Critically-Reflective Civically-Engaged Academics Shaping the Future of an Academy Striving for Social Justice

Brian Ó Donnchadha

National University of Ireland, Galway

Who would have thought twenty years ago, that in 2015 Ireland would have relative peace, returning emigrants, and gay marriage? A lot can change in two decades. Over the last twenty years the focus of civic engagement has been on students (Eyler, Giles & Braxton, 1997; Astin et al. 2000, Warren 2012). An equally valid and indeed necessary focus in future is on faculty development through reflective practice. Who decides what the change in education should be and what excellence should look like? The community of academics can guide the process, through critical examination of their engaged practice. One way to do that is within a structured model of reflection that facilitates academics to critically reflect with their peers in a supportive environment on their academic, civic and personal development.

The investment of multi-national companies in Ireland has fuelled the demand for a highly qualified work force. Through State investment in higher education, Ireland has learned how to punch above its weight on a global stage to become a hub for the high tech industry. Demand for change can clearly influence the direction of higher education. It appears that the building materials of the Ivory Tower can be substituted with silicon, graphene or indeed whatever is needed beyond the campus walls. Research for the high tech sector is mostly driven by the demand of commercial enterprise. Who examines which societal needs are to be met by education? Engaged academics are well placed to influence the focus of higher education, so that the academy can contribute to achieving social justice. This article will examine the key role that faculty development plays in nurturing the future of community engagement in the coming 20 years.


Zlotkowski (1995) called for numerous steps towards an academic focus so that service-learning would have a future. These developments have been achieved to varying degree of success, and pedagogies of engagement (Boland, 2006) have become normal. These steps forward have contributed to the development of service-learning, or perhaps these changes occurred because of the development of service-learning. Did the impetus for change in higher education come from within the service learning movement or was it fuelled by external forces. I believe that much of the move towards a more civically engaged ethos in higher education came from within the campus walls. If this is so, how can this powerful energy be harnessed to move higher education even further towards meeting the needs of society and encourage excellence in education while doing so?


Boyer (1994) set the bar very high in his call for higher education to create a new model of excellence in education that is committed to improving the human condition. I believe that this vision of education extends beyond technical tweaking of pedagogy, or paltry policy changes in a few institutions; it is a call for civic engagement to be a vehicle of political change for social justice. If this is indeed the case, rather than focusing on what is needed for the future of service-learning, perhaps we should be looking at a bigger picture; with the goal being to change what we believe ‘education’ means. Alternatively, one could argue that the meaning of education can be changed by ensuring the next twenty years of service-learning.


In the last twenty years, engagement has indeed been integrated into the institutional mission of many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and in many this goes beyond lip-service, to the funding a budget line – one tangible indicator of commitment. However, the level of commitment is far below what it could be and we must attend to achieving the highest level of excellence in the work. Only when an institution can point to the structural changes, in the form of allocation of resources and ideological shifts in the legitimacy of pedagogies of engagement, can it claim to be doing more than talking the talk of engagement.


The importance of reflection has been widely accepted as a multidimensional element of the service-learning and many students are – at this very moment – reflecting the heck out of their service-learning courses. At the same time, while those teaching them are indeed reflecting on their engaged practice, it is mostly in an ad hoc manner. If reflection is so central to students’ service-learning that it is seen as a defining element, why is the same kind of regular reflection arbitrary in the practice of engaged academics?

Academics need to and want to reflect on their engaged practice. However, to do so, they need to fully understand the process of reflection and conduct it both on their own and with their peers, using a variety of methods (Ó Donnchadha, 2012). The reflection needs to have a flexible structure and be designed to support the examination of the academic, civic and personal development of the practitioner, by delving into both the practice and philosophy of the pedagogy of engagement. It needs a supportive environment and must happen with a degree of regularity. It must have institutional recognition or else it will be regarded as incidental. The authenticity of civic engagement on a campus is evident in the degree to which reflection can be nurtured and developed by the engaged academics and the institution.


