Building Community Relationships


Though service learning is by no means the only model of place-conscious education available to a writing program, many scholars of service learning have written extensively on how instructors and administrators may build productive, reciprocal, and sustainable relationships between their institutions and community partners.  These relationships, and a WPA’s knowledge of a local community, are essential to the success of a robust place-conscious writing program. Though the extent to which these relationships are built will vary depending on your program’s goals and abilities, the process of connecting with and understanding the goals and needs of community partners is vital to any robust place-conscious writing program. For one, these relationships will help the WPA understand what matters to the various groups that make up a local community, thus allowing for more appropriately attuned course design and programmatic goals. In addition, knowing the places students’ live in and the issues that matter to them will allow instructors to make appropriate choices about materials and assignments used in their classes.

The WPA’s role:

The WPA’s role includes connecting with and developing relationships with community partners, providing professional develop for teaching faculty to help them connect classes with community partners or help them locate pertinent community issues around which to base their courses, and providing clear models and guidance for classroom practice based around a place-conscious pedagogy.

Getting to Know Students’ Places

If you do not intend to use a model that requires matching students with extracurricular community organizations, a place-conscious approach to writing instruction is still achievable. On a class by class basis, this requires helping instructors get to know students, where they are from, and what communities, places, and issues are important to them. Getting to know students requires some persistent data collection in each class. Perhaps during professional development, a WPA can share data gathering methods with instructors to help them learn how to get to know their students.

A few methods include:

  • Pass out notecards on the first day of class. Ask students to write on the notecards information such as: their major, their hometown, their career goals, hobbies they enjoy, activities they engaged in over summer/winter break, and one fact about themselves they want to share with the class.
  • Have students write an “I am from” poem (Robert Brooke discusses this method in Rural Voices).
  • Have students respond to a prose-based “Where are you from?” type forum post or writing prompt.

Connecting to Local Resources

Ellen Cushman (2002) provides a framework for developing sustainable service learning programs. Cushman discusses the role the professor plays in developing and sustaining relationships for one service learning class, but these suggestions could reasonably be scaled up for a WPA to make connections for the entire program. Though service learning may not be the exact path you decide to take, Cushman’s suggestions are still useful for developing sustainable, reciprocal relationships with community partners which can help better an institution’s local community. In accordance with the goals of a place-conscious pedagogy to synthesize school and community for the general betterment of both, Cushman explains that “service learning programs that have sustained themselves have incorporated reciprocity and risk taking that can best be achieved when the researcher [or WPA] views the site as a place for teaching, research, and services-as a place for collaborative inquiry” (p. 43).

Davis (2013) and Ingram (2001) explore links between ecocomposition, community literacy, and service learning, which may be useful for deciding how to connect with community partners. Davis (2013) argues that a “ecopedagogical thinking” can help students, especially in rural settings, “create their own rhetorical space to address community issues.” Davis combines ecopedagogy with Higgings, Long, and Flower’s rhetorical model developed in “Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry.” Under a model such as the one put forth by Davis, it may be students who direct the WPA to community resources. Similar to the methods mentioned above, instructors, on a class-by-class basis, may collect information from students regarding which community organizations or issues are most important. The WPA may then use this information to guide efforts to connect with such organizations in reciprocal ways. Alternatively, a WPA may collect similar data from all incoming student via survey.

Works Cited and Other Useful Resources

Cushman, E. (2002). Sustainable service learning programs. College Composition and Communication54(1), 40-65.

Cushman, E. (2002). Service learning as the new English studies. In D. Downing (Ed.), Beyond English Inc., Curricular Reform in a Global Economy (pp. 204-218, Heinemann.

Davis, R. (2013). A place for ecopedagogy in community literacy. Community Literacy Journal7(2), 77-91.

Donehower, K., Hogg, C., & Schell, E. (2007). Toward a sustainable citizenship and pedagogy. In K. Donehower, C. Hogg, and E. Schell (Eds.), Rural Literacies (pp. 155-196), Southern Illinois University Press.

Higgins, L., Long, E., & Flower, L. (2006). Community literacy: A rhetorical model for personal and public inquiry. Community Literacy Journal, 1(1).

Ingram. A. M. (2001). Service learning and ecocomposition: Developing sustainable practices through extradisciplinarity. In S. Dobrin and C. Weisser (Eds.), Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches (pp. 209-233). State University of New York Press.