Community Engaged Pedagogy When the Local World Is Global

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A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

The last half of the twentieth century saw the rise in institutions of higher learning in the United States of “service-learning,” “experiential learning,” or “engaged learning.” Concurrently, these same institutions came to understand “internationalization” as a necessary tool for preparing students for the “globalized” world they were presumed to be entering. These two developments have increasingly merged in study abroad; however, the potential of integrating experiential learning and internationalization back at the home institution has been less developed. As more professors foreground service-learning, they have also encountered more international presence (immigrants, refugees) in the organizations where their students work. Here we examine these new dynamics as they play out in a community-engaged learning course, specifically a senior seminar at Emory University about the U.S.-Mexican border. Using as a frame of reference the concepts of global citizenship and cosmopolitanism, we consider the pedagogical goals of internationalization and service-learning, and ways these can be met through innovative and thoughtful integration of the two.

Internationalization, Cosmopolitanism, and Community-Engaged Learning

In postulating that internationalization of the curriculum will better prepare students for their societal roles, there is an underlying assumption that we are preparing them for “global citizenship,” a notion closely linked with increasingly contested and multiple conceptualizations of cosmopolitanism. In a proposal for a new kind of cosmopolitanism, Robbins (1998) explains that it can be seen as “located and embodied,” so that “instead of an ideal of detachment, actually existing cosmopolitanism” turns out to be “a sense of positive if complex and multiple belonging” (3). Robbins proposes a “critical cosmopolitanism,” in which the cosmopolitan recognizes this complex and multiple belonging in a conscious and self-critical way, not as a path to exploitation. Similarly, Anderson speaks of “inclusionary cosmopolitanism,” noting that, “cosmopolitanism endorses reflective distance from one’s cultural affiliations, a broad understanding of other cultures and customs, and a belief in universal humanity” (267). Extending this logic, “universalism,” a highly contested concept, may be reformulated, so that its inflection is locally centered and not imposed by solely Western notions of humanity. The “inclusionary” cosmopolitan would be defined by his or her engagement with various and sometimes conflicting notions of what it means to be human.Taking this “new cosmopolitanism” as the context for internationalization, we return to the idea of internationalization of the curriculum. Emory is far from alone among American universities and colleges in affirming that its faculty and students should be “engaged citizens”–of their immediate communities, their country, and the world. Yet, the idea of global citizenship is often placed in opposition to the idea of “patriotism.” Nussbaum (1995) has argued that in “conceding that a morally arbitrary boundary such as the boundary of nation has a deep and formative role in our deliberations, we seem to be depriving ourselves of any principled way of arguing to citizens that they should in fact join hands” across the “boundaries of ethnicity and class and gender and race” (3). I would add that in the United States, if we insist upon a patriotism that precludes participation in a global notion of humanity, we also make it impossible for us to understand our own immediate and eminently immigrant reality, since we are not only historically a nation of immigrants with immigrants in the family trees of the vast majority of native-born Americans, but also contemporaneously a nation with immigrants, with these two parts of our national identity in perpetual tension. (Additionally, the notion of “immigrant” is itself contested in the context of the U.S.-Mexican border.) Thus, internationalization of the curriculum, understood as education for global citizenship that emerges from a profound understanding of our local selves in relationship with multiple others, must be conceived both globally and locally.

What are the implications for community-based research and learning? The milestone assessment Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? (Eyler and Giles, 1999) set out the goals of service-learning relative to generally accepted goals of academic education: training to understand complex, interrelated issues and to apply this knowledge; exposure to different perspectives; and the development of critical thinking. This research indicated that “field-based experiential learning” combined with an intention of social contribution has a discernible and generally positive impact on all these academic goals, and a similar effect on personal and interpersonal development. They conclude that “the learning in service-learning” is in the “questions that service situations inherently pose, in the guided reflection provided by skilled teachers and facilitators and by the interplay of existing knowledge with new and dissonant experiences” (207). Central to their study is the idea of “perspective transformation,” when students report a fundamental questioning of their assumptions. Two factors were indicators for programs that produced the most perspective transformation: diversity and community voice.

Diversity comes in various guises: class, economic standing, or racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic markers. Each produces different world views that are differently located and frequently at odds with each other. Diversity alone is not likely to create perspective transformation, but rather re-enforces stereotypes. Diversity produces perspective transformation only when it is articulated and understood, and key to this process is community voice. The most successful practitioners of community-based learning and research recognize the voice of the community in partnership. When the community voice in question is immigrant and “international,” community-based learning dovetails with the project of internationalization understood in the context of new cosmopolitanism.

