Academic Community Engagement @ the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia has developed a growing community of scholars involved in academic community engagement, which is elsewhere sometimes known as community based research or service learning. At an end of the semester reflective luncheon this afternoon, over twenty faculty gathered to discuss their previous experiences and their plans for the upcoming year. The diversity of fields and courses was exciting, ranging from student-led theater workshops in juvenile corrections facilities, to education students’ mentoring of middle school girls, to a photo documentary of the diabetes epidemic in southwestern Virginia.

This group shared some important insights:

  • Partner with an organization in which you already have a good working relationship with a key staff member
  • Communicate your expectations with the partner organization early and often
  • Anticipate that students will need guidance on time management, scheduling, and interpersonal communication as well as academic content
  • Build in structure for students through clear assignments and expectations – its better to have too much than too little, you can always back off
  • At the same time, be flexible and encourage your students to do the same – they may have to switch the direction of their projects or reschedule appointments when working with a community partner
  • Regular journal assignments are a key tool for students to learn and for instructors to assess student learning in the form of students’ personal transformation

There were some interesting things to note about this group of educators. We were primarily working in either applied fields (e.g. medicine, social work, education, public health, engineering, urban planning) or were socially-engaged humanists (e.g. history, theater, literature). Additionally, one participant noted that tenured and tenure track faculty are a minority in ACE and service learning. The majority are instead general faculty, adjunct instructors, or graduate instructors. I’d be interested to see more data on this issue from the University of Virginia as well as from other research universities. The engagement of non-tenured faculty demonstrates their vibrancy and creativity as well as their commitment to students. The task at hand is to further engage tenure-track and tenured faculty in ACE.

I’m excited to see how Megan Raymond, Director of Academic Community Engagement, Dorothe Bach, Assistant Director of the Teaching Resource Center, and the ACE faculty grant recipients develop these exciting connections between teaching, research, and service.