A conversation with Richard Peters on service learning and Xavier's new core curriculum.
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Jeremy Tuman: Hi, this is Jeremy Tuman of Xavier University of Louisiana. I’m her with Dr. Richard Peters, the director of Xavier’s new core curriculum, called the X-Core. Dr. Peters, welcome.
Richard Peters: Dr. Tuman, thank you so much for having me today. I just want to thank you for the opportunity to talk a little bit about the new core curriculum, and especially what it means to service learning.
JT: Great. If you would, let’s start with just telling us a little bit about the new core, the features of it, and- particularly from the student’s perspective- how it’s going to benefit Xavier’s students?
RP: The X-Core was ideally created to help the student facilitate not just their growth through Xavier University, but also give them greater opportunity- opportunities that they did not have or had very little options before in our existing core curriculum. One of the big things that we wanted to highlight with our new X-Core is that we’re moving from 60 credit hours to 40 credit hours in the new core curriculum. That means that 20 credit hours are now available to students to pursue these free electives. They can use them for a second major, they can use them for minors, they can use them for concentrations, or they can just take classes that are of interest to them. Again, this is not something new in academia, but for Xavier University, we have been relatively strict in terms of giving students those options. Now we’re returning that and we’re allowing students to have a level of ownership in their education. Beyond the fact that they have the 20 credit hours, they also are going to be engaged in these really interesting, exciting classes that we’re calling the X-Core class that are on the 1000- and 3000- levels. These are classes that are going to be connected to Xavier’s mission, what we do here at Xavier, what it means to be a Xavierite, as well as the community- whether that be New Orleans, our region, our nation, but also internationally. So students are going to be able to take these courses with faculty across the campus that are covering really, really exciting topics that I think is going to be very relevant and very informative to our student body.
JT: So these X-Core classes sound like perfect vehicles for engaged learning, active learning, the types of pedagogies associated with service learning, so will these X-Core classes involve service learning?
RP: Jeremy, I think that is a really good point, and what I love about this new core is that we are making service learning very intentional in the way that these courses have been designed- especially these X-Core classes, but also classes across the entire core: the foundation, the exploration, and the engagement. So, whereas we do not have a specific requirement in any one course that service learning be conducted, the way these courses have been constructed, as well as the primary learning outcomes that are connected to these courses almost require that our students be involved in a level of connection. I’ll give you a perfect example: X-Core 1012 is called “The New Orleans Experience,” and in that course students are going to be learning, students are going to have a level of connectivity with our community that is most likely- in many cases- going to involve some work with our region, with our neighborhoods, and there’s some great examples. Some work has already been done here at Xavier University where faculty and students are reaching out to communities, they’re working with local agencies- they’re also working with local media- to help develop our story here at Xavier, but also help build a relationship or help establish stronger ties between ourselves and the community. So those types of classes really require faculty, as well as students, to think beyond the classroom. One of the other great things about the new core curriculum is that there is a- and this is what I really like as well in terms of intentionality- focus on connecting the academic with the core curriculum. So one of the things I know we’ve talked about before is how do we move this approach that we may have here on campus from just a volunteerism approach- where it’s, you know, all about service and having students go out there and help- but the academic portion, the learning portion are relatively deficient. So how can we move that? How can we progress or build on what we already have- this culture of service- and really incorporate? And I think the new core does allow us a certain amount of latitude and certain possibilities that we didn’t have before. So our academic and our core curriculum can coexist, but can also be integrated.
JT: Well I understand is that successful cultures of service learning that develop on campuses really are faculty-driven and develop from the ground up in the sense that it’s something faculty wants to do, the kind of courses faculty wants to teach, so this new core seems to empower faculty to do that. So far, what’s your perception of faculty buy-in to this idea?
RP: I would say that- in my opinion- faculty are really excited about those types of opportunities. As you mentioned before, the type of culture that we need and supports service learning and advances service learning is the one that faculty, as well as students, have a level of choice as well as a level of discretion. In our past, we’ve had service learning, but service learning has- unfortunately- been “imposed” on certain faculty, or at least that was some of the perception by certain faculty and students. In this type of setting- where faculty are sort of creating their own classes- I expect service learning projects. I also expect certain service learning initiatives to be one, much more creative, and two, much more engaging, because I think faculty are thinking critically about how service learning adds value to that class versus simply seeing it as an add-on. So as faculty are taking their classes seriously, and we are moving to these very nice models of creative classes, i think service learning is going to play a huge part in that. As I mentioned before, there are learning outcomes that I don’t think can be accomplished without service learning. And so for faculty that are engaging courses that are connected to those learning outcomes- but even faculty that are not- you’re going to see much more investment as well as much more involvement. I think that students are going to have a greater buy-in because they are going to get the answer to the question of “why are we doing that?” This is not simply us being good Xavierites and going out there and trying to help the world; this is us being part of our community and using our skill sets that we are developing in this class in circumstances that can benefit our world, and I think that’s going to pay very big dividends for us as well as for our students.
JT: Tell us, if you will, some of your past experiences with service learning, the types of projects or courses that you yourself have taught.
RP: One of the reasons that I took this role was to insure that we did a better job of connecting these important vital pieces of our university together, because service learning has been a major part of my work here at Xavier in my courses. I’ve worked with a number of constituents, a couple that come to mind is Jericho Road. we did a project with them where we helped beautify a community, but we also helped do service to kind of understand what the community required. I’ve also worked with Junior Achievers. For a number of semesters, I’ve taken my business class- and that seems kind of at odds- but largely those students were going into classes and teaching young, elementary-aged children about education: business education, things about financial planning. But more importantly- just beyond the content- they were also inspiring these students, because many of these institutions, were minority-serving institutions, and a lot of the young students have probably never seen an individual that looked like them that was attending university, you know? So there was a lot of nice connections made there, that was a great project as well; as I mentioned, Jericho Road, and just other entities that I’ve worked with throughout my tenure here. But kind of going back to what you said earlier, Jeremy, about that culture shift: one of the things that honestly frustrated me most about many of my service learning projects was how difficult it was to actually get the students on board initially. Now once the project had ended or was being implemented, you saw more buy-in, but I think a large part of that came from the fact that students didn’t see the academic value- if you will- of the service learning project. So now with us moving towards this core, which is all about connecting the pieces, ensuring that our students see themselves as holistic individuals- not just test takers or content absorbers, but really developing themselves as academics and professionals- I think that buy-in is going to occur much earlier. And I think that’s really what you want to see and what your office has always strived towards, and I think what the core can help support.
JT: If we could end on a little more theoretical note: in New Orleans, the city faces a really unique set of challenges- the historical disparities and the persistent sort of intergenerational poverty, really, that characterizes much of the city- and with Xavier being a representative HBCU here in the city, let’s talk for a minute about Xavier’s role in the city, and how you feel our mission and our students and our faculty can really help to address and alleviate some of these unique challenges that New Orleans faces.
RP: Well, Jeremy, I’ll just be real candid about this: I feel that we have failed our community- that is my opinion. At Xavier University, we have failed our community, largely because we’ve acted relatively separate from where we are and who we are. I think that some of that is understandable. It’s just kind of the way organizations and universities run: town and gown. But I think we have a significant responsibility to do more for our community- to help educate, to help inform, to help push discussions and actions- and we’ve been relatively hesitant. If you go back to the reason why St. Katharine Drexel founded this university, and her desire to see not just African Americans or minority students get an education, but really see them fulfill their potential as leaders and reinvest in the communities from which they came. That responsibility and that obligation- I’ll use that term- still exist, probably even more so now, where we see our students, our young generation yearning for or having that desire to really make the changes. We get the chance to help propel that, to help position tem to do that not just emotionally, but to really do it effectively. And I think- as educators, as a university- we need to start connecting the dots. We need to start placing ourselves more intentionally in our communities- not just for a half a day, not even for a semester- but Xavier University needs to be a significant voice and a stakeholder in what goes in Gert Town, what goes on in New Orleans, what goes on in our region, and even our nation. For years we’ve been doing a good job of sending out smart student; I would, however, suggest that we haven’t done such a good job at promoting that just and humane part of our mission, and we need to be a little more intentional. Service learning has a huge role to play, but as a faculty and as administration, we all have to- whether that be educating ourselves, whether that be simply considering how our syllabi or our content is curated- shift our focus and look outside. I think that’s something we can do, at least we should start doing.
JT: Well thank you so much for speaking with us today Dr. Peters.
RP: Thank you so much, Dr.Tuman, and great work at Xavier. I look forward to the core, working alongside you, and working alongside your office to promote service learning and to promote Xavier University. Thank you so much.
JT: Very good. Thanks.
Transcribed by Raye’ Tabor