profile: Amani Elshimi

March 20th, 2011

For the next in our series of interviews with AUC faculty members, we are delighted to have a conversation with Amani Elshimi. Amani is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition, and since 2008 she has been the Director of Community-Based Service Learning at the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement. Amani is a quiet dynamo on campus, bringing tremendous energy and reformist capabilities to everything she touches. When she won the 2009 AUC Excellence in Teaching Award, one of the nominators said that “Amani Elshimi can only be described in superlatives.” In the following conversation, she explains community-based learning to those who might not be entirely sure what it means. She also contrasts community-based learning in Egypt and in Lebanon, where she has done similar work. She also discusses issues related to water and campus literacy programs, and tells us whether she agrees with the widespread notion that student writing abilities have decreased over the years.

On a related note, I should add that Teaching Enhancement Grants are currently the most underutilized of all available faculty grants. Community-based learning courses are eligible for such grants, and Amani may be able to give you some good ideas. Ask her about this the next time you cross paths on campus.

Q: Let’s begin with your role as director of community-based service learning, a position you’ve held since 2008. Much of the AUC faculty probably isn’t even sure what service learning or community-based learning is, and they might think it’s something “for other people.” What can you say that might encourage people to give it a try?

Community-based learning is a teaching and learning method – a means to improving student learning, with many added benefits which include the development of personal and civic skills, as well as support and strengthening of communities.  Students work with a non-profit organization or other public entity to define needs and design a valuable service which, at the same time, specifically enhances their learning goals for the course they’re registered in. A few service examples include conducting participatory research, developing professional reports and promotional material, grant proposal writing, tutoring, teaching art, music or story-writing, manufacturing low-cost equipment, or raising awareness on important issues such as disease prevention or water conservation. The gains are reciprocal. The community receives engaged student scholars providing free service, informed and guided by disciplinary theories and competencies, while the students learn in an authentic environment, applying and testing classroom and textbook knowledge within the context of the real world. Reflection exercises help them evaluate their learning and set goals for further development and learning transfer. 

All teachers can make use of this approach, within any discipline and at any level in the curriculum from freshman to capstone. The community-based learning program provides guidance, resources, training in course design, and contacts in the community. It’s definitely worth trying. 

Q: Do the recent political events in Egypt change your approach to community-based learning in any way?

The approach and principles of community-based learning are the same, the disciplinary learning is the same, but the acquisition of civic skills has gained meaning and importance. Civic skills include the ability to contribute to common social good, understanding the political context and the dimensions of the service within that context, developing skills of creative problem solving, listening to and respecting different points of view, and participating actively in public conversation.  As students use their class learning to analyze and work through community problems and issues, their larger role as responsible citizens now stands out in more pronounced ways. 

Q: You were sent to the American University of Beirut (AUB) to facilitate a training institute for how to do community-based learning in Lebanon. How context-specific is this sort of learning? Do the Lebanese need to do it differently from Egyptians? What about in Western universities?

Once again the principles of CBL hold anywhere, but the public issues in Lebanon in 2008 and 2009 when I was there were significantly different from those in Egypt.  While CBL in Egypt focused on social justice and poverty-related problems – illiteracy, hunger, lack of infrastructure, meager science education, violation of child rights, and other such issues -  CBL in Lebanon had to do with war. The faculty focused on rebuilding damage, bringing people together in community coalitions, revitalizing agriculture, and supporting displaced populations. 

An interesting example of CBL was one in which a number of faculty members from AUB’s Architecture and Design department set up a ‘Reconstruction Unit’ to rebuild towns in the South of Lebanon after the summer 2006 war. The Reconstruction Unit provided a space for classes of different disciplines to work directly with the affected communities. Community-based learning principles of participatory collaboration and reciprocal gain were conformed to, with students engaging communities in determining need and formulating intervention strategies.

Community-based learning in the US (or service-learning as it is more commonly known) focuses on developing the skills needed for democratic citizenship and public participation.

Q: At AUB, you gave a talk called “Case Studies from AUC and Lessons Learnt.” What were the main lessons learnt at AUC?

