By Jessica Thompson
You wouldn't build a house in an area without first finding out as much about the local community as possible. The best way to do that is to ask the locals, using their community knowledge to learn as much information as they can give.
It's this idea of community knowledge that Dr Cheryl Siemers discussed in her seminar in March as part of the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) Conversations with Community series that was held in the Institute for Lifecourse and Society, NUI Galway.
"I'd say my primary broad category would be community-based learning, in the teaching and learning that surrounds what we would call service learning. So that's my biggest, broadest category of research, and how we can improve the way we do service learning instruction," explained Dr Siemers soon after her seminar ended.
"And in that category, it's primarily at the undergraduate level. And I specify that because, based on the conversations today, it's a little different over here, where we might do service learning from freshman to senior years because we have four-year degrees, and as we talked around the table, I realised that a lot of the service learning components would come in in later years - like maybe the third or fourth year or graduate, it sounded like. I'm interested in how we construct a curriculum around service learning."
Dr Cheryl Siemers was, at the time of her seminar, a Colston Visiting Fellow at the University of Bristol, hosted by the English Department to work with the BA in English Literature and Community Engagement and by the Department of Social Sciences and Law to engage with the Productive Margins programme.
She was visiting from the University for Alaska Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula College and in her seminar, she covered three main categories of research; exploring ways in which community or local knowledge is valued, shared and incorporated in both traditional classroom settings and in community-engaged projects; investigating how indigenous ways of knowing might be integrated in community-based learning; and examining how these engaged projects might increase persistence for underrepresented students in higher education.
"But I wouldn't really go with three categories because it's really all interrelated. My primary interest is in thinking about how local knowledge enhances the teaching and learning aspects of community engagement, because they're all integrated," she said.
On this particular sabbatical, she wasn't doing research that needs to be written out in a publishable form afterwards. No, Dr Siemers' task in this particular year-long trip was to learn about different ways that community-based learning and research is conducted and to think about ways to improve practice and to make critical connections for conversation and research in the future.
"I don't have a research project that has to come out at the end of my trip, because my sabbatical wasn't set up that way. It was set up just to go out and learn and make connections and then when some great research idea hits, to follow through with those people. "I'm not here to do strict interviews with people, but rather to just have a conversation and learn on an international level, rather than just a national level."
It all sounds highly interesting, and Dr Siemers has certainly found value on her trip; "I've been struck with how similar some of the challenges are for both action research and co-production, but also with the similarity of passion and purpose held by individuals," she said.
And speaking of passion and purpose, Dr Siemers expressed great passion when speaking about her own research, saying that she believes community and indigenous knowledge is not just valuable, but "invaluable".
"I would say even as we look at ways to integrate and incorporate local knowledge, we need to do so very cautiously, because of issues of ownership, past histories of trying to apprehend or appropriate other ways of knowing. So I think there are valuable conversations to be had about how we make or remake our current educational practices to be more inclusive."
And she certainly knows what she's talking about. Dr Siemers serves as Facilitator of the Service-Learning Faculty Scholars program in Alaska.
She has presented at national and international conferences on the subject and, along with some of her colleagues, she has won two national awards for engaged teaching and learning and for reaching across borders with community partnerships and service-learning.
Some of her conference presentations focus on incorporating local knowledge and native ways of knowing in building and sustaining community partner relationships.
"I'm very interested in incorporating indigenous ways of knowing. We have a native population in Alaska, and so there's been a series of works done on how collaborations take place. And I would say that I follow those kinds of conversations," she said.
"There are scholars in the state of Alaska that look at the way the institution and communities can partner more effectively. And I even use the word ‘partner' kind of cautiously, because in some settings even the word ‘partnership' is kind of a loaded term."
So in a broader sense, Dr Siemers is interested in how we incorporate local knowledge, and that's where she sees a huge crossover between NUI Galway and the University of Alaska.
"But that was my goal in coming: to think about the ways that my own practice in service learning, in teaching and learning, and research intercepts with the things you're doing here at NUI Galway."
The seminar in March was a success for Dr Siemers who left NUI Galway having learned plenty of information that will prove valuable to her research.