Community Service for Faculty

This week at Prof Hacker, Billie Hara suggests that service learning is not just for students. Service can also enrich the life of faculty. Specifically, service can help faculty break out of the ivory tower, teach us new things about “industry, community, populations, or activism,” and help us create work-life balance. In addition, I would suggest that service, when conducted as community based research (CBR), can enrich scholarship by linking community engagement with teaching and research.

CBR extends the concept of service learning by situating service within faculty research interests and the research needs of community organizations. Ideally, it is a collaboration between faculty, students, and the staff of community organizations or their clients. For example, while volunteering at a local soup kitchen, students might also survey the needs of the community or research funding models from similar programs elsewhere. The projects would grow out of a prior dialogue between the faculty, who may for instance be doing research on homelessness, and the organization, who may for instance want to expand their services and secure funding to do so.

Hara’s assessment of the benefits of community service for faculty bears out in my own experience as a graduate instructor. I started out volunteering at the Bridge PAI as an events coordinator, helping to create a local scene for experimental sound artists. This activity gave me a break from “work.” It also taught me how non-profits run and how the sociological concept of “social capital” is put into practice.

The relationships and interests I discovered through volunteering became a foundation for a CBR course I designed on Community Organizing and the Arts. In guiding my students’ independent research, I became more deeply engaged in the volunteer work I was already doing. The students’ projects generated a rapid and rich survey of the organization from issues of funding, to outreach, to the fulfillment of its mission. Their work also created a data set that the organization can use as it develops its outreach programs and applies for funding. Through the CBR course, my role as a volunteer has changed. I am becoming more involved as a sociologist who can work with the organization to measure its impact on the community. This experience also contributes to my scholarship on how independent artists generate local resources to support their craft.

My experience has been inductive – where volunteering as a citizen fed into a community based research project. But it can also work the other way around, where a research interest can spur faculty service and student involvement.

We can learn a lot from our local communities. We can also work to make our research applicable for those in our immediate surroundings. Community based research can integrate work and life while also showing hiring and tenure committees the value of community service to our teaching and scholarship.