featured components of the students’ university experience. With enrollment exceeding 36,000, the potential impact of the plan’s implementation on students’ civic learning and democratic engagement, as well as community impact, will far exceed the relatively limited scope of my individual service-learning courses. I now engage the broader campus community with the same intentionality toward learning and development that I apply within my courses.

As members of learning organizations designed for transformation, leader-educators and leader-scholars have an opportunity and responsibility to enhance the capacity for civic leadership, individually and organizationally. They must consider informal and formal leadership roles that leverage commitment and expertise for broader impact. When emerging leaders—such as my colleagues whose work is featured in this article—embody principles of teaching and learning and are willing to become “one who opens, rather than occupies, space” (Palmer, 2007, p. 166), they set in motion an intention that supports efforts to reclaim higher education as a public good. Will you join us?

What You Can Learn From Campus Tours (Adam Bush, 2016 Award Recipient)

I just finished touring prospective colleges with my step-daughter Josie, who will be a freshman in the fall of 2019. While it was wonderful as a parent to view colleges with her, it was my wife and I, not Josie, who were swept up by the romance of each liberal arts college we stepped foot on—dreaming of redoing our own experiences as 18-year-olds, sitting in on every lecture and participating in every extracurricular activity. The whirlwind of touring five colleges in four days allowed for a spot comparison of how colleges market themselves: “without walls,” “beyond time zones,” “full college experiences,” “learning communities,” and “9 reserved parking spaces for 9 Nobel laureates.” I asked questions about DACA sanctuary campuses and mental health services—questions about the needs of the whole student. The vision the campus representatives sold revolved around a sense of place, both as an aspirational site to travel to in order to become to the well-rounded person you could be, and as a site from which to go out into the world via internships, field trips, study abroad, etc.

Yet, a sense of place without the sense of the whole student—one that does not include the worlds from which they come, the neighborhoods the campus surrounds, or the adult learners who may be seeking a degree—is a shallow place. These complications are critical ones for meaningful engagement work in which students can participate fully in their learning and in their degree process.

Before College Unbound was recognized as the newest post-secondary institution in Rhode Island, I organized a Gateway Return-to-College initiative for the state of Rhode Island. We ran three iterations of a semester-long class that was free to students, who could transfer credits into any institution they decided to enroll in following completion of the course. The course was built around the deep knowledge making that can be fostered with adults navigating the return to higher education—around identity and autobiography, theories of organizing and collective action, systems thinking and institutional histories, and an understanding of trauma that could keep people from returning to college.

One of the course assignments asked students to schedule and attend at least two different college campus tours during the semester. Just as Josie had to before her campus visits, the students in the course needed to schedule a tour by registering online and making an appointment. The online form asked for general information—name, address, and birthdate. In this case, however, the dropdown menu for selecting one’s year of birth did not extend earlier than 1980. As a result, my students—many of whom were looking to enroll in college for the third or fourth time—could not even feel like they belonged on a campus tour, let alone be allowed to dream about being back on those campuses.

There are many reasons someone might leave school: curricular, institutional, financial among them, as well as other life priorities around work, family, and community. Often, it becomes an either/or choice about one’s degree. For those wishing to return to school, College Unbound tries to reframe the “either/or” as “both/and.”

This reframing is central to College Unbound’s pedagogy. We ask students to collaboratively build their curriculum and recruit their faculty. We hold cohort meetings at sites to which students are already connected—for instance, workplaces, community centers, public high schools, and housing authorities. We recognize as credit-bearing pieces of their degree process the deep critical thinking and problem solving needed to navigate debt, reentry from incarceration, and social change for a more just world. Our student body grows by word of mouth as our graduations become town hall meetings and recruitment fairs for adults who see themselves in that year’s graduates. In other words, students aspire to be who they already are.

Such engagement is at the core of College Unbound, one built not out of a manufactured sense of place, but out of a sense of home and belonging that one can insist the university respect, honor, and build from.

Ripples Have to Start Somewhere: Social Entrepreneurship and Social Justice for Teaching Civic Engagement (Lane Graves Perry, III, 2016 Award Recipient)

At the 1966 commencement ceremonies at the University of Cape Town, Robert F. Kennedy delivered the following message:

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [sic] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

The Ripple Effect Learning Community (RELC) at Western Carolina University was designed to serve as a preparation, retention, and development tool for preparing leaders to make a difference in their community. The program is designed to ask students—and prepare them to answer—the following question: “What do you care enough about to do something about in your world?”

