A recent article in the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education makes an interesting case about differences in efficacy between "traditional" and "critical" service learning courses. In the article, authors Debra A. Harkins, Kathryn Kozak, and Sukanya Ray, of Suffolk University, draw on past definitions to distinguish between the two models. Traditional service-learning would involve activities such as working in a soup kitchen and reflecting on the conditions of homelessness and food scarcity, while a critical approach would make its primary goal to work toward dismantling and reconfiguring the underlying structures that create the conditions of homelessness and food scarcity. The work involved with this approach could be with an advocacy group working toward policy changes.
The authors go on to argue that critical benefits are difficult to measure in part because many service-learning faculty mistakenly believe they are engaging in critical models, while their own discourse about their projects reveals that they are actually employing traditional models. The authors cite as evidence language that situates faculty as authorities and students and community members as beneficiaries. A critical approach would instead situate all participants as stakeholders who stand to benefit from a transformative experience.
One reason the authors present for this lack of true critical models is an overall lack of institutional commitment to service-learning. Even within the relatively small number of schools committed to service-learning (Campus Compact, a leading service-learning advocacy group, reports around 1100 member schools, around 17% of higher learning institutions in the U.S.), service-learning offerings may be spotty, and many students complete their undergraduate education without taking service-learning courses. Many faculty, even those committed to the pedagogy, still cite concerns about time commitments and lack of recognition of service-learning toward tenure and promotion.
The authors then narrow their focus to an examination of one service-learning program at a mid-sized, urban university in New England. Their goal becomes to look at student outcomes and to "tease apart" those that promote improvement of student ability from those that promote transforming students' worldview and encourage participation in social change. Toward this they analyzed 487 student surveys collected over six semesters. (The review was of a program, and not of one particular course.) They conducted two phases of inquiry, the first being quantitative, which found a discrepancy between service-learning stated outcomes and actual impacts. The second, a qualitative study, sought evidence of transformative outcomes.
In the quantitative analysis, the authors found that while students indicated personal growth in responses to the Likert-type items, their narrative responses to the open-ended questions revealed the limited and specific nature of their individual experiences, without evidence connecting the experience to broader societal outcomes. As mitigating factors, the authors included service hours completed, professor, and service site. They found strong correlations between these factors and student responses to the Likert-type questions. But despite overall positive student outcomes, they found little evidence of change in world view or commitment to social change.
How do these conclusions relate to service-learning efforts here at Xavier? Our status as a school working to increase its service-learning efforts certainly results in some of the institutional challenges found by the study. A small percentage of faculty teach service-learning, although another segment also practices engaged pedagogy that includes work in the community, which is but one small step removed from formalized service-learning.
Yet Xavier has several factors working in its favor toward the desired, transformative model of service-learning - the major one being the school's historical mission of social justice, which situates the school squarely in the center of many past and present social justice movements within New Orleans, including the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The presence of Xavier graduates within many of the city's grassroots organizations, such as those working against mass incarceration and for neighborhood and cultural sustainability, not to mention the city's mayor, Latoya Cantrell, attests to the degree to which a Xavier education instills civic responsibility.
Also an exciting new core curriculum has opened the door for service-learning, already having produced new service-learning courses, which will grow in number. The move toward these courses, and student demand for them, which has been significant, will certainly contribute to a more rigorous culture of service-learning throughout the university going forward. And as we grow, it's important to remember studies such as this one from Suffolk, so that our efforts are toward the critical model, one in which students, faculty, and community members all benefit, and in which the students of today become the social change agents of tomorrow.