Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 1

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
The Civic Work of Diversity
Educating Multicultural Community Builders: Service Learning at California State University Monterey Bay
Education for Democracy: Place Matters
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Curricular Transformation
Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity
Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology
Research Shows Benefits of Linking Diversity and Civic Goals
Diversity and Civic Engagement Outcomes Ranked Among Least Important
Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement
Faculty Involvement
There Is No Substitute for Experience
Student Experience
The Personal Is Still Political: HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Communicating Common Ground
Resources for Diversity and Civic Engagement
The Civic Engagement Imperative: Student Learning and the Public Good

Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity

By Amy Koritz, associate professor of English, Tulane University

In my Narrative and Community course, I encourage students to envision literary studies as a tool for thinking about and developing skills for successful partnerships in a diverse society. I had three motives for creating such a course: first, although my university is located in a poor, majority–African American city (New Orleans), it serves mostly white and affluent students. The hostility and misunderstanding sometimes produced by this circumstance required the sustained and thoughtful engagement only a classroom could provide. Second, as an educator I felt a responsibility to offer those students already involved in the community an intellectually rich and useful academic context for their work. Finally, I wished to explore what a public mission for literary studies might look like in the classroom. Consequently, commitments to civic engagement, diversity, and literary studies were fundamental to the course from its inception.

Placing Community at the Center

Each student in Narrative and Community completes a research-based community partnership project—a grant proposal, strategic plan, or program proposal—that is responsive to the partnering organization’s needs. Placing this project at the center of the course refocuses classroom learning toward the goal of informed, thoughtful civic engagement. Although students read and write about literature throughout the semester, disciplinary content is always connected to their community work. Planning and teaching the course is a collaborative process. I work closely with Carolyn Barber-Pierre and Hamilton Simons-Jones, administrators in student affairs who oversee community service and multicultural student organizations. Service-learning staff help manage the challenging logistics of a class in which more than twenty students work with half a dozen community organizations.

To succeed in this course, students must collaborate and communicate effectively with individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Students develop these complex, multifaceted skills through multiple pathways, including presentations on multicultural communication by guest speakers, readings that deal with obstacles to communication across racial and cultural divides (Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy is one good example), and classroom story circles that connect students’ personal experiences with diversity to course content.

The syllabus is organized around topics selected for their importance to strong community partnerships. We begin with “knowing where you are,” which introduces students to the history of the civil rights movement in New Orleans and Tulane’s place in that history. Other topics address the structural and interpersonal roles of money, institutions, and narrative in shaping relationships. Each topic is relevant to effective civic engagement as well as literature. None could be adequately addressed without attention to diversity.

Connecting the intellectual work of college with the practical work of engaged citizenship is crucial to sustaining a tolerant and heterogeneous civil society. Literature is important to this goal, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1996) demonstrates in her eloquent argument for the humanizing empathy and compassion to be gained by studying the realist novel. Creating this course, however, required help from colleagues in student affairs, service learning, and elsewhere on campus, as well as the atmosphere of common endeavor created by Campus Compact and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. My experience developing and directing a living-learning community organized around urban issues was also valuable. This experience demonstrated to me the educational potential of an academic program that validates students’ concern for community and desire to leave the world a better place. Narrative and Community embodies in a single course the holistic approach to student learning typical of living-learning communities.

Impact and Outcomes

Narrative and Community will be taught for the third time this fall. Student interest has steadily increased and course evaluations have been strong. Students consistently report a greater sense of personal efficacy, both in improving their community and in dealing with uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations. They acquire a deeper and more concrete understanding of the importance of commitment and follow-through, and of how racial and cultural differences affect their attitudes and assumptions. The course strengthens the dedication of those students already involved in community work while motivating others to become more involved.

Communities, unlike courses, do not end at the close of a semester. We therefore encourage students to pursue an internship or independent study course to continue their work. Ultimately, however, no matter how successfully this course integrates civic engagement, diversity, and literary studies, it alone cannot create fully informed and effective civic partners. I was particularly excited, therefore, when one student decided to develop a proposal for a minor program in “community studies.” Such a program would enable true curricular transformation, giving Tulane University’s students and faculty a rigorous, thoughtful, and practical path toward stronger, more effective engagement with the diverse community of which it is a part. n


Nussbaum, M. 1996. Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Boston: Beacon Press.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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