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UI faculty hold great hopes for community-based learning in higher education

  Faculty members and a student planning session
Graduate research assistant Peter Likarish meets with UI faculty members Teresa Mangum and Ken Brown to plan the next Obermann Graduate Institute for Engagement. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Teresa Mangum, associate professor of English, imagines a university where faculty members take their teaching and research out into the communities where they live and work; they share ideas and work with students and community members to answer questions and solve problems.

Of course, many faculty members already do all that at The University of Iowa and elsewhere, but in the future university Mangum envisions—and here’s the sticking point—they will get credit for that activity not only as service, but as part of their research and teaching.

In May, Mangum and former UI faculty member David Redlawsk hosted a three-day faculty institute conceived by Jean Florman, director of the UI Center for Teaching, titled “From Engaged Teaching to Engaged Scholarship.” Fourteen faculty members participated in the institute, examining a number of community-based learning experiences they had organized for students and sharing their experiences in these projects and talking about opportunities, successes, and pitfalls of the community-based experience. The discussion centered on ways to translate the outcomes of these and future projects into “forms recognizable to their disciplines,” according to the prospectus.

For most of her career, in addition to the traditional scholarship and teaching in her discipline required by her position, Mangum has been involved in research projects that involve community agencies, ordinary citizens, and groups of students. The last several years, she has been working with a consortium of colleges and universities from around the country in the Imagining America project. That project joins what’s called “public scholarship” with traditional scholarship in the arts, humanities, and design in which interested community members and students connect with academic scholars to study and analyze community issues and problems and, often, to devise and suggest practical solutions.

Historically, faculty members have supported The University of Iowa’s mission of teaching, research, and service in three discrete activities: they did their teaching in the classroom; their research in the field, lab, or library; and their service out in Iowa’s towns and counties. Scholarship was a relatively solitary activity that took place pretty much inside the halls of academia and the products of that scholarship—a collection of articles and books—was the requisite evidence of a career. Whatever else one did outside of the academy was “service,” the foster child of the University’s academic mission.

“For centuries one individual working on one book has been the single, solitary path for serious scholars,” Mangum says. “But we’ve found that when you get a group of people together—students, experts, community members—and you look at common topics together in a disciplined way, everyone will learn new things.

"Faculty members who try this, who take their expertise and their enthusiastic students out into the community, invariably come away excited. Everyone learns... Yet faculty members don’t put these experiences on their CVs because they assume their colleagues or their department chairs will not take it seriously."

—Teresa Mangum,
associate professor of English


“Faculty members who try this, who take their expertise and their enthusiastic students out into the community, invariably come away excited,” Mangum continues. “Everyone learns—the students, the community, the faculty member. New knowledge is created and shared. Yet faculty members don’t put these experiences on their CVs because they assume their colleagues or their department chairs will not take it seriously.

“It doesn’t work in every discipline, of course, but the benefit is undeniable. Especially with new technologies, we can envision and employ new ways to teach and learn. The challenge is to find a way to evaluate and reward that work in a way that is compatible with traditional scholarship.”

Among Mangum’s colleagues from the institute are Tom Rice, professor and chair of political science, whose areas of interest include environment and behavior, community “attractiveness,” and social capital and government performance; Charles Connerly, professor and chair of urban and regional planning, whose interests include affordable housing and urban planning and civil rights; and Carolyn Colvin, professor of elementary and secondary education, who has been conducting a rural community research project studying adult/family literacy behaviors for Mexican-origin families.

Linda Bolton, associate professor of English, works with a sculptor to address ethics through public art, including a Martin Luther King Memorial located in Columbia, Mo. Faculty, students, and community members have joined associate professor of music Mary Cohen’s Oakdale Prison Choir at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Coralville. And, after singing with the choir, associate professor of rhetoric Mary Trachsel was inspired to develop a writing journal project with the prisoners. Both Bolton and Trachsel are developing research projects on the impact of self-expression upon social rehabilitation.

Even though the current economy poses challenges, Mangum and her institute colleagues express great hopes for the future of community-based learning in higher education.  

“In the few months since we met in May,” Mangum muses, “we have seen public universities across the country grappling with tight budgets and reflecting on ways in which their work can contribute to the greater good. Here at The University of Iowa, task forces are hard at work considering our strategic mission, several coming to the shared conclusion that we can be more creative in finding ways to share our discoveries with the larger public, as well as in seeking opportunities to work with groups beyond the academy at local, state, national, and global levels that have a great deal to teach us.

“Just making time to listen and learn from one another often throws open overlooked doors,” Mangum adds. “Even within our small faculty group, we have launched several collaborations, surprised each other with insights arising from our disciplinary differences, and inspired each other with confidence to seek new ways to take our work into the world.”

by Charles S. Drum

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.