Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Behind the Rhetoric: Applying a Cultural Theory Lens to Community-Campus Partnership Development

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Behind the Rhetoric: Applying a Cultural Theory Lens to Community-Campus Partnership Development

Article excerpt

The nature of engagement between American campuses and communities is contested. This article is an invitation to reconsider why community-campus partnerships often look so different and have diverse and sometimes negative outcomes. Using a cultural theory approach (Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky, 1990) to elucidate the four main cultural frames that inform human behavior--hierarchist, individualistic, fatalistic, and egalitarian--this treatment maps these frames onto the broad terrain of community-campus partnerships. This exploration enables service-learning and other partnership building practitioners to more clearly recognize and understand the preconceptions that influence partners' approaches. Because service-learning rhetoric is heavily biased toward egalitarian (reciprocal, mutual) relationship building, it does not necessarily ensure that all entities on and off campus understand or accept this approach. This application suggests several areas for future research as service-learning practitioners "unlearn a belief system" and work to build a new system in its place.

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"There is an important role for higher education in the global society, but the exact nature of that engagement is contested. Higher education's failure and best self can be found by engaging community partners in mutually transformative work that allows us to reimagine, in ways both creative and practical, sustainable communities. Our choice of partners and our visions of what may be accomplished together create opportunities for us to become members of communities and of a world of which we would like to be part" (Enos & Morton, 2003, p. 40).

The "nature of engagement" between American campuses and communities is contested. The advent of service-learning pedagogies and associated relationship building practices in higher education has provided much fuel for reciprocal community-campus partnership development. However, the pace of change in higher education can be quite slow, and traditions play an important role within even the most permeable walls of the ivory tower. Thus, despite more than a decade and a half of robust rhetoric, implementation, and emerging research in support of egalitarian approaches to partnership development, many within (as well as outside) the academy view partnership building through alternative lenses. Despite some recent, excellent theoretical treatments of service-learning partnership development (e.g., Enos & Morton, 2003), there is a gap in the service-learning literature regarding this topic. With the hope of eventually helping to address this shortage, this article invites reexamining assumptions about partnerships to learn more about the thinking that informs practitioners' actions.

Consider this (perhaps familiar) example. Recently, a private college in Portland, Oregon purchased a large home in a nearby residential neighborhood without informing the local residents about intentions to remodel and use the home for off-campus events (Zheng, 2005). A group of local residents were concerned about the impact this might have on their quiet block. Some were quite upset and vowed to prevent the college from gaining approval. The campus' "shove-it-down-your-face excuse-me approach is obviously rubbing us the wrong way," said resident Mike Fisher. Another resident, Craig Korstad, said the college was "coy" about this purchase and claimed he didn't find out about the new owners until he asked the renovators. A public affairs official at the college said the city approved the required work permits, yet "it's not part of the process to go back to any of the constituents and seek formal approval." It does not appear that the college was initially concerned about building an egalitarian relationship with the new neighbors. This scenario is not unique. This article invites us to reconsider why some partnerships--service-learning or otherwise--between higher education institutions and communities often look so different, and have such diverse (and sometimes negative) outcomes. …

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