Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Serving Ourselves: How the Discourse on Community Engagement Privileges the University over the Community

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Serving Ourselves: How the Discourse on Community Engagement Privileges the University over the Community

Article excerpt

Since Ernest Boyer (1990) recommended that university scholarship become more engaged, the higher education landscape has been changing. Recognizing the academic, societal, and economic disconnect between themselves and the neighbourhoods in which they are situated, many higher education institutions are turning to campus-community partnerships as one way to address this disconnect (d'Arlach, Sanchez, & Feuer, 2009; Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003). This increase in campus-community partnerships results in an increase in research, creating discourse communities that shape and influence understandings of community engagement in higher education. In this context, however, these discourse communities are perhaps counterproductively incestuous, producing scholarship written by and for scholars, and that excludes participation by the very "community" they intend to serve. Considering Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton's (2008) recent concerns related to why civic engagement in higher education appears to be stalling, one has to ask, is there indeed a privileged epistemology of the academy that runs counter to principles of community engagement? If so, is this privilege being reinforced through a discourse that one would expect to be sympathetic to the voice of the community? To answer this question, I investigate the discourse of community engagement in higher education, and in particular in community service learning, the most popular form of campus-community engagement, and analyze critically how scholars are creating and reinforcing certain understandings in the field.

How are scholars representing the concept of community in their discourses, especially in light of a noted, and suspicious, absence of community participation in the scholarship of community engagement in higher education? Numerous criticisms concerning the lack of research into the effects of campus-community engagement on communities (Giles & Cruz, 2000; Howard, 2003; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009; Vernon & Ward, 1999) substantiate concerns over how "community" is factoring into the literature. For this reason, Stoecker and Tryon (2009) ask, "Who is being served in community service learning?" (p. 5). With this question in mind, I turn toward the discourse of community service learning to investigate more closely how scholars are invoking the concept of community and to what effect. By isolating examples of the term community within the literature, and analyzing them, a clearer picture emerges of how the research is portraying the very group it intends to serve.

Drawing attention to this picture and recycling the findings back into the very literature I analyzed, I intend to raise a critical awareness within the engagement community of how the language connected to the term community creates and reinforces certain understandings. In my effort to understand how the concept of community is being portrayed in the literature, I conducted a discourse analysis (Gee, 2011; Harris, 1952; Hymes, 1964; Paltridge, 2006; Perakyla, 2005; Powers, 2001) of the key word community as used in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Reflected in this analysis is a discourse that privileges the university over the community. Furthermore, a number of themes emerge that specifically illustrate the ways in which the discourse creates an understanding of the community as a passive recipient of the university's more active agency in designing and implementing community-based projects. This paper discusses four ways community is conceived in the literature that denote a privileging of the university: community as a means by which the university enhances its academic work; community as a recipient of influence by the university; community as a place which the university makes better; and community as a factor in the financial interest of the university. I highlight these themes to illustrate the subtle yet troubling ways in which community engagement discourse articulates a privileging of the university over the community. …

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