Experiential and Community-Engaged Learning in Literary Studies

Author: Dr. Stefania Forlini, PhD, University of Calgary

April 6, 2017

If we are to understand ourselves as not only participating in that established public sphere but engaged in the very establishing of what counts as public, then an education of the senses is required. We have to be both receptive and critical to what should be known, heard, seen, and debated within the various idioms of public life, whether they are verbal or written, visual or acoustic, architectural or haptic and performative. In this way, an education of the senses is a precondition of what we might call a sensate democracy, one in which our capacity to hear and feel is not cut short by the media on which we depend to know that world.

Judith Butler, “Ordinary, Incredulous”

Literary studies, much like other areas of humanistic study, help students develop the literacies necessary for meaningful participation in public life. In addition to the kinds of knowledge such courses impart, they also help cultivate habits of perception and critical analysis that many believe are indispensable to mindful engagement in civic and democratic processes. Recent attempts to incorporate community-engaged or community-service learning into English (and a wide range of other) courses can be understood as making more explicit the connection between the humanities’ “education of the senses” and civic engagement.

In the Department of English here at the University of Calgary, we recently began offering a new course, English 520 “Community Engagement through Literature” which, as the calendar description states, “combines classroom and community-based learning undertaken in association with the Calgary Public Library or other associated non-profit organizations that promote engagement with literature.” My colleague Dr. Susan Bennett and I developed the course with the hope of providing students with the opportunity to see their learning in action and to foster the kind of meaningful community engagement for which their training had prepared them. When we first approached the Calgary Public Library (CPL) to discuss a possible collaboration, we were eager to establish a mutually beneficial partnership that could evolve with the needs of different communities. With every iteration of the course, we continue to strengthen our partnership with CPL and to gain valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of community-engaged learning, even as we begin to imagine other such courses.

During a recent department retreat our department head, Dr. Jacqueline Jenkins, suggested that as a department we might consider English 520 as the latest example of our department’s many courses that emphasize experiential learning—or learning through doing. Following her suggestion that our department investigate ways of celebrating while better designating what we do (and what literary studies does), we initiated the ExCEL (Experiential and Community-Engaged Learning) reading group, supported in part through the Seeding SoTL Initiative.

The group began meeting in November 2016. Members have been reading widely, exploring different understandings of public humanities, service learning, community-engaged learning and thinking about how these fit into our department’s commitment to experiential learning. The works we have read so far range from more theoretical debates about the place of art in the world (Sommer 2014), the relation of the humanities to human rights and the ethical value of critical reading and writing practices (Brooks et al. 2014) to more practical, yet still theoretically informed, accounts of different forms of service learning that have been employed in Literary Studies (Grobman et al. 2015). The discussions that followed ranged just as widely, from the ethical, disciplinary and bureaucratic challenges of implementing community-engaged learning to concrete suggestions for possible future courses. We continue to discuss concerns about how to responsibly cultivate and sustain meaningful and reciprocally beneficial university-community partnerships and about the ethical difficulties of community-service courses. We also continue to evaluate possible taxonomies through which we might more clearly designate different degrees of experiential and/or community-engaged learning and definitions of these terms. Finally, we also continue to discuss possible core competencies and experiences through which we might (as Sidonie Smith suggests) remap what literary studies “could be and do” (196).

The variety of disciplines that make up a strong and vibrant university contribute different kinds of value to our students and our larger communities. Of course, some kinds of value are more easily tracked and measured than others. Measuring the value and impact of the humanities’ “education of the senses” will be a challenge, particularly at a time when the dominant global tendency is to measure educational value in almost exclusively instrumental, economic terms. However, as Butler reminds us, the humanities are best equipped to undertake interrogations of systems of value and to help us remember even the kinds of value which current metrics would have us forget. It is, after all, part of what we do.

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Brooks, Peter, et al. The Humanities and Public Life. Fordham UP, 2014.

Butler, Judith. “Ordinary, Incredulous.” The Humanities and Public Life, edited by Peter Brooks with Hilary Jewett, Fordham UP, 2014, 15-37.

Grobman, Laurie, et al. Service Learning and Literary Studies in English. The Modern Language Association of America, 2015.

Smith, Sidonie. “The English Major as Social Action.” Profession, 2010, pp. 196-206.

Sommer, Doris. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Duke UP, 2014.