Stoddard and Grant (2003) offer a methodology for fostering this kind of cosmopolitanism. Using the metaphor of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which gives the user information about a location on the planet through data from several different satellites (data that is not always congruent and that must be reconciled in order to arrive at the most accurate information possible), they propose an “epistemology of triangulation,” noting that the more satellites used, the more accurate the information. Analogously, “. . . one needs to collect perspectives from differently situated knowers and citizens around the world in order to be able to make informed judgments, to have a sufficient basis for knowledge” (50). Moreover, these differently situated knowers must actively seek as many perspectives as possible, not to set them in competition with each other, but to find ways to “listen for and across differences” as a strategy for acquiring a more precise notion of reality (50).

Community-Engaged Learning and Internationalism in Practice

A decade ago, Emory University had strong ties to an earlier Cuban migration to Atlanta, but had much less contact with newer members of the Hispanic community, the recent immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America who had become important players in the construction and service industries. Several Emory programs operated in area schools, where students and faculty were increasingly encountering children who spoke Spanish, but even in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, there was limited contact with local representatives of the Hispanic cultures studied in so many courses. There was, however, a welling support for a better relationship with this part of Atlanta’s contemporary reality. Over time, with support from the Office of University-Community Partnerships, several community service-learning options were created in the departmental offerings: an advanced writing course; a new component of an intermediate course; new parameters for internships and undergraduate research; and finally, a senior seminar about the border between the United States and Mexico. Together with other efforts in Emory College, these curricular elements offer students a clear sequential path in community-engaged learning, from introductory experiences to more sustained engagement in advanced courses, to full immersion in engaged scholarship. These curricular innovations have had results that are best explained when viewed through the lens of locally-grounded global citizenship, or critical cosmopolitanism. Here we focus specifically on the senior seminar, “Drawing the Line: The Mexico-U.S. frontera and its Stories.”

Engaging Atlanta’s “Border Spaces”

With the Olympic Games of 1996 Atlanta received the international community in numerous ways, beginning with the influx of immigrant workers, mostly Hispanic, related to myriad construction projects, and then in a more public welcoming of the world to the Games themselves. It was in the building phase that the Hispanic population grew rapidly, and it became clear that the Mexico-U.S. border is a phenomenon with ripple effects that reach far beyond the geographic space of the physical dividing line between the two countries.

In Atlanta there are obvious manifestations of “border spaces,” such as clear divisions between the Spanish-speaking population and others. However, beyond these surface realities are more subtle conditions. As students in this course begin to read “border studies” articles, and analyze literature, films and other art about the U.S.-Mexican border, many aspects of the border conversation illuminate the current reality of certain parts of Atlanta. For example, the concepts of “debordering” and “rebordering” (Albert & Brock, 1998) are helpful in understanding the U.S.-Mexican border region, but also help to explain various phenomena that can be observed in Atlanta. Thus, the effects of the presence of Mexican immigrants on food consumption, language use and so forth in Atlanta constitute a kind of “debordering” or crumbling of cultural barriers, while “English-only” laws might be considered a kind of reaction or “rebordering” phenomenon.

The most salient pedagogical question that arose as I began constructing this course was how to approach teaching about both the U.S.-Mexican border and the Hispanic-Latino presence in Georgia and the South. As the course unfolded, I have found that community-engaged learning in Atlanta is an extremely effective way to learn about a border a thousand miles away, and it allows students to consider various conflicting perspectives about the border.

As a result of the growth in the nineties, there is a well-established Hispanic population in Georgia. One way to think about Georgia’s new reality is to understand the history of the relationship between the United States and Mexico with an eye toward Georgia. This history is, of course, the starting point of the study of the border itself. Most Americans do not know very much about the one war that most dramatically changed this country in land acquisition and international stance. In contrast, most Mexicans do know about the war. One class assignment is to read Mexican elementary school textbooks, focusing on the sections about the war and reflecting on one’s own experiences in elementary or middle school. Most students say their knowledge of the war dates from high school, whereas they are quite struck by the details offered in elementary textbooks in Mexico. But even those who know the general narrative of the war (it occurred between 1846 and 1848, ten years after the Alamo; the United States won all the battles without exception; U.S. troops occupied a foreign capital-Mexico City-for the first time in its history; and the war ended with the negotiation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, resulting in Mexico losing about half its territory) are surprised by other facts that are significant for Georgia’s relationship with its newest citizens of Mexican origin. For example, in 1847, 1848 and 1849, there was a rash of place-name changes in states such as Virgina, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Suddenly, names like Buena Vista, Monterrey, Resaca, and Churubusco cropped up in places with no discernible previous Hispanic influence, because these were the names of places in Mexico in which American troops were victorious in battles. The major battles of the war were transferred into the physical and psychic landscape.