RELC offers educational experiences that prepare students to identify what they truly love about the world and to ultimately be[come] the change they want to see in it (notions suggestive of the works of Hermann Hesse and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively). Through the disciplinary lenses of social entrepreneurship and social justice, RELC facilitates examinations of historical and current cases in conjunction with theories of social change. For the purposes of this learning community, social entrepreneurship is defined as those social ventures that explicitly address social problems and needs (read: perceived and very real, deeply rooted injustices) that are unmet by creating social value. In fact, some have explicitly supported the express connection between social entrepreneurs and their quest for social justice and change (Beugre, 2017; Christopoulos & Vogi, 2015).

Additionally, this concept is informed by and infused with the development of citizen skills and the concept of social justice, which has been defined as “promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity” (Caravelis & Robinson, 2016, p. 8). This is observed when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources” (p. 8). Under socially just conditions, people are “not to be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstance, or other characteristic of background or group members” (p. 8).

The RELC’s overarching goals for students include the following:

  • Working collaboratively with community partners, students construct a plan to pursue an intended solution to an identified and researched community-based issue.
  • Through critical reflection, students clarify their sense of direction and personal values.
  • Students develop a sense of self and sense of purpose as it relates to their social and personal responsibilities.

The RELC experience includes the following initiatives that comprise an interdisciplinary model designed to contextualize curriculum and content:

  • Learning communities: Three courses over each RELC student’s first year serve as the bonding agent for the faculty and content associated with the RELC curriculum and experience.
  • Community engagement project: Community-based projects are incubators for experiences salient to the RELC curricula/content. The project, which focuses on a community issue of value to the community and of interest to the student team, demands the application of theory, content, and tools provided in the fall and spring RELC courses.
  • Critical reflection: This component of the RELC model provides the context whereby students integrate learning across courses and consider overarching questions. This is facilitated using the D.E.A.L. model[1] (Ash, Clayton, & Moses, 2007), presentational forms of knowing, and dialogue.
  • Pre-semester engagement retreat: This retreat occurs the week before the fall semester begins and includes mentorship, team development programs, service projects, reflection, and common readings.

Now in its sixth year, with over 110 students having completed the program, the RELC has served as a resource for WCU’s campus and community (Perry, Lahm, Schauer, & Rumble, 2016). The program has been offered every fall since 2013, which was initially made possible by an AAC&U “Bringing Theory to Practice” grant. Many RELC students continue to attribute their success at WCU to those foundational experiences that started with the Ripple Effect Pre-Semester Retreat and then were reinforced through their civic and community engagement during their first-year experience.

The following RELC resources are offered to readers interested in learning more about the program:

Civic Engagement Enhanced Online (Bethany Fleck, 2015 Award Recipient)

In my teaching, I utilize service-learning and community-based research pedagogies in an effort to enhance students’ learning of psychology content. In a pre- and post-test research study, my service-learning course demonstrated greater student learning compared to a control course taught without the paradigm (Fleck, Hussey, & Rutledge-Ellison, 2017). Other researchers have empirically supported the notion that service-learning courses also increase civic engagement in students (see DePrince, Priebe, & Newton, 2011; Simons & Cleary, 2006). In response to these findings, I have embedded service-learning within most of my courses. However, starting in 2019, my department will offer a fully online, Quality Matters-certified, Human Development and Family Studies major. Online education offers an exciting way to reach more students, but online teaching itself presents new issues, specifically in relation to the goal of enhancing civic-related outcomes. How does one teach an online service-learning course? Students taking such courses are often located in remote places, having varying levels of access to different community partners, and have other commitments (i.e., family and work) that prevent them from participating in traditional face-to-face classes, never mind ones that require service-learning. While some have fully taken on this challenge with great success (see McGorry, 2015; Mosley, 2015; Nordyke, 2015; Purcell, 2017; Strait, 2015), I have instead started small, creating one online assignment that I hope achieves similar goals but bypasses some of the issues related to distance education.

