Blog Post

Civic Engagement, Digital Humanities, and the Liberal Arts: A Report from the 2012 Imagining America Conference, NYC

"I love that IA is content neither to do without imagining nor to imagine without doing." Jan Cohen-Cruz


At the opening poster session of the Imagining America conference this weekend, I was drawn to a poster from St. Olaf College about a Civic Stories project.  The interdisciplinary collaboration joins students in photography and The American Conversations program to collect multimedia stories in conjunction with the Northfield League of Women Voters.  Students in these courses--freshmen and sophomores--gain experience in partnering with the community that sets the foundation for more intensive community-based research in future years, like the Ideals to Action course, the civic engagement component of study abroad through Asian Conversations, and the Globalization and Citizenship Radio Project.  


St. Olaf is taking a "big picture" view of undergraduate learning in community, creating a cumulative learning experience across the curriculum, introducing students to collaborative interdisciplinary projects early on so that students are prepared to design and implement more sophisticated community-based projects as part of their capstone experience. This approach provides them with experiential learning, but it also provides them with the tools to become lifelong learners, lifelong activists, lifelong leaders in community.  It is not a one-time thing. It is not separate from the classroom learning.  Civic engagement at St. Olaf is not a tacked on or isolated opportunity but a cumulative, integrated experience.  


This integrated approach to learning is the foundation of what the liberal arts are all about.  Community-based, collaborative, experiential learning is at the core of the liberal arts experience: knowledge is interdisciplinary, learning is experiential, and education is conducted in community.  


Full disclosure: St. Olaf is my alma mater.  My professors there inspired me to pursue lifelong learning, a phrase I heard again and again as an undergraduate.   And for me, community engagement is how I enact that lifelong learning.  I am still learning, with my students and from my students, with my community and from my community.  The civic dialog that forms the foundation of liberal arts education is also what forms the foundation of community engagement and active citizenship.  


So where does technology fit in?  That’s a question that Imagining America is still grappling with, thoughtfully and intentionally.  Web2.0 tools create democratic spaces for teaching and learning, researching and publishing, collaborating and creating.  How can these tools be implemented to use the ideals of the world-wide web to create local networks?


"Collaboration by Difference" is the mantra of HASTAC, but it could just as easily describe the mission of Imagining America.  They both say learning is participatory, and we can learn from each other.  They both say there are many voices, and every voice matters.  They both say the world is changing, and we are excited about it.  They are both agents of ASHE, a West African term I learned at IA that means "the ability to make things happen."  


This year at Imagining America, I saw many more projects that used technology in creative ways to build campus-community partnerships.  There are so many inspiring projects that were shown, so many inspiring stories were told.  Here are a few that I think you'll enjoy...

  • The St. Olaf Civic Stories project includes photo essays created by undergraduate students to celebrate “political, civic, and humanitarian endeavors in the local community.”  There's only one appropriate response: Um! Ya! Ya!


  • Online Curriculum Guides from the Bronx Museum provide resources for Art, English, and Social Studies teachers based on the Bronx Museum’s collection of local artists.


  • The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Xavier University, and Macalester College have developed sustained collaborations in New Orleans post-post-Katrina, including guerilla-gardening, economic development, and arts-based activism.    NPR’s “Sounds of your City” offers audio portraits of cities like New Orleans, inviting local contributions to their collection.  The ASHE Cultural Center in New Orleans has recently launched an innovative community-based degree granting program through Roger Williams University called “College Unbound,” a radical, forward-looking idea of higher education championed by one of my favorite people, Adam Bush. 


  • Speaking of favorite people: I also had the pleasure of attending a powerful theatrical performance organized by Kevin Bott, which uses performance as a rite of passage with formerly incarcerated men.  You can't see the performance, but you can read about his project A Ritual for Return.


  • The Citizen Alum program reimagines alumni as “doers, not (just) donors,” building campus-community partnerships by reimagining alums as “civic professionals.” 


  • When you say the word “collaboration,” what do you think?  How about “power”?  How about “community”?  How does your discipline define it?  Your institution?  Your community?  Working With People explores and affirms multiple perspectives on the keywords of civic engagement through video interviews, supplemented with ideas for discussion and activities. 



Many thanks to the Imagining America organizers for another great conference, more inspiring stories, and a buzz of new ideas!



Thank you so much for this posting.  I also hope to find new ways to use technology to heighten civic engagement, so I really appreciate this report.


So glad to see that this community is connected to IA. We can learn a lot from each other. (Also, I'm a big fan of Kevin Bott too.)

Thanks for the report,