The community-based learning program at AUC is managed by both the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement and the Center for Learning and Teaching. The program budget comes from external grants or gifts. One of the problems such a set up poses is the minimal integration within the university infrastructure – the funding is unsustainable and, therefore, the staffing is always part-time and unstable. The big lesson there was for similar CBL institutional units to ensure full integration within their university systems. This includes creating a program/office with clear placement on the organizational chart, providing adequate support funds, highlighting the civic mission in the university profile and publications, recognizing civic engagement in all forms as legitimate scholarship, and creating promotion and award systems that acknowledge faculty work.

More recently, the AUC has provided a lot more support for the program. Eleven CBL courses have been recognized as capstone, faculty support grants have been made easier, several faculty members from different departments have presented their CBL work at international conferences, and one faculty member, Dr. Mona Amer, has been awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award for her exceptional work in the community through academic course work. I feel very optimistic about the future of CBL at AUC.

Q: You seem to have done quite a bit of educational work on water-related issues. I think this is something whose importance we can all understand.

In 2004, I taught a course in the Rhetoric and Composition Department called “Writing for the Social Sciences.” The research theme we selected was ‘Water Issues.’ Students would select research topics related to the theme from the different perspectives of their disciplines. For a community-based learning project, we decided to organize a campus-wide awareness-raising campaign on water scarcity and water conservation. The students prepared a special issue of the Caravan Newsletter with summaries of their research, created informational flyers on water statistics, pasted conservation tips on restroom walls, gave out bumper stickers with the slogan “every drop counts,” showed documentaries on water scarcity in the region, manned a booth as an information center, and toured the campus on a camel – a symbol for water conservation. 

Today, with Burundi signing the Nile Basin Initiative, the threat of water shortage in Egypt is more critical.  The campaign for water awareness and conservation should continue and expand beyond campus.

Q: This must be a very demanding position for you, directing community-based learning at AUC. How much teaching are you still doing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition?

I serve the Community-Based Learning Program on a two-course release basis, which means I continue to teach one course each semester. The course I teach is called “Grant Writing,” and it is, of course, a CBL course. The students work with NGOs that require funding for their programs. They identify potential donor agencies, and develop grant proposals to support the programs which the NGO identifies. At the end of the semester, the NGOs are given the proposals. Several NGOs have, in fact, received funding using the proposals which the students have written.

Q: In 2009, you won the prestigious AUC Excellence in Teaching Award. Perhaps you could share with us a few words about your philosophy of teaching.

My teaching is driven by the conviction that my students are resources. I use their assets (their knowledge, skills, experiences, talents, interests, expectations and goals) to structure my content. In this sense, my teaching is ‘participatory.’ I start the semester with a very broad framework for the course, defined by the course purpose and learning goals. As I work with the students, I let them select the themes we’re covering, the types of assignments and activities they find meaningful and enjoyable, even the rubrics we use to evaluate the work. The students love to set goals for their own learning – they take responsibility for the work, create their own challenge, respect each other’s questions and contributions, understand the values of evaluation and feedback, and, yes, don’t focus on grades. They focus on the learning, and take pride in what they produce. Grades don’t ever come as a surprise, because they develop a sense for self-assessment, and our standards align. I love the students and appreciate all they’ve taught me as well. I’m never the same person at the end of a semester. I grow along with them.  My teaching philosophy is described more fully in the supplemental Bulletin post below.

Q: You also received an award for work with the Campus Worker Literacy Program. How many of our workers on campus are actually illiterate? Do they seek out tutoring, or are they a bit embarrassed and in need of being convinced to take lessons?

I am not exactly sure how many of our campus workers are illiterate in Arabic. There seems to be more females who cannot read and write than males. Most of the workers who come to the Literacy Program, though, come to learn English, not Arabic. They perceive it as a means to raise their standards and, perhaps, get a promotion. English is necessary when you’re working on a campus whose primary language is foreign to you. Can you imagine not being able to read any of the signs on the walls, or understand any of the conversations? The workers are not embarrassed to join the program; instead they’re empowered and proud. I am proud, too, to have been part of this program at its inception. Now, it is the Human Resources Office that manages it, and it is fully supported by the university administration. 

Q: Another issue you’ve worked on is undergraduate research. What is the source of your interest in this topic, and how do you think we can enhance the research role of our undergraduates here at AUC?

