Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Curricular Transformation
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Involvement
Student Leadership: Making a Difference in the World
Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve
Berea College: Learning, Labor, and Service
A Developmental and Capacity-Building Model for Community Partnerships
The Power of a Sustained Relationship between Community Partners and Colleges and Universities
Faculty Involvement
Prequel to Civic Engagement: An African American Studies Research Seminar
Service Learning and Policy Change
Facilitating Student Growth as Citizens: A Developmental Model for Community-Engaged Learning
Student Experience
An Intentional and Comprehensive Student Development Model
Bonner: More Than a Model, a Lived Experience
Relationships First
Commitment to a Cause
Institutional Leadership
Preparing to Serve
Checklist from the President’s Chair
Curricular Transformation
LifeWorks and the Commons: A Model for General Education
The Case for Studying Poverty
Engaging with Difference Matters: Longitudinal Outcomes of the Cocurricular Bonner Scholars Program
Resources for Civic Engagement
Serving, Voting, and Speaking Out: Bonner Students Reflect on Civic Engagement

LifeWorks and the Commons: A Model for General Education

By Stan Dotson, dean of LifeWorks, Mars Hill College

A Mars Hill student encourages her peers to vote

A Mars Hill student encourages her peers to vote.

In the late 1990s, a major redesign of Mars Hill College’s core general education curriculum coincided with the design of a cocurricular civic engagement leadership program. The two projects complemented one another, resulting in the cocurricular lifeworks civic engagement certificate program, which thematically follows a sequence of six new core curriculum courses, called “the commons.” Lifeworks provides students opportunities to gain increasingly challenging community-based experiences as they move through six stages: exploration, direct service, project management, advocacy, resource development, and demonstration (assessment and evaluation). These experiences accompany the six new courses in the commons curriculum, providing students reflection opportunities beginning in challenges (the first-year seminar), followed by four thematic courses examining character, civic life, faith and reason, and creativity, and concluding with a capstone experience.

The collaborative design work leading to the Commons and the civic engagement certificate produced four key discoveries for the faculty and LifeWorks staff. The discoveries sound simple, but they have generated a major paradigm shift in the way Mars Hill seeks to fulfill its mission.

First, college students are already engaged. In discussing ways to infuse experiential components into the Commons courses, a flawed assumption of the service-learning movement emerged—namely, the idea that the faculty need to coordinate opportunities for students to “get out into the community.” This is a labor-intensive process, keeping many faculty from engaging in service learning. But look beyond the narrow confines of volunteer experience in the nonprofit sector and you will find that a large majority of students are already engaged with the community through a wide variety of outlets—athletics, performing arts, religious activities, and part-time jobs. Instead of funneling all students into one type of activity, why not capture these existing activities as treasures of engaged learning, allowing those experiences to become the proverbial grains of sand through which students can examine the world? The task of the professor is not, then, to coordinate logistics of getting everyone “out into the community.” Rather, the task is to make deep connections between the conventional texts covered in the classroom and the “living, human documents” uncovered in the experiences students regularly have with communities.

Second, students already reflect. A common, flawed assumption of cocurricular service-learning practitioners is that special reflection tools need to be created for students engaged in the community. Trying to motivate students to read essays or watch films that will help them process and interpret their experiences is another labor-intensive enterprise. But rich resources of reflection—literature, philosophy, history, arts, and sciences—already are infused throughout the curriculum. Instead of trying to generate reflection materials outside the curriculum, why not explore what students are already contemplating (for credit) and mine these materials as sources for ongoing deliberation, analysis, critical thinking, and reflection on the experiences they are having in the community? The task for cocurricular staff is not to heap more reading on the students, but to reinforce connections the curricular texts have to the lived experiences of students in the community.

Third, welcoming new voices to the table creates the possibility for a true commons. In a series of workshops focused on the Commons course themes, faculty, staff, coaches, community partners, and students create conversations connecting written texts and lived texts. For example, in the course that examines character, students read Plato’s “Ring of Gyges,” a story about what it would be like to have a ring that would make one invisible. Imagine a workshop around this text where faculty and students learn from a community partner who directs a safe house for victims of domestic violence. She provides a whole new perspective on what it might mean to be invisible in our society. She describes the level of cruelty people are capable of when they think no one is watching, and the challenge of making victims of this cruelty “invisible” to their tormentors. A student and the college counselor then describe the reality of date rape on campus and connect it to Plato’s narrative, which has now become a powerful reflection tool for analyzing experiences on campus and in the community, just as these community realities have become powerful tools for engaged dialogue in the classroom. To the extent that these conversations become as “commonplace” across campus and in the wider community as they are in the classroom, a true commons is emerging.

Fourth, the most important measurables, and the least measured, are ultimate outcomes. So much of educational assessment focuses on instrumental outcomes—the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that can then be applied as instruments for good or ill, for the commonwealth or for private gain, benefiting the vulnerable or the privileged. Higher education is skilled at measuring instrumental outcomes, but rarely establishes methods for measuring long-range end outcomes. LifeWorks offers the following list of seven end outcomes: good work (accomplished through one’s career, volunteer activities, faith commitments, political actions, and investments) is that which contributes to (1) economic opportunity, (2) a sustainable environment, (3) peace, (4) wellness, (5) respect across all aspects of diversity, (6) creative expression, and (7) the development of young people to their full potential. As we find ways to measure the accomplishment of these outcomes among our graduates, we will discover the extent to which our endeavors in LifeWorks and the Commons constitute good work.


Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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