The assignment—called the “Community Agency Civic Engagement Paper”—is given to my online Psychology of Human Development course. This applied research paper requires students to research a nonprofit community agency that works to better the lives of individuals. Students are allowed to choose any community agency that interests them; however, the agency must be local to the region. Students first research the agency via the Internet and by physically going to the location or calling the agency to seek information.

In the paper, the student reports on the work the agency does and relates that work specifically to developmental psychology course content (e.g., the Boys & Girls Club of America contributes to the positive development of youths’ sense of self and identity). In the paper, students are required to define civic engagement, using reputable sources, and to reflect on their own levels of civic engagement by completing three civic engagement measures: the Community Service Self-Efficacy Scale (Reeb, Katsuyama, Sammon, & Yoder, 1998), the Civic Responsibility subscale (Furco, 1999) from the Higher Education Service-Learning Survey, and the Valuing of Community Engagement and Service Scale (Moely & Illustre, 2011). Thinking about their scores and the opportunities available within the community agency, students outline a civic engagement plan. To aid this effort, they answer the following questions:

How can you become involved in the community agency? What can you specifically do to help them? How is this part of civic engagement? Are you going to start volunteering? Why or why not? What scores did you get on the surveys and what do those scores mean in regard to your involvement with the agency?

Anecdotally, students have commented that the paper motivated them to learn about and subsequently participate with their community agency. It also helped them to realize the practical applications of the material they were studying and to recognize the real-world connections that exist between course content and the community. As an educational psychologist, I want to know the exact learning and civic engagement outcomes the paper has; to that end, a study is underway investigating students’ survey scores and quiz scores to parse out the true potential of this assignment. While this assignment is not service-learning per se, I believe it has the potential to increase learning and civic engagement in the online course format. If it inspires faculty to start small and create a similar assignment, I would be thrilled of course. However, if faculty are looking to do even more, to better understand the challenges of online e-service learning and creating such a course, I highly recommend reading my fellow Saltmarsh Award winner Jennifer Purcell’s 2017 symposium paper, “Community-Engaged Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom: Integrating eService-Learning into Online Leadership Education,” published in the Journal of Leadership Studies.

Leveraging Leadership Coaching to Disrupt Authority and Enable Conditions for Civic and Democratic Learning (Brandon W. Kliewer, 2014 Award Recipient)

What if leadership activity in a democracy requires the systemic capacity for collective action in circumstances of uncertainty? The faculty at Kansas State University’s Staley School of Leadership Studies has worked to design leadership learning and development experiences that reconsider formal authority. This essay briefly describes how leadership coaching is deployed in ways that intentionally disrupt operations of authority in the pursuit of civic and democratic learning.

The protection, direction, and order provided to students completing the Leadership in Practice course is limited to outlining academic requirements of the course and the general structure of each class session. The objective of the course is to create a space in which students can enact leadership concepts in practice around civic issues. The structure of the class sessions is the same every day. The first half of the class is for the student learning community to make progress around its shared civic purpose. The students have absolute and complete control over how that time is used; the instructor assumes a leadership coach stance and observes the operations of the system. The second portion of the class session becomes an opportunity to co-emerge meaning and learning in relation to associated course concepts.

Case-in-point methodologies and Intentional Emergence teaching practices have been developed to teach leadership. Though my use of leadership coaching is indebted to these approaches, it has been modified to account for the unique contextual and civic features of Kansas. One important distinction is that I work to make sense of identity, power, and systems in culturally responsive and developmentally appropriate ways. My orientation to enabling the conditions necessary for making sense of identity, power, and systems is focused on connecting the learning experience to civic capacities required to co-emerge collective action.

I enable the conditions for students to co-emerge such meaning through leadership coaching and systems mapping. Leadership coaching, as I understand the practice in the learning environment, is a “facilitated, dialogic learning process” (Cox, 2013, p. 1). As a teaching method, leadership coaching begins with the premise that students are whole, complete, and capable of addressing their civic leadership challenges on their own. Rather, the work of a leadership coach is to remain curious and ask students intentional questions that invite dialogic exchanges around operations of identity, power, and systems.

The course curriculum is broadly shaped around democratic, relational, collective, complexity, and adaptive leadership theory, but it is surfaced and highlighted in real time in an effort to connect theory to what is going on in the room. The rhythm of this method is created as students make sense and meaning of how they function as a system, and then, through the debrief and leadership coaching, students devise theoretically informed interventions, both hypothetical and realized, that they work to implement in the following sessions.

