At the Nexus of Inquiry and Action

Nairuti Shastry, Student Leadership and Development Coordinator, Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern

February 16, 2018

The Johns Hopkins University, America’s first research university, founded in 1876, has a significant presence in its home in the heart of Baltimore, Maryland. Hopkins is the largest private employer in the city, and attracts students, staff, and faculty members from around the world.

Hopkins is also the largest private landowner in the city, and as such, is cognizant of the space—physical and literal—it occupies in the city. JHU has thought critically for years about what it means to be an elite university in an urban setting like Baltimore. In fact, President Daniels, in his vision for the university, has explicitly articulated that one of our institutional goals is to “enhance and enrich our ties to Baltimore, the nation and the world, so that Johns Hopkins becomes the exemplar of a globally engaged, urban university”.

So what does it mean to be an “engaged university”? Does it mean to engage in civic inquiry or civic action? Does it mean to invest in traditional forms of community engagement (e.g. direct service initiatives housed in the Center for Social Concern) or does it mean to support faculty and students in disciplines traditionally associated with civic-minded work (e.g. sociology, anthropology, etc.)? Or is the problem not where we invest, but instead the question itself? As Paulo Freire articulates in his text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), “liberation is a praxis [see Figure 1]: the action and reflection of [people] upon their world in order to transform it”. Why, then, view civic action and inquiry as two mutually exclusive entities when, in reality, to affect truly transformative social change, they must be informing one another? 

At Hopkins, faculty, staff, and students are beginning to focus on the nexus of these two points—civic inquiry and action—not only through the revitalization of our curriculum (e.g. investing in community-based learning) but also via a commitment to this intersection that undergirds all our programming here at the CSC. Two programs of which we’re especially proud that concurrently engage in civic inquiry and action are 1) alternative breaks and 2) one of our pre-orientation programs, HopkinsCORPS.

Unlike alternative break programs at other schools that run independently as extracurricular activities, Hopkins’ program is a class that students can take during their winter intersession. By injecting community service into a traditional classroom-based learning model and leveraging intersession as a time when students have the capacity to explore other interests not necessarily related to their primary academic focus, our alternative breaks program begins to reconcile a seemingly tenuous relationship between civic inquiry and action. One student comments, “I gained a broader view of educational issues and a more nuanced understanding of the ways that factors such as poverty, cultural differences, and the influence of charter schools affect student outcomes.” In intentionally supplementing action with scholastic context, we better equip students with the tools necessary to affect change in Baltimore and beyond.

For HopkinsCORPS, we are charged with the broad task of introducing first year students to civic engagement at the university-level. Through a week-long immersive experience, students are challenged to think critically about the various modes of civic engagement, as well as how involvement can be a quintessential part of the undergraduate experience. While not associated with a particular class, HopkinsCORPS does serve as a galvanizing force for many students to imagine civic action as a lifelong practice, one that can be integrated with any and all career paths.

Finally, the CSC does have a hyper-local focus; nearly all of our programming is Baltimore. In this way, we further hope to demonstrate that civic inquiry is not something that happens “here” (at Hopkins, in Baltimore), and civic action something that happens “there” (e.g. in another state or internationally). We believe that it is our responsibility as an arm of the university to demonstrate that social issues are not to be fetishized or exoticized, but instead to be seen as a very real tenet of our own community. In this way, we hope to inspire agents of change that see community engagement not as extracurricular, but instead, co-curricular and central to the pursuit of social change and transformative justice.

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