Session F.3: Reimagining Community Engagement: Shifting the Ways We Engage in Challenging Times


Neither Julie Bates nor Sarah Warren-Riley are new to community engaged teaching. Bates designed community engagement and activist rhetorics courses pre-pandemic and Warren-Riley has taught and published on public writing pedagogy. But they were new to doing community engaged teaching in a pandemic. In their live session, categorized as an “engaged learning experience,” the two scholars outlined their pandemic experiments in community engaged teaching and writing and made space for other instructors to debrief and brainstorm new strategies for old questions.

In a time when face to face interaction is limited, Bates and Warren-Riley turned to archival work as a site for engaged learning, designing and supporting students to contribute to a Community Activism Archive. Bates, who teaches at Millikin University, designed her course to account for a problem she’d encountered in previous courses: when given the opportunity to choose which organization to connect with, students often sought out high profile non-profits that were recognizable easy to find rather than local and explicitly activist organizations. Building connections with local activist groups became even more difficult for Bates and her students in 2020, so she had to readjust. For her fall 2020 advanced writing course, she developed an archival assignment “to expand students’ conceptions of what activism looks like, where it occurs, and what stories are told about such activists’ efforts.” Bates drew on her own experience researching activist efforts to support students as they formed groups and compiled digital archives around social and environmental justice issues including climate change, mental health on campus, rape culture, and food insecurity. Students discussed and then analyzed their collections of news stories, tumblr posts, artwork, videos, tweets, and other materials, guided by questions like: how did the perspectives represented in artifacts differ from how the issue is portrayed in mainstream media sources? Among the artifacts you gathered, whose expertise is most noticeable, and whose expertise appears to be overlooked, but seems particularly vital? What stories are (not) being told?

Warren-Riley pursued a similar assignment in a graduate-level course at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, using the same spreadsheets and content management systems to host her students’ digital archives. Many of the graduate students were public school teachers negotiating pandemic teaching online, so Warren-Riley, too, had to recalibrate plans to partner directly with local activists in the Rio Grande Valley. The class engaged rhetorical theories and methodological approaches to social justice issues, and like Bates’ undergraduates, talked about what counts as activist work. Finally, each member of the course chose an issue or group, gathered an archive of artifacts related to that work, and applied the theories and methodologies from their reading to analysis of those digital archives. Students presented on issues from language used by a local prison abolition group to multimodality in activist efforts to protect sacred sites in Hawai’i, catalyzing conversation about “how activist strategies overlapped and diverged” across movements. Warren-Riley noted that students explored “the complexity of making change on both short term and long standing social issues” and came to value the rhetorical tactics and strategies of the activists they studied. 

The turn to digital archival projects facilitated student learning about change-making and social justice; alongside that growth, Bates and Warren-Riley lamented that the project unfolded differently than they had expected. It’s progressed slowly, and they had not anticipated that the archive would “take shape without the input of activists themselves or in person conversations.” Going forward, they hope to strengthen relationships with activists local to the Rio Grande Valley, in particular, and build an archive that’s useful to groups who likely don’t have capacity to collect and categorize artifacts from their work. This challenge resonated with participating instructors; in any community engaged project, instructors have to consider the threat of harm, exploitation, or getting in the way of important activist work, and working with local activists can be a delicate negotiation of community, institutional, pedagogical, and personal constraints. Participants took those challenges to their breakout rooms, guided by several questions:

  • How do we create community engagement projects that are open to different ways of knowing, communicating, and contributing?
  • How do we take care not to damage the “understandings, practices, and objects” of others (to quote Ellen Cushman) in our classrooms, fields, communities, etc. when we interact with them, support them, and so on?
  • In particular, how do we design projects that are flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our community partners, students, and institutions?

After twenty minutes of conversation, marked by instructors sharing their experiences and responses to Bates and Warren-Riley’s work, the full group regathered to debrief. Institutional constraints were a key theme of these discussions; participants shared how the affordances for community engagement varied from large universities with community engagement centers to smaller colleges without centralized administrative units for similar work. The presenters and participants acknowledged that responsiveness, and awareness of local and institutional histories, are paramount for ethical engagement work; Bates cautioned that digital projects shouldn’t be seen as “something we can do without actually having to talk to the community members”– but it does afford workarounds in a time when face-to-face engagement is difficult for many, and might reduce barriers in the future for students who aren’t able to attend in-person meetings, marches, or community events.

The challenges of community engaged teaching are never resolved. Bates and Warren-Riley, though, put forth two models for civic-minded writing instruction that engaged all the attendant messiness and unexpected challenges. As the community activism archive grows, in consultation with local activists and with the contributions of their students, it may well become a valuable resource for instructors, students, and activists interested in the rhetorical strategies communities deploy in pursuit of social change.

About Author

Kathryn Van Zanen

Kathryn Van Zanen is a PhD student in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research interests center on how writing instruction trains students to think about their political and civic identities.

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