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Community Engaged Writing

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What is Community Engagement? How Does It Relate to Writing?

A growing trend in schools and colleges, community engagement or “service learning” connects academic goals with community-based learning. By extending course activities beyond the classroom, community engagement enhances student learning with “real world” applications, developing problem solving skills, civic responsibility, and potentially consiousness of systemic social issues. Community engagement can take a wide variety of forms: students may spend time volunteering for an organization related to a course topic, collaborate with a community partner on a mutually beneficial project, or conduct academic research in the local community.

Many forms of community engagement heavily involve writing. Writing courses and activities are especially appropriate to community engagement as writing is central to many organizations’ operations. Writing also serves as a valuable means of developing students’ critical thinking and reflection about their experiences.

Modes of Community-Engaged Writing

Community-engaged writing can vary in the ways that students connect with the community and in the types of writing that students produce. One model for understanding these different forms is Thomas Deans’ division of writing for, about, or with the community.

Writing for: When students write for the community, they work to address a community partner's professional writing needs. Students may produce workplace documents, research and draft grant materials, develop a social media presence for the organization, or any number of other projects.

Writing about: The “writing about the community” approach includes critical reflection on volunteering experiences and research projects about community issues. Students may spend time volunteering with one or multiple community organizations, then use classroom writing to deepen their community experience, and vice versa.

Writing with: Students may write with the community to collaborate closely on researching or addressing community concerns. Common forms of writing with the community include community writing centers and tutoring, mentorship programs, and community awareness campaigns and projects.

Many community engagement courses feature a combination of these different forms of community-based writing.

Respect and Reciprocity

Though the location and topic of community-engaged writing may vary, developing respect and reciprocity in community relationships is crucial to every form of engagement. Students and instructors must be conscientious to avoid taking advantage of community organizations’ time and resources for their own academic benefit without benefitting the community in return. Instead, community engagement requires a collaborative spirit of partnership. While university groups may have expertise to share with the community, community organizations equally have valuable knowledge and experience to share. Reciprocal university-community partnerships can produce meaningful experiences and valuable outcomes for students and communities alike.


Deans, Thomas. Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition . Urbana: NCTE, 2000.