This teaching method is quite messy but mimics VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) leadership challenges. Depending on who is in the room, the experience supports students’ capacity to engage VUCA barriers to collective action in developmentally appropriate ways. Some semesters, students spend considerable time making sense of their own learning community. In other circumstances, the learning community has the capacity to organize and mobilize with others outside of class around civic issues that matter to them. This model supports civic learning and ensures that student learning and development do not come at the expense of community.

Listening, Dialogue, and Empathy: Hallmarks of Community, Tools for Listening

Across Differences (Emily M. Janke, 2013 Award Recipient)

Many of us who have been steeped in civic engagement communities of practice for a long while often forget that there was a time when we wondered: What does civic engagement even mean? As a result, we design service-learning and other forms of community-engaged learning experiences for our students with specific outcomes in mind. For example, we might want students to practice working collaboratively in teams, or to become aware of the role lobbyists and activists play in shaping public policy, or to become empowered to participate in electoral processes, or to understand how their individual choices affect others. Each of us has a goal in mind, and if we are intentional, we design and structure activities and reflections that will help students to achieve these aims.

However, I find that the importance of clearly communicating one’s aims for civic engagement—especially in dialogue with students—cannot be underestimated and is often overlooked.

The importance of setting one’s own intentions—and then speaking about them with students—was highlighted in my first year at the University of North Carolina Greensboro through ongoing conversations with my colleague Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez, a first-year assistant professor in political science. As we each designed our community-engaged courses, we dialogued about the types and many different conceptions of civic engagement outcomes. In attempting to refine our own conceptions and intentions, we sought the experiences of others as expressed in scholarly literature—and by our students.

For instance, in our search we found Musil’s (2003) study, which showed that rising high school seniors and college students did not have personal working definitions of civic engagement. Likewise, Cohen (2008) discovered—when his course was nearly finished—that several of his students had conflated the term “public” with “poor.” Though he had been speaking about society, or “the public,” in an inclusive way that embraced each of his students, some of them thought he had been referring to someone else. They had missed the point.

Most helpful were Battestoni’s (2002) 13 conceptual frameworks of civic engagement across academic disciplines. Battestoni’s review of ways that civic engagement is defined in the academic disciplines showed us distinct categories of different orientations and preferences for engagement. We invited our students in our courses to address the question: What is civic engagement? We designed both of our courses, and an IRB-approved scholarship of teaching and learning study (Rodriguez & Janke, 2016), to engage students directly in exploring the concept of civic engagement and to develop their own civic values—what does civic engagement look like, and what is it meant to achieve? We believed that if we could identify our own conceptions, as well as our students’ conceptions of civic engagement, we would be better able to support the learning of students enrolled in our courses.

The key takeaway from my experience is the importance of involving students in clearly defining their own conceptions of civic engagement. Otherwise, there is the great potential to be like ships passing in the night, each of us speaking the same words but meaning very different things. My colleague and I have shared Battestoni’s (2002) framework with students as a way to delve more deeply into the nuanced differences, making apparent that which is often invisible— that each of us has different histories, traditions, circumstances, orientations, and preferences that shape our own ideas of what it means to be a contributing member of community or society. Battistoni’s framework is accessible and comprehensive, yet we encourage others to try other ways to introduce these concepts to students. Clarifying what is meant by civic engagement, introducing varying conceptualizations of the term, and offering a useful framework can serve as a practical tool for helping educators and students better understand and explore multiple paths toward active democratic civic engagement.

Though seemingly simple, “What is civic engagement?” is a profound question. The search for the answer has the potential for students and faculty to go on a journey together, clarifying what each person believes, the values, outcomes, and action associated with their beliefs, as well as understanding how these may be formed similarly or differently by others. To answer this question, for ourselves and for our classroom community, we practiced listening, dialogue, and empathy—hallmarks of community and tools for listening across differences. What other important questions do we need to ask?

Finding My “Community” in Community Engagement (Paul N. Markham, 2012 Award Recipient)

Receiving the Saltmarsh Award and joining the company of other recipients has been a highlight of my life. The work, spirit, and values represented by the award has oriented my life and guided my career. It is surprising to many, therefore, that I stepped away from my job as a faculty member and university administrator focused on civic and community engagement. Shortly before leaving my last position in a higher education institution, I was teaching community organizing and directing a center for community-based engagement and research. I loved my students and my colleagues. So, why did I leave?!

