Learning by engaging with communities

Ideally, one would learn about community engagement by doing it, by becoming immersed in a sustained effort for meaningful community development with a diverse set of partners. That may be possible for some students, but in most cases there is neither the time nor the opportunity to do that within the semester constraints. This is especially the case for a distributed learning environment, such as the LEEP course.

What’s worse is that a short-term, partial involvement might embody exactly the wrong ideas about community engagement–that one can just drop in, and then leave at an arbitrary time; that needs and activities come from outside the community; or that relationships are inconsequential.

Instead, we’ll do aspects of community engagement, recognizing that these activities are only part of what a full community engagement should be. There are five parts, based on the Inquiry Cycle: These include analyzing a civic renewal movement, creating a poster about what one has learned, studying a local community engagement project, and a plan for going forward. Any of these may be done in collaboration with community members.’

Major assignments

In addition to the assignments listed below, class members are expected to participate in discussions of readings, exercises, and group work in class. This will occur through the Moodle site and Elluminate, as well as in the LEEP oncampus session.

See the Schedule for the due dates in context.

Discuss: Leading a discussion in class

discussThis assignment is to lead a class discussion on a either a civic renewal movement or a tool for understanding and engaging communities.

Choosing readings and other resources

Basically, you just need to pick two or three readings, which you think would be interesting and productive for the class. You cold also include websites, videos, and other resources.  I’d rather have people read more closely, than have a long list that is hard to absorb. Also, if you can format the citations in close-to-APA format, I can then add them to the Community Inquiry Bibliography.

The degree of focus is up to you. The readings that we have for the first few weeks and the kinds of discussions offer a possible model. You may also prepare some opening remarks, slides, or other media to get things started. It’s OK to present the whole 50 minutes, but it’s usually better to have some kind of discussion or hands-on activity.

Basic steps

  1. Working alone, or in collaboration with another class member, select one of these from the Community Inquiry Bibliography. You may also choose one that does not appear there. A movement could be the same as one you’ve chosen for another assignment, but does not have to be so. It’s OK to repeat topics. Any of them could well use more than one session to probe deeper, consider alternative perspectives, or explore other examples.
  2. Then, select appropriate readings for your session. You may draw entirely from the online bibliography, use one of the entries from Chip’s Journey (which serve as pathfinders to topics), or select new readings. When considering the amount of readings, remember to take into account the number of other discussion topics for that week.
  3. Announce these readings with any commentary you have about them in the Open Discussion forum at least 10 days before your session. Send them to me along with any notes or slides directly via email as well. I’ll add those to the Schedule. Please share additional readings you find, so that they can be added to the bibliography.
  4. Start the session with a brief summary and perhaps rationale for your choice. Then raise issues or questions for the discussion. You may choose to have a whole class or small group discussions. The entire session should be 45-50 minutes.

Due: Various dates during the semester, as scheduled (20%)

Investigate: Analysis of a civic renewal movement

investigateThis assignment is to analyze a civic renewal movement and its connection to your community. This could be some movement that you are interested in personally, or one that you see of concern to people in your community.

You may do the investigation in collaboration with another class member or someone in your local community. If it addresses a concrete community need, all the better. Think of the investigation as something one would want to do in a full community engagement, even if your own role at this time is limited.

The analysis could be based on various sources of information:

  • An interview with one or more community members, or leaders of existing efforts in the community
  • Readings, including, but not limited to, those on the corresponding section of the Community Inquiry Bibliography
  • Websites with resources on the movement
  • Your own direct experiences
  • Your organization’s mission, or identified needs in the area

Post your analysis on the forum Investigate forum, ideally with a link to its text file or web page. Please comment on the investigations posted by others. There will be an opportunity for some of these investigations to be shared in class as well.

Due: Sep. 15, 5 pp. (1500 words), 20%

Create: A poster

createThis assignment is to create a poster about community engagement in your own community. Ideally it would be created by, for, and with a community group. You may also create it in collaboration with another class member. To the extent that it focuses on a single movement or tool, that can be same as the one you’ve used on other assignments.

Why a poster?

A poster is just another way to communicate, along with the text chat and audio in Elluminate, the Moodle discussion forums, shared assignments, and f2f talk. Expressing ideas visually in compact space is sometimes more effective than saying them in an article or forum post. A poster session often generates more fruitful talk than other formats for discussion. Also, think of how the poster might benefit the organization or community group you’re working with, for recruiting, donations, publicity, encoraging discussion, and so on.


If you’re participating with a particular community engagement initiative, then please take advantage of that, possibly involving community partners in making the poster. Also, think of ways that the poster might benefit the initiative (recruiting, fund-raising, providing information, …). In that sense, you’re doing a kind of action research.

