When Things Fall Apart – But the Work Must Continue
When the semester began, my students were going to work with a colleague of mine in the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) region on a project to support local schools combatting ISIS recruitment efforts. The same political turmoil which would allow such ISIS recruitment, however, ultimately pulled the project under and, more tragically, led to my partner and friend being the object of political persecution. In response, the project had to shift to working with another set of schools, also in the MENA region, where a discussion was held on human, political, and gender rights.
This reframed project then encountered complications locally in Syracuse. The project had intended for about eight high school students at a local community center to join the emerging discussion about human rights. Instead, almost twenty students from all ages joined. This provided more input and interaction, but also changed the work my students would be undertaking at the center, and significantly altered the planned discussion with the MENA students.
All this affected students’ individual and group work. Our imagined “prompt” group, for instance, had been assigned the task of developing discussion questions for all the partners. Given the disruptions, they had to create questions for a different type of audience than initially imagined. And, once younger students in Syracuse joined, prompts had to be replaced with more activity-based work. Mid-way through the course, then, their group mission shifted significantly, as did that of each working group in class, in response to every transformation of the process.
Given this experience both in the current project and in projects past, I have come to believe that the key to any assessment of a community project is to embed it not in the successes of the partnerships, but in moments of struggle and collapse. Not only are such moments more common in any community effort, but they also ask the students to place themselves in the work of praxis – connecting theory and strategy to produce a desired goal. I always tell my students the moments of disruption/change are the “teachable moments.” My assessment of their work, then, focuses in on how their individual and group praxis enabled the project to move forward. And as a class, we’ll produce a set of materials and discussions to gauge this aspect of our work.
What is Community? How did you help to create/sustain it?
At the outset of the term, the students read theoretical works about how communities emerge and gain power, and historical pieces about the specific communities/regions in which they would be working. For one of their final assignments, students test how these theories stood up against the community work they undertook this term. How did the difficult daily work of our project enable them to develop their own theories of what makes communities emerge or fall apart?
I am also asking them to generate a portfolio demonstrating the concrete work they did to support the community conversation. This might be emails to other students, drafts of prompts, discarded website projects, etc. The goal is to create a map of their involvement and the particular strategy that emerged for them and for their group’s project. Here the question is not so much a theoretical “What is community?” but an organizational question of “How is community created?” Students will write a short essay describing their emerging sense of community organizing.
How did we work together?
Our work occurred as a collective that attempted to move toward the same goal. During our final class, my hope is to begin with the “strategic maps” created by students to retell the history of their work, referring to how our theoretical understanding was altered by experience. Specifically, the students will have to collectively consider how our original goals were tempered: What can we reasonably have expected individual students or groups to have completed? What might we have done differently? This will lead to the creation of a “collective rubric” on which individual/group products can be understood. The goal here is to show that in such work, assessment is about how to understand not only what happened but what needs to happen next.
How do we value the work?
Hopefully through the work of the class and these final assignments, students have come to understand that they are being assessed for their ability to theorize and strategize towards a collective goal within a dynamic environment. Here the “point” is not so much being “correct,” but working through specific concrete issues with tactical moves and conceptual continuity. It is the overcoming, not the denial of obstacles and set-backs, that will ultimately earn them the “A.”
In this way, a student that can theorize about community, but cannot document the specific tasks they took to actually instantiate or rebuild that community, would not receive an “A.” Nor would the student who can list multiple tasks, but has no conception on why they were done. It is the student who can weave both together, who has learned to work through disruption to enable continued progress, that has truly understood the nature of praxis in any community project.
Final Note: The Community Response#
In the vast majority of such projects, I invite the community partners to attend final class discussions about problems faced, work achieved, and next steps. The global nature of this project made that difficult, to say the least. In my next and last post of the year, I will talk about strategies for community input within a global context.