Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

A City-Campus Engagement Theory from, and for, Practice

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

A City-Campus Engagement Theory from, and for, Practice

Article excerpt

It seems to me that for the first time in nearly half a century, institutions of higher learning are not collectively caught up in some urgent national endeavor. Still, our outstanding universities and colleges remain, in my opinion, among the greatest sources of hope for intellectual and civic progress in this country. I'm convinced that for this hope to be fulfilled, the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems. (Boyer, 1996, p. 11)

Since 1999, hundreds of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) students have unknowingly advanced Boyer's call by connecting the rich resources of one of the world's most powerful universities with the small and impoverished city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, located 30 miles north of campus. In this article, I share what I have learned while observing and participating in the partnership known as MIT@Lawrence, and "challenge the epistemology built into the modern research university" (Schon, 1995, p. 27).

This article, like my own intellectual journey, begins with a story of practice. In the first part of the article, the data, which I collected over a period of more than seven years, come from a variety of sources, including course syllabi and assignments, student theses and dissertations, meeting notes and transcripts, organizational reports, funding proposals, books, newspapers, journal articles, and personal interviews, as well as my own personal reflections, (2) and draw on participant voices (3) focused on thoughts and feelings about the partnership's history, evolution, and aspirations. In the second part I present an engagement theory, and in the third part I present strategies for practicing engagement. Each of the second and third parts relies primarily on data gathered during the 2008-09 academic year through the more

than 40 reflective interviews students conducted with MIT@Lawrence participants, past and present, as well as data from a series of reflection exercises completed by student participants. (4) The emphasis on reflective practice contributes to what the late Donald Schon, M.I.T. professor of Urban Studies and Education from 1968 to 1997, called the "battle of snails" in which participant voices represent small, but vital movements toward "the new scholarship":

   All of us who live in research universities are
   bound up in technical rationality regardless of
   our personal attitudes toward it, because it is
   built into the institutional arrangements--the
   formal and informal rules and norms--that govern
   such processes as the screening of candidates
   for tenure and promotion. Even liberal arts colleges,
   community colleges, and other institutions
   of higher education appear to be subject to the
   influence of technical rationality by a kind of
   echo effect or by imitation. Hence, introducing
   the new scholarship into institutions of higher
   education means becoming involved in an epistemological
   battle. It is a battle of snails, proceeding
   so slowly that you have to look very
   carefully in order to see it is going on. But it is
   happening nonetheless. (1995, p. 32)

In short, this article tells a story of practice, but also a story of theory, and how each informs and transforms the other through a two-way flow of people and knowledge from the city to the campus and back again. It also makes the case for a new epistemology--reciprocal knowledge--knowledge development and real learning on both sides, achieved through a diverse, dynamic, and complex network of human relationships.

Our Story of Practice

What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing. Aristotle

The first part of this article is organized into five chronological episodes, each ranging from one to four years, and in it I introduce some of the faculty, students, staff, civic leaders, and residents who comprised the partnership between M. …

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