CELs Transform Students and Society

Community-engaged learning projects are the stuff of metamorphosis


Sociology professor Mavis Morton, right, works with community partners like OPP constable Cheri Rockefeller, whose is also a Guelph grad. Rockefeller earned a BA in sociology in 1993.

Students are making vital connections among theory, research, policy development, action and impact through fourth-year seminars taught by sociology professor Mavis Morton; her course demonstrates the value of community-engaged learning (CEL) projects.

Morton has built successful relationships with local social service and criminal justice agencies, with the support of the University’s Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. She is committed to the notion that social scientists must orient their work in the real world and draws inspiration from the assertion of sociologists Christopher Uggen and Michelle Inderbitzin that university faculty members can serve as “transformative intellectuals.”

Morton says academics who link tertiary-level education with government agencies and communities play a crucial role in this effort. Over the past five years, she developed and launched a community-engaged research agenda with Guelph community partners interested in positive social change, then brought it into the students’ domain.

“My background in community-based research fuels my desire to incorporate community-engaged teaching and learning in the classroom,” Morton explains.

Advanced Topics in Criminology focuses on women as victims, offenders and professionals, and offers students the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of non-profit organizations: women’s shelters, police services, prisons, child protection agencies, sexual-assault centres, immigrant services and community legal clinics.

The community partners provide an overview for students early in the term and propose a specific question or problem for them to tackle. Working in teams of four to eight, Morton’s students develop a plan to resolve the issue and present their work when their community partners return to the classroom at the end of the term for a conference-style forum. Each team’s final written report is given to the community partners at the end of the course.

The information the students provide may be used by the organizations in various ways: funding applications or public education sessions, to advocate on an issue, or to inform their own policies and practices, for example.

Inspector Scott Smith, commander of the Wellington County OPP detachment, participated in CEL for the first time in 2011, hoping to obtain answers to some key questions about recruiting women into the police force. Why do so few women apply for careers in policing? Are there any strategies that may assist in recruiting women of diverse cultures? What would it take to entice women to apply for and remain in a policing career?

“I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I am very pleased with the experience,” Smith says. “The students’ presentations in November proved to be informative for me as the commander of a detachment comprising approximately 20 per cent women working both in uniform and in criminal investigation functions. I had the opportunity to learn not only from the results of the students’ research, but also from the process.”

It was a good learning experience for the students too, he added. “They learned some things about women in policing that they would not have gleaned from a textbook.”

Fourth-year student Azra Manori concurs: “It’s invaluable. Sometimes we surprised ourselves by discovering new information when we thought we already knew the answer. The results themselves are interesting. While our community partners can gain a unique perspective from us and our research may become stepping stones for positive change within their organization, as a student, it’s so exhilarating to take fresh knowledge and apply it directly.”
The Grand Valley Institution for Women provided students with additional experience conducting research in a real-world setting. For program manager Sarina Randall, Morton’s CEL project offered a chance to glean information that might assist in finding employment for women in the correctional facility. She got involved in CEL seeking a symbiotic relationship: “I believe it is essential for university students to have hands-on experience in the field. I also believe it is important to address the barriers between prisons and community in order to help offenders who attempt to re-enter society to succeed.

“The students’ final report will be consulted when the employment counsellor meets with community businesses to secure work-release positions for the women. The students’ work will further assist in our discussions with the community about the realities faced by incarcerated women seeking employment when they are released.”
At the end of the course, Morton asks students to write a critical reflection of their experience. She encourages them to consider the work they did for and with their community partner, the course curriculum and their academic experience. In their written reflections, students often share the ways in which their CEL project brought the connections between theory, research, policy and action to life.

Not long ago, Morton received an email from a former student who is working on a master’s degree in public administration: “In this program, we are doing a scoping review group project, which is essentially a research project in co-ordination with a public sector client – similar in nature to what we did (in your course) last year. It was great experience and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it. Most students in my program have not had any client interaction. I am glad you made us do that!”

Morton often receives positive feedback from students, but it typically comes after the course has ended, “partly because community-engaged learning is new to them and can be very challenging,” she says.

The CEL projects are never duplicated, and Morton says she enjoys “the messiness” each one brings as students wrestle with the subject matter and the research process. After working their way up what can be a steep learning curve, she says each project ends with a group of people who are different from who they were at the start.

“Initially, it is extremely hard for students to jump in and get going on something so unfamiliar to them. The first term really can be difficult, but some of the students most apprehensive in the beginning are the most engaged by the end. The transformation can be amazing.”