Friday, January 13, 2012

Avoiding the pitfalls of Service-Learning

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? 


  1. Jennifer,
    Thanks for posting this. It is timely for me as I'm in the midst of designing a service learning version of an introduction to ethics course. As a starting point, one way to address some of these issues is to incorporate some relevant reflective questions into the course.

    For example, ask them how our society would need to be different in order for the needs they are addressing in their service to be consistently met. Why does the need exist in our society as it currently functions? What structures, beliefs, and values would need to change? What is the value of service in a society with unjust structures? At least this might get an important conversation started.

  2. "She also argues that for minority students, the experience can be disempowering, especially when they are asked to engage in low-skilled menial labor."

    Not only that, but they are being asked to pay a great deal of money to do so. This was definitely a source of resentment at my undergraduate institution, which had a large population of first-generation students and lower-income students. The students by and large thought the university was taking advantage of them for its own benefit, in that case a marketing campaign that emphasizing the school's commitment to doing good in the world.

    And even if service learning is not mandatory, to the extent that students are from less privileged backgrounds, sending their peers into their communities or communities like theirs to learn important lessons makes them into exotic objects for tourists' interests.

    Service-learning sounds like a nice idea in because volunteering is praiseworthy, but when made part of a course, the coercive and class dimensions turn it into something else entirely. By all means, encourage your students to volunteer and to use the concepts from your class to think more critically about what they see. They might also reflect on the why there is broad social support for volunteering but not for government programs designed to help the least-well-off as a whole.

  3. @Mike. I think asking questions is an important part of getting students engaged. I've also thought that if I had more time I might try to use those questions to find the right volunteering opportunities for them based on their interest. Unfortunately, I think time might not collaborate with me on that score.

    @ Anonymous. I have thought about making the volunteering aspect voluntary. Service instead of a paper and a paper option for those students that don't want to engage in the service. I'll have to think about how to make it equitable and enriching for both sets of students though.

  4. What gets called "Service Learning" varies SO wildly, I think it makes it hard to know what we're talking about when we use the phrase. I think that ideally, a service learning course is NOT simply volunteer hours tacked on to a course (although that is a common way it's executed), but an opportunity for students to see the theories in action while also serving a real community need. Of course, it's often hard to match ideals.

    I think a good approach is to start by identifying what kinds of community engagement could serve the student learning in your course, then identify a community partner for whom your students could perform a service. Talk to the partner to see what they need. If you can make this an ongoing relationship, it will have less of that "we're just here to look at the natives" vibe.

    A non-philosophy example I know of: A Geography and Planning course works with neighborhood organizations (and sometimes the city) to create planning reports. The same instructor worked a community group and had her students develop reports related to community health issues. Students went out and mapped access to healthy food (identifying "food deserts" in the neighborhood), access to outdoor recreational facilities and access to primary health providers. Their report pointed out, for example, that to get to a local hospital, residents typically needed to take three different busses. Students learned about their course subject, but in a way that also emphasized the effects the facts can have on real people. I don't think it caused the kinds of disempowerment mentioned.

    Last spring, I had the chance to go to the "Engaging Philosophy" conference at Mt. Holyoke, and there were a couple of philosophical service learning courses discussed.

    The more powerful example came from Lynn Pasquerella (president of Mt. Holyoke). I'm sure I'll miss some of the details here, for example I can't remember where she was teaching (RI or CT, I believe). As I recall she had an ethics course work in a prison to prepare prisoner statements for the public defenders. This allowed the defendants to be given more time to talk through their stories (public defenders often don't , and it provided a service to the over burdened public defenders office. I believe the course was related to issues of justice, and so students were able to bring their experiences back to the classroom and talk about how the legal system handled justice.

    Another MHC professor runs an undergraduate course in which students teach philosophy to children: If you check out the video, you'll see how well the elementary students do at justifying their claims. They might not be teaching philosophical works, but these kids are definitely learning philosophical reasoning. The students who do the teaching learn how reasoning develops.

    A friend of mine has his business ethics course working with a local organization that wanted to give an "Ethics in Business" award to a local business. The organization accepted applications, and then the students developed a rubric to evaluate the applications, interviewed representatives from the businesses and then submitted reports to the organization.

    Now that I've typed this, I think it probably is the integration with the course as well as having a very close relationship with a community partner that would seem to avoid those traps. Anyway, there are some thoughts!

  5. @Kimberly. Thank you for all the great ideas. I think you are right that a key component of teaching a successful course of this nature will be finding the "right" placements.

  6. @Kimberly. Thank you for all the great ideas! You are right that they key will be finding the "right" placement opportunities for the course. That is what I will focus on this time around.

  7. Jennifer, I included a service learning project in a moral issues course last fall. The student body at my university includes a lot of people working full- or part-time jobs. Many students have families, relatively few come from privileged backgrounds, and many (but not most) are minorities. In most ways, I think the project was a success.

    I think two things helped alleviate the important concerns you raised in your post. First, I gave them lots of flexibility in choosing their projects. If you have a good Hands On Network affiliate in your area, they can be very helpful in this regard—although I'd caution against requiring that students volunteer through that affiliate unless you're near one of the really big ones, like New York Cares or Chicago Cares. Encourage students to do something that they haven't done before. Second, I only required that they participate in one "session," so they weren't required to give up more than a few hours of their time. This may reduce the impact of the service learning aspect of the course, but it makes it more manageable for students with many other commitments.

    The key to making this useful, of course, is asking questions about their service that help advance the course's learning objectives. To guide students away from just choosing the most convenient project, for instance, I asked them to identify three potential projects and then give a justification, using the ethical concepts we studied in class, for choosing one to volunteer on. After they volunteered, I had them answer other questions that required them to apply those concepts to their project. I framed the whole thing as a way to help connect the stuff we're talking about in the course to a concrete experience in the students' lives.

    I agree that getting students to reflect on systemic issues is going to be harder without thinking of the volunteer projects as anthropological investigations of "the needy." I suppose you might ask a series of questions like this: (1) What ethically valuable goals, if any, were achieved through your volunteering? (2) How else might individuals or society achieve those same goals? (3) Between volunteering and the alternative methods that you outlined in Question 2, which ways would be best, ethically speaking? Why?

  8. @David Thanks for this, it's very helpful. I will look into the Hands on Network affiliate as I am in the NYC area.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!