Community service

As a land grant university, the University of Illinois explicitly values service, along with scholarship and teaching.

Communication No. 9

Its Communication No. 9 is very specific:

All faculty members should include three types of service in Section IV of the dossier: (1) public engagement, outreach, and/or Extension; (2) professional and/or disciplinary; and (3) university and/or campus.

Communication No. 9

This format is required for promotion and tenure reviews, as well as for annual reviews, award competitions, and other such purposes. It’s intended to ensure that all pertinent information is included and easy to find.

I followed that format for many years and my current CV still adheres to it for the most part.

However, I increasingly became aware that an important part of service, namely community service, is an awkward fit. This is especially the case for work with low-resourced communities that have been marginalized or excluded from full participation in modern civic life. That exclusion means that they benefit little from the research, teaching, or service missions of the university.


For example, over the last decade, I’ve worked with various organizations in Nepal, notably King’s College in Kathmandu. That work has encompassed workshops, advising on curricula, help navigating government organizations, advising students, connecting to other organizations in Nepal, the US, and elsewhere, help with writing, cheerleading, and more.

One could put this under “public engagement, outreach, and/or Extension.” But it doesn’t occur through established organizations such as “State of Illinois,” “National Science Foundation,” or “County Extension Services.” In fact an important aspect there, as it is for Paseo Boricua in Chicago, or youth in North Champaign, is that the community needs aren’t being met by those established organizations.

Moreover, the types of activity normally included under “public engagement, outreach, and/or Extension” usually start with the University and reach outward to the communities involved. In contrast, the kind of work I’ve done at King’s College starts with local background, needs, and goals. Although in practice successful public engagement in either case usually evolves to become two-way, collaborative, and interactive, there is an important distinction in the starting premises.

The result is an awkward fit between the university document guidelines and the actual practice.

Similarly, that work at King’s College, or similar work I’ve done related to community networking or teen civic responsibility in East St. Louis, with Romanians on civic engagement, with digital literacy in Dublin (Ireland) public schools, and elsewhere fits, but only partially, with “professional and/or disciplinary service.” The path forward might involve linking people in a community with a professional organization or discipline, but it’s a stretch to say that the activity is service to that organization.

And, it may connect to the university, but it’s not really “university and/or campus service” per se.

Connecting in a meaningful way

Ironically, in each of these cases, what starts out appearing to be very removed from service to the established organization, may in the end be a great benefit to it. As I discuss in Beyond the Classroom Walls, the formal institution fails to fulfill its potential when it is disconnected from the community, or conceives its role as entirely as the expert deigning to share bits of its wisdom.

I plan to add here more details about the kinds of community service I’ve engaged in. Some of this can be seen in my blog posts: