Student Perceptions of Community-Based Research Partners and the Politics of Knowledge

By Kane, Emily W. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Student Perceptions of Community-Based Research Partners and the Politics of Knowledge


Kane, Emily W., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Based on quantitative survey data and qualitative data from journal entries by students in a seminar focused on community-based research, undergraduate student perceptions of community partners are explored in the context of debates about the politics of knowledge. Student perceptions that frame community partners as the recipients of academic expertise are differentiated from those that validate partner expertise as essential to the co-creation of knowledge. Evidence is presented indicating that appropriately structured courses, especially those supported by robust institutional infrastructure for community-engaged learning, can (and should) encourage students to recognize community partners" as valuable sources of knowledge.

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Advocates for community-based learning in higher education increasingly emphasize the importance of reciprocity, and encourage students and faculty to recognize community partners as sources of knowledge. In this article, undergraduate student perceptions of community-based research partners are analyzed based on a quantitative survey and a qualitative analysis of student journal entries in two offerings of a junior-senior research seminar entitled "Public Sociology." The seminar involved readings on the politics of knowledge as well as community-based research (CBR) methods. In addition, students engaged in CBR, working in small groups with partners from agencies and organizations in the local community. Results indicate that over the course of the seminar, students became more likely to perceive their community partners as valuable contributors to learning and knowledge generation.

The analysis of student perceptions is situated in a brief review of the literature on community-based learning, with particular attention to reciprocity and the politics of knowledge as those concepts have developed in the relevant literature. With that context sketched, the seminar, data available from it, and data analysis approach are introduced (including the strengths and limitations of the data). On the basis of that analysis, it is argued that an appropriately structured course, especially one supported by institutional infrastructure that legitimates reciprocal community engagement, can encourage students to recognize community partners as valuable sources of knowledge. As one student put it, "it was amazing getting to know people with experiences and knowledge far beyond my own." But encouraging that recognition requires considerable attention, as the hegemony of academically-generated knowledge seeps into even an explicitly reciprocal flaming of the knowledge-making process.

Reciprocity and the Politics of Knowledge in Community-Based Learning

In a review of trends in community-engaged learning, Zlotkowski and Duffy (2010, p. 34) argue that "it is impossible to trace the recent history of community-based teaching and learning without understanding its symbiotic relationship to a broader set of developments in the contemporary academy." In their widely-cited book on community-based research (CBR), Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, and Donohue (2003) follow the same approach, situating their advocacy for CBR within a set of questions about the political economy of the academy in the United States. From Boyer's (1990) critique of limiting definitions of faculty scholarship that sometimes discourage publicly-oriented faculty work to national reports calling for greater institutional engagement in the public good (e.g., Kellogg Commission, 1999; The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2012), many have called for curricular and institutional change in higher education. Strand et al. (2003) summarize three forces they consider particularly important in this regard:

   Two of them widespread criticism of higher
   education's disconnection from communities
   and growing concern about the professorate's
   exceedingly narrow definition of research--originated
   outside the institutions . … 

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