For whatever reason, I have always been obsessed with large-scale change. I recall times when my students would learn in the classroom and apply that knowledge directly to neighborhoods in need, and their outcomes were remarkable. However, my pride in their accomplishments would quickly become overshadowed by a sadness that more people in more places could not experience similar positive change. Eventually, I left the classroom to become a program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where my job was to work on behalf of the most vulnerable students across higher education and help colleges and universities more effectively achieve their educational goals. In this role, my view of communities in need began to change. I had been accustomed to working with students on college campuses to prepare them to go out to local communities, where they would listen, learn, and in some way help the residents there to address their needs. After working with many colleges and universities across the country, I have come to see campuses as “communities” in great need of engagement and of multifaceted student supports.

Despite an expanding U.S. economy, an increasing number of families across the nation are suffering economically. Equity gaps are growing, and the spirit of division between Americans does not instill much hope that we can, together, address these problems. While there is no panacea for these systemic issues, we do know that education is the greatest lever for social and economic mobility and for creating a quality of life in which individuals can provide not only for themselves but for their families and contribute to society more broadly. Unfortunately, this powerful opportunity to start and complete higher education is not accessible to all students in equitable ways. Of those students who begin and intend to complete their higher education journey, more than 40% fail to do so, and these students are disproportionately low-income, minority, and the first in their families to attend college.

When I hit a “crisis moment” in exploring my direction in life and work, I decided to take the gifts the civic engagement world had given me—the knowledge, skills, tools, and experience from civic and community engagement—and apply them toward strengthening campus communities themselves to better deliver on higher education’s social compact with America—that is, to better serve their students and democracy by becoming the great “way-makers” for social and economic mobility they were intended to be. Since leaving the Gates Foundation, I have continued my commitment to helping colleges and universities fulfill their mission through the creation of Sova, a business partnership with Alison Kadlec (civic engagement practitioner and author of Dewey’s Critical Pragmatism) that focuses on bringing the practical principles of community/civic engagement to the large-scale implementation of student success efforts at higher education institutions across the country.

I Believe in Expansion (Cecilia M. Orphan, 2011 Award Recipient)

I believe engaged learning is about expansion, through removing campus walls and expanding learning to schools, parks, nonprofits, and roads so that students can practice democracy. My approach to engaged learning is informed by my time directing AASCU’s American Democracy Project. At AASCU, I worked with regional comprehensive university (RCU) faculty across the country to expand their ability to foster engaged learning experiences for students, many of whom are underrepresented. I remain in awe of the ability of RCU faculty to expand student learning for democracy, despite the funding and legitimacy challenges that RCUs navigate compared to flagship and private universities. My own work as a tenure-track professor has been influenced by RCU faculty, whose pedagogical practices and creativity I seek to emulate.

I believe that graduate education should be about expanding student learning beyond the city and state, and moving it throughout the country so that students understand the social, political, and economic contexts in which higher education exists. I partner with national educational associations in the engaged courses I teach to encourage this expansion. I also work to equip students with the research and administrative tools of expansion they will use once they graduate.

I taught an engaged seminar exploring the RCU sector through which students examined the funding, legitimacy, and policy challenges the sector faces, the important mission it serves, and the contributions it makes to regional civic and economic life and educational opportunity. I partnered with AASCU to support the Reimagining the First Year of College initiative to improve retention of underrepresented students. Students in the seminar completed three projects: students created a repository of research and resources related to success for underrepresented students; collected and analyzed data about retention challenges faced by RCUs; and designed the initiative’s website. The projects were intended to expand the ability of AASCU and RCU’s to foster student success.

Each spring, I teach an engaged policy course. This year, I partnered with the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, whose members are senior state policymakers charged with guiding public higher education. Students constructed a panel database of educational policy for the years 1980–2017 for all 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Students collected nine identifying variables and 95 descriptive variables, and constructed 2,363 panels with 230,428 observations. The partnership expanded SHEEO’s ability to analyze the efficacy of educational policy for education, particularly as SHEEO works to promote equity-focused policy and protect higher education’s public purposes. The partnership also expanded students’ policy analysis and research skills, and their ability to create research-informed policy for education.

