Building Ethical and Sustainable Long-Term Community Partnerships Across Short-term Course Structures
*This blog post is based on a conference presentation first offered at the 2019 Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference at the University of Guelph by Lindsey Thomson and Dr. Melissa Tanti. The content has been adapted by Lindsey Thomson.
A core part of CESI’s collaborative work is listening to and gaining a deep understanding of community partners’ priorities and long-term visions, in order to harness strengths and momentum to address a range of complex social issues.
CESI’s Community Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL) program brings together students, faculty/course instructors, and community partners by integrating community engaged scholarship (CES) into undergraduate and graduate courses. Through course partnerships, students, faculty, and community collaborate on research, knowledge mobilization (KMb), and other scholarly community engagement activities.
A reality and core challenge of practicing deep, critical CES within short-term course structures is that community partner visions require long-term engagement beyond the regular 12-week semester. Transformative CETL experiences are possible for students within 12-week courses, and even when semesters seem to fly by, we see tangible benefits to student learning (Morton, Varghese, & Thomson, unpublished manuscript). On the other side, classes of students move on to the next semester before long-term community visions are fully realized.
How then do we align our partnered work with community with the principles of critical CES within (typically) short-term, rigid university course/curriculum structures?
For CESI’s CETL program, part of addressing these challenges has been to work diligently over the past 5+ years to build strong, long-term focused relationships with community members and organizations. Many of these collaborations have grown into ongoing, multi-course partnerships that stretch across courses and semesters, and have involved hundreds of students.
Of course, this new model has led to its own unique challenges and opportunities. This blog post seeks to outline some of our learning as we navigate these new structures, working to create space for deep community engagement in the context of short-term curricular structures.
1. From isolated projects to partnership phases
In working alongside our community partners to understand and realize long-term visions, we have found it necessary to shift our thinking from planning isolated one-semester course ‘projects’ to planning consecutive partnership phases that stretch across multiple courses and often different course types (e.g. seminar, large lecture, practicum, etc.). Initial partnership planning occurs well before the start of a given course, and includes an intentional discussion of different phases of community partners’ long-term plans. This typically involves the identification of potential CETL courses, other CESI programs (e.g. our Research Shop), and co-curricular programming across campus that may accommodate different phases of a given partnership across time.
Engaging in long-term community visioning and course planning has allowed us to work with community partners in a more consistent manner by offering a richer continuum of engagement strategies, supporting multiple phases of their visions, and increasing overall benefit to community.
To support this shift, one seemingly small but important change we have made is to our program tracking: we now organize our tracking around each community partner and the progression of our partnerships over time, rather than only centering our metrics around course codes or semesters. This is a great tool to track the evolution of community partnerships across projects, and to highlight the course levels and types we are most often able to link together to provide continuous engagement.
2. Shift to network thinking and action
Building long-term course-based partnerships rooted in community visions and expertise has prompted a necessary shift to network thinking and relationship building with many individuals and units across the University of Guelph. Increased focus and calls for expansion of experiential learning opportunities for students have created momentum for strengthening on-campus networks among professional staff, faculty, and others involved in supporting community engagement.
CESI often brokers particular partnerships and/or phases of long-term projects to a diverse network of colleagues across campus. Expanded and creative brokering has allowed us to meet the needs of community more effectively and efficiently. Strengthened internal connections have also opened space for us to engage in deep learning and reflection together around the sustainability of long-term community partnerships. Strong internal partnerships and knowledge exchange are invaluable in our efforts to ensure meaningful community and social justice impacts, especially as post-secondary institutions have been mandated to increase experiential learning opportunities.
3. Broad definitions of research and scholarship that prioritize deep engagement
Prioritizing deep engagement and community goals often requires university-based collaborators to consider activities that reach beyond traditional research and teaching. In a CETL context, research is often paired with intentional knowledge mobilization activities throughout and beyond our projects. Building long-term relationships involves engaging with potential community partners before any research begins and inviting community leadership and decision-making in planning and priority setting, carrying out research, and interpreting and sharing findings.
Increasingly, community partners also come to us with requests for creative outputs (e.g. videos, infographics) and engagement events (e.g. public meetings and presentations) that differ significantly from the outputs students are accustomed to producing (e.g. essays, reports, etc.).
Engaging with community in an authentic, mutually beneficial manner requires academics to expand and enrich our approach to creating and sharing knowledge and recognizing a wider breadth of scholarly activities, as well as tracking the value of these activities for student learning and community impacts.
4. Prioritizing community impacts
For the CETL program, building sustainable, long-term partnerships requires attending to student learning outcomes as well as keeping a strong focus on community impacts throughout the partnership process. Deep understanding of our community partners’ long-term visions, and returning to these visions as the core of collaboration, will help ensure that the time, energy, and effort invested by community partners matches their perceived benefits of the partnership.
As we engage in CETL, we learn alongside community about what it means to build transformative partnerships. We remain committed to critical reflection and concrete actions to address intended and unintended impacts that arise with this well-intentioned work. This requires a consistent commitment to the strong relationships and open and honest communication that are widely recognized as being at the heart of impactful community engagement.
Further than this though, ethical engagement requires the institution to be willing to engage in critical reflection and action. We can use community partnerships as a mirror through which to view our own structures, processes, and policies, and seek to ensure that they actively contribute to and facilitate transformative learning and meaningful community impacts. When we work with community partners to intentionally build coherent and sustainable CETL into core program curriculum, we move closer to our goal of ensuring mutual benefit and transformative learning and impact over the long-term for all stakeholders.
Overall, these four shifts comprise some of the ways in which we’ve adapted our thinking and practice as we work to integrate and facilitate CETL partnerships with an eye to critical CES. We hope that these insights will generate ongoing dialogue around ethical, critical engagement with communities in the context of course-based partnerships and beyond.