Dale is a dentist from a small town of 3,500 people in northern Kentucky. Although he has served the people of his town for thirty-five years, he believes he could be a better citizen. He lists several ways that he is active in the community—voting, donating to fundraisers, and participating in the local Chamber of Commerce—but over the course of the conversation he returns again and again to his work as a dentist. He has a nagging sense that he could do more to help children in his town obtain dental care, even though he already offers free screenings at the local elementary school and is the only practice in town that accepts Medicaid. Stepping back, Dale is a vivid example of a citizen professional committed to public work, but his own humility would likely prevent him from identifying as a citizen dentist or seeing himself as an agent of cultural change. Many civic engagement initiatives would likewise fail to recognize Dale as a useful voice, particularly in light of his conservative electoral politics and geographic distance from any universities.1
We encountered Dale's story through an assignment in our team-taught course, Citizen and Self, at Western Kentucky University. This course is a core humanities requirement for all Honors College students at WKU. Our approach explicitly acknowledges the dynamic ways that education is part of subject and culture formation. Through reflective teaching and learning practices, we invite students, community partners, and each other into the difficult and rewarding work of conversation, democratic deliberation, and action. The course thereby offers a space where students can situate their personal ambitions in a broader cultural context and find creative ways to reconcile the civic role of "citizen" with the pressures, duties, and desires of the "self." In developing assignments for the class, we have sought to avoid what Gregory Jay has called " 'drive by' engagement"—service-oriented activities that promise change but in practice are unsustainable, burdensome, or exploitative (Jay 2010). Pushing back against civic learning models that frame communities in terms of deficiencies to be fixed, our course asks students to negotiate what it means to solve problems, build coalitions, and live better together. One of our most successful efforts in this regard was an assignment in spring 2014 that asked students to prepare citizen stories based on interviews with people in the community. We found that this assignment brought new voices into the classroom, sparked conversations about the cultural roots of ideas about citizenship, established or deepened mentoring relationships, and drew attention to manageable ways of connecting students' career ambitions with an interest in social and cultural change. It was through this assignment that one of our students interviewed Dale—her family's longtime dentist—while visiting home for spring break.
The parameters of the assignment were quite simple. Students were asked to conduct two interviews over the course of the semester. The interview parameters were explicitly informal and oriented toward building authentic and meaningful relationships. The first interview involved a person from each student's personal network, such as a parent, sibling, religious leader, grandparent, or friend. The second interview was conducted with a professional in the student's envisioned future career field. For both assignments, the respondents had to be at least five years older than the student. In the first interview, the goal was to learn how the interviewee thought about citizenship and community involvement. Although we recognize that citizenship is a fraught and complicated term, students were encouraged to let their interviewees define the term rather than imposing technical concepts from the class onto the conversation. In the second interview, the objective was to discover that citizen professionals, in Harry Boyte's parlance, could be found across the full spectrum of careers—accountants, doctors, postal workers, sports broadcasters, and more.2
We saw this assignment as moving forward our course objectives in two ways. First, in a class focused on culture change through citizen action, it is essential that some of the coursework involve interaction with people in our community of Bowling Green beyond the walls of the classroom. Previous iterations of the class accomplished this through public work projects or community-based research projects that required interviews. We found, however, that the nearly two hundred students in the class were creating overwhelming burdens for various nonprofits, particularly those organizations focused on social issues that students commonly addressed in their projects. The citizen stories assignment offered a creative way for students to interact with community members in a wider range of contexts. This extended student conceptions of what constitutes "the work of citizenship" beyond the local homeless shelter, churches, or food pantries.
Second, in addition to embracing a more capacious understanding of citizenship, we also saw these citizen stories as a way to invite community members to explicitly reflect on the ways that they are already doing the work of citizenship. One of the more pernicious hidden assumptions underlying certain strands of service-learning and civic engagement discourse is the notion that the academy must serve as a seedbed for spreading active citizenship to the wider community. While certain professions and organizations are honored (and arguably exploited) as vehicles for civic action, others are all too easily ignored or even dismissed as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. These include many of the careers that our students ultimately pursue, either out of personal interest or economic necessity. The interviews reveal that citizen professionals can be found everywhere, including the most unexpected sectors of the American workforce.3
The citizen stories concept is based on a previous assignment that one member of our teaching team, Alex Olson, developed at the University of Michigan in April 2011. This earlier iteration asked students to interview an "alum who has been out of college for at least five years, and ask them about how their ideas on public service and making a difference have changed since graduation as a result of their careers" (Olson 2011). When the students submitted their essays, Olson noticed that many respondents mentioned that they had never before been asked about the public dimensions of their work. One student interviewed a nuclear engineer who described her struggles to implement "little things in hopes of just creating conversations such as posting social justice articles in the break room and inviting coworkers over for dinner where she would bring up current social justice issues."4 This thirst to engage in conversation underscores the extraordinarily wide range of civic knowledge left untapped by service-learning approaches, which tend to point students toward the social service and nonprofit sectors. At Michigan, the focus of Olson's assignment on alumni sparked a collaboration with Julie Ellison, founding director of Imagining America, to launch the Citizen Alum initiative later that year. Through Ellison's work, Citizen Alum has grown to include campus teams at over thirty colleges and universities.5 However, the new assignment for Citizen and Self has been modified to include a wider range of personal and professional respondents beyond alumni.
For their first citizen story, the students each selected one individual from their personal networks to interview. There were no restrictions on this choice other than age. Although we encouraged face-to-face interviews, students were given the option of communicating by phone or Skype instead, but not email, since we wanted them to experience a real-time conversation. The majority of students chose to interview parents (evenly split between mothers and fathers), but some interviewed siblings, mentors, friends, grandparents, and even one great-grandparent. Several students expressed enthusiasm about the chance to get to know the interviewees in a new way. One student described the experience of talking over coffee with her mother as a radical change of pace, explaining, "It was beautiful to sit down with my mother and talk about citizenship. So much of our conversations are in passing or over texting lately that it's been some time since I've seen my mother passionate, and this was the best way I could've imagined doing that." Another wrote of his grandfather's interview: "Discussing citizenship is not something commonly mentioned, and it allowed me the opportunity to see a different side of him."
The overwhelming majority of respondents answered the question of what counts as good citizenship by initially listing voting, paying taxes, obeying the law, and volunteering. One typical response was the following comment from a student's mother: "I believe I am a good citizen because I am productive. I work for a living and help provide for my family and self without having to rely on outside help. By working, this means I pay taxes and my own bills. I also obey the laws." The ideological assumptions contained in these responses—such as the notion that citizenship depends on productive labor—challenged students to wrestle with the theoretical conceptions of citizenship they had encountered in the literary, historical, and social scientific readings assigned in the class. In their essays, some students pushed back against these assumptions by drawing attention to course readings on unemployment; others found in the interviews an avenue for pushing back against the readings. Still others sought to reconcile the multiplicity of ideas about citizenship that they were encountering. Despite the relative uniformity of initial responses, additional questions soon produced, for many students, a more personalized range of stories that cast citizenship as a diverse range of practices requiring investments of time, money, love, and obligation to the community. As one respondent put it, "I believe it takes time to make a good citizen. Someone who takes the time to really get to know the people in their community and cares enough to be a part of it."
The personal interviews were not required to address civic professionalism, but the topic nevertheless came up in many of the interviews. The careers represented in these interviews were remarkably diverse, reaching far beyond the nonprofit and social services organizations usually at the center of service-learning curricula. Respondents included administrative assistants, small business owners, pastors, military officers, therapists, and more. Several students argued in their reflection essays that their respondents were not giving themselves enough credit for the public dimension of their chosen careers. One student commented on her father's work as an insurance agent, arguing, "Despite what many might say, I admire people like my father who have steady jobs, are loving parents, and do their best to support their community in ways that they can relate to." Another wrote: "I think that my dad is more of a helpful, responsible citizen than he thinks he is." She went on to explain how her father's small business benefited the community:
[He] is giving these citizens a job, paying them, and therefore, giving them the opportunity to provide support for their families. He said that when he pays them, he knows that they are going out a [sic] spending that money on services in the community, which benefits other employees not directly employed by [his firm].
