Category Archives: Engagement

Exploring Learning Communities, Engaging English

Learning communities are fundamental to big public universities like Purdue. As one of 11 “high impact” practices identified by the AACU as essential to enriching students’ college education, they encourage deep learning, correlating to high levels of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, and faculty-student interaction.

Learning communities are integrated experiences; students take two classes together in their first semester, while also participating in residential or extracurricular activities with their classmates. Learning communities are, basically, fast tracks to academic success, assisting new undergraduates’ transition from home and high school to dorm and university; they help students earn better grades, make friends faster, and graduate at higher rates. Learning communities provide smaller class sizes; increased faculty-student mentoring; and opportunities to meet and interact with other students who share similar personal and academic interests. They also make a big campus feel small.

For this reason, each fall the English Department hosts its own learning community called “Engaging English,” open to first-year English majors and Exploratory Studies students. While we encourage the residential component, it is not required. So, students who live in the Honors College, for instance, or who have off-campus living arrangements can still participate. In 2018-2019, we won the Office of Residential Life’s “Real World Experience Award,” recognizing the best learning communities offering introductions to various opportunities within their academic fields. 

Left: Dr. Barbara Dixon; Right: Professor Roby Malo

Let’s take a closer look at the different aspects of our award-winning learning community, and hear from faculty and students who were involved in it.

ENGL 195 Introducing English

“Introducing English” is a 1-credit course (one 50-minute class meeting/week), which initiates students to departmental and college resources, gives them a jump-start on career planning, lets them work on writing skills, and also encourages community through participation in our “Big Read” common read program.

As our departmental Associate Head Dr. Barbara Dixon says, the “course is unique because we interacted in a deeper way than students in classes normally do—meeting often for dinner during the semester, reading The Underground Railroad [our Big Read for 2018-19], researching the slave trade, and spending an entire day together on a Saturday going to The Levi Coffin House, part of the Underground Railroad network in Indiana.” The biggest lessons that she hopes her students learned were that teamwork on projects is hard work (but also important to their future careers); that reading can be not just informative, but fun; and that faculty are people they can trust if they need help. Students very much enjoyed the experience. Julia, a student in the class, writes: “Dr. Dixon made her classroom feel like a home, and my classmates and I became … a family through the environment she created.” During the semester, the students even suggested creating a “GroupMe” to send text messages and to keep in touch. Dr. Dixon used it to plan a class “reunion dinner” the following semester.

Dr. Dixon’s students pose near a mural in Fountain City, Indiana that depicts Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, who helped more than 2,000 people escape slavery.

Her advice for prospective students? “If you have the chance to join a learning community, take it!” she says, “Try to get out of your comfort zone and go to activities you don’t think you’ll like with people you don’t know!”

The Big Read

Our annual Big Read is designed to enrich Purdue and Greater Lafayette through the shared experience of reading literature. Each year we select a great book, integrate it into our learning community curriculum, create a calendar of engaging events (including lectures, book group discussions, performances, workshops, author visits) and then provide free copies of the text to undergraduates, high school students, community members, public libraries, and more. Studies show that book ownership contributes to academic achievement, educational, economic development. It’s important for us to reach outside the borders of our campus and the temporal bound-aries of the undergraduate degree. Engagement programs like the Big Read produce demonstrable, positive communal effects, and are essential to Purdue’s mission as a land grant university.

English 202 Engaging English

The second course in the learning community is “Engaging English.” Dr. Robyn Malo, Associate Prof. of English Literature, says that the course teaches students the “basic skills but also the comfort-level and confidence to continue as English majors…We think about storytelling, whose stories we tell, whose stories we elide, and whose we ignore; how our interpretive faculties shape and limit what we are able to understand; and how can we start to get around this difficulty.”

Of course, Prof. Malo also organized a variety of extracurricular events for her students, like a trip to a play at the Indiana Repertory Theater; poetry readings; meals at the dining halls; meeting authors whose books they read in class; and after-class writing workshops. She even facilitated an impromptu study group during finals week. “Finals week can be overwhelming and stressful,” she says, “and so I thought, ‘Ok, this is a chance to re-connect to the group’…So, I was like, ‘Do you guys want to get together and study so that you don’t have to do it alone, and so that you have a little bit of accountability [to each other] while doing it?” 

Students from Prof. Malo’s class study in the English Department’s Under-graduate Studies Office during finals week.

What did she like best about the learning community experience? “It was fun to see them [in the dining halls].…Hanging out as a group makes learning more possible; I could see that they trusted each other and they trusted me. They knew I liked them and respected them as people. That makes it easier to give and take critical feedback. Students respond to that in a way that helps them learn rather than feel shut down.”

Prof. Malo’s biggest takeaway for her learning community students? “That you can balance learning and hard work with being ok the way you are and not needing to be perfect.”

Conclusion

Our “Engaging English” learning community is an enriching experience for faculty and students alike. One student raved that the experience “is very good at fostering a fun sense of community” and that the course instructors’ “kindness motivates me to perform well.” We consider this high praise, indeed!

