The Center for Community Engagement partners with Middlebury College faculty in bringing engaged learning to life with community members and students. We connected with Dr. Shawna Shapiro, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and Director of the College’s Writing and Rhetoric Program, to ask her to look back on her extensive experiences with community-based learning, both in and out of the classroom.
In addition to her work supporting student organizations over the years, Professor Shapiro and her students have engaged with the community outside of the traditional academic setting through the CCE’s Academic Outreach Endowment Grants. For example, Professor Shapiro’s Fall 2016 First Year Seminar, “Language and Social Justice,” visited Nepali heritage classes at the Vermont Hindu Temple. The course, in part, centered on linguistic human rights. The grant allowed students to, in Shapiro’s words, “see the real-world application of the theories and values we study throughout the course.” In the process of developing the course, she “[did her] best to let the communities involved lead the project,” and hoped that it would “offer a model to our students for how to help create change in a way that is sustainable and truly ‘bottom-up.'”
Shapiro cites the Nepali program as one of her fondest memories in our interview below. More information about the program can be found in the following video:
Which CCE student organizations/programs do you partner with in your work? What kind of work do you do together?
I’m the faculty sponsor for MiddROC, and have helped the group make connections to schools and other organizations in Chittenden County. I also talk through issues that come up in their work and advise on ways they can bring back to the campus in terms of knowledge and community-building. I’ve also done trainings with Juntos on English language pedagogy and other issues related to their work with migrant farmworkers.
How have community connections impacted your teaching and research?
Community connections offer a number of benefits: First, they help students complicate their understanding of “community.” When students say “Vermont is all white,” I can say “Actually, it’s not—you might want to check out these organizations that serve minority populations.” It also helps students see that the issues we talk about in class (e.g., language prejudice, English language policies in schools, etc.) have real-world consequences not just “out there” (in other places) but right here. Having community connections as case studies also helps students understand the messiness of organizational/societal change: Sometimes complicate political dynamics within an organization, or differing narratives about goals and histories, can be a barrier to movement. In those cases, our goal has to be to understand what’s happening, even if we can’t do much about it. For example, I’m currently working with teachers at Burlington High School to map out some curricular changes, but in our conversations, they’re starting to share more about all of the ways they’ve felt unheard and disrespected by school administration, which makes them leery to put a lot of effort into changes that once again might not be supported. It’s humbling for me to realize that my idealism comes from not having to deal with day-to-day struggles that teachers in this school are facing.
What is one important thing you have learned either about yourself or the world around you during the course of your community-connected work?
I’ve learned that impatience is one of my biggest weaknesses, and that I have to model for students the “long view,” helping them see that building relationships takes time, and there may not always be a tangible “outcome” that you can point to for years in the future. This is a good reminder for me, but it’s also great for students who see themselves as “activists” and are used to talking about change-making and problem-solving. I’ve also learned that in our desire to “help others,” we sometimes dehumanize those others, forgetting that they have agency, aspirations, and lived experiences that might actually teach us something.
How does collaboration contribute to your work? Do you have any advice for those who may seek to collaborate on a project?
Collaboration makes me aware of my privilege—not only as a straight, white, U.S.-born citizen, but also as a faculty member at Middlebury College. I didn’t realize until doing this sort of work that while Middlebury has a lot of prestige, many people in the community are skeptical of what scholars have to offer to real-world problems. I see my community engagement work in some ways as “PR” for the college. Two pieces of advice: 1) Spend a lot of time learning about the issues—this can take months or even years. When you find yourself thinking, “This isn’t that hard! Why can’t they just…[insert naïve solution here],” assume that there’s something you are not understanding about the history and/or nature of the issue(s) at hand. 2) Ask genuine questions. Acknowledge the deep expertise that community partners have, and present yourself as learning from them, rather than “helping” them.
What is one of the fondest memories you have of collaborating with students in your work?
In 2016, we used funds from an AOE grant connected to my FYS “Language and Social Justice” to visit Nepali heritage classes at the Vermont Hindu Temple (I had consulted with the leaders to develop the program and curriculum and to get some startup funding). When we got there, they had us all sit in a circle (Midd students, kids in the program, and teachers/helpers) and they taught us some letter in the alphabet. Then they asked me to remind students of why it is important for them to maintain a connection to their Nepali language and culture. At first I was taken aback, because I didn’t feel that it was my place to be making that argument, but one of the leaders said “You’re a professor. They’ll listen to you.” That was a moment where I realized that I could use my privilege to work WITH the teachers in reinforcing an important message to their young students.
My students also visited an Open House for the Nepali Program later in the semester, and they had some great conversations with students in the program about all sorts of things. And there was delicious food and fun music!
Thank you, Dr. Shapiro, for your consistent enthusiasm and thoughtful engagement in meaningful experiential learning!
Know someone we should interview and/or spotlight? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.