I recently finished reading the manuscript of Meira Levinson’s wonderful book No Citizen Left Behind. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in K-12 education, equal opportunity, and the achievement gap. In one chapter, Levinson takes issue with service-learning because she thinks that it is often couched as a feel good apolitical non-partisan way of promoting caring and general moral concern in students without really grappling with the deep political questions of injustice and inequality. Students are able to volunteer, feel good about their contribution, but then move on without reflecting on how to confront deeper systemic and structural challenges. She also argues that for minority students, the experience can be disempowering, especially when they are asked to engage in low-skilled menial labor. I think all of these critiques have some merit, and as I have been thinking of teaching my freshman seminar on Justice again with a service-learning component, I have been struggling to think of how to design my course to avoid some of these pitfalls.
The last time I taught this class as a service-learning course, I was teaching at a liberal arts college where most of my students were relatively well-off, lived on campus, and did not have full-time jobs or families. These students enjoyed the service-component though I did have a feeling that for some of them, it was a novelty, and that they would not continue to engage with the projects they had started after the course ended. By the end of the term, I had some ideas about how I would approach things differently were I to teach a service-learning course again. However, this time around I would be teaching a completely different population of students—most of my students will have jobs that take up a considerable amount of their time, some of them will have families, and the majority of them will be minorities. I worry that I am more at risk of falling prey to some of the worries Levinson worries with such a population and, on top of that, making some of the students feel resentful about having to engage in service on top of everything else they have going on. So now I am wondering, how can I retain the service-learning component of my course and avoid some of the pitfalls that Levinson discusses?