This is an area that is very close to my heart.  It started off in 2005 when Deanna Blevins and I were each teaching a section of “Writing for the Social Sciences.” She and I used the theme that was advertised by the AUC Faculty Research Conference, “Reform in Egypt: Opportunities and Challenges.” Our students wrote such good papers, we decided to organize an Undergraduate Research Conference to allow them to share their work publicly. The students became so excited, they took over the management – they wrote the mission statement of the conference, advertised, constructed a Call for Papers, vetted proposals, created the schedule, and moderated the conference panels. Deanna and I hugged and cried when we saw the thrill in their eyes as they argued their positions and responded intelligently to difficult audience questions. Our whole perception of undergraduate research changed. 

For the following few years, we developed what we called the program for “Excellence in Undergraduate Research, Entrepreneurship and Creative Achievement” (EURECA). We included a series of workshops, open to all undergraduates, on various research skills, and an Undergraduate Research Journal, which one of the students decided to call URJe (pronounced “urge”). We thought it was neat. Today, participants in the annual conference include undergraduate students from the German University, the British University, Futures University, and Sadat Academy. One year, we had a student presenter from Bryn Mawr College in the U.S.  She had a paper related to the conference theme and she flew over on a grant from her institution. 

The types of presentations have also diversified to accommodate student products across the discipline. We now accept creative writing, artwork, new inventions, music compositions, documentaries, social marketing campaigns, or any other type of work that demonstrates serious research and scholarship. The end product varies, but the process places an emphasis on research, creative thinking and innovation.

We hope the university adopts this program and integrates it within its research promotion agenda. AUC should take pride in what its students are capable of producing.

Q: Perhaps the thing that stands out most about your track record at AUC is that it’s very diverse, yet you seem to make an impact in every one of your activities. I’m going to ask a question that may sound vague, but I look forward to your answer: what’s the key to making a difference in any activity?

My work may seem diverse, but in my mind, it’s one thing. I use high impact teaching methods (research, community-based methods, participatory approaches, a strong First Year Experience) to create responsible, active and discerning stewards of the world. Yes, it may sound lofty, but it is a belief that gives me immense energy. I know that what I do best is prepare young people with the knowledge, skills and appropriate dispositions to take this world forward in constructive and humane ways.  My teaching, research and service focus on that one purpose. Every workshop I’ve given, every committee I’ve served on, every class I’ve facilitated has had that one vision. I think that having any vision, whatever it is, is the key to making a difference.  Apparently diverse ‘bits’ of your life fall into place to complete that overall vision.

Q: Just out of curiosity, I see that you did a project called “Low-stakes writing.” That sounds relaxing, and I would love to do some! But what is it?

Low-stakes writing is a term coined by educator Peter Elbow. It refers to writing that is low-stress, frequent, sometimes informal, sometimes technical, sometimes reflective, sometimes directed. The overall purpose of it is to write to learn, rather than learn to write in an anxiety-free environment. Low stakes writing is not for grading purposes, it’s for learning purposes. It helps create flow in thinking, and fluency of expression. In my classes low-stakes writing time is fun. Students who start off with very little to say on a subject, eventually write abundantly because writing helps them think. Low-stakes writing can then be used to focus ideas for more rigorous research work.

Q: Some AUC faculty seem to have the impression that student writing has gotten worse over time. Is this also your view, or do you disagree? If you agree, then why do you think this happened? And if you disagree, then why do you think some faculty believe it?

I’ve been teaching for 18 years at AUC.  I’ve taught students in the pre-college ELI program, all the way to senior students in capstone courses.  I do not think that student writing has gotten worse. It hasn’t gotten better either.  

Faculty forget that our student population largely consists of second-language learners, whose reading and writing practice in the schools was minimal. The ELI and the Rhetoric and Composition courses provide opportunities for guided writing, with abundant feedback and opportunities for re-drafting. The students make incredible gains, but that’s not where their learning should end. Faculty members in the disciplines, too, need to sustain the standards expected for scholarly research and writing in their courses. They should direct their students to the Writing Center for more concentrated assistance with writing when needed. That’s where they will get one-on-one guidance, mentoring, and opportunities for re-drafting.  

Writing needs to be strengthened across the curriculum and in the disciplines.  At some universities in the US, students are required to take writing-intensive courses in their fields of major. Writing becomes one of the primary learning outcomes in those courses, and the courses are marked with a *WI in the course catalog. Students cannot graduate without a specific number of *WI courses – they are exit requirements.  Those are universities that prioritize writing excellence and create the means to advance student performance. I wish we had the same.

