Julie A. Hatcher, Associate Professor, Philanthropic Studies
Senior Scholar, Center for Service and Learning
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
As an educator in higher education, I am keenly interested in creating “connected knowing” experiences for college students. Through my own experience and understanding of good teaching and learning practice, I value learning experiences that challenge students to connect their learning to prior knowledge, connect their learning across multiple disciplines, and connect their learning to future action within communities through their personal and professional lives. It is this latter dimension of connected knowing that I find of most importance. I often challenge students to consider how what they are learning can impact their future action as citizens and professionals. I endorse John Dewey’s concept of “social intelligence”; knowledge is gained in relationship with others and knowledge is to be used to improve social conditions. Developing civic-minded graduates, who will in turn become civic-minded professionals is a vital role for colleges and universities to assume in democratic society.
Yet how this type of “connected knowing” develops civic-mindedness is unclear. Certainly, research indicates that prior experiences in family networks, schools, volunteer activities, faith-based organizations, and international travel all contribute to civic-mindedness among graduates and professionals. And we know that both informal and formal mentoring relationships are very important within learning environments and professional settings. Yet there is an added variable that is of significance, indeed is of statistical significance, to developing civic learning outcomes, and that is “dialogue across difference”.
I have become more attune to “dialogue across difference” through collaborative research projects in the last couple of years with both the Bonner Foundation and the Project on Civic Reflection. Led by the ongoing research and evaluation work by Cheryl Keen, I was invited to assist in the design of the 20th Anniversary Study of Bonner Alumni, a national study of graduates of the 4-year, service-based scholarship program funded by the Bonner Foundation. At the IARSLCE conference in 2010, we presented preliminary findings. After our session, Dan Richard, University of North Florida, approached us with an interesting question. He was interested in teaching a service learning course in a graduate statistics class and wondered if he could use the data set generated from the Bonner research. As a result, Dan and his graduate students embarked upon a semester project to unpack the relationship between a number of variables and the concept “civic-minded professional”. Of all of the variables, “dialogue across difference with others who are different than me” carried the most weight in terms of its relationship to civic-mindedness.
This concept of “dialogue across difference” is a fundamental principle used by the Project on Civic Reflection (soon to be the Center for Civic Reflection). Facilitators are trained to lead a small group of participants in structured and thoughtful reflection about a short thought-provoking poem, story, or essay. The goal is to clarify personal values and commitment and to build civic capacity and community through dialogue. Comments are shared, ideas are pursued, and insight is gained. Participants have included college students in 25 states, including 10 Campus Compact states, AmeriCorps members in 17 states, and civic leaders across the country, including Illinois, Florida, Washington (DC), Montana, and New Hampshire. It is a powerful tool that can be readily adapted within service learning classes and co-curricular activities. Preliminary research indicates a number of benefits derived from civic reflection.
I look forward to the upcoming conference as an opportunity for such dialogue. Without a doubt, it is rigorous research that will generate and test theory, increase understanding of service learning and civic engagement, and inform good practice and public policy. Yet it is dialogue, especially with others who are different than me, that will challenge my thinking, deepen my understanding, and ultimately sustain my motivation and commitment to the research and the work that I do. The IARSLCE conference will offer numerous opportunities for such dialogue. Whether it is over coffee with new colleagues, during the graduate student reception, or as part of the question and answer time allotted within each session, dialogue, by design, is a fundamental aspect of the learning environment at this conference. We welcome your participation!