Unfinished

David Hoffman is UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency.

David Hoffman[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC]

We were sitting in a circle, just inside the tree line in the woods behind UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library, when Cazzy made the point that got me thinking. The group had spent the morning raking, mulching and building planting beds in The Garden as part of UMBC’s Welcome Week Service Project. After we had gathered for lunch, Jack Neumeier, a senior who is President of The Garden, had explained that the project was partly about doing real work to address food issues, but also about enabling people to discover how their special talents and passions could be blended with others’ to build community and shape our world.

IMG_8264Reflecting on the events of the morning, Cazzy, a freshman, shared that she had been taken by the fact that the project was so obviously unfinished. Jack and The Garden’s other leaders had encouraged her to make creative contributions and help to envision The Garden’s future, not merely to play an assigned role. The recognition that she could contribute something truly her own, and be a part of making something real, public and lasting, had her feeling inspired.

When people talk about the memories they treasure most, or the careers they crave, they often focus on opportunities to contribute meaningfully to the creation of things not yet complete: to truly matter. But the feeling of actually doing so is all too rare. More often we see our circumstances and our institutions (schools, workplaces, government) as given: Things are the way they are, and our role is to embrace the good and accommodate (and complain about) the inevitable problems an imperfections.

The genius of The Garden is that its leaders embrace its incompleteness as a way of summoning the talents and passions of its potential builders. As I sat in the lunch circle, I thought about how powerful we all could be if we learned to recognize nearly every aspect of the world beyond The Garden as equally unfinished: summoning our talents and passions, our whole selves, to the work of building.

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Contact the author, David Hoffman, at dhoffman@umbc.edu.

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.

The Most Important Step

Carrie Cleveland ’16, Social Work, and Brian Haran ’15, Mechanical Engineering are students in Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship (AMST/POLI/SOCY 205)

Carrie reflects:

Carrie ClevelandWalking into the first meeting of my Civic Agency class I thought, “I’ve got this.” I am 35 years old. I know what it means to be a good citizen. I know what it means to be involved. I know this all so well because I vote. I follow the campaigns, read my sample ballot, and make informed choices on Election Day. I know what democracy means. I’ve got this.

Talk about a wakeup call! Democracy means that I can be involved in governance beyond Election Day. I can’t just vote and walk away. I need to do something. If I want something to change, making it happen is up to me, not just those people I vote for. I need to PARTICIPATE.

This class has opened my eyes. It is showing me that is it my responsibility to be fully engaged in the democratic process. Our instructors are giving us the tools to critically look at problems and make change happen.  This is something that I had never really done before.  They wants us to make UMBC, and ultimately the world, a better place and they are actually showing us how to do that.  Talk about a life lesson.

Carrie Cleveland Daughter

Look: I even take my kids to vote!

I have three girls at home that I am doing my best to raise to be good people.  One day, one of them may be a student at UMBC. The Civic Agency class gives  us a chance to leave a little piece of ourselves behind, to help contribute to the greater good. It shows us that if we want this world to be a better place for ourselves and our children then it is up to us to make it that way, and that there are tools and strategies that can help us get it done.

Brian reflects:

Brian HaranAt the beginning of the semester, I figured that “good” democratic citizens were ones who stayed informed about their government, voted during election season, and rounded their character out by performing some sort of community service. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great characteristics that we should strive for, but POLI 205 has taught me that there is more to being a true part of a democratic community.

Democracy runs on the idea that everyone’s voice gets to be heard. Living in a republic, we Americans are often of the mindset that our voice doesn’t extend far beyond the voting booth. But I have learned that it can.

Being a citizen in a democracy means that I can take an issue that I see in my day to day life and pursue a solution to the problem. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but nothing worth doing is easy. It requires perseverance, a strong network of supporters, flexibility, ingenuity, and then more perseverance. But the most important step towards success in changing one’s community is realizing that it can be done.

Throughout the semester I have learned that UMBC has many successful programs in place to help students carry out campus change objectives. For example, the UMBC Prove It! competition encourages students to actively pursue the changes they want to see in the campus community, and has yielded significant results. Noche Vida, our campus’s late night coffee shop, is a product of this competition, along with other campus changes.

POLI 205 has helped me see that we have the ability and responsibility, as engaged citizens, to pursue the changes we want to see in our community. What better place is there to start than on our own campus?

Contact the authors: Carrie Cleveland at ccleve2@umbc.edu, and Brian Haran at bharan1@umbc.edu.

Transforming the Here and Now

David Hoffman is UMBC’s assistant director of student life for civic agency.

[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC].

David Hoffman

STRiVE 2013, UMBC’s fifth annual homegrown student leadership retreat, sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Student Government Association, took place last week at the Skycroft Conference Center. I served as one of 12 coaches (6 staff members, 6 students). Each STRiVE is different (I’ve participated in all five), but they are always life-altering. [My reflections on previous STRiVE retreats: 2012201120102009].

B-1The phrase “leadership retreat” really doesn’t do STRiVE justice. It obscures the poetry and magic of the lived experience. What happened in the hills west of Frederick last week was mostly spontaneous, profoundly real and deeply poignant. 62 UMBC students and staff members, most of us strangers to each other when the week began, helped each other to discover that despite our fears and vulnerabilities, and partly because of them, we are strong, wise and perfectly capable of transforming our lives and world together. We know this now without a doubt, because by week’s end the transformations already had begun.

C-14STRiVE’s intellectual foundations include the “social change model” of leadership developed by higher education scholars, student development theory, social cognitive theory, and Harry Boyte’s pioneering ideas about preparing people for active roles in democracy. Based on our synthesis of these ideas, one of the core principles of STRiVE’s design is that we coaches empower the participants as co-creators of all their experiences, including the retreat itself while it is happening. To do otherwise would risk stunting their growth by equipping them to thrive only in leadership simulations, when authority figures are available to give instructions and assign roles. [Read more…]