Q: When you finished your education, what were your career aspirations at the time? And to what extent have they shifted or developed over the years?

I’ve always wanted to be a linguist. I was particularly good at discourse analysis and phonetics. Sometimes I fancied being a speech therapist; sometimes I wanted to study cognitive sciences and the amazing capacities of the human brain. I never got the chance to travel and pursue those dreams.

In my current job, both in Rhetoric and Composition and Community-Based Learning, I am still able to nurture an interest in discourse analysis. I’ve done research exploring the rhetoric of civic engagement in Egyptian communities. I felt that, while the literature on has grown immensely in this field over the last two decades, the knowledge base and conceptual frameworks offered were largely biased towards Western democratic ideologies and cultures. I decided that we can’t import a service-learning model from the US and expect it to work as well in Egypt. We needed to listen to the language used in Arabic by community organizations and local residents on the ground. Based on the assumption that discourse reflects and shapes social identity and world view, I collected and analyzed data for metaphors and indicators of social power distribution, relationships with ‘outsiders’, collaboration, reciprocity, citizenship and partnership. I presented the findings in a number of professional gatherings, and I’m proud to say that my study has inspired researchers from various other countries, outside of the US. I’m also proud to have been interviewed by the Talloires Network of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education, and to have been selected for their Civic Engagement Experts list. 

Q: Let’s conclude with a very broad question. What is the one thing we could do to improve AUC the most in the coming years?

AUC is the top university in the country – the most prestigious, and the most sought after. But, I believe the time has come for us to partner and collaborate, rather than compete. There’s so much potential and merit in working with some of the other universities around us – sharing interests, co-sponsoring programs or mega-events, collaborating on research. Much can be done when we acknowledge and nurture each other’s special capacities. Higher education, I believe, will experience a Gestalt effect.

The Marrow of Life: A Personal Statement

Amani Elshimi 

October 21, 2007 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”                                                                                   

Henry David Thoreau, 1854

As I reflect on my beliefs, practices and goals over the past years, I realize that my choices have been deliberate, my learning deep, intense and continuous, and my overall experience transforming.  Today, my teaching, scholarship and service to the profession are guided by the following principles:

Teaching is intentional

My teaching is always thoroughly thought out.  I deliberately set goals, scrutinize, monitor, challenge and revise my performance.  I set rigorous standards for myself and I work to achieve them.  I am a reflective and analytic practitioner.  My mission is to equip young people with the tools to make positive change in the world.  And when they do, in 20 years, 40 years, or 50, I want them to remember me fondly, and acknowledge the value of my teaching.

Learning is mobile

If students cannot use the skills in new contexts, outside of class, then I have failed.  I make an effort to help students see the relevance of what they learn.  I ask questions such as “how is an argument essay similar to a lab report, to a marketing plan?” and “how will you use analysis skills in biology, in anthropology, in art?”  I assign periodic self-assessment reports and introspective tasks.  Students engage in analytic and evaluative meta-cognitive reflection, consciously articulating the outcomes of their learning and setting goals for the transfer of skills to the disciplines and beyond. 

Student is scholar

How you approach teaching depends on the roles you define for yourself and the students.  My students are scholars, writers, researchers and professionals.  I am a reader, a mentor, a facilitator. I create in the classroom an atmosphere of constructive, collaborative research – a research forum.  Students present their work and reflect on their practices and processes.  Peers contribute responses as readers and fellow researchers, as members on a ‘research review panel.’  Each topic is special and important and worthwhile; each student an individual with interests, skills, strengths, vulnerabilities, learning styles and creative observations.  My students organize and contribute to the Annual Undergraduate Research Conference, URJe – the Undergraduate Research Journal, and the Community-Based Research database of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement.  All develop ownership of research and social awareness.  All are treated as active, trustworthy, self-directed members in a community of scholars.  I have diligently conducted research, organized faculty conferences, given presentations and written a proposal to promote a culture of Undergraduate Research within the academy.  My proposal for initiating a center – The Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, Entrepreneurship and Creative Achievement (EURECA) – has been well received by the administration, and is currently being reviewed.

