More than Just Service

Photo by Natalie Robles
Photo by Natalie Robles

Two big initiatives took place at Duke last week that demonstrate some of the ways that faculty and student civic engagement hold much greater educational value—particularly at top tier research universities such as ours-than as simply co-curricular enhancements to our core undergraduate curriculum.  These were the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy and the Retreat for Understanding Students’ Engaged Experiences. When practiced as engaged scholarship, civic engagement can be a form of scholarly knowledge production adhering to the integrity and standards of our best scientific methodologies.  Engaged scholarship is grounded in methods that give students an opportunity to thoughtfully and meaningfully apply their classroom knowledge to project-based learning.

This past Wednesday, over sixty faculty and staff of programs across campus voluntarily assembled for a six-hour retreat to share and improve tools and methods to enhance student engaged learning. A grass-roots initiative, the Retreat for Understanding Students’ Engaged Experiences was organized by staff from several Duke units including the Academic Advising Center, Duke Service-Learning, Offices of Civic Engagement, Global Education (GEO) and Academic Affairs. More than 30 programs and initiatives campus-wide attended the Retreat at Duke Gardens which, in addition to professional development, prioritized building collegiality and personal as well as professional connections as important objectives of the day.   The topic of this year’s gathering was “Duke in the World/The World in Duke” and participants were asked to “consider the dynamic interactions of students, staff and faculty with our world—be it Duke’s campus, Durham, home communities and/or international destinations—as well as the interactions of these worlds with all of us.” [1] Greeted at the door of the Doris Duke Center, everyone was given two push pins (one red and one yellow) and directed to a map of the world where we were asked to mark two locations: 1) where we went to school and 2) where we learned the most. This exercise served to inspire collegial conversation and to remind us all at the start of the day that meaningful learning does not only take place in classrooms.

Photo by Natalie Robles
Photo by Natalie Robles

Throughout the rest of the day, we were repeatedly reminded to consider the various ways in which our professional and private selves intersect and inform our roles as teachers, mentors and administrators and colleagues at Duke. We spent most of the time engaging with colleagues around tables of eight that were deliberately arranged with representatives from various campus programs and offices.   During the first session, we were invited to share how we identify ourselves at work and outside of Duke and how these identities conflict with and/or enhance each other.   We were a group of all women at my table. Interestingly enough, whereas “in worlds beyond Duke” we all tended to privilege our gender roles by describing ourselves as mother, daughter, partner, sister and/or cousin; gender was never used as a significant determinant in descriptions of our professional selves at Duke.

This session was followed by summary reports on the work of self-assembled groups that formed after the first retreat held in 2013 around salient issues in experiential learning at Duke.   Of the three groups that presented, the first one came together over a shared interest in better understanding the role of gender in local and global civic education. The group reported on some interesting trends that seem to emerge along gender lines: namely, in student selection of geographic location and type of experience. Whereas more female than male students tend to sign up for trips to Mexico and Central America, for example, male students tend to gravitate toward experiences focused on entrepreneurship and engineering as opposed to service.   But are these gender discrepancies problematic or just noteworthy? The work of this group tied in nicely with the discussion about gender roles that our table had earlier.

The second group presented their research findings on the type and sequence of programs along which Duke students trend. It is commonplace, for example, for our students to apply for summer travel programs, like DukeEngage, before committing to the semester or year-long programs offered by GEO. A concern with which this working group grappled was the degree to which students benefited from having a period of “reflection” on our Durham campus between these Duke-organized experiences. Were these experiences made more didactically meaningful when buffered by more traditional classroom learning? During the discussion at our table, we shared concerns about whether Duke sophomores, in particular, have the maturity level necessary to understand the significance of a summer engagement experience in terms of their broader undergraduate education.

The focus of a subset of the third working group, which was more broadly committed to developing a toolkit of resources for responsible and ethical community engagement, was directly relevant to the second working group’s query. Focused on learning and reflection, this subgroup has begun to research a data cache of published scholarship on the relationship between cognitive reflection and experiential learning outcomes. I have been a participating member of this group for the past year along with the director of our A.B. and B.N. Duke Scholars Programs and a graduate student intern of our Program in Service Learning. Our combined knowledge and skills have vastly enriched a longtime research interest of mine. In addition to culling relevant sources, we are working on developing a field experiment utilizing new methods to effectively integrate students’ academic knowledge with his or her direct experiences. Other members of our larger working group focused on aggregating pedagogical resources on cultural awareness and humility, power and privilege, risk and well-being, partnership and context and expectations and professionalism.   Far from comprehensive, this working group, as well as the others, humbly presented themselves as a first rather than the last word on these topics and enthusiastically welcomed new members to join their process of inquiry.

At the final session of the day, we invited participants to contribute their thoughts and ideas to Duke’s new strategic planning effort. Although I was especially active in helping to plan this part of the retreat, I found it led to the least fruitful discussions of the day at my table.   The retreat’s steering committee had solicited questions from the faculty chairs of both the new strategic planning and undergraduate curriculum committee and shared five of the most relevant to Retreat participants. We summarized them as follows:

  • How can the Duke curriculum provide more opportunities for exploration, creativity and reflection?
  • How can we create a curriculum that will challenge (or even disrupt) some of the intense focus on the pre-professionalism and credentialism?
  • How can we structure a curriculum that provides more space and time for deeper experiential, project-based and global experiences?
  • How can we create learning communities where students engage with each other across schools and with their academic work such that the quality of the engagement is more valued than the number if engagements?
  • Are there aspects of existing programs at Duke that could serve as good models for future engaged learning programs and initiatives?

While the notes from each table conversation are yet to be consolidated and reviewed, the conversation at my table went decidedly off-course. Rather than envisioning a future, we reverted to complaining about the status quo. Maybe we were just tired after a long morning or disappointed at the institutional focus of this final session of the Retreat. I wish, instead, we could have spent our time considering how we might better bring to bear the knowledge and experiences of our whole selves in the future of Duke, be it as administrator, scholar, teacher, mother, father, partner and/or colleague.   Our vision for Duke over the next ten years would be vastly enriched if we could invite and amplify the shared insights and expertise of this incredible community as part of our strategic planning process.

[1] Reference is from an agenda produced by members of the Retreat’s steering committee that was inserted into packets given to each participant.