Communicating Community Engagement through Writing

This month is the last in a series of spotlights on the value of courses connecting CBLR with other curricular programs: COEX, RPP and WRIT (below).
February 7, 2024

Reflection and critical analysis are essential elements for high-quality Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR) courses. Developing written communication skills is also integral to the Brown undergraduate experience. Undergraduates are expected to take at least one writing-designated (WRIT) course or any English, Literary Arts, or Comparative Literature course to satisfy their writing requirement. WRIT courses are “designed to help you learn how to think and communicate in writing either by learning the conventions of academic writing at the college level or by learning the conventions and expectations for writing in a particular discipline.” They emphasize growth in writing through feedback and iterative writing exercises, as well as attention to the audience and purpose of communication. Designing courses that draw from the strengths of both WRIT and CBLR can effectively enhance students’ skills and communicate the outcomes, experiences, and multiple sources of knowledge in community engagement. 

WRIT’s emphasis on growth and feedback aligns well with CBLR’s focus on reflexivity and the positionality of the participants. Both writing and community engagement are continuous and iterative processes that can transform the participants’ approach while generating tangible outcomes and self-reflection. Through WRIT + CBLR courses, WRIT’s attention to written communication elevates CBLR’s emphasis on sharing the outcomes of community engagement with the public and/or specific community partners. Dr. Charles Carroll, Associate Director for Graduate Student Writing at the Writing Center, emphasizes that WRIT courses provide a great avenue for students to translate what they learn inside and outside of academia to public audiences while creating public goods. Moreover, Carroll finds it important to “help students early on to reflect on why they are interested in the course” and what they hope to achieve through combining writing and community engagement. This reflection is vital in establishing durable collaborative communities. In addition, WRIT’s focus on review and feedback through the submission of multiple drafts allows the instructor to intervene when community priorities and student work diverge or when students’ interpretations seem grounded in little information or bias. Course instructors can design writing assignments that incorporate feedback from community members and foster a collaborative learning process to center the priorities of local communities and increase students’ capacity to write for non-academic as well as academic readers. 

Writing for public audiences can take many forms in WRIT + CBLR courses and other CBLR courses that satisfy the writing requirement. For example, Elizabeth Davis’ syllabus for ARCH 1900: The Archeology of College Hill emphasizes that “One of the learning goals for this course is to effectively communicate archaeological information to various audiences to effectively communicate archaeological information to a variety of audiences. To that end, each of you will be responsible for running the Archaeology of College Hill Facebook and Instagram pages for one week during the semester.” Dr. John Eason’s course, IAPA 1801F: Prison Abolition as Transformative Justice Policy, focuses on policy analysis and proposals, culminating in a presentation to the NGO Urban Institute and the City of Susanville, California. Prof. Kate Schapira’s course, ENGL 1140E: Writing for Activists, offers multiple formats that the students can choose from, with the goal of “communicating through words in many of the ways that are useful and common in activist, organizing, community and justice work, including manifestos, grant applications, interpersonal and inter-organizational communication, budget narratives, mission and strategy statements, press releases, self-reflection writings, position papers, op-eds, and other writing strategies.”

When describing her course, Schapira underscores the question of both audience and purpose in writing. The course is organized around “making collective change with justice in mind” and fostering a community of practice. The course's broad range of writing formats is built on the idea that “the same audience can be reached in different ways.” She also prepares students to consider multiple perspectives on written content. Without reflecting on the purpose and audience of writing, there is an increased chance that “your words can have an effect that you did not intend and then you have to contend with it.” Pondering the question of the goal of writing for social justice, Prof. Schapira remarks,

“I think a lot of writing that people expect to do has to do with convincing people, or getting people to do the thing that they want. Is there another way to approach this kind of writing? Could it be an invitation? Could it be the provocation of a question? What else could it be besides ‘I think this, and you should too’?”

In addition to Writing for Activists, Kate Schapira is teaching ENGL 1160P: Writing Climate, Writing Community this semester. The written assignments are designed to iteratively build on the priorities of, and conversations with, an array of Warren residents and to create space for learning through collaborative relationships. She says that the question guiding the course is: “How can Brown students who have more of certain things, like time, access to certain technologies, writing skills, support people’s efforts to create climate and community resilience in Warren, RI?”

With explicit reflection on the audience beyond the classroom and on the purpose of writing for community engagement and activism, WRIT + CBLR courses encourage undergraduates to think about writing and writing quality in more complex and in-depth ways. Reflecting on both her courses, Prof. Schapira says: 

“One thing that I am always trying to get students to think about is what is the power and what are the limits of a given approach to something you might write… The way school is, you come in with this idea that there is writing that is good and there is writing that is bad. But that is not even a thing. There is writing that is good at doing x and bad at doing x, or there is writing that is good at doing y and bad at doing y.”

WRIT is a versatile designation that can be adopted in interdisciplinary settings and across disciplines, with a broad range of goals and ways of delivering ideas. Example syllabi of WRIT + CBLR designated courses can be found here. To learn more about the WRIT designation, find additional resources, and see suggested language through examples, visit Sheridan’s Teaching a WRIT Course webpage. To add a WRIT or CBLR designation to your course, you can follow the steps here. The Writing Center also provides support for students looking to enhance their writing skills. For consultation on preparing any CBLR course, including WRIT + CBLR, please contact Julie Plaut at the Swearer Center. For consultation on designing a WRIT course and assignments, reach out to [email protected]