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Interview with Melissa Licht

In both of your classes, you use a model where the community-engaged learning component is optional for your students. What are the benefits of structuring your course in that way?
It is beneficial to students in that their schedules are increasingly demanding and more and more of them are working a lot of hours outside of school, so it makes it difficult for them to carve out time to do the community engaged component. The option to participate ensures students I’m sending into the community have made a commitment.

Are their drawbacks to this model?
It is challenging from a pedagogical perspective to create a cohesive class experience if there are a large number of students who are not taking the community engaged learning path. And it is also difficult to create a class experience that feels parallel for those two groups of students when one group is engaged in an experiential learning process that has the capacity to be astonishingly rich and can really change the way that students relate to the class texts, and the rest of the class are going through an ordinary academic course.

How has your approach to this model changed over time because of these drawbacks?
Early on, I tried several strategies to manage this discrepancy: I tried having each group of students meet on a different day of the week, or have the CEL students meet fewer class hours than non-CEL students to try to balance out their outside of class work. I also shortened the lengths of assignments for CEL participants to try to even out the workload as they often felt their workload was heavier due to their time spent out of class. However, these strategies were leaving non-CEL students envious of their CEL peers. First, because they felt the academic workload was inequitable and second, because they were missing out on the richness of their peers’ experiences off campus and how deeply it was connecting them to the course material. Often, non-CEL students regretted making the decision not to participate for the semester.

What works for you now?
More recently, the way I square this is to have everyone in the Literature and Public Life course complete a “Public Work” project. The options for students are to complete the CEL component or they can complete an Individual Action Project that requires the same number of hours as the CEL component. This has the effect of making it feel as if everyone is engaged in something experiential and also results in most people choosing CEL because it is so much simpler to walk into a community organization that already has a focused, purposeful mission and a role for students to fill rather than students having to design their own projects and articulate for themselves the goals and values of the project. It has also resulted in the students being more interested in each other’s work.

And you also use this model in Nature Stories, correct? How does it work in that course?
It works extremely well, probably better than the Literature and Public Life Course, because of the close fit I can get between the Community-Engaged work and the course material. It’s a 3000-level course and the students are a little more experienced and generally a little bit better equipped to articulate a project for themselves. They tend to come with a clearer idea of what their passion in this area is and what they might shape their project around. I still end up with a lot more CELs in the class because when the representatives from the environmental organizations come to my class their presentations are powerful. They are able to present an appealing case and students get very interested in seeing what their work looks like.

In this class, I am also able to get the students to a higher level reflectively in terms of self- critique and in terms of problem solving or thinking about solutions to problems, despite the fact that the problems are so large. The individual and collective experience of seeing everyone engaging at sites that are tackling these issues from different angles shows them there is a lot of potential for change. They begin to identify in more concrete ways how they think that change can proceed, so they begin to craft a more sophisticated narrative about what nature means to human cultures and how human culture can work more actively with natural processes.

Speaking of reflection, what is your favorite reflection activity?
I ask my students to create a short dialogue between someone they have gotten to know through their community site and one of the authors we are reading. They can place themselves in the dialogue if they want. At times there’s a real struggle as they try to reconcile the different perspectives. Sometimes there’s a leap in their recognition of a connection between reading as an academic chore and their community work, which is typically a more natural and social experience for them. It helps students to create the link between academic and theoretical works with the real, lived experiences of people who are in their communities; it’s an eye-opening moment for them.

What’s your advice for someone who is new to teaching a CEL course?
To be sure to make room within class time for students to share their experiences. There’s a huge part of their learning that is experiential and you will not have access to unless you create a space where you can engage them conversationally.

Any last comments for your colleagues to consider?
Go experiential. Engage if you can with the community sites themselves and do it in a way that honors their time. The first time I taught my own course that had a community-engaged learning component, I went and volunteered at one of the sites where the students would be for the semester. If you don’t have time for a sustained volunteer commitment in your schedule, another way to learn more about an organization is to do a site visit or to set up a brief conversation with the site supervisor. It can enrich how you draw out students’ experiences when they are back in the classroom and can help you understand how the individuals at the community organizations perceive their work.

Thanks to Melissa Licht for her time and expertise!