Encouraging Global Citizenship through Community Engagement

untitledJoanna Z. Mishtal is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and specializes in sociocultural and medical anthropology, focusing on reproductive rights and policies in Poland, Ireland, and the European Union. She received her PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Columbia University. She joined the UCF faculty in 2008.

As a sociocultural anthropologist, I have a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between classroom learning and the outside world. Anthropological knowledge, skills, and methods all seek to contribute to a deeper understanding of contemporary human concerns, ranging from health, migration, and globalization, to human rights, research ethics, and development, to name a few common areas of research and debate. In 2008, when I began my appointment at UCF, I was tasked with teaching applied (or public) anthropology at both undergraduate and graduate levels in the Department of Anthropology. As the most rapidly expanding sub-field in anthropology, applied/public anthropology strives to bring public and policy attention to important social concerns that are often hidden or marginalized. Simultaneously, we try to do so in a way that is engaging. In other words, rather than relying on the traditional academic-style writing that might come across at times as “jargony” and obfuscating, we try to contribute to public discussions by making our arguments and contributions clear, and therefore compelling, to the wider public. Direct engagement with the community is also central to this endeavor.

Engagement with the Local Community

In the spirit of getting beyond the classroom and engaging with the community and the wider public, my applied/public anthropology classes (both undergraduate and graduate) involve students in projects that entail participation in the work of local nonprofit organizations. Last fall, with the help of Volunteer UCF, my students conducted experiential-learning projects with numerous community organizations, including the Coalition for the Homeless, Read-2-Succeed, Hope Helps (food pantry for Oviedo homeless), Central Florida Partnership on Health Disparities, and Habitat for Humanity, to name just a few. Since 2008, my students have completed 105 community-service projects with local nonprofit organizations in central Florida. While most projects last one semester, as they are integrated into my courses, some students have continued their service; for example, a student dedicated a year to the Florida Literacy Coalition, and another went on to volunteer for a summer at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. I recently heard from another student who, following a service-learning project in my class back in 2008, pursued an AmeriCorps position and was eventually hired by the nonprofit Hope CommUnity Center to run their service-learning program. While a few students might initially resist going outside of their comfort zone that is the traditional classroom, on the whole, students find community engagement positively challenging and rewarding. Undoubtedly, these projects also “look good on paper” and can potentially help our UCF graduates stand out in a competitive job market.

Engagement in the “Virtual” Community: The Op-Ed Project

With a class of 59 anthropology students last fall, I decided to expand my students’ engagement to the “virtual” community in addition to their experiential-learning projects. Using the Internet to link students at various universities into an intellectual forum, I involved students in participating in the Op-Ed project, hosted by the Center for a Public Anthropology’s Community Action Website, in October and November of 2012. In this interactive virtual community, my students connected with undergraduate students from 25 universities across North America in a project that focused on ethics in human-subject research. My aim was to spark students’ interest in active, informed, global citizenship, namely by taking interest and participating in matters of public policy. Thus, for this project students considered the current revisions of Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures undertaken by the US Department of Health and Human Services as they update ethics regulation, and then wrote Op-Ed papers expressing their educated positions about how the current revisions should proceed. In order to prepare them to write informed and well-thought-out Op-Ed pieces, students were required to study carefully the current federal IRB regulation, as well as several cases of ethics violations that have occurred in research with human subjects over the last few decades and have been highlighted in the media.

While initially some students were not even aware of what an Op-Ed was, the class quickly became enlivened by the assignment. Students were excited about connecting with peers from other universities, and many liked the sense of competition as much as the kinship of the project.

Challenges of Lucid Writing and Peer Review

Two aspects of this experience stand out as particularly valuable from a teaching perspective: the experience of lucid writing and the experience of a blinded peer review. Getting students to write in an articulate yet clear way can be tricky. Some students interpret “articulate” as needlessly complicated prose filled with discipline-specific buzzwords (indeed jargon). “Clear,” on the other hand, can be mistaken by students as excessively informal or conversational. Helping students to find the balance between these extremes can take some effort and several drafts. In class discussions, I emphasized how an Op-Ed is akin to a cover letter for an application to graduate school or a job in that it is relatively short and concise but “meaty” in content. That is to say, in an Op-Ed every word counts. In addition to class discussions to help guide this project, my trusty graduate student assistant, Hugo Puerto, and I worked with individual students on their Op-Ed drafts. We also held a group meeting where we work-shopped some students’ papers, though I wish I had made this meeting mandatory rather than optional, as more students could have benefited from this process. Finally, we sought the help of the UCF Writing Center to guide students in their final editorial polishing.

Once students submitted their Op-Eds to the “virtual community” on the Community Action Website, the pieces were then peer-reviewed in a blinded process: each of our UCF students peer-reviewed two to three Op-Eds from students from other universities and vice versa. Op-Eds were scored according to five criteria: (1) original, well-argued position; (2) persuasiveness of writing; (3) capturing the reader’s attention with hook and structure; (4) clarity of writing; and (5) respectful, professional tone. In preparation for the peer-review phase and using a sample Op-Ed, I dedicated one class period to having students work in small groups to peer-review and score the sample according to these five criteria. We then compared different groups’ scores and collectively discussed how they arrived at their decisions. I was pleased to see that students took the peer-review process very seriously and cared about being fair. Students’ feedback indicated that the small-group practice in class was very useful ahead of conducting the reviews in the virtual community.

In the end, 3,600 students participated in this Op-Ed project from 25 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Six of my students won Public Anthropology Awards for this competition by placing in the top 5 percent of the 3,600 participants. Moreover, 24 of the students chose to submit their Op-Eds to their members of US Congress. I was proud of our students’ success and their engagement in global citizenship, but I was equally pleased to see our students contribute their voices to issues of public and collective concern and real-world ethical challenges. This project also validates for me that our students respond well to being challenged to engage beyond the classroom, be it in real or virtual communities.

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