Teaching Engagement: My Path to BreakingGround

Carolyn Forestiere is associate professor of Political Science at UMBC

Carolyn Forestiere - SquareBecoming involved with BreakingGround was completely unexpected for me. Almost by accident I found myself in a large workshop in the AOK Library at which I learned about “civic engagement” pedagogy. At first, I had no idea 1) what civic engagement really was; 2) why it was inherently desirable for learning outcomes; and 3) how I might build it into in a course. I must confess that I was even reluctant to think that the conversation had anything to do with how I should be teaching my Political Science classes.

But after a packed 15-minute conversation with several colleagues from various disciplines at the workshop, the gears in my mind began to spin and soon I had some basic idea of a small project I could do with my Research Methods class, which I implemented with a BreakingGround grant in the Fall of 2012. It was a very good experience for everyone involved: me, my students, and residents of the Charlestown retirement community, where my students conducted interviews on residents’ political attitudes. And it proved to me that in making and reflecting on meaningful social contributions, students could gain inspiration, confidence, critical thinking skills, and a sense of themselves as civic producers capable of tackling community issues.

Once I began to understand how powerful civic engagement activities can be, I wanted to know more about how my colleagues were redesigning their own courses and set about to do a round of interviews with the other faculty who had also won BreakingGround grants. In the Fall of 2013 I was able to complete 10 such interviews and write a paper classifying four common themes that emerged from the data. I called these ‘strategic decisions’ because all faculty, regardless of discipline, need to take these decisions into consideration when incorporating civic engagement into their curriculum. These are 1) determining the scope of the activity; 2) distinguishing a target community and developing partnerships; 3) identifying the overall learning goals of the course and the skills that the civic engagement activity should develop in students and; 4) specifying student deliverables and grading strategy. I also used the paper to argue that the purpose of civic engagement activities should be on skills development as a means to encourage the development of civic agency, an ethos of self-empowerment when individuals realize that through their own efforts they can enact positive change on their world.

I presented the research at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning conference earlier this month. I was very happy to learn, in the question and answer period after my 15-minute presentation, that the paper was well-received. First, the emphasis on civic agency skills was appreciated; sometimes people talk about civic engagement activities without remembering exactly what the activities are designed to do. Second, the presentation of the paper as a ‘resource guide’ also seemed to garner praise. Most scholars are concentrating on ‘bigger’ picture considerations like how to set up organizations or initiatives like BreakingGround in the first place. But while such networks are crucial for building campus support, faculty ‘buy-in’–which is crucial for incorporating civic engagement into courses–is far more likely when faculty members have appropriate tools to help them transform their courses.

Several members of the audience (about 40 people from all over the country) made the point that my paper might make civic engagement more attractive as a pedagogical option for reluctant faculty, especially because 1) I emphasize that the activities can be small and; 2) that traditional learning goals can be supplemented and not replaced by developing civic agency skills. Since I am very new to the scholarship of teaching, this was a great start  and I want to thank everyone involved with BreakingGround for encouraging me to do the project and for their very helpful suggestions. 

As a result, I am currently revising the paper with the intention of sending it out to a journal that concentrates on education in Political Science. Other schools are interested in what we are doing here at UMBC, and I know papers about BreakingGround itself are being developed and shared, so let’s keep the conversation going!

Contact the author, Carolyn Forestiere, at forestie@umbc.edu.

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