Several other respondents drew similar connections between citizenship and an ethical approach to their careers. One student's mother, for example, took pride in identifying nearly one million dollars in improper payments as a senior office assistant for a division of a major corporation, leaving behind a legacy of responsible management for the workers who took her place when she retired. This is but one of many stories that point to a more expansive range of practices that might count as citizenship—practices that are rarely noted in the literature of civic studies.
Not all of the personal interviews touched on careers. Roughly a quarter of the personal citizen stories did not even specify the career of the respondent. These interviews tended to focus on personal relationships and religious commitments. One student's father responded to the question of how he had been an active citizen in the community by stating, "Well, when the weather holds up and is warm enough your mother and I invite all the neighbors over for a block party with BBQ, games, and a movie." This idea of citizenship as a series of neighborly practices—whether in churches, parties, or other spaces of community—seemed to resonate with students. As one noted, "[M]y dad showed me that being a good citizen doesn't have to be an exhausting task that takes up all of our time and energy." In both the reflection essays and class discussions, these interviews served as an avenue through which students worked out, and questioned, their own civic commitments. Judging by how often the students referred back to it—whether to support or criticize prevailing ideologies of citizenship—the personal citizen story assignment became a sort of touchstone, perhaps because the interviews were anchored in the lives of people who were part of the everyday lives of students. Such outcomes point to the civic learning possibilities of assignments that creatively engage with the wisdom of community members outside the framework of service-learning.
The second interview assignment focused on citizen professionalism. Although careers were discussed in many of the personal interviews, the explicit purpose of the second assignment was to give students an opportunity to connect with somebody in a career of interest and learn about the public dimensions of that field. Most respondents saw obvious connections between their professional life and civic life. Whether the interviewee was a nurse, accountant, public servant, or attorney, almost all recognized their careers as a social contribution. For instance, one engineer described an active citizen as one who "is never wasting time but is always looking out for ways to help others around them." The context for this statement was the need to locate potholes in roadways. One landscaper observed, "I think being a citizen professional means striving to beautify the community. I think that it means that we keep our actions beautiful by treating fellow citizens with kindness and respect." Although few of these respondents would use the term citizen professional to describe their work, the interviews suggest that many everyday citizens already see engagement with the community as an organic aspect of their careers.
For some of the students, the interviews served as a sort of connecting thread between the ideas of citizenship and democracy that we had discussed in the course and the practical realities of their intended career paths. One student majoring in public relations interviewed an account manager at a PR firm. According to the student, the interview made the challenge of actually implementing ideas from the class seem more accessible and less daunting. As she explained:
One of my biggest worries about remaining an active citizen while maintaining my career is the issue of time. Giving back to the community outside of work seems nearly impossible once my inevitably chaotic schedule sets in. However, [the respondent] offered an alternative way to look at this issue. She believes that concentrating on one's occupation is one of the best ways to be a good citizen.
The essay offered no hint that the respondent was familiar with the terminology of civic studies, but her insights into on-the-job citizenship appear to have reached the student in a way that our readings and course materials could not. As with the personal citizen stories, the respondents in these professional interviews offered insights that are largely inaccessible within the framework of service-learning.
Finally, the professional interview assignment also aspired to foster potential mentoring relationships for students who lack networking guidance from parents or were the first in their families to attend college.6 We offered to assist students with finding potential interviewees and did so for several of them. These included an interview with a Vice President of Business Development at a major corporation in China for a student majoring in international business who had no connections in the field. Although she expressed significant anxiety prior to the interview, she arrived in class the following week with a new air of confidence. In her essay, she expressed surprise at her respondent's flexibility in pursuing his career goals, noting: "The fact that he just packed up after he graduated from [college] and just moved to [China] without knowing he had a job or place to live or anything just blows my mind." His advice about taking risks challenged the pressures she felt as an upwardly mobile college student seeking to leave Kentucky for a career abroad. As she put it, "I feel that my generation has been raised to be inflexible; we are pressured to choose a career at age eighteen and have our lives figured out by the time we graduate college. There is not time to take risks because there is not time for mistakes." The interview delved into the way her respondent had worked to change the culture of his company in order to focus on more than just maximizing profits, but emphasizing the well-being of employees and clients as an equally important measure of success. This perspective of citizen professionalism as an aspect of international business had been mostly absent from the student's economics coursework. She concluded with the affirmation that the interview "definitely made me feel more confident about my desired career path." She likewise seems to have impressed the respondent, who offered to help her with finding a job in China after graduating from WKU.
Our experiment with this assignment was not without its challenges. A small number of interviewees expressed feelings of awkwardness or discomfort at the whole idea of talking about citizenship. As one student noted:
When I originally told [the respondent] the point of the interview, she seemed a little nervous and slightly off&mdashput by the idea of citizenship. I noticed from the beginning of the interview that citizenship was not a topic that she has given much thought to. When I asked her what she believed made a good citizen, she said, "voting, paying taxes, and following the laws."
Here and elsewhere, we found that most students were able to move past generalities to have meaningful and personalized conversations. This required a sense of humor and a willingness to depart from a scripted set of questions. Students seemed to have had an easier time doing so with the personal interviews than with the professional interviews, where the stakes were higher and they were often meeting new people.
Looking back on our experience, we consider this assignment to be a valuable addition to the class, and we plan to continue using it in the future. The assignment sought to empower students to imagine how social change could be more fully integrated with other life goals. In evaluations at the end of the semester, several students cited the citizen stories as their favorite portion of the class, and explained that the interviews helped make the abstract course themes more concrete and relevant. Others noted that they appreciated the opportunity to get to know their parents, grandparents, and others in a new and deeper way. In both cases, we believe this positive feedback bodes well for our efforts to move beyond service-learning and embrace a civic engagement framework that takes seriously the practical concerns of students and shows how active citizenship is relevant to their personal and professional goals alike.
1 Please note that some minor identifying details have been altered to protect the identities of the students and interviewees. Except where explicitly noted, all quotations are from confidential student essays submitted in Honors 251: Citizen and Self at Western Kentucky University in Spring 2014.
2 For more on pedagogies of citizen professionalism, see Boyte and Fretz (2010, 67–90). Our course builds on Boyte's work by encouraging students to consider their careers as replete with civic potentialities, arguing that culture change can happen both through professional and personal action.
3 For the questionable utility of service-learning to communities, see Stoecker and Tryon (2009). See also the extensive literature on the often paternalistic town-gown relationship, including White (2009).
4 This is from a confidential student essay, American Culture 204.101, University of Michigan, Spring 2011.
6 Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton (2013) note that when universities fail to invest in comprehensive advising beyond simply registering for classes and fulfilling requirements, first-generation college students are often left without access to the networks required for class mobility.
Armstrong, Elizabeth, and Laura Hamilton. 2013. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Boyte, Harry, and Eric Fretz. 2010. "Civic Professionalism," Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 14: 67–90.
Jay, Gregory. 2010. The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices of Public Scholarship and Teaching. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://surface.syr.edu/ia/15.
Olsen, Alex. 2011. "Alumni Interview Guidelines," American Culture 204.101, University of Michigan, Spring.
Stoecker, Randy, and Elizabeth A. Tryon. 2009. The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
White, Byron P. 2009. Navigating the Power Dynamics Between Institutions and Their Communities. https://www.kettering.org/catalog/product/navigating-power-dynamics-between-institutions-and-their-communities.