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Rewarding and Enlightening.

A surprising success story has emerged at Xavier this semester in a service-learning course, and this time it's my course! Both the surprise and the success have come on several levels. The successes have been not just the level of student engagement in the community work, but the degree of ownership the students have taken in the work and its real-life positive effects. And the surprise has been theirs and mine, in the life of its own the course has taken on, and the directions that life has led us.

Education in Literature and in Action, XCOR 1011, has its roots in a composition and literature course I taught in the English Department.  I noticed that several of the short stories I taught had education as a theme, stories such as Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson," Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," and more recent stories such as Leila Aboulelea's "The Museum." Although I had taught this course as a service-learning course in the past, I hadn't lately for several reasons, none of which were particularly valid, yet my reasons were indicative of the types of reasons why teachers choose not to teach service-learning: time, pedagogical inertia, and the pull of a culture that supports service-learning largely on a theoretical level.

This situation changed, slightly, perhaps, with the redesigning of the core curriculum, and the creation of a new category of courses that would be three-credit-hour courses, 1000 level, whose main purpose was to explore the meaning of Xavier's social justice mission. While service-learning would not be required, the nature of the courses lent itself to service-learning, and it was expected that several among the first batch of offerings would be service-learning, thus ensuring a cohort of teachers operating under at least the same course prefix, if not within a department or division.

Most appealingly, though, the XCOR courses would be under the direction of one faculty member, who actively encouraged service-learning. This small organizational difference illuminated a key point about institutional service-learning culture for me: while "faculty-driven" is an ideal, in practice the active encouragement of faculty members in leadership positions is crucial, if for no other reason than the dissolution of ambiguity in faculty's minds. How likely is a faculty member to engage in service-learning, when she or he isn't even sure if the faculty leader in their area knows what it is? And if faculty leaders mention it never, rarely, or in passing, then it follows for faculty to translate ambiguity as lack of support, or at least indifference. Once faculty leaders begin to repeat service-learning as a point of action, then the layers of institutional support begin to reenforce each other: student affairs, academic affairs, departments and divisions, in a virtuous cycle that faculty can sense, even in its infancy.

These changes led me to rethink my literature and composition course as an XCOR, service-learning course. The premise was fairly simple: to study short stories and essays dealing with experiences in education, to tutor in a local elementary school, and to reflect on what the texts and the work, along with their own experience, tell us about education as an aspect of social justice. As with many of our best laid plans, the simplicity of the premise quickly proved illusory once class began. From a theoretical standpoint, to maintain a cohesive purpose between the strands I'd laid out proved more rhetorically challenging than I'd anticipated. From a practical standpoint, as mainly a writing teacher, I was underprepared to deliver a lecture course whose content didn't consist largely of close attention to student writing. In comp, half my "lectures" are delivered with student writing displayed on a screen. What would take the place of that half that would be of equivalent value to the purpose of the course?

Although the course was a bumpy ride over the first few weeks, as new courses or first-time-taught courses often are, what put the course on track, and opened it up in ways I hadn't anticipated, wan't simply the passage of time, but rather the start of  the community work. After-school tutoring in a local middle school became a kind of meta-text, a lens through which to "read" not just the other texts, but the entire first-year-experience at an HBCU with a social-justice mission.

In my next post, I will detail the project and my students' experiences with it. This next post will be my last contribution to this blog as Faculty-in-Residence for Service-Learning here at CAT+FD, a position I've held for five years. I hope it will serve as a fitting cap to my rewarding and enlightening work here.

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