Bernard J. Hanley Professor of Religious Studies
Professor incorporates community-based learning to introduce new perspectives on social realities and promote solidarity with the community.
In her research as a social ethicist, Kristin Heyer focuses on topics such as the ethics of immigration and Catholic Social Thought. As a professor, she engages her students in conversations about the issues within the community. To do so, she integrates community-based learning (CBL) as an essential part of her courses.
"Community-based learning can challenge students' and faculty's assumptions about certain communities and social problems," Heyer says. "Particularly in the classes I teach, I find it helps students see the more complex structural dimensions of problems. I think it becomes harder to conceive of social problems as just bad choices, personal vices, or individual decisions once you have a conversation with or walk with people."
For Heyer, the key difference between a CBL course and one solely based in the classroom is that it gives students "concrete, felt realities" to learn from, rather than "theoretical interpretations of realities." Especially in courses such as Christian Ethics and HIV/AIDS or Immigration and Ethics, she feels that a community-based learning experience helps put what the students have learned in the classroom into a conversation with the community itself. This way, students are not only discussing and reflecting on the issues in class, but also recognizing a topic's relevance to the larger community.
Building a bridge
Besides giving students first-hand experience with class material, CBL courses also offer a means of developing a sense of solidarity between the University and the surrounding community. The students? placements create opportunities for both the students and members of nearby communities to develop new perspectives about each other.
"I think the bridge building between people's expectations, whether about marginalized populations in the community from the University position, or the motives of the Roman Catholic Church or of some prestigious university from the community's view, has been very rewarding," Heyer says. She recognizes that the students' engagement within the community breaks down false assumptions that may have existed and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.
Most importantly, Heyer notes that CBL challenges students to "wrestle with the issues with their peers, which I think is what college is all about." Students bring their off-campus experiences with them to classroom discussions, enhancing their understanding of and conversations about the social issues presented in texts and lectures. The result is an open, engaging discussion that encourages the students to reflect on their new perspectives.