The Role of Community in Classroom Engagement

The Role of Community in Classroom Engagement

This was originally posted on my old draft ePortfolio site, on October 24, 2023.

This is my first “academic” blog post. Well, the first one I am going to press “Publish” on, anyway. I always start these things, and then second-guess the belonging of my voice in the larger academic choir of voices. However, I just got out of a workshop and I have some thoughts, I wanted to jot down. I pulled out my notebook, and then realized this might be a good opportunity to just jump into the blogosphere. Here goes…

I am in the midst of manuscript revisions with a colleague of mine, and part of what we discuss in the article is the importance of community within the classroom. For context, we are writing about how bell hooks informed our design of an online course, and specifically an online course about anti-racism (which provides another layer of complexity, and importance, for the community). One of the reasons we designed the course the way we did, was because we recognized the need (as conveyed by students, colleagues, and other scholars), for students to have time to learn and reflect on their own, and also to be able to share with each other in community. To be able to debrief the hard topics. To hear the diverse voices within the classroom, and be empowered to share their own.

But another important piece to this is a shared responsibility. And the reason this just came up for me is because my colleague Dave Cormier was facilitating a discussion about encouraging students to do the work in a digital world. This is something I know he has been grappling with for a very long time, and that we have discussed together on many occasions. Students have a multitude of reasons for finding shortcuts in their academic work; and the current digital landscape (especially with the advent of AI) makes it a lot easier to do so. Amidst a sea of hurried and worried voices from instructors wondering how this impacts their role as an educator, we are shifting our focus from how to get students to learn this content (which is still important), to how do I get students to care? We know that many of our students do, indeed, care… but they are often manipulated into caring about the wrong things. Grades, for example. Grades, unfortunately, hold a lot of weight in our current educational system. I won’t go on a rant about grading and ungrading in this post, but I do want to highlight that caring about the grades is exactly what motivates students to find shortcuts like ChatGPT to write a paper for them. But, we struggle to find ways for students to care about all the other things we seem to want them to care about. Care about the content. Care about the “tasks” they are assigned. And, the point of my writing here… care about each other.

I admittedly didn’t speak in today’s session because I have not taught an undergrad course since 2016, and I really wanted to hear from those who are on the ground, and in the mess, right now. There was a lot of talking about how to get students to care. Personalizing learning. Having learning journals. Career/job relevance. Explaining the importance or relevance of a reading or an assignment. Even emphasizing your own interest in the matter, or sharing your own learning journey as an instructor. All of these are great ideas and are fairly well established in the scholarship of teaching and learning as positive pedagogical approaches. But, in my view, all of these reinforce the didactic classroom system. The teacher tells the student. The student does the thing. The teacher tells the student how good or bad that thing was.

But what about everyone else?

The classroom is full of people. Groups of people are sometimes called communities. A quick search led me to (one of) the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions of community: “the feeling of sharing things and belonging to a group in the place where you live” (but I would add work, study, play). Merriam-Webster dictionary suggests community is a “unified body of individuals: such as… (b) a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.” bell hooks, too, emphasized connection, belonging, and shared interests and experiences when she spoke and wrote about community. And do students in our classrooms not all have something in common? Are they not all enrolled in the same course, experiencing similar content and pedagogy? So, what is the role of each student within the classroom when we start to think of it as a community of learners, rather than a transaction between “teacher” and “student”?

bell hooks further noted the roles of care, shared goals, and active participation within community. She noted in Teaching to Transgress (1994), that we should enable our students to become critically engaged contributors whereby “the classroom is a democratic setting where everyone feels responsible to contribute”. So, in our community of learners, what about the students’ responsibility to each other? To themselves? And to society?

Is there some way to leverage the community to get students to care? By developing, facilitating, and maintaining community within our classrooms, we can potentially encourage students to develop shared goals, to care about one another, and to help each other reach their collective goals. If students want a reason for completing a reading, or fully engaging with an assignment, maybe we make them accountable to one another. Maybe we can create an atmosphere that values the sharing and production of knowledge from all community members, such that we all learn from one another, instead of just learning from the instructor, or the assigned content. Where all students’ learning is dependent on a full and committed community of learners.

I mean, I know we have a long way to go, and these thoughts are incomplete. But now I have written them down, and will return to them when I have more time.

Ideas for next blogs:

  • the relationship between classroom community and academic rigor
  • classroom community and the hidden curriculum
  • classroom community and the battle against neoliberalism
  • ungrading and student engagement
  • balancing “getting students to do the work” with the humanization of recognizing students generally have a lot of work to do


Hi there! This post couldn’t be written much better!
Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
He always kept talking about this. I am going to forward this information to him.

Fairly certain he’ll have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

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