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Three Take-Aways From My Year as a Community-Engaged Teaching Fellow During COVID

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By: Nadia Kaneva, Associate Professor, Media, Film and Journalism Studies

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In early October 2020, as I stumbled through a second quarter of teaching remotely from my kitchen table and living in near total isolation, an email from DU’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) delivered a spark of hope to my inbox. “Apply to the Community-Engaged Teaching Program!” the email urged, adding that participants would “join a small cohort of peers from across campus… to do some community reflection, collective problem-solving, and knowledge sharing as we navigate what Community-Engaged Teaching (CET) looks like during COVID times.”  

This sounded exactly like what I needed as I faced the daunting challenges of teaching in the midst of a pandemic while delivering educational experiences that helped students engage with the needs of local communities. I quickly typed up my application and sent it off into the ether, hoping to be admitted into the program.  

Little did I know at the time, that CCESL’s Faculty Fellows program would provide more than opportunities to reflect and share ideas with colleagues. It became a genuine path for personal and professional growth, allowing me to learn a lot about my own aspirations and fears as a community-engaged educator. The monthly meetings with a small cohort of colleagues from across campus and the CCESL team became a refuge from the pressure to know all the answers. They offered time and space to share struggles and half-baked ideas and to ask for advice and support without fear of judgement.  

Our cohort’s journey was framed by the question: “Who do you most want to become as a community-engaged teacher during COVID times?” Approaching the challenges of community-engaged teaching from the vantage point of becoming allowed us the freedom to search our feelings and examine our motivations. We were on a quest to evolve, to grow, to transform ourselves – rather than to demonstrate our expertise and competence or prove that we were “in control.” It was a liberating and supportive approach which led to many stimulating conversations and rendered valuable insights throughout the year. It would be impossible to summarize all of these insights here, but there are three that I will hold on to as I continue on the path to becoming a better community-engaged educator and learner: 

1. Remember the primacy of the body.  

Perhaps it was the isolation and the digital haze of endless hours on Zoom, but one central theme that kept coming back in conversations with the CET faculty fellows was the theme of embodiment and embodied pedagogy (Nguyen & Larson, 2015). As academics, we so often focus on abstract ideas, data, projects, assignments, assessments… and we forget that life can only be lived from within our physical bodies. Sheltered in our labs, offices, and homes, we can easily overlook how being embodied informs all aspect of our being and of our becoming. Not all people have that privilege. Some of the communities we work with in community-engaged classes include unhoused people, underaged mothers, undocumented immigrants, and many other groups for whom daily survival is a major struggle. For them, COVID presented challenges that we couldn’t even imagine, far greater than our own complaints about Zoom fatigue, home schooling children, or the disconnected experiences of lecturing to a screen filled with black boxes. COVID rudely reminded us of the primacy of the body in our ability (or lack of ability) to truly connect and be present with others. Remembering the body in our teaching was something I had not contemplated much before, yet it suddenly seemed essential.  

2. Build community in the classroom before reaching out to communities outside of it.  

This awareness of our embodiment also helped me be more cognizant of the equalizing effect that a physical classroom has on students. No matter what may be going on in their private lives, when students show up to our classrooms, we pretty much expect all of them to behave in the same way. Remote teaching during COVID exposed the disparities in students’ backgrounds and in their systems of support. Some students logged in for class from cramped apartments shared with many other people; others enjoyed spacious homes and beautiful natural surroundings. Some could only log in from their phones as their aging laptops failed to support the technical needs of remote learning. It became increasingly clear to me that before we can ask students to engage with communities outside the university, we need to build community among them. We as teachers need to find ways to build connections and bridges among students who may face very different personal, cultural, and economic challenges, before we ask them to reach out and help others (here are some tips on building community from a distance, provided by OTL). Without that basic common ground, our classes can quickly become spaces of marginalization rather than environments for growth.  

3. Address community needs through CET without reproducing power inequities.  

Finally, one of the most consistent themes that returned over and over in conversations with the other fellows was the need to re-envision the very notion of “community engagement” (here is one recent special journal issue on this topic). Many of us were passionate about shedding a model of thinking about community engagement and public service as a form of “charity,” which reproduces inequitable relations of power. Many of us spoke eloquently about the need to acknowledge our privilege and the difficulty of getting students to recognize their own. Many of us struggled to find the right words that could move us in the direction of addressing inequalities without shaming our students but also without encouraging them to see themselves as “saviors” of those less fortunate. This was, perhaps, our most difficult challenge and one that requires ongoing commitment. Once again, COVID exacerbated and illuminated the vast inequities in our city and in society at large.  

At the end of the year, as I return to the question of who I wanted to become as a community-engaged educator, I have found no single answer. What I have discovered instead is a feeling of deep gratitude for the opportunity to stop and reflect on big and meaningful questions. Rather than just another academic exercise, my year as a CET Faculty Fellow helped me remember what is most precious to me about being an educator – the power to connect with others and walk alongside them on a path of becoming.