Engaged Scholarship Evolves in Response to Pandemic

    The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all professors to rethink their curriculum and adapt to remote learning. This transition, however, is particularly difficult for professors running Engaged Scholarship (ESCH) courses, programs that are based on in-person experiences in local communities in Chester and Philadelphia. How would professors emulate in-person experiences when everything was online? This is a question that the Lang Center attempted to answer over the summer. And, as a result, there are 39 ESCH courses this year that have leveraged this unfortunate period to integrate elements of Engaged Scholarship in novel ways. 

    Engaged scholarship, a term credited to renowned American educator Ernest Boyer, encompasses many civic education forms, such as community-based learning (CBL), that connect the learning experience with relevant social, civic, and ethical problems in the real world. Swarthmore College’s interpretation of this term emphasizes that engaged scholarship must be mutually beneficial to both the college community and the community with which the college is working. 

“….we’re not simply trying to write about communities and what policies may or may not be effective, but that we’re working with these communities or, at the very least, advocating for them in a way that’s informed by their own voices. And that’s also a recognition that knowledge and expertise reside within communities outside of colleges and universities,” said Professor Benjamin Berger, the executive director of the Lang Center. 

Many ESCH courses at Swarthmore College, such as ChesterSemester, contain curricula that focus on a partnership with communities in Chester.

    For the past four years, Ashley Henry, the project manager at the Lang Center, and Professor Wallace, a professor of religion, have teamed up to run ChesterSemester, a program focused on building community engagement skills for Swarthmore students while helping the nearby city of Chester. 

“The guiding philosophy of ChesterSemester is that the community sets the terms for Swarthmore students’ participation,” said Professor Wallace. “The Swattie is transformed as she participates directly in the well being of young people in an economically ravaged community, and the partner and the children in the city of Chester equally benefit because of the hard work, the vision, and the labor that the students put into the community’s well being.” 

Like most other community service and engaged scholarship programs this semester, the ChesterSemester program was forced to shift to a virtual platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, the Lang Center and a few professors, worked closely with community partners in Chester, especially Chester Eastside, to plan for a virtual program. ChesterSemester now consists of three elements: enrollment in General Studies 091, a weekly hour-long class where fellows can discuss their internships; an internship with a Chester-based organization that consists of eight to ten hours of work per week; and one academic course oriented around social justice. While the program will not be the same as it would be in person, Wallace and others behind the program are confident that they’ve found a way to make it work. 

“We have worked really hard to create a positive program for the fall, and I’m optimistic that that planning will bear fruit,” said Wallace. 

To enhance the program’s impact during the COVID era and in the years to come, Henry and Wallace made an effort to ask for input from the Chester Community on what they need most from the students.

“We did a “Community Partner Impact Assessment” survey, where we had our community partners fill out this survey and bring them over to go over the results and identify what they need moving forward. For example, they said they wanted students to provide them with more access to data to assess the impact of these programs in Chester to make a case for why it is that these programs are working and apply for federal funding,” said Henry. 

The online format has also allowed students to engage in a long-term partnership and conversation with Chester community members like never before. 

“Now, the network of people we were working with over the summer [as part of the 10-week Chester Community Fellowship program] is being brought into the classroom. This is the first time this has ever happened. Sometimes, we can orchestrate having guest speakers come in for a day, but now we’ve created this “community engagement fellows program,” wherein these Chester community members can come into the classroom, learn, and have long-term conversations with students in an organized, lasting fashion,” said Henry. 

In addition to ChesterSemester, there are several other new ESCH courses this semester. These additions are due to the Lang Center’s effort to urge professors to take advantage of these circumstances by incorporating engaged scholarship into their own curriculum. Over the summer, the Lang Center put out a call to faculty members informing them that they are planning to support more faculty members to collaborate with in coming up with new ESCH classes. 

    “Crises can open up new opportunities. It allowed us to try to invite a broader range of faculty who might not have thought of doing engaged scholarship themselves before,” said Berger. 

    One of these new ESCH courses is Climate Fiction, taught by Professor Elizabeth Bolton. Listed as both an English and Environmental Studies course, Climate Fiction studies the phenomenon of climate change through the lens of literary fiction, with the hope of fostering a sense of responsibility in advocating for climate justice.

“It’s been a lot of work,” said Bolton, when asked about the process of creating a new course during the pandemic. “I think we tend to underestimate how challenging engaged scholarship can be. It’s immensely rewarding, but it really takes a lot of time and effort to build roots together and set things up.” 

Despite being in a virtual setting, Bolton created an ESCH plan that she believes still advances the overall goals of the initiative as a whole. The ESCH aspect of Climate Fiction consists of student advocacy work on behalf of climate change. The students will work with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an organization with the goal of getting young people involved in politics, to lobby for legislation about which they feel strongly. They’ll write letters to a politician of their choice and conduct a virtual lobbying visit to advocate for the piece of legislation. While one of the goals is to have a legislative impact on various issues surrounding climate change, Bolton also hopes that this will help students realize that they need to take responsibility for their own government.

“One message I hope people get from this is that individual action is not enough to make a difference, so pushing for governmental response is worth doing,” said Bolton. “The next few years are not gonna be good if we don’t reclaim democracy more, so I’m hoping that this will have a broader effect.”

Introduction to Black Studies, taught by Professor Joseph Nelson, is another course whose ESCH designation is new this semester. While the course is now in its second year, this fall will be the first time that it has an ESCH component. The course serves as an introduction to the Black Studies program at Swarthmore and examines Black scholarship through the lens of primary sources. When designing the ESCH component, Professor Nelson used COVID-19 as a foundation rather than a setback. Knowing that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color, he will have his students work with the Center for Black Educator Development to learn about different ways that Black educators have responded to the pandemic in the low-income communities they serve. The ultimate goal is to compile successful methods of pandemic teaching and to distribute them to teachers working in low-income communities.  

“Right now, there are teachers that are on the edge of their seat, looking for strategies to help them best serve their Black students in these virtual learning spaces. What better people to ask about what is working and what is not than Black teachers?” said Nelson. “It’ll hopefully be a resource that will be helpful to [the Center for Black Educator Development’s] broader network of over 2000 teachers throughout the state.”

Another new ESCH course this semester is International Relations, taught by Professor Emily Paddon Rhoads. This semester, the course is introducing a new unit on race as a central organizing feature of global politics and will focus on how South Africa has influenced international relations. 

“International Relations as a field is long-overdue for a reckoning about race. Western dominance and white privilege permeate the field, and race has been largely ignored by mainstream International Relations,” said Rhoads in an email to The Phoenix. 

    The unit will consist of an interactive film made specifically for this course that will allow students to explore Cape Town and see how the city has changed through the lens of international relations and globalization. 

    “Through the film, students will “tour” Cape Town and see first-hand how the city has been shaped by racism, globalization, and the dialectic between the international and the local, starting with the city’s first encounter with the world,” explained Professor Rhoads. After the film, students will participate in a webinar to connect and collaborate with South African academics. 

    Taught by Professor Yvonne Chireau, African-American Religions is an ESCH course that has existed in the past but had to make the shift to virtual this semester due to the pandemic. This course examines religions that are not just African or American but uniquely African-American. The Philadelphia and Chester areas are both very significant to these religions and have been the center of the ESCH component in the past. Typically, students would visit important sites in these areas, but that’s unable to happen this semester. Instead, students will conduct virtual site visits that will be created by the students with the help of the McCabe Library staff. While this will not have the same impact as in person, Chireau is confident that they can still create an impactful experience.

    “With technical support, I think we can create an entirely new experience of engaged learning,” said Chireau, in an email to The Phoenix.

    This course is also unique in that it is part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program. This program, facilitated by the Lang Center, connects Swarthmore students with Chester students in the prison system. The result is a mutually beneficial experience that allows inmates an education and works to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. This program is virtual this semester, but Chireau is looking forward to it nonetheless.

    “It is rare that Swarthmore students get to sit alongside students who have life experiences that are actually relevant to what they are reading about and studying. The added dimension of the Inside Out Prison exchange program and the homecomers in attendance will help me to keep the academic material grounded in present-day realities, particularly those outside of the Swarthmore bubble,” said Professor Chireau.

    Professor Berger acknowledges that the college’s ability to transition into online learning and create these unique ESCH courses simultaneously is a credit to the institution’s privilege and the generosity of alumni such as Eugene Lang and his foundation. 

“We are blessed to have financial privileges. Although it’s a tough, difficult time for everybody with the pandemic and all kinds of economic uncertainty, we are just privileged to be able to weather this.”

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