Just as important is the U.S.-Mexican relationship in the Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910. That historic episode has many complexities, but for the purpose of understanding the multiple layers of reception that preceded the current Mexican presence in Georgia, one particular phenomenon deserves mention. The United States government and multiple private business enterprises became deeply embedded in Mexican national affairs in the years preceding the Revolution, and revolution threatened American interests. President Taft mobilized two-thirds of the standing American army in March 1911 to patrol the border. Calvary units from Georgia were an important component; from the earliest mobilization of troops along the border, several hundred Georgians were among those deployed. Throughout the Revolution, from its first skirmishes to the time of General Pershing’s withdrawal, Americans, both soldiers and private citizens, sent postcards of Revolutionary scenes back home. Border Fury (Vanderwood & Samponaro, 1988) documents the production of these postcards and their path back to home states, including Georgia. Some contain inscriptions or notes to family members, and a significant number contain either denigrating images, racist or derogatory comments or both. While these postcards predate many of the later postcards of lynchings in the South, many bear a striking resemblance to those later infamous images. At the very least, the blatant racism against most of the Mexicans in the images is disturbingly similar to the open racism of the South of the pre-Civil Rights era.

As I prepared to teach a class about the Mexico-U.S. border for the first time, I realized that there were many pieces of literature and art that would give students a sense of how the border has been interpreted, but that most of it would be unfathomable if they did not have some of these basic historical reference points. But it was also clear that it would be helpful to have reference points for the present context as well. The result was a course in which the students read the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, while also working in organizations in Atlanta that serve Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom are from Mexico or had to traverse Mexico in order to get to the United States and Atlanta. The juxtaposition of these two activities is thought-provoking and transformative for most of the students who have taken the course, as evidenced by their comments. Understanding the border as a multi-faceted phenomenon, one which extends far beyond the physical two-thousand-mile line, helps students to understand Georgia’s (and their own) contemporary history. Each has a unique experience, and they work in different organizations, but all have been able to clearly articulate exactly how the process of debordering and rebordering was discernible in the environments in which they were working. Most have articulated a re-evaluation of their perceptions of the border, and of the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

Internationalization as a pedagogical goal must be carefully defined beyond simply preparing students to understand the globalized world they enter upon graduation. Internationalization as an epistemological goal must engage students in every way possible in the globalized world in which they already function, and it must require them to observe, synthesize, analyze, evaluate, and incorporate multiple and differing world views in a creation of new knowledge. A border studies course taught in Atlanta as a service-learning course creates pathways for students to exercise all these skills.


Albert, M & Brock, L. (1998). New relationships between territory and state: the U.S.-Mexico border in perspective. In Spener, D. & Staudt, K., (Eds.), The U.S.-Mexico border. transcending divisions, contesting identities. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Anderson, A. (1998). Cosmopolitanism, universalism, and the divided legacies of modernity. In P. Cheah & B. Robbins (Eds.), Cosmopolitics: thinking and feeling beyond the nation (pp. 265-289). Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Cheah, Pheng and Bruce Robbins, (Eds.), (1998). Cosmopolitics: thinking and feeling beyond the nation. Minneapolis, MN and London: U of Minnesota Press.

Eyler, J.S., & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Nussbaum, M. (1995). Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism. Boston Review 19(5), 3-6.

Spener, D. & Staudt, K., (Eds.), (1998). The U.S.-Mexico border. transcending divisions, contesting identities. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Stoddard, E. W. & Cornwell, G.H. (2003). Peripheral visions: towards a geoethics of citizenship. Liberal Education, 89(3), 44-51.

Vanderwood, P.J. & Samponaro, F.N. Border fury. a picture postcard record of mexico’s revolution and U.S. war preparedness, 1910-1917. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World