In the final analysis, full participation provides a kind of understanding that’s hard to obtain in any other way. But I realize that full participation may not be possible in every case and at times it’s more helpful to step back and do research (Investigate or Reflect) on some situation. In such a case it makes more sense to present your own community engagement research, which is not directly engaged with a community yet. That research could include an overview of a particular community engagement initiative.

Any of these approaches could build upon your Investigate assignment, or move into a new area.


  • The poster should be 14″ by 20″, either landscape or portrait orientation.
  • The poster can be simple, text only, but feel free to use your imagination with photos, diagrams, and other visual elements.
  • Be careful with using dark or image backgrounds that make it hard to read the text.
  • Don’t have too much text, even for a text-only poster. 300 words is probably a good maximum.
  • Save the poster as a .pdf, .ppt, or .key file.


Post a link to your poster in .pdf, .ppt, or .key format on the forum Create forum. Please share your comments and suggestions there for other posters.

During the 490 CEL on campus day on Friday, October 16, we will have a structured poster session. You’ll have 2-3 minutes to describe your poster. Then other students will have an opportunity to view it more closely and ask questions.

Representatives from the Community Informatics Initiative will be invited to review the posters and select those appropriate for the CII archive. See Selecting posters to feature on the CII site.

Due: At the latest by Sunday, Oct. 11, prior to the 490 CEL on campus day. If for any reason you cannot do that, print out the poster yourself and bring it to the 490 CEL on campus day. 20%

Ask: Case study

askThis assignment is do conduct a case study of community engagement, focusing on the community needs and perspectives first. It might be framed as an asset map. It differs from the Investigate assignment in that the focus is on the community itself, not some larger movement, such as environmental quality.

I think of Investigate as more about a movement, e.g, healthy environment, rather a specific organization, although some may focus on a single organization. Then, Ask is more about a community’s needs, perhaps related to that movement. E.g.,

  • Investigate: healthcare;
  • Ask: my hometown’s needs for elderly home healthcare.

In general, consider looking at a particular community and what they need in a limited realm. It’s the community perspective, rather than, say, what great resources a library has to offer or what interesting thing was done in another community. Asset maps vary widely. For this assignment, it doesn’t have to be a literal map at all. Just think of it as using whatever CE tools you can to understand and express what a community needs

Again, it may be done in collaboration with another class member, or ideally, with community members. You could use techniques similar to those for Investigate, but would focus more on the voices of the community.

Post your analysis on the forum Ask forum, ideally with a link to its text file or web page. Please comment on the investigations posted by others. There will be an opportunity for some of these cases studies to be shared in class as well.

Due: Nov. 3, 5 pp. (1500 words), 20%)

Reflect: A plan for going forward

reflectConsider the readings, the Ask case study, the Investigation of a civic renewal movement, the Discussions, the Creation of a poster, and your nascent community engagement. Can you bring those experiences into a unified whole? Or if not, where are the challenges to that? Using what you’ve learned, develop and share a plan for going forward. This plan could emphasize your own learning or your work in a community setting. The product can be in the form of a paper, a video, a website, a map, or other media.

Or, and here’s a big opening: You may have heard me mention John Dewey. Clifford Geertz (2000), the great anthropologist, writes this regarding the most important lesson he had learned from Dewey. He understood

the chilling doctrine that thought is conduct and is to be morally judged as such…[The] reason that thinking is so serious is that it is a social act, and that one is therefore responsible for it as for any other social act. Perhaps even more so, for, in the long run, it is the most consequential of social acts. In short, Dewey brings thinking into the public world where ethical judgment can get at it.

Putting that in simpler terms, we might say, learning matters, not just for a course grade, not just for your own enlightenment, not just for a getting a job. It matters because what we learn can change who we are and therefore, who we can become and what we can do in relation with others. Note that this doesn’t mean learning in the sense of simply assimilating past ideas; instead, it’s about exploring ideas, the world, and ourselves in order to shape future experiences.

What has mattered for you in this course experience? It might be something you read or did. It might be a chance conversation in the hallway. What’s new for you may be old news for someone else. It may feel incomplete or uncertain. But it can also be the bit that matters going forward.

If you’d like to write about that, not necessarily integrating across the whole semester, but expanding on some small thing that really mattered to you, consider this to be your invitation. Remember what the critic, Anton Ego says in the movie, Ratatouille: “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

For this assignment, I’ll respond, but I’ll also let you assign your own grade.

Post your reflection in the forum Reflect: A plan for CE forum.

Due: Dec. 8, 5 pp. (1500 words), 20%)

Grading scale

A = 90-100
B = 80-89
C = 70-79
D = 60-69


Geertz, Clifford (2000). Available light: Anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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