This study explores theories underpinning service learning and civic engagement efforts in rhetoric-composition and technical communication, and it examines the methods by which activist-scholars and their community partners collaborate to form long-term working relationships. This dissertation also examines a perceived gap in scholarship on important theories of classical rhetoric and their potential influence on contemporary civic engagement and community-based research. Using rhetorical theory and mixed-methods critical research, this study demonstrates how Isocratean philosophy and empirical methods borrowed from usability research can work together to help activist-scholars form sustainable, participatory civic engagement projects. The study develops and enacts a participatory engagement methodology that merges theory, research, and practice. The engagement methodology was designed to assist activist-scholars in helping local communities and students, while also helping faculty fulfill their responsibilities for tenure and promotion.
This dissertation argues that traditional approaches to service learning and civic engagement—grounded in Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian—do not provide activist-scholars with discursive theories upon which to base their work with local communities. Further, the dissertation argues that outreach efforts that do not include empirical research methods, or that follow traditional, linear research and design approaches, do not provide activist-scholars with flexible, participatory methods of systematically recording, analyzing, and applying community partners’ feedback, thus jeopardizing future work in civic engagement. This project argues that if activist-scholars are to fulfill the missions of their educational institutions while fulfilling the responsibilities of the tenure and promotion process, and if they are to continue collaborating with their communities, they should: (1) integrate Isocratean rhetoric into their theoretical framework; (2) integrate mixed-methods research into their service learning and engagement; and (3) integrate pedagogical connections between their community-based research and the courses they teach.
Keywords: Civic engagement, service learning, outreach, community, rhetoric, composition, technical communication, professional writing, usability, user-centered, participatory, critical research, Isocrates, adult basic education