Creating a Positive Impact
Professor Coralynn Davis aims to make community engagement a common curricular component
by Susan Lindt
Professor Coralynn Davis aims to make  community engagement a common curricular component

You are the first to hold the recently created position of faculty director for academic civic engagement. What made you want to interrupt your teaching groove in women’s & gender studies to take a three-year appointment in Bucknell’s Office of Civic Engagement?
I’ve always been interested in civic engagement as part of my career and life, so it was a good fit. I use service learning and community- based learning pedagogies in my teaching. Also, as an anthropologist, the research I do has always been ethnographic and community based. More recently, it’s been community-action based, meaning it actively involves community participants and is intended to have an effect on their world. So, civic engagement is in my blood. I believe in its value and was delighted to see a position had been developed in which I could promote this kind of work at the University. Given the chance to help advance the University’s civic-engagement opportunities on the curriculum side, I jumped at the opportunity to apply for this position.

How did you develop your expertise to be successful in this new position?
Once I started making civic-engagement part of how I teach, I realized I had a lot to learn. I started seeking professional development opportunities in conferences and workshops. I learned there’s this whole world of people with this expertise, and it’s a growing trend in academia. I started seeing students have these light-bulb moments from their experiences out in the communities. I loved being part of that happening for students. I started creating additional types of engaged learning options for students. For example, I helped a student design an alternative break trip to Nepal, during which we supported a Nepali organization’s efforts to create after-school enrichment opportunities for schoolchildren.

So what makes developing meaningful institutional civic engagement so challenging?
You have the institutional culture at the University, and you have the institutional culture at the organization, and collision of these cultures can happen if one doesn’t plan accordingly. For many years, I’ve been teaching at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy. I take students over there, and we have classes with half the members being Bucknell students and half being students from the incarcerated community. I had a lot to learn about how a prison works when I started — everything from when the prison population is allowed to move from one building to another to how far ahead the prison plans class to how the hierarchy of decision making works at the prison. I even had to learn what it takes just to get a group of students through a gate into the prison. There were a million things to learn. That’s what I mean by “institutional culture.” And then Bucknell has its own institutional culture of scheduling and decision making. We don’t always know much about one another, so we have to spend time really getting to know each other. It takes multiple conversations across institutions to make these things work.

Another thing that can make partnering with community organizations difficult is that in small organizations, the staff is already stretched. They’re running all day, and students find this out quickly. Sometimes students think if they reach out to the organization, they’ll hear back from them within an hour, but the organization’s staff might only check email every other day. We have to learn about these rhythms and communication styles. They’re fighting the good fight, and they don’t have tons of resources and time to deal with faculty and students coming at them in a haphazard way.

What culture change is Bucknell making to address these issues since you’ve been on board?
We tend to relate to community organizations in a needs-based way of thinking — as if they need us, they’re lacking, and we can help to fix them because we know better. We’re now shifting that thinking to more of an assets- based orientation: What is this organization doing, or what does this organization have that’s helping this community to stay afloat? What can this organization offer our students? That’s the mutuality piece — this is a partnership. We both have things to bring to the table.