I believe that partnering with national educational associations expands student learning far beyond what I could achieve if the walls of the classroom remained in place. Associations are intermediary organizations that guide policymakers and institutional leaders in improving access and protecting education’s public purposes. My deepest hope is that these partnerships also expand the ability of associations to fulfill what I believe are vital missions.

Artifact: Student Presentation to SHEEO

Conclusion (John A. Saltmarsh)

These essays about pedagogical practice, shared by scholars who have been recognized as emerging leaders in the civic engagement movement, are hopeful reminders that, on campuses across the country, sophisticated teaching and learning practice is countering the dominant institutional learning environments rooted in Western ways of knowing and habits of being. I would like to offer a few observations from these teaching narratives.

Across the essays are common pedagogical tenets—first and foremost, asset-based education, which allows for what Paris (2012) called “culturally sustaining pedagogy” and draws on the cultural and knowledge assets of students in ways that validate their cultural identity as essential to effective teaching and learning. This is important for the academic success and psychosocial development of all students. Second, there is the democratization of knowledge in the classroom and community through an asset-based approach, conferring an equality of respect for the knowledge and experiences that everyone contributes to education in a community of learners. Third, a corollary of the first two, is an epistemic orientation, which Rendón (2012) called “participatory epistemology” (p. 134). It is out of this epistemological orientation that a particular pedagogical approach emerges. As Rendón explained, in this epistemological stance, “the learner is actively connected to what is being learned” (p. 86). The participatory co-creation of knowledge shifts the position of students from knowledge consumers to knowledge producers and also shifts community groups from being subjects or spectators of the learning process to collaborators in knowledge generation and problem solving.

A second observation is that, from this epistemological stance, each of the scholars intimates that their scholarly identity is integrated across faculty roles (as faculty) or that they assume an identity as scholar-administrators (as staff). The pedagogy they practice is linked to the epistemological orientation of knowledge generation in their research and is linked to the service role they perform. Their identities, and the identities of their students, are intersectional, as is their work as scholars. Teaching is reinforced by and reinforces research, which reinforces and is reinforced by teaching, and both are reinforced by and reinforce their relations with community partners through service. They are whole scholars, not bifurcated by segmented roles.

A final observation relates to the perhaps surprising lack of service-learning terminology in these narratives of community-engaged pedagogical practice. It rarely appears. This may be worth exploring further. One hypothesis is that the engaged practice demonstrated by these scholars is not essentially about service or about student learning. Said differently, their central concern is not about pedagogy; instead, it may be about epistemic assumptions that inform a particular pedagogical stance grounded in the qualities of reciprocity, mutual respect, shared authority, and co-creation of goals and outcomes. This kind of relational and participatory epistemology is by its very nature transdisciplinary (i.e., knowledge transcending the disciplines and the college or university) and asset-based (where the strengths, skills, and knowledge of students and those in the community are validated and legitimized). Perhaps these scholars, as emerging leaders, are showing us the future of community-engaged teaching and learning.


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Nicholas D. Hartlep began his career as a 1st grade teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, before receiving a PhD in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM). He also has a master’s in K–12 education and bachelor’s in elementary education, both conferred from Winona State University. Dr. Hartlep is an associate professor of urban education and the chair of the Early Childhood/Elementary Education department in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He also serves as the graduate program coordinator within the School of Urban Education. Dr. Hartlep has published 19 books, the most recent being Asian/American Scholars of Education: 21st Century Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Experiences with coeditors Amardeep K. Kahlon and Daisy Ball (2018) and The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education, with Lucille L. T. Eckrich and Brandon O. Hensley (2017). In 2015, he received the University Research Initiative Award from Illinois State University and a Distinguished Young Alumni Award from WSU. In 2016, UWM presented him with a Graduate of the Last Decade Award for his prolific writing. In 2017, Metropolitan State University presented him with both the 2017 Community Engaged Scholarship Award and the President’s Circle of Engagement Award. In 2018, the Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) granted Dr. Hartlep the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement Award. Follow his work on Twitter at @nhartlep or at his website,

C:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\#235 jsm_McLachlan.pngDr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Founding Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

  1. D.E.A.L. stands for “describe, examine, and articulate learning.”