Teacher is co-learner

In the classroom, I share, with my students, moments of inspiration and delight at having learnt something new.  As we engage in new community projects, we learn together.  I am not afraid to show uncertainty or lack of knowledge.  Uncertainty becomes reason for research, exploration, verification and learning.  My students continue to respect my authority; but they also appreciate my passion for learning and adopt my enthusiasm for inquiry and development.  The quote that hangs in my office and follows my signature reads “Much I have learnt from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students” (The Talmud).  This is real.  Everyday, in the classroom, I learn as much as my students.

Engagement is central to learning

I constantly experiment with inductive “pedagogies of engagement” – problem-based, community-based, experiential, collaborative, critical and creative inquiry.  My students engage in projects that make sense to them because they are authentic.  They are immersed in communities – not far away from campus – that are radically different from their own.  The problems they research become real, and the skills they learn become relevant, useful and necessary.  A student in my Grant Writing class, after a visit to the extremely impoverished community of Establ Antar confessed, “I was doing this for the course; now I’m doing it for these people.” I work to create that sense of relevance for all students.  My methods are also multi-modal, recognizing differences amongst verbal, visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.  I make use of digital connectivity in SMART classrooms, film, music and experiential games.  My classes are varied, colorful, noisy, interactive and memorable.  My students consciously develop, and learn to apply, higher thinking skills through fun, yet challenging activities.  Colleagues and ex-students tell me “I heard students talking about your class in the elevator … in the bathroom … on the platform … on the metro …” That is the kind of effect I strive to sustain.

Community is a partner

Much of my teaching, research and service is community-oriented.  Community representatives – from NGOs, youth groups, and local neighborhoods – provide incentive for research and background context, collaborate in goal setting, and help disseminate, document and employ the results of the research.  Students at freshman, as well as senior level, have worked with various communities in an equitable partnership, learning and serving on a mutual basis. 

Institution is an integrated learning space

I am not constrained by departmental boundaries.  I utilize and capitalize on learning opportunities and resources in the entire institution.  My themes stem from the institutional agenda, class visitors and consultants come from different departments and offices, and learning activities are often partnered with the Office of Student Development or the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement.  Student development is not artificially categorized into ‘academic’ and ‘social’ – both curricular learning and co-curricular activities are integrated.  My projects often extend beyond the class room, the class time and the course duration – and they are supported by the entire organization.  A Water Campaign, a Literacy Teaching project at Nekla Village, and NGO partnerships for Grant Writing are all examples of small ideas, fleshed out, celebrated and advanced by equally passionate and supportive faculty and staff in various institutional offices and centers.

Colleagues are goldmines

I discover how little I know when I talk to colleagues.  Collegial exchange with faculty from the department, other disciplines, online professional communities and conferences is a rich and invigorating experience.  I participate on a regular basis in the annual EgypTESOL Convention, the EFL Skills Conference, the AUC Research Conference and in various workshops and seminars around campus.  I have diversified the international conferences that I have traveled to – Teaching English as a Foreign Language, First Year Experience, Service Learning, and Undergraduate Research – in an effort to network and exchange experiences with professionals in specialized, but interconnected areas.  I also remain a member on numerous professional organizations, through electronic groups and listservs.  Most enriching is the day-to-day exchanges with the many talented faculty members in the Rhetoric and Composition offices.  Conversations about everyday dilemmas, decisions, challenges and innovations feed into the classroom and immediately make a difference.

Institutional development is driven by proactive faculty

I hope to develop the entire setting within which my students are learning.  Anything I perceive as an obstacle, a flaw, a distraction, or an unnecessary burden, I strive to change.  I scrutinize policies, procedures, practices and routines at course, department and institutional levels.  Often, the persistent, but constructive, questions “why are we doing this?” and “how can we improve that?” reveal problems, develop more efficient and effective practices, and enhance programs.

All the above principles are not personal, nor original.  They have been informed and shaped by a rich and abundant literature that prioritizes humanistic, constructivist approaches to education and learner-centered methodologies.   It is this belief system that binds my teaching, research and service.  All are intricately intertwined and continually feed each other.  Teaching inspires research and service projects, service advances learning goals, and research further informs and evaluates both my teaching and service.  Each area is expanded, enriched and forwarded by the common goal of holistic student development – intellectual, personal, social, moral and civic maturation.

These are the beliefs and values that shape my decisions, drive my professional work and give purpose to my learning and living.