|Workshop on the development of courses that integrate action of students promoting human rights and social justice, Jerusalem, January 8, 2006|
The workshop discussing the development of community engaged courses was held in Jerusalem, and attended by faculty members, deans, members of social involvement units at institutions of higher education, representatives of social change organizations, and students – all from different institutions around the country. The participants also varied in their fields of instruction and research – archeology, geography, feminism, art, Judaism, law, social work, and more. The day was divided into two main parts. In the first part Dr. Daphna Golan-Agnon, Director of the Students and Academy for Social Change Forum, presented the main findings of the mapping study that led to the establishment of the forum, as well as models of academic courses that integrate social action of students. In the second part of the day Prof. Arthur Keene of the University of Massachusetts - Amherst shared his experience in developing community service learning courses and reviewed examples of such courses taught at his institution.
The founding of the Students and Academy for Social Change Forum was the outcome of a study group comprising students, faculty members and other individuals active in social change organizations, who met at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The study group evolved into a steering committee that initiated a research mapping the social involvement of students in the framework of higher education institutions, social organizations, and local initiatives. The mapping research examined different questions, among them: what are the various activity frameworks? Do higher education institutions promote and support student community service, and if so how? How are faculty members connected to student community service and social activities? How should the needs of the community in which the students are active be mapped? All these issues derived from three general questions: what is the contribution of the social action to the students themselves? What is the contribution of their social action to the community? And what is the contribution of students' action to the faculty members and the academy?
Dr. Golan-Agnon provided an overview of the main aspects of the mapping research, including in the presentation the students' voices. The active students reported impacts on the personal level, experiences that led to personal change, and afforded encounters between different social groups that normally interact on a limited basis. The social action of students primarily involves work with children and youth, community work and education for rights – all areas in which the community benefits from the involvement. Throughout the students’ activity new opportunities are created, relations develop, and assistance is offered beyond the scope of the activity initially determined. However, higher education institutions in general do not educate towards social involvement, and do not view such activity as something that contributes to the academic knowledge, although the students' fieldwork has the potential to make courses and research more relevant, and presents a significant source of knowledge.
Dr. Golan-Agnon focused on ways through which the various institutions can encourage the social involvement of students: academic guidance that links academic knowledge with work in the field, training and guidance, and rewards and long-term planning. Active students receive guidance from the social involvement units or other frameworks through which they are involved. Yet, necessary guidance does not exist in all programs, and is not available in the frequency required to allow meaningful learning and action. Students who participated in community engaged courses spoke of academic guidance that links action in the field to academic knowledge, thus making their action and participation more aware and sensitive. In the framework of a community engaged course students emphasized the value of the group, the ability to examine issues with a group of peers. Training in the organization itself is also necessary support – in some cases training is insufficient and students do not have a person in the organization with whom they can consult. Furthermore, rewards and long-term planning are also essential to rendering the activity more effective. Lack of continuity in students’ activities, such as in tutoring and mentoring programs, is unfair to the children, and does not contribute as much as a long-term and comprehensive program could. The summer season is particularly problematic – for the most part, no consideration is given to what happens in the summer after the students leave.
The findings of the mapping research led to the following recommendations: rewarding the higher education institutions to encourage their commitment to the community; increasing the number of “Perach” (tutorial project) scholarships according to the Government’s decision of December 1988; pooling of resources on the institutional level; leveraging the subject through publicizing existing activities; and forming organizational frameworks for promoting the subject on the national level. Resource pooling and forming new frameworks will contribute to exchange of knowledge in the institutions and between the acting organizations and bodies.
In the first part of the day, Dr. Golan-Agnon asked students who participated in community engaged courses to impart their perception and share some of their thoughts about their experiences. They spoke of a different kind of interaction between the professor and students, a different kind of support; about the important learning that takes place when trying to examine which theories correlate with the reality observed during their work; about encounters that occur in the course between students of different backgrounds; about the course as place for clarifying attitudes and opinions; and about the importance of the course in guiding the planning process and in overcoming obstacles. The courses allow reflection that encourages change rather than social reproduction. They enable initial translation of knowledge into power.
The discussion held in the first part of the workshop surfaced difficulties in designing programs that lead to change, and in proper guidance of students throughout their work in the organizations – understanding that these type of courses require greater responsibility and time. Other difficulties that arose pertain to the status of the researcher in the faculty at which he or she teaches, and in the academy in general, in comparison to his or her position in the community studied. Change in one position or aspect influences the other.
Other questions were raised in regard to the existing knowledge about community engaged courses, and design of such programs. Most organizations do not document their work systematically, and overall, social action is not widely documented. In continuation, concerning the contribution of social involvement to academic knowledge – comments were raised about the need for a framework that will lead the academy to better recognize the potential contribution of social action to research and to the academy at large. There is also a need for pedagogical writing in the field, and for the formation of cooperative projects and learning.
A short session in small groups took place following the first part. During this session participants described their experiences in the field, and raised more questions for discussion.
Prof. Keene, an anthropologist, has been facilitating seminars for faculty members for several years, with the aim of developing and adding a social involvement component to the courses they teach. Thus far, 175 lecturers have developed over 100 such courses at University of Massachusetts - Amherst, and those faculty members who received grants for developing the courses are committed to teaching them for at least three years. Prof. Keene described how his personal history, as well as his areas of interest – citizenship, community, and social justice – led him to engage in this activity. In the wider context, in the past several years questions have been raised regarding the decay of democracy in America, and the issue of social responsibility has also been raised in relation to the history of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Several hundred universities in the United States received upon their establishment a land grant subject to their agreement that they train and educate residents of the community, and serve its needs in return. Throughout the years, relations with the community changed, and today scientific research is the top priority of these universities, as it is in other institutions, although the relations with the community may yet change. Thus, universities founded by means of a “land grant”, the University of Massachusetts – Amherst among them, are reexamining their relationships with their environment. Prof. Keene mentioned that in the past twenty years the trend in the United States is to create partnerships between campuses and the communities in which they reside.