Purdue Journal of Service Learning

How can I use the skills from my major to help my community? This is an important question every student should ask themselves, and is, in fact, central to Purdue’s identity as a public land grant university dedicated to training and serving the residents of Indiana. It is also a way of measuring the quality of a student’s college education. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) identifies service learning, or combining classroom instruction with community activities, as one of eleven “high impact” educational practices that provide undergraduate students with an engaging and meaningful educational experience. AACU says that “working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life.”

Purdue English not only integrates service into its curriculum, but the university also offers students the unique opportunity to share their experiences through the Purdue Journal of Service Learning and International Engagement. The Journal enhances student learning by providing a platform for students to write about their service-based research projects. The process of becoming a published author in a peer-reviewed journal enhances a student’s writing abilities, and lets them collaborate with peers and mentors – all skills that will open doors to internships, jobs, and further education.

Prof. Jenny Bay, editor of the Purdue Journal of Community Engagement and International Service Learning
Prof. Jenny Bay, editor of the Purdue Journal of Community Engagement and International Service Learning

“The journal is an opportunity for students to reflect on and articulate the kinds of learning that they have experienced either in a specific service learning class or another community engagement opportunity, whether that’s domestic or international.” says Dr. Jenny Bay, Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Composition in the Purdue English Department, a community engagement scholar, and the Journal’s new editor. Prof. Bay’s strong belief in connecting students with community needs led her to incorporate service learning into her teaching. Through English 203, “Introduction to Research for Professional Writers,” she formed a long-term partnership with the Lafayette chapter of Food Finders.

The Purdue Journal of Service Learning accepts submissions from graduate and undergraduate students in all disciplines, but undergraduate research is the primary focus. Students are welcome to submit as individuals, or as part of a team.

Published articles fall into four categories:

  1. Student reflective essay: Reflection of the author(s) service or engagement experience, which includes a description of their project, what they learned, and the impact of their service (approximately 3,500 words).
  2. Research with reflection: A reflection of the author(s) service-focused scholarly research project supported by a literature review (approximately 3,500 words).
  3. Community partner snapshot: A description of a partner agency’s or organization’s mission, as well as suggestions for how students or members of the public can engage with them (under 1,000 words).
  4. Faculty profile: An overview of a Purdue faculty member’s use of service-learning projects in the classroom, and their personal commitment to community engagement (approximately 1,500 words).

Why should English majors submit to the Purdue Journal of Service Learning?

2017 cover of the Journal
2017 cover of the Journal

As one of only two peer-reviewed publications dedicated to Purdue undergraduate research, the Journal offers English majors the opportunity to demonstrate how their “soft skills,” such as strong communication, analysis, empathy, cultural sensitivity, and storytelling abilities, apply in real-world contexts. For instance, in the Journal’s 2017 issue, a graduate student investigated ways teachers can use storytelling to instruct English language learners. As an experiment, she instructed seventh graders in a local junior high school to write their own autobiographies and observed how the exercise benefitted their learning outcomes. In the Journal’s upcoming 2019 publication, an article will describe the ethnographic research undergraduate students in English 203 completed to help create programs for Lafayette’s new North End Community Center.

Prof. Bay says, “Having English majors use skills gained from the major to impact the local community is really important. I also think that employers really look highly on the fact that you have an example of your writing that has gone through peer review that has been published for people to read. To me, especially for English majors, this can only help your prospects.”

Peer review demonstrates that submissions have received feedback for revision from experts in the fields of community engagement and service learning. This seal of approval demonstrates that the author’s work has been rigorously vetted and deemed to be of high quality. Peer review is usually conducted by Purdue professors, but Professor Bay is working to recruit more reviewers from outside of campus. Diversifying the reviewers adds further rigor to the peer review process. It also gives authors the opportunity to network with various experts, and exposes them to a wider range of mentorship experiences, which further enhances their writing.

Submission

The Journal accepts submission on a rolling basis, but spring is the cutoff for annual publication in the fall. Graduating seniors are still welcome to apply, although their articles won’t be published until the next semester. Not every submission to the Journal will be accepted, but the application process is so simple that English majors have nothing to lose by applying. All that is required is an abstract of at least 250 words. If an abstract possesses the needed balance between community service and immersive learning, the editors will notify the author(s), and advise how to revise and craft the manuscript for incorporation into one of the four featured categories.

The Journal strongly encourages students to work with a mentor throughout the writing and publishing process. This mentor is usually the instructor of the author’s service-learning class, but the Journal is happy to assign a mentor if the author’s instructor is unavailable. Of course, the Purdue Writing Lab is always an available resource for writers, if needed.

Both Prof. Bay and Journal Coordinator, Weiran Ma, are “willing to work with anybody who wants to get feedback or develop ideas” as they work on their revisions. Prior to becoming Editor of the Purdue Journal of Service Learning this January, Prof. Bay served as a longtime member of its editorial board, and worked closely with Lindsey Payne, Purdue’s Director of Service Learning. Prof. Bay also won the 2018 university Service Learning Award from the Office of Engagement. Likewise, Weiran Ma has extensive experience working with service-learning journals. Together, Prof. Bay and Weiran Ma are a valuable resource for authors and prospective authors.

Before they graduate, most students participate in a service-learning class. Relatively few, however, will publish their experiences. Stand out from the thousands of other students; take your research to the next level and publish! The opportunity is here.