Community Based Research as Effective Learning

A colleague of mine commented today on facebook that it is better to give than receive, and this is particularly true during exams. But I often find myself nervous to see how my students perform. Did my intentions for their learning get realized? This semester I taught a new course on Community Arts that had a community based research component. It was my first time incorporating any activity beyond the university walls, and so I was especially eager to assess my students’ final work.

Our partner organizations were The Bridge PAI in Charlottesville, an experimental space devoted to building social capital through the creative process, and Gallery 5 in Richmond, an experimental grassroots gallery. I built on a wave of Academic Community Engagement that is building at the University of Virginia. With the aid of Deandra Little at the Teaching Resource Center and Emily Kane, my undergraduate mentor and professor of Sociology at Bates College, I took the practice of service-learning a bit further to include student driven research that was conducted in partnership with the two organizations.

I drew upon my orientation to music improvisation – complete openness to expression made possible — paradoxically — by my obsession with building implicit structure. Like any good improv, it could have been a disaster. As Helen describes:

At the beginning of the semester, I was very excited about the prospect of partnering with a real arts organization in Charlottesville. I remember sitting there in a circle with Greg [the director of the Bridge] and thinking about all the ways in which The Bridge might be helped. A half-formed question was tickling the back of my mind, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. It was a week or two later, when we were forming our project groups, when I realized what my question would have been: “What are your most pressing needs?”

The constant, yet controlled, threat of collapse drove the students’ creativity, pressing them to take responsibility. Students set up initial discussions with the staff of the organizations, working directly with them to identify how they could make a meaningful contribution – as independent researchers – to the needs of their wider community. Through collaboration, they decided what to research, how to research it, and in what format to present it. As Chris describes:

I remember the moment that I realized this was in our first meeting with Greg, when we initially pitched our idea. I remember how excited he was to see the potential of our project, and I was able to see quite literally how the project would structurally affect The Bridge for the better.

What set the meeting and the entire project apart from past service projects that I’ve been a part of was that we met at as a group with Greg, and pitched our ideas, but more importantly, we listened to his. It was less of one person telling another what they wanted done, and more of a dialogue. This made me feel like it was a true partnership, and not simply service.

The theme of engagement resonated throughout the final reflections my students posted to their public blogs for the course. In conjunction with traditional seminar style reading and discussion, it was this community component that made the deepest impression on students. As Tatiana describes:

I suspected when I began this course, although I didn’t know for sure, that I was going to encounter material that would start me thinking in ways I hadn’t before. My suspicions proved correct: I’ve been fundamentally changed by what I’ve read and experienced in this course. More often than not, these changes happened outside the classroom, as I worked with my group and partner organization or engaged with CAN and other reading material.

Community collaboration (and field trips to neighborhoods and galleries) got students hooked. Once hooked, I guided them through their own execution of an original and creative project in which they applied methods of analysis they had learned in previous social sciences and humanities courses. To my surprise, students felt empowered by the opportunity to reuse methods they had learned in previous courses because they could see the immediate relevance of surveys, textual analysis, and interviews.

But perhaps more importantly students learned things I never expected when they applied academic methods to community collaboration. Here are some happy accidents of community based research “improv”:

And to become truly passionate about the issue my group and I were addressing made me feel that dipping my toes into the waters of the real work energized me to be proactive about community and urban space.

I feel like SOC 4559 opened up an entirely different world to me that I didn’t know existed, in Charlottesville or otherwise. I come from a scientifically minded family, and at the beginning of the semester, I’d never heard of community arts, been to a poetry reading or studied local art movements (we’re more likely to go to the National Air & Space Museum than the National Gallery). All that has definitely changed for me this semester – I feel like I have a grasp of the community arts scene in Charlottesville, I know how local galleries interact with the community around them, and I’ve definitely got the hang of poetry readings now (and can’t wait for the next one!).

I always viewed the Arts as this lofty often high brow endeavor that was usually reserved for an elite sect, with little opportunity for an attainment by all social classes…those within the art world are coming to understand the power of their field to elevate all people regardless of their socioeconomic status, prior exposure to the Arts, or even their previous interests in artistic endeavors.

I’ve learned that [community arts] is perhaps the best kind of activism for today’s society for it plays upon the rising creative class that holds power in our world.

Finally, students learned to appreciate each others’ talents and contributions as meaningful to the world beyond the classroom. As one student wrote:

I was thoroughly impressed by the work done by my classmates and it was amazing to see how so many different great ideas and suggestions came about through their CBR work. I am excited to see how the two galleries will receive the finished products of our research, and I sincerely hope that the research may be of some benefit to them in their current and future endeavors.

As a start, my students’ work has inspired me to move from my role in music programming at the Bridge to collaborate with them on research and analysis of their community outreach programs.

The best part of giving is the intangible returns of appreciation and growth and this is particularly true during exam period. My students, in return, affirmed for me how much students can do when they have the tools and the freedom. They have also made a damn good case for community based research as effective learning.