The model presented by Prof. Keene combines three main components – academic content/ knowledge, service/ activity in the community according to a defined need, and guided reflection integrated in an academic course. The combination of the three, their common denominator, is the focal point of Community Service Learning (Prof. Keene used this term to define courses that integrate social action, while mentioning this term is not consensual and that other terms are used alternately by different parties – Civic Engagement Courses, Community Based Learning – and they too are contested). The combination between the three components is what influences the students most deeply, and leads to involvement and change in their perceptions and actions. He claims this is evident either in the manner the classes are conducted, or in the activities students take upon themselves beyond the formal course requirements. In some cases the courses themselves demand different conduct. Prof. Keene described the unconventional practices in his classes. His lessons include group work, thus generate more active participation than usual in the academy (students who participated in one of Prof. Keene’s courses subsequently designed their own course in which they study independently). This is also done based on the perception that class dynamics are directly related to the manner of action in the community, especially in civic activities.
The first course Prof. Keene presented is one in which the social action component was added as a solution to an urgent need in Amherst. The city council approached Prof. Ventura Perez, expert on violence at the university, when a group of disengaged youth began harassing senior citizens near a center for retired citizens in town. Although there are youth programs in Amherst, about 20% of the teenagers do not participate in them, among them a group of disengaged youth. Prof. Perez and a group of students agreed to act and opened a youth club in an apartment donated by the city. The students operated the youth center, giving the youth a wide degree of freedom in deciding the place’s appropriation and organization. The students worked on an entirely voluntary basis for four years. This is an example of successful intervention that contributed immensely to the youth, the city, and the students. The encounter between the students and teenagers raised many questions concerning violence, the connection of alienation and exclusion to violence, and the way teenagers react to authority. All these questions were discussed in Prof. Perez’s course. Other questions that were raised pertain to processes that occur in societies that are not poor. These questions led the students to deal more broadly with issues of citizenship, and the responsibility of the community towards all its members. The course incorporated structured reflection that relates between the theoretical knowledge learned in the course and the students experience in the field. The work within the course even resulted in one of the students establishing a youth council in the city, a body that did not exist earlier, so that it would be possible to outline more comprehensive policies regarding youth. Teenagers also participated in the process of forming the council and so they too were required to adopt new practices. Thus, a wide circle of people learned about the power it has to influence and change things.
Another course at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst is taught by Prof. Sastry, faculty member who researches nuclear physics. As part of the course Prof. Sastry's students test for radon in different parts of town, and raise awareness of the matter. Along the theoretical and technical aspects of the procedure, the mere act of going out to test buildings in the various neighborhoods brings up questions concerning the responsibility of scientists as citizens who posses knowledge that is not accessible to the entire population, as well as health implications.
Prof. Keene also presented the course he teaches on grassroots organizations in the community – the way poor communities deal with poverty without the help of external associations and organizations, but by utilizing resources found in the community. This course provides more theoretical background to the students, while during spring break they travel to live and work in a Virginia community coping with dire poverty. There the students work with a grassroots group that has struggled for eight years to bring running water to the African-American neighborhood in town. The stay there comprises work, as well as a significant learning experience. In the past years the community organization has worked to make the residents owners of the houses in which they live. The students participating in the project work in renovating or rebuilding the houses. They also meet and work with the youth and children. Throughout this time references are made to issues that have been discussed in class throughout the year, there is an attempt to link the theories and observed reality. The fact that their stay is short is problematic – the faculty members acknowledge and refer to this. They also attempt to bring up the students' biographies in the discussions, to expand the reflection in regard to the relationship with the community. According to Prof. Keene, the local organization chooses the type of activity in which the students engage, and even if their stay were extended this would not necessarily have changed. The mere participation of students in the activity, their familiarization with the organization and the community, educates them, raises their awareness, and influences their future choices as people who will be active in other organizations and communities.
Prof. Keene’s courses are offered in the format of seminars and in fact are not “conducted” by him but rather in cooperation with the students. Everyone is responsible for participation and progression of the lessons; everyone undertakes to be both teacher and student. Students from all departments and years may register, however, there is an application process the purpose of which is to assure that only students who are willing to invest efforts in field work will be selected, and also to create a socially heterogeneous class. Marks for the course are given for the learning and not for the fieldwork component. The framework is based upon a contract between students and faculty members, while participation in compliance with the contract guarantees a certain mark, and only breach of the contract, or outstanding work may change the mark.
At the end of the second part of the day questions were once again raised concerning the distinction between work that is meant to help and aid, and work that is oriented towards social change. The importance of the model presented by Prof. Keene is in how these courses change the learning style, and also how they bring students to consider actions towards change rather than help. They touch upon issues that influence students' social and political thought. In this sense, the courses focus on the personal development of students as such that will lead them to alternative actions and change in the future. It was also mentioned that there may be a continuum between aid/service and change, and that the courses have developed along this continuum, which is appropriate and worthy as part of a learning framework.
The development process of projects on the institutional level was also contemplated. Prof. Keene spoke of the need to start mainly with the leading faculty members in each field, especially those who are considered good teachers among them, and establish a study group for faculty members. Following this there were referrals to existing materials, training, and the importance of having different faculty members present their programs, to enable learning more about existing courses.
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