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Conversation #81: Robert Bringle on Service Learning and the Core Curriculum

A conversation between Robert Bringle (IUPUI) and Jeremy Tuman (XULA) on service learning and the core curriculum.

Dr. Bringle has been involved in the development, implementation, and evaluation of educational programs directed at talented undergraduate psychology majors, high school psychology teachers, first-year students, and the introductory psychology course. As a social psychologist, he is widely known for his research on jealousy in close relationships. His work as Executive Director of the IUPUI Center for Service and Learning from 1994-2012 resulted in an expansion of the number of service learning courses, a curriculum for faculty development, a Community Service Scholars program, an America Reads tutoring program, and a HUD Community Outreach Partnership Center.

Jeremy Tuman teaches composition and literature with an emphasis on bringing basic writers into the larger academic curriculum. His scholarship on the pedagogy of basic writing is influenced by Mike Rose and David Bartholomae, who argue that basic writers must fully engage in exercises of critical thought regardless of their grammatical or mechanical skill level. To this approach he incorporates the added charge of Xavier and other HBCUs and Catholic schools to teach a moral and social imperative for critical thought.

Jeremy is the school-wide Faculty-in-Residence for Service Learning. He has designed and led service-learning initiatives with community partners involved in literacy outreach and in post-Katrina rebuilding. Jeremy is a 2012-2013 Mellon FaCTS Fellow, a fellowship to promote social justice and civic engagement in the classroom.

Links for this episode:


JT: This is Jeremy Tuman for Teaching, Learning, and Everything Else. And I’m speaking with Dr. Robert Bringle, professor emeritus in psychology at IUPUI in Indianapolis. So, why don’t we begin with your thoughts on a new core curriculum, and what kind of things a school or faculty might be looking for if they want to increase their service learning efforts, and also to integrate service learning more you know more thoroughly throughout the curriculum?

RB: Yeah, I think anytime that a campus goes through a new visioning exercise, whether it be related to accreditation or strategic planning or reexamining a curriculum, it provides excellent opportunities to also reexamine the role of different pedagogies in [inaudible] those courses, service learning being one of them. The key factor associated with service learning is the degree to which the campus community endorses civic education as one of the learning objectives that they want to develop, in any course, but particularly of core curriculum, and sometimes that gets ignored: writing instructors only want to teach writing, biology teachers want to teach biology, and history teachers want to teach history, so it’s not always very salient that it’s part of the aspiration of the core curriculum to also develop civic learning, but that’s the strength of service learning and integrating it into the core curriculum. It’s not only answering the question, how can we best teach history, but also how can we orient students to a civic-minded perspective on history or a civic-minded perspective on biology or a civic-minded perspective on writing…And that requires campus discussions, faculty development, because it’s not always a natural conclusion for instructors that it should be part of the core curriculum. I don’t know if your core curriculum will be inductive or deductive. Deductive would be when you start with the set principles or overriding objectives and decide what course you want to include. Inductive is we want courses in the social sciences, courses in the biological sciences, we’ll let students choose, maybe I need to know more about the process of the writing of the revision for the core curriculum 

JT: I see, I would call it more of a deductive process. If you would talk a little more about what you mean about a civic-minded approach to say teaching history or teaching writing. Is this the idea of promoting civic engagement or getting students to recognize the value of civic participation, or is really a different way of thinking about writing and the purpose of a writing class?

RB: Yeah, I think civic mindedness is a flexible concept, and it doesn’t necessarily depended on service learning. So, we can imagine writing course in a very didactic fashion could help students appreciate the civic consequences of writing for themselves and others. We know that service learning is a high impact practice. That illustrates based on the evidence that integrating service learning in a writing course, having students immersed in the community, and confronting social issues, and thinking about how their writing is relevant to those social issues is 

a pretty powerful pedagogy. The civic learning objectives, I’ll admit, are not well defined, and there’s a whole cafeteria of possibilities, that can be interpretations of what civic means. And, it’s not necessarily dependent on service learning, but I’m an ardent support of service learning being one of the most powerful mechanisms for developing the civic perspective, having students think about social issues, what their relationship is to them, now and in the future, in pedagogies, whether they’re at the core level in the major or a capstone experience.

JT: How do you see changes in society over the last five years — four to five years — since we’ve spoken? When you look at things like increased inequality. I think we saw recently with the government shutdown exposed the inability of people to save money who are living paycheck to paycheck. I feel like the sociopolitical climate has changed quite a bit in the past five years. And I’m just curious, how do you see service learning’s ability to address those sort of newly emerging, or newly coming into focus, issues or do you see this climate presenting any limitations on service learning?

RB: Yeah, I think service learning can be an important pedagogy for having the students examine any of those issues and also I’ll admit service learning can be poorly implemented or superficial or reinforce student stereotypes, so the design of service learning courses and experiences is terribly important. Just to mention as a meta analysis, that one of the values that most practitioners of service learning endorse is that it should be based on democratic partnerships and democratic processes. And typically what we mean by democratic is not necessarily something political, always, but that it be inclusive and participatory and enter community-based activities with not the orientation that it is only charity, and the haves giving to the have-nots, but they’re working with the community on social issues. It’s terribly important because students who first encounter service learning assume very quickly that the charity model is the dominant orientation. And they’re there to help others. And that’s the problem with the s-word, sevice, that it implies the charity model, but a lot of practitioners try to overcome that very quickly in their service learning classes and orient students to a critical analysis of social issues that transcends charity. And I’ll highlight three issues, one of which you mentioned that I think very readily can be the focus of the civic orientation and perspective strengthened by service learning. You mentioned income. Yeah, I think students are often shielded from some of those manifestations of that, and it’s a strong basis for helping students develop a more social-justice orientation to their community activities rather than a charity orientation. I think another development in the last five years is the political polarization of America. Again, the presumption that we want students involved in the democratic processes that are inclusive and participatory, that as many people as possible are at the table working on these issues, and the student’s job is to facilitate that work, helps overcome that polarization. And research shows that one of the most important factors in undoing stereotypes and helping students develop civic skills is dialogue across difference, and working with community members. So, how activities are selected and structured is very important to determining whether students reinforce the charity orientation or develop a more comprehensive view of their work in a democratic perspective. The third one I’ll mention is social media. I once heard Benjamin Barber who is one of the pioneers of civic engagement, make this [statement]: “There is nothing more anti-democratic than social media.” And students are, of course, much more immersed in social media than we are or than they were five years ago. What Barber was referring to is students tend to gravitate toward echo chambers and affinity groups, and the individuals they interact with through social media are those who share their points of view, and they exclude those that have different points of view. So I think there are issues raised by social media about how [students] insulate themselves from being inclusive, being democratic, and engaging in dialogue across differences, and trying to get action. I’m very fond of Harry [inaudible]’s definition of democracy, which is people who disagree getting things done. I think if students have that orientation toward the work they’re doing in the community, it will help them understand some of the limitations that social media opposes on them.

JT:I see, so as far as avoiding the charity model and creating a more critical successful service learning experience, you mentioned bringing diversity to the table, you also mentioned the importance of selecting the activities, do you mean the actual work--community work-- to be done in that? Or is it the partners that you work with? What are some practical measures, I guess is what I’m looking for teachers to consider when they want to avoid the sort of pitfalls of  reinforcing stereotypes and reinforcing a charity model, and engage students in that more critical model.

RB:Yeap, let me mention a couple of things, when we survey students at our institution, and ask them about their interests, in Keith Morton’s three ways of engaging in service: one-on-one charity service, involved in programs, or advocacy and social change. Only maybe about 10 or 12% of the students say they’re interested in advocacy or social change. The vast majority of students are interested in one-on-one charity service or being involved in programs of service where they’re working with other people. One of the important points that I think — so I want to correct something based on Keith Morton’s work which is, I don’t think our purpose is to avoid charity. What Keith says is you can engage in charity, you can engage in programs of service, and you can engage in advocacy and social change, with either low integrity or high integrity or what he calls thin or thick. What he’s referring to is people can be very selfish or self-serving in their approach to social justice, so there’s nothing inherent in the advocacy of social justice that insulates an individual from having a very thin or low integrity approach to it. So to illustrate your point: What about students who as part of their service learning are serving the soup at a homeless center/shelter? Well on the one hand, that’s a very charity-oriented activity. You know helping for food on a short term basis to homeless individuals. However, there are different perspectives that a student can have on that. A shallow perspective would be, well, I’m here to help and I leave at the end of the day and I dismiss it from my mind and I don’t think about it again until I come back on the next Tuesday. Morton says that high integrity, engaged in charity or programs or advocacy and social change incorporates the individual, it’s not time-isolated. The individual thinks about it, the individual analyzes it, the individual tries to better understand it, they see it as part of a larger picture and it that might be deepened, the experience might be deepened by developing a better understanding of the causes of homelessness, to what degree is homelessness being helped by the interventions by non-profit agencies, how are government policies promoting or interfering with homelessness, the status of homelessness? How can changes in medical policy, which is often a strong cause of homelessness and bankruptcy contribute to and how can they [inaudible] homelessness? How can they imagine that changes in policies might alleviate some of that? But, we’re talking about the same activity, students delivering soup at the soup kitchen. How that’s related to disciplinary content at a sociology course, a history course, you know what you can imagine different perspectives from a disciplinary point of view, and how students are engaged in readings, key readings, or reflection prompts to help them examine and analyze what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it can be important to deepening the experience that on the other hand might be very shallow if the student just engages in it and then walks away from it. 

JT: It seems to me what you’re describing is two different approaches to the same activity. It’s almost entirely up to the faculty in a sense and the decisions that the faculty member makes regarding the projects seems to have a huge impact on the success, or the outcome of the experience. I remember you saying before for service learning to be successful on an institutional basis, it has to be a faculty-driven initiative. Is that accurate? Is this almost entirely up to the faculty, the individual faculty member’s preparation and approach to the course?

