Paving A Path Forward for Engaged Scholarship

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at

By Del Bharath and Hannah Lebovits

Several recent Urban Affairs Review Forum pieces have highlighted classroom practices that foster engaged learning by encouraging students, community organizations and policy makers to critically consider and potentially change some of the most complex issues our cities face. But engaged learning, particularly community-based service-learning, can cultivate more than positive communal outcomes. It can be a transformational experience for participants, especially students. In our forthcoming paper at the Journal of Nonprofit and Public Affairs, we lay out a roadmap for designing and executing democratic service-learning courses that generate critical citizenship and social justice advocacy behaviors in public affairs students. Here, we would like to share not only our findings but our process. We hope that we can inspire others to connect over shared interests and collaborate across disciplines, institutions and geographic boundaries!

As emerging urban scholars, we connected over our shared view of service-learning as an important pedagogical tool to develop the students as community agents. Initially, we intended to examine how service-learning could decrease tensions between universities and non-academic actors in urban areas but due to methodological constraints, we shelved the research. Instead, we decided to take a closer look at the implications the current state of public affairs might have on service-learning and the democratic development of students. We embedded our research in the broader idea of a substantive democratic framework and drew on John Dewey’s work in Democracy and Education.

In our review of the relevant literature, we found that scholars are often supportive of experiential learning in public affairs but that many case-studies discussed the outcomes of a project or goal, rather than student development. We also noted that several scholars were writing about the high-level developmental goals of institutions of higher education and the potential for service-learning to develop students as citizens. We saw a natural connection between the testimonies regarding service-learning and the high-level outcomes that could be achieved and set out to create a framework for designing and implementing a service-learning course specifically geared towards cultivating substantive democracy.

As a response, our paper creates a conceptual framework for service-learning that combines the various institutional goals, the core competencies of Master of Public Administration curricula and the outcomes of service-learning. By building on the individual outcomes educators can  reach the apex of the diagram: the student as a substantively democratic citizen with an intrinsic understanding of their connection to and potential to act on behalf of their community. We include a diagram of our framework as well as examples of service-learning courses that we believe achieve these outcomes. The goal of this framework is to provide educators with a theoretical foundation as well as a practical guide to democratic service-learning, they can use to critically develop service-learning courses. We do not suggest that every experiential learning course must develop a students’ substantive democratic nature. Instead, we wanted to show the feasibility of these courses and the impacts on students and the larger community.


While it is exciting to be able to publish this research academically, our goal has always been to promote the use of, not simply the study of, service-learning. It is evident that service-learning positively impacts student learning and development, and benefits participating faculty members, community partners, and institutions. However, because of a lack of resources and improper guidance, service-learning might not be as accessible or enticing to all. We hope that our paper provides a guide for faculty members and would like to point to a few resources for those seeking to develop democratic service-learning courses, as well. Educators who are new to service-learning have access to federal resources at the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. Brandeis University’s ENACT program provides support for undergraduate civic activity and the University of Kansas has an online community tool kit that can assists students and faculty in their community-engaged social justice work. Additionally, the Pay it Forward initiative is a useful student philanthropy model that is also well-aligned with our idea of democratic service-learning. Lastly, individual universities may have access to grants for engaged service-learning courses.

Service-learning takes hard work and dedicated faculty members. The benefits, however, are wide-ranging and when done correctly can have enormous benefits. With our paper and conceptual model, we hope to show that service-learning is a tangible tool to cultivate substantive democratic ideals and foster the idea that educators have the power, and the responsibility to develop students as socially engaged community members.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Hannah Lebovits is a doctoral student at Cleveland State University. Her research is predominantly focused on sub-national governance with a particular focus on suburbs and small cities. Hannah’s interest in service-learning stems from her own experiences as well as her passion for engaged public service. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.

Del Bharath is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her dissertation research examines housing policy and gentrification. As a public administration student and instructor, she is interested in how service-learning can be used effectively in classrooms for increased outcomes. She resides in Southern California with her partner and three cats.

*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

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