Sometimes I think I must have been out of my mind when I decided to teach two sections of a community-engaged course in a pandemic (this makes up only half of my 4 course load mind you). The coordination details feel endless at the moment. It is already the end of Week 4 and I still have students adrift in the process trying to get on board with an organization so they can begin volunteering. Some of this is typical of working with under-resourced nonprofits and some is typical of working with undergraduates who don’t understand what it is like for these nonprofits, but a good chunk of my present difficulty is absolutely because of the damned pandemic.
In 2019 the students had a good number of on-campus and off-campus options and that was that. There were some hiccups along the way, but I don’t remember having this many issues. Last fall was easier in many ways because we were all virtual and organizations weren’t even taking new volunteers, but of course that’s not ideal – what is a CE course without community engagement? (I found a work-around, but it wasn’t ideal).
Now the students have to weigh the time/day of the volunteering and on/off campus factor as well as the virtual/in-person situation. Not to mention I’m already seeing a steady creep of students experiencing symptoms that mean they have to isolate while testing commences. Don’t get me wrong, I do not object to cautious students in any way shape or form. It just makes this whole experience feel like herding feral cats while riding a unicycle and juggling geese. It feels like another version of is-masked-in-person-learning-really-better-than-zoom. The ones who volunteer virtually for an organization are often doing little more than admitting community members into a zoom meeting (although arguably there’s still value in observing what goes on in the class). And for my in-person volunteers, the worry that I’m forcing them into potential exposure sits heavy in my gut.
This is not to talk you out of teaching CE courses if you get the chance, but to help you go in with eyes wide open. Yes, we are in odd times (but hardly unprecedented) that will hopefully end at some point, but it is arguably more important than ever to facilitate students engagement with different communities.
What follows is some advice that should apply to teaching CE courses even outside of pandemic circumstances.
1. Get training if possible first. I was lucky that my department ran a learning community on CE instruction. The readings we did helped me design a CE experience that was valuable to both students and our partners. I’m sure I would have majorly fumbled were it not for that training. Many unis have community engagement offices who may be able to give you some support. At the very least talk with someone who has done something similar to get some insight.
2. If possible, have a working relationship with at least one community partner before bringing them your students. To be clear, I launched my first CE courses without any working community partner relationships, so don’t let this be the reason you don’t teach CE, but it really helps if you yourself have volunteered in some capacity with at least one of your organizations. You will have a better understanding of the organization’s needs and how your students might help.
3. Linked to #2 is to find ways to maintain your relationships with community partners in the time between semesters that you teach the CE course. I only teach CE courses in the fall to give myself a break but also because the fall semesters are the least complicated from a weather perspective in our area. In the months in between it can be helpful to you to maintain a relationship with community partners so you don’t blindside them when the next CE course happens.
3. Manage expectations. A big part of your role is to manage the expectations of the nonprofit – your students are not typical volunteers. They will cease volunteering by a specific date, they might drop your class, they are relatively inexperienced, most are juggling a lot. You also need to manage the expectations of your students to help them understand how nonprofits work and why it might seem rather unorganized throughout the process. Best case is it goes smoothly, worst case is you warned them what might happen.
4. Seek funding. CE courses are a LOT of extra work, so find funding wherever you can – for the training you need, to redesign the course after you teach it for the first time (trust me, you’ll want to), for any expenses associated with the class. For example, my students mount an awareness campaign on campus and require some small funds to do awesome things like hand out stickers, make flyers, host web content. I am also advocating for course releases when teaching CE classes. It’s not at all fair for universities to want these kinds of classes without giving you a reprieve.
5. Knowing that you will spend a lot of outside-of-class time on facilitating the volunteering, design your course so that you aren’t also having to grade/comment on a ton of stuff. In other words, don’t pile on. My students have three major projects: volunteering, the campaign, and a design thinking final project. We have discussions about readings but any and all work has to relate to one of the three projects.
In the end, I’ve always received positive reviews of the CE courses – from students and community partners – even when I felt like I had bumbled the whole thing. Be patient with them and with yourself. Remember why you are doing it in the first place and be flexible in your thinking about how we all engage with community in different ways.
If you have taught or are teaching CE courses, what advice would you add? Leave a comment below.
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).