To improve and achieve excellence in any pursuit, it is vital to have a clear understanding of ‘why do we do what we do, the way we do it?’ There is a need for a forum for engaged academics to address this question together. One option is a Community of Reflective Practice: a structured model of reflection that facilitates academics to critically reflect with their peers in a supportive environment on their academic, civic, and personal/professional development (Ó Donnchadha, 2012). A fundamental aspect of the Community of Reflective Practice (CoRP)[1] is that it is a general framework that can be adapted through dialogue to suit the specific needs and context of a particular group of academics. The CoRP takes the form of a forum for civically engaged academics who meet on a regular basis (physically or online) to reflect on their practice in an environment that supports development on multiple levels, from the personal to the professional and from the technical to the political. The workings of the forum need to follow a set of guidelines and must endeavour to meet the needs of academics such as learning how to reflect better and more deeply, and how to gain legitimacy and develop space for reflective practice. The model draws on reflective practice theory proposed by Wenger (1998), Brookfield (1995), Palmer (2004), and Clayton and Ash (2009a).

Reflecting on engaged practice on the micro level within a department can lead to new synergies among staff, the sharing of ideas, and avoiding pitfalls. It can lead to improvements of practices and standards. Reflecting with colleagues across campus can be influential in shaping the role of an institution in a community. It can contribute to establishing a critical mass of academics and give a collective voice to those who wish to be agents of change – not just for their students or their community partners but within the institution also. Excellence is defined through comparison, and this happens in the collective.


We must lead the way by proving the excellence of pedagogies of engagement through formal research. The CoRP can be a source of research questions, relevant data, research collaborators, and per review. By conducting high quality research on engaged practice we can then claim the moral/civic, community and academic legitimacy that Zlotkowski (1995) calls for. Rigorous research on engagement starts with looking within: researcher know thyself. This starts with personal introspection on practice and moves from the practical to the political: ‘Am I doing it right?’ and ‘Am I doing right?’ It can continue to the kinds of questions Zlotkowski (1995) asks such as whether we are citizens in an academic community or academics fulfilling a civic need in the community, and what role does the academy play in democracy? Examining the many facets of the engaged academic’s identity requires reflection on practice and one way to conduct that is in a Community of Reflective Practice.

We must re-define rigour and sophistication of thought, as well as faculty responsibility, productivity, and excellence. These standards will be context specific, and could be different in neighbouring institutions or very similar in institutions that are continents apart. The conversation about these topics must start somewhere, and reflecting on these issues with colleagues is a good place to begin. Though the quality of the engagement is up for debate, it can be said that civic engagement as a concept is no longer on the fringe of education and has become, at least in principle, conventional enough to be a guiding ethos for many universities. An example of this that 14 of Ireland’s 22 main HEIs have signed the Campus Engage Charter for Civic and Community Engagement, which is soon to be replicated in numerous other European countries.

While service-learning may produce extraordinary results, it was worth striving over the last 20 years to make it ‘ordinary’ to the extent that engagement is now mainstreamed into teaching and learning. Now we can strive for excellence in engagement becoming the norm.






Astin, A. W., Vogelgesang, L. J., Ikeda, E. K., & Yee, J. A. (2000). How service learning affects students. Higher Education. Paper 144.


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Boyer, E. L. (1994). Creating the New American College. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A(48).

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Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009a). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education 1, Fall 25-48.

Eyler, J., Giles Jr, D. E., & Braxton, J. (1997). The impact of service-learning on college students. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning4, 5-15.

Kendall, J. C. (1990). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (Vol. 1). Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.


Ó Donnchadha, B. (2012). Creating a systematic approach for the reflective practice of service-learning academics through the development of communities of reflective practice. Unpublished dissertation, National University of Ireland, Galway.


Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Warren, J. L. (2012). Does Service-Learning Increase Student Learning?: A Meta-Analysis. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning18(2), 56-61.


Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Zlotkowski, E. (1995). Does service-learning have a future? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2(1), 123-133.


[1] The word corp /kurp/ is the Irish word for ‘body’ derived from the Latin corpus. As well as an acronym, it is also used for its figurative reference to an active, thinking, feeling organism; a collection of people or a body of knowledge

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