Last May the University of Minnesota's Community Engaged Scholars Faculty Development Group held its last meeting. I will write more about this program and some lessons learned but wanted to begin this blog where the group left off: What is reflection? Why is it vital to community engagement work? Why are teachers so good at doling out reflection assignments and so bad at consistently reflecting on their work and ideas?
I was reminded of this topic again when a new 1st year graduate student in landscape architecture shared his blog with me—a very thoughtfully written and clear account of his first experiences as a design student. I'm always amazed by the courage it takes to return to school, move to an unfamiliar place, and find your role in a cohort of strangers. His reflections on the first weeks of school reminded me again of exactly what is at stake for many of our incoming students. As someone who is still paying off student loans, I'm reminded of the financial commitment monthly. But I forget the stress of the newness of it all—new apartment to set up, new bureaucratic systems to negotiate, new skills to learn.
Students in my Research Methods class are at the other end of this trajectory: developing what will be their final capstone project and preparing to graduate in the spring. Having mastered a set of skills they are in some ways returning to the reasons they started the program in the first place. What is it about the landscape that they value: the city, a river's edge, a neighborhood, a sidewalk? How can the work of a designer improve lives? What are the strengths of our profession and what are its limits?
In this blog I'll share some thoughts on these questions. Part of the fear of reflection for academics may be that an ongoing record of our answers shows shifts in our thinking and perhaps doubts about what we think is possible. But a shifting account is a more honest account of the processes of teaching and learning, of collaboration and expression set within a constantly changing landscape of money, ethics, and regulation. Just as good research is based on good questions and leads to even better questions, engagement and teaching are shaped and reshaped each time we ask ourselves if what we are doing reflects what we know and what we believe.