I have been thinking a lot lately about the work community partnerships can do in classrooms and in communities. And I’ve been trying to understand if there are common frameworks and outcomes that exist across my experiences over the past twenty years. Somewhat to my own surprise, I’m increasingly thinking that much of my work has really been occurring within the context of Writing Across the Curriculum.
It is well known that community partnerships in Composition Studies exist within in a wide network of sites, such as schools, issue-based organizations, and community groups; they occur in resource-poor and research-rich environments; and they cross diverse heritages and national borders. Most importantly, each type of partnership produces writing that is public, powerful, and productive for all those involved – students and community participants.
As I reflect back, I have come to realize that such partnerships can also take place beyond the composition classroom, moving outwards across departments and across colleges. When they do so, they can begin to show how core concepts associated with effective writing – concepts of audience, genre, and style – can be an inherent part of any college classroom. I’ve come to understand how such partnerships can provide students with an opportunity to consistently consider how academic writing across their coursework can be linked to important work in the community. In a sense, partnership work can produce a metacognitive sense of writing that moves not only across coursework but across the college and the community.
As such, partnerships can also provide a common nodal point among diverse faculty to consider their work not only as disciplinary experts but also as writing teachers and community members.
Case in Point: For the past decade, I have been working with a colleague in Anthropology. Our initial reason to get together was to discuss whether I might be able to help publish some oral histories of Syracuse community activists. That idea ultimately fell through. What continued was a discussion of how the process of having students engage in community oral history and publishing projects allowed them to gain a deeper understanding not only of writing in each of our respective classes, but also of how to imagine themselves as authors across different disciplinary classes and local communities.
At one point, we actually tested this “thesis” by creating a set of community projects focused on immigration, gentrification, and Native American Rights. We would bring these projects into our classrooms, then discuss whether the need to respond to public contexts had given our students a sense of writing that transferred beyond the disciplinary conversations of our courses. (It should be noted that this work has led, and continues to lead, to conversations on whether he is really a Composition scholar or whether I am really an Anthropologist.) And out of this series of conversations and initiatives, we built a community engagement fellowship program for undergraduates, which drew together students across the college and university to focus on one specific community project. (That broad narrative of this work is discussed in “Sinners Welcome: The Limits of Rhetorical Agency,” College English, vol. 76, no. 4, July 2014.)
Ultimately, over the past decade, I have worked and planned classes with scholars in Religion, Education, Communication, and Visual Arts. Partnership work has also allowed me to connect with scholars in Geography, Women’s Studies, International Relations, Urban Education, and Philosophy, to name a few. While my colleagues and I have never done a study on how these floating conversations or consistent set of commitments to partnership work has altered our sense as teachers, I think we would all agree that the nature of projects – the inherent demand for writing, research, and analysis that emerges from a discipline and moves across classes toward a community – has enriched our pedagogies and assignments. And not for nothing, this latent writing across the curriculum work has certainly enriched my professional life.
What I have ultimately come to reflect upon is how the possibility of collaboration that partnership work provides across the curriculum is particularly important at this current moment. I’ve been saying this a lot recently, but in a “post-fact” media landscape, we need to provide students with consistent opportunities to understand how strong research and writing (across disciplines) is vital for effective change to occur. Within that context, perhaps partnerships across the curriculum can also show students the power of different insights coming together through writing as an important tool in the pursuit of a more just world.