Download Conversation #50
A conversation with Dr. Corey Dolgon of Stonehill College on the "declawing" of service learning.
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This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.
The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.
The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.
While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.
The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.
But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.
In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.
There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards. A beginning, but certainly not an end.
Download Conversation #44
A conversation with Dr. Eileen Doll of Loyola University on teaching, learning, and service learning.
Eileen J. Doll received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Purdue University in 1986, specializing in Spanish 20th-century literature and the 20th-century theater of Europe. She has published numerous articles on various contemporary dramatists of Spain, and early 20th-century playwrights, in the journals Estreno, Gestos, Anales de la Literatura Española Contemporánea, Hispania, Signa, La Ratonera, Crítica Hispánica, South Central Review, and Discurso Literario, as well as in collections of essays.
Eileen Doll teaches all areas of Peninsular Spanish Literature and Culture, as well as introductory, intermediate, and advanced Spanish language classes at Loyola University New Orleans. In May 2008, she received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences.
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by Jeremy Tuman
Having students decide on what type of community action they wish to engage in is a great way to generate that elusive "buy-in." Student-designed community actions instill a sense of ownership in the project for students, and the learning outcomes for the course may become more deeply instilled, more effective, and longer-lasting. But even in the best-designed service-learning courses, the degree of student involvement, of student choice, in the shape and nature of the community action may be limited. Somewhat counterintuitively, as service-learning courses get refined after numerous semesters, the degree of student involvement in the design of the project may decline, the parameters of the action becoming more rigid and prescribed. This phenomenon presents a key conundrum in service-learning: As our courses strengthen over time and our relationships with community partners smooth, students may become more excluded from the thinking and the process that led to the initial design of the course. As each year we as teachers want for students to understand the purpose behind the actions we design, students become further removed from early days of the course, when our passion for causes melded seamlessly with the design of the project as it took shape.
Students coming into a well-honed service-learning course may find an organized and efficient experience, with community partners who are familiar with the purpose of the course and who know exactly how to funnel service-learners into areas of greatest community need. As any of us who have built courses, and particularly have cultivated community relationships from the ground up, know, students in early versions of a course may have felt a great sense of excitement, but community sites may have been scenes of chaos, with partners busy doing good work, and students left feeling confused, under-utilized, or ineffective in contributing toward that work.
Thus, it's important that we as teachers revisit our initial thinking behind a course each time that we teach it. I recall an early teaching experience (not service-learning) as a graduate teaching assistant, working under a brilliant mentor and teacher, in a literature class. My mentor had a keen sense of the purpose in the course, but I did not. And when I asked him one day what it was that he wanted students to take from the readings, he said that that was a question whose answer he hadn't thought about in a long time. Of course he knew the answer, and over the course the answer would become clear to students as well. But the point is, he hadn't thought about the answer at the outset, and thus hadn't elucidated it to either himself or the students. The purpose was there, just as it almost always is there in these courses that we put our hearts and minds into designing. But without active revisitation, the purpose can fade from its place of centrality. And with a successful service-learning course, the relation between the community action and the course content must be present throughout.
While much literature on service-learning is written toward an audience of teachers, administrators, even community groups, there is less written toward an audience of college students on what service-learning means. One excellent text toward this end is by Christine M. Cress (et al), called Learning through Serving. I've included a section of this book as a link here. The book speaks plainly to students about key concepts in service-learning including notions of civic responsibility, reciprocity, global citizenship, and how service-learning differs from volunteerism and other forms of community engagement. Assigning this text or one like it at the beginning of a course might prompt us to revisit our thinking behind the design and purpose of the course from all those years ago. And the more of this information that we share with students, the better chance we have of getting that "buy-in" that we so covet and is so crucial to the success of our course. As a teacher of rhetoric and composition, I stress the importance of clear thinking to my students and the reciprocal relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. As a service-learning teacher, my students may benefit from me applying this idea to myself and to the course, and to sharing the results at the outset.
Download Conversation #37
A conversation with Dr. Ryan McBride of Tulane University on teaching, learning, and service learning.
The service project complicates the readings, and the readings help complicate the service project.
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by Jeremy Tuman
It's hard to think about social justice without thinking about social injustice: those aspects of our society that seem inherently unfair. Chief among these aspects in my mind is how a person can work a full-time job and remain living in a somewhat mysterious category called "below the poverty line." I say this category is mysterious not because the realities of life in this category are too far removed from most of our daily lives, and not because most of us don't see or know or interact with such people. Of course we do see them, and know them. They are among us everyday, and in fact they are us, in the sense that the working poor are a huge part of our New Orleans community. I say the "poverty line" is mysterious because it's derived by statistics, averages, and mean numbers, and these numbers are "mean" in both senses. The "line" implies that those living above it are okay somehow, that their struggles to make rent, pay bills, pay for health care, pay for child care, provide education, and cover transportation are somehow greatly eased by the simple fact that they live above the poverty line, just outside the mysterious, or maybe mysteriously derived, category.
But any working person who has used a monthly paycheck to calculate a monthly budget, and then imagined trying to calculate the same budget with a paycheck half as much, even one third as much, has a strong understanding that the amounts of money we're talking about are simply not enough. The expenses are too great, too numerous, and at times too unpredictable or unexpected. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A number so low that the logistics and realities of supporting oneself while raising kids on it simply boggle the mind. That working people are forced to survive on less than this, in a society that prides itself on its wealth, is in itself an injustice. That working people earning twice that amount face almost the exact same difficulties, yet receive less attention and assistance because they live above the poverty line, is an even bigger injustice.
The ranks of the working poor are growing in this country, as inequality widens and the middle class is dissolved. More and more of our income is distributed upward, as the costs of health care, education, communication, and transportation rise. These areas are not luxury items or even optional purchases. They are areas of basic need for every American, yet they remain prohibitively expensive, even out of reach altogether for some, even as the economy improves and corporate profits rise. The only thing that remains cheap is food, well, certain foods at least, namely cheeseburgers and fries. But as our tax dollars are used to keep these foods cheap, thereby subsidizing the profits of the corporations that sell them, while at the same time our tax dollars pay for the health care and even the food of employees of these corporations, then cheap cheeseburgers start to seem like less of a bargain. Factor in health care costs associated with over reliance on these cheap foods (how could you not, at poverty line incomes?) then the value meal itself begins to look like an injustice.
It's not hard to find injustices in our society. A school like Xavier, that has the promotion of a more just society built into its very mission, has plenty of work to do and huge challenge to accept. As our first-year students prepare to engage in their required service learning in the spring semester, they have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to effect social change, and to gain a deeper and lasting understanding of both the meaning of social justice and their role in it. Of course this opportunity is facilitated by the faculty, who take on this additional challenge of teaching Freshman Seminar, and designing and leading service learning projects, when the majority of their colleagues choose not to teach the course. These are the teachers at the front line of the intersection of the school, its mission, and its first-year students, a crucial intersection where lifelong purpose can be forged. And I commend them, and encourage them to consider the injustice at the heart of their service learning project, no matter what project they choose.
by Jeremy Tuman
There is a disconnect between the narratives emerging from the recent marking of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In one narrative thread