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  • Critical and Feminist Civic Engagements:A Review
  • Leeray M. Costa (bio) and Karen J. Leong (bio)

Scholars and teachers of women’s and gender studies can speak with authority about civic engagement pedagogy, yet their contributions have been largely peripheral to the national conversation on civic engagement, as discussed in our introduction to this volume. In this essay we review a select number of texts in an effort to articulate critical and feminist civic engagement(s) epistemologically and pedagogically. In selecting material to review we began by narrowing our focus to work on civic engagement that was explicitly feminist in orientation and rooted in the discipline of women’s and gender studies. We found that in limiting our review to those works privileging the term “civic engagement,” we lost a significant amount of scholarship in the process, reiterating the point made by Catherine Orr and Caryn McTighe Musil (“Remapping”) that the use of divergent terminologies has made conversation across disciplinary boundaries difficult and has contributed to the field’s marginalization in the national discussion on this topic. Therefore, we review texts that use a range of terminologies, including “civic engagement,” “service learning,” “experiential learning,” and “education for citizenship.”

We review five noteworthy texts that articulate critical and feminist civic engagement(s) from slightly different perspectives, taking each in turn. Our discussion of these texts is augmented by brief mentions of and references to additional books, journal articles, reports, and newsletters that enrich our efforts to delineate the contemporary landscape of critical and feminist civic engagement(s). The literature we examine hinges on several key issues that emerge as central in feminist pedagogy: attention to difference, emphasis on relations of power, and advocacy for social justice.

We hope that this review essay will provide those interested in the topic a place from which to begin their explorations while simultaneously encouraging those with more experience and knowledge in this area to contest and expand on these models. Only by clearly articulating critical and feminist civic engagement(s) for ourselves and others can we intervene in what is now a national, two-decades old discussion in United States higher education and politics that is largely devoid of [End Page 266] the full range of feminist voices and contributions.

The National Dialogue on Civic Engagement

There is a vast and ever-proliferating literature on civic engagement within higher education in the United States and abroad.1 Our goal is not to summarize that literature here, and we direct readers to those texts listed in our endnotes, references, and bibliography of additional reading. Yet, in order to understand what makes critical, feminist approaches to civic engagement both distinct and remarkable, it is important to understand the historical emergence of this movement within higher education and to be aware of some of the fundamental goals, processes, and tensions central to mainstream discussions about civic learning.

We begin, therefore, with a discussion of Matthew Hartley’s article, “Reclaiming the Democratic Purposes of American Higher Education: Tracing the Trajectory of the Civic Engagement Movement.” Hartley traces the origins of the movement to the early 1980s, a period of national economic and demographic decline that included a shift toward a market-oriented approach in higher education that understood “students as customers” seeking the skills necessary to obtain employment. At the same time, analysts claimed that U.S. youth were disaffected and disengaged from civic life. In response to these concerns a number of initiatives were launched that, according to Hartley, sought to shift the focus of civic learning from “volunteerism” to “service learning,” a shift that proponents presumed would move away from an extracurricular model to one that integrated curricula and service. Ernst Boyer’s 1990 publication of Scholarship Reconsidered expanded the conversation to address how even faculty scholarship could and should be applied to “pressing civic, social, economic, and moral problems” (Hartley 17). Hartley describes the numerous organizations now involved in the civic engagement movement; most notable among these is Campus Compact, established by a group of university presidents in 1985, which now includes over 1,100 institutional members.

As the dialogue on civic learning expanded throughout the 1990s, an important tension emerged among service learning proponents that...


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