South African academics debate community engagement

Community engagement is increasingly playing a key role in university life in South Africa, but the concept itself remains underexplored. In order to better understand it, the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics (AGLCE) at Rhodes University is hosting a roundtable on Community Engagement from today (11 June 2014) to Friday (13 June 2014).

This event is part of the Ford Foundation sponsored yearly CHERTL Roundtable Series on Critical Issues in Higher Education.

According to Prof Pedro Tabensky, Director of the AGCLE and co-organiser, “It’s important to ask ourselves whether community engagement is something universities should be doing at all and, if so, what its character should be”.

Apart from the clear benefits of service learning in some fields (but not obviously to others), Prof Tabensky wonders whether community engagement as such should play a central role in university life as a whole.

“It seems to me that community engagement, or something very much like it, should be playing a key epistemic role in our pursuits of understanding if, as I think one should understand the project of understanding in a wider sense than it is currently being understood,” he said.

“Our modes of being and perceiving play a central role in determining the fine texture of our intellectual concerns and sensitivities, so universities should aim at helping form these modes of being and perceiving, something that is best done if the learning has an experiential dimension.”

For Prof Tabensky, community engagement has a critical role to play in academic institutions but he suspects it should be understood as a university responsibility rather than a responsibility of specific academics, although many academics should be championing properly conceived community engagement causes.

 Community engagement invites us to reconsider the relationship between university and the wider community, and this is a good thing, he said, but it is unlikely that all academics could or should contribute equally to community engagemnt efforts.  

Prof Tabensky believes that, “Unlike in our so-called developed countries counterparts, structures in the South African university system are not fixed and there is plenty of room for movement. I see this as a unique opportunity to rethink the idea of a university in a way that challenges the misconceived implicit dichotomy between intellect and embodied existence.”

According to Prof Tabensky there is an intimate relationship between modes of being and perceiving and the texture of academic work, and one should effectively engage with these modes so as to improve them, thus helping transform the character of academic work for the better. Experiential ways of learning must play a central role here, and this, he believes, is where community engagement can come in most effectively.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Photo: Prof Pedro Tabensky 

2014 Roundtable programme click here

Source:  Communications

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