Megan Voorhees and Victoria RobinsonMegan Voorhees, left, and Victoria Robinson, coordinators of the Faculty Program for Engaged Scholarship, support faculty who develop curricula that emphasize community engagement. (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Faculty Program for Engaged Scholarship prioritizes service

For many, making a difference begins in the classroom and extends to the community

| 09 October 2008

As a land-grant institution with a threefold mission to serve the larger community via teaching, research, and public service, UC Berkeley has a long history of civic engagement. While Berkeley’s teaching and research are woven into the daily lives of faculty and students, the campus lacks a formalized, institution-wide structure to support community-based research and service.

That situation will be partially remedied by the new Faculty Program for Engaged Scholarship, which provides support to Senate and non-Senate faculty who develop and introduce a community-based component into a new or existing course. The program is a key element in the Berkeley Engaged Scholarship Initiative, a comprehensive plan to articulate the campus’s existing work in public service in order to attract additional resources for those efforts.

A dozen faculty members in disciplines as varied as architecture, African American studies, inorganic chemistry, and sociology applied to join the initial program cohort. A sampling of their courses includes these four:

  • Professor of Architecture Galen Cranz will offer an elective studio course to undergraduate and graduate students aimed at integrating the principles of socially conscious design into the planning and design of a project for a Native American community north of San Francisco.
  • Associate Professor of African American Studies and Education Na’ilah Suad Nasir will give her undergrads the opportunity to volunteer in an urban high school or juvenile hall to observe how constructs of culture and race influence the learning and achievement of African American students.
  • In Professor of Chemistry John Arnold’s course, undergraduate and graduate students will make scientific presentations to middle- and high-school students that demonstrate chemistry’s importance in issues relating to the environment, to underscore the relationship of science to urgent climate-change problems.
  • Associate Professor of Sociology Thomas Gold will provide his undergrads with the opportunity to volunteer with and research the efforts of the East Bay College Fund (EBCF), a small nonprofit organization that helps promising under-represented Oakland high-school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds attend college by providing scholarships and community mentors. Gold serves on the EBCF board.

“When I teach introductory sociology, I preach the importance of service, community involvement, and nongovernmental organizations,” says Gold. He’s excited by the idea of enabling his students to put what he preaches into practice. Although the nonprofit’s staff sorely needs assistance with everything from mentoring to maintaining applicant files or communicating its students’ achievements to local government and media, Gold recognizes that 25 student-volunteers would be more than the small organization could absorb.

That’s where the Faculty Program for Engaged Scholarship comes in. Megan Voorhees, director of the campus’s Cal Corps Public Service Center and one of the new program’s coordinators, knows who’s who and what’s working at local nonprofit organizations. Should Gold’s concern about overwhelming EBCF with volunteers turn out to be valid, she’d be a key resource in helping him locate other organizations working in the same arena.

While Voorhees brings “navigational support” to the mix, her collaborator, Victoria Robinson, an ethnic-studies lecturer and coordinator of the American Cultures Center, is organizing workshops and developing resources for the faculty participants.

Each faculty member will receive a curriculum-development grant of $1,500; in addition, trained student-scholars will provide 250 hours of support in developing and implementing each course. Student-scholars will tackle logistical tasks such as finding potential community partners or creating spreadsheets for larger courses, to track student participation. “These are things faculty don’t really want to do and shouldn’t be doing, but a student might be really excited to do them because they get to work one-on-one with a faculty member,” says Voorhees.

Laying the groundwork

During the past eight years, Cal Corps’ programs have increased in number and grown in size under Voorhees. Concurrently, at the Service Learning and Research Devel-opment Center, Andrew Furco, a former assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, laid the groundwork for many of the civic-engagement endeavors that are now being institutionalized.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Christina Maslach is sponsoring the program, along with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry LeGrande and California Cam-pus Compact, an organization of college and university presidents who promote service as a core component in higher education. The time is right to support such efforts, says Maslach: “Many creative individuals all across the campus have been engaging with the community in a variety of ways. We are at a critical juncture where we need to build the infrastructure that will allow these individuals to connect, collaborate, and leverage each other’s work to bring our campus to the next level of civic engagement.”

Such coordination should ensure that students and community partners alike benefit from the experience, says Robinson, who points out that there are fundamental differences between community demands and the rhythms of academia.

Robinson learned first-hand about reconciling those often competing interests when she offered to use her ethnic-studies course last semester to test out the challenges of teaching such a course.

“Who do we truly serve?” asks Robinson. “When I started to do this work, I thought it would work to give the students this experience within a semester-based program. But community needs don’t dissipate or disappear within a semester — so how do you create these kind of long-term environments that can really support community needs and at the same time allow students a true experience of community partnership?”

A successful endeavor, Robinson ventures, relies upon a strong structure that involves a true partnership among faculty, students, and community. “That wasn’t going to happen haphazardly,” she says. “It had to be designed.”

Gold, for one, says that having administrative support and the campus’s backing “gives clout and legitimacy” to what he and other faculty have been trying to do for years. He adds: “I talk to students about seeing the world and getting involved, and now they’re going to get credit for it.”

Faculty wishing to learn more about the Faculty Program for Engaged Scholarship should e-mail Megan Voorhees or Victoria Robinson.