RB: This all starts with course design and learning objectives. Yes, and faculty are in control of that. It also should incorporate community input in the design of the experience, and so faculty should work with their community partners to help them understand how they can deepen the experience of a student from the community’s point of view and have it beneficial to community partners. As educators, our professional responsibility is to design courses. I mean we do that whether it involves service learning or not. What are we going to do this week? What are we going to do next week? What will we have students read? What will we have students write? What will we have them talk about?  So the same strategy operates with the service learning course. What will we have students do in the community? Why will we have them do it? What do we expect for them to get out of it? How will we facilitate then reaching those educational goals? The facilitation is typically a reflection which could be multimodality. It can be small group discussions, it could be providing prompts to students to have discussions with their community partners. It could be through written assignments. It could be through artistic expression. I happen to favor written reflection, and having that structured around learning objectives. Those learning objects could be academic, having students take the material from the course and connect it to their experience with the community to better understand community issues, to better understand the principle and theories and application of academic content. It could be civic learning: How are students as a result of this experience enhancing their understanding of social issues, policies, agencies, and individuals. And, it could be personal: helping students through facilitated activities better understand who they are, what their relationship is now and in the future to social issues, maybe this social issue, or related social issues. How have they developed as a person? How has their communication skills improved? What deficiencies do they now appreciate that they have that they didn’t realize they had until they were interacting with people who are very different from them? Leadership skills [inaudible] There are alot of personal attributes that students could develop as a result of their community based activities and reflecting on them. So, it needs to be very intentional in the design. One of our tenets is that a service learning course has the higher likelihood to be successful — by successful I mean for the faculty member, the student, and the community partner — if it’s well designed, along with certain principles that should be incorporated in service learning. The other tenet that we have is that every service learning course changes, that faculty won’t become comfortable with the service learning course the first time they do it, but they will become more comfortable, and it will be a better experience for everybody the second and the third and the fourth time. So, I think it’s important for faculty to understand that they want to do a good job of identifying learning objectives, identifying the correct activities to help students reach those, to construct activities that are structured and occur regularly during the semester, and work with community partners so that they understand how the course is being designed and what the instructor wants to accomplish, along with what the community benefits are. And then anticipating — it’s an iterative process — that they will revise that course. My experience with teaching service learning for twenty years was that I continually tinkered with the reflection assignment, never settled. So, that’s one example of how a course evolves over time.

JT: So, lastly, I'd like to ask with so much riding on faculty approach and faculty decision-making, what if anything do you see as prerequisites or necessities on an institutional level to set up the possibility for that thick experience in service learning?

RB: I was once giving a lecture in Oklahoma to a hundred people in higher education, and I asked everybody to stand who ever taught in higher education, and virtually the whole room stood up. Then, I said okay, now remain standing if you ever been a student in a service learning course and virtually the whole room sat down; there were five or six people who remained standing. The challenge we face is that many faculty have no direct experience with service learning. They have experience with internships, with lab courses, with writing-intensive courses, with speech and communication courses, you know with a variety of pedagogies. But, service learning is the new kid on the block. And so, I think it’s incumbent upon a campus that wants to promote service learning to provide resources, and typically those are centralized resources: an office of service learning or individuals who have responsibility for facilitating the development of service learning courses. That commitment is terribly important, because as I indicated, poorly-designed service learning courses will disappoint somebody — faculty, students, community partners or maybe everybody. But well-designed service learning courses have a higher likelihood of being satisfactory. There are certain guidelines about good practice, they are simply guidelines, but at our institution we regularly hold workshops that we colloquially call Service Learning 101, which is helping faculty who are curious and interested come to a session and learn the fundamentals of designing a service learning course. We also provide one-on-one assistance to faculty, and sometimes those are linked, so faculty who’ve attended the workshop then we will meet one-on-one with them to design a service learning course. Another approach is to take, rather than being reactive and just have the curious show up, is to take that discussion to a school or department. So, that could be requesting fifteen minutes at a faculty meeting to describe service learning and activities that a campus is engaged in to promote it and why this school or department should be interested in exploring it. It could be offering a workshop in that school or discipline, and quite often, I think it’s smart for somebody who is an experienced practitioner in biology to make a presentation to biology faculty about service learning, using that as an example. I’m a psychologist, and I can only generally talk about service learning to engineers, and I’ve done it, but it’s much better to have an engineer — and that may be an external person, having an external engineer come in and talk to engineers and technology faculty about service learning. Those are some of the common institutional approaches to developing interest in service learning and then developing service learning courses

JT: Well, Dr. Bringle, thank you so much for your time. It’s been great to hear from you again, speak with you again, and get caught up a little bit.

RB: Good, I’m happy to contribute. Thank you. 

JT: Very good, thank you, and I hope to speak again down the line. Thank you so much for your time today.

RB: Okay.

JT: Bye-bye.

RB: Sure, bye.

JT: This has been Teaching, Learning, and Everything Else. Please check us out on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you.

Transcribed by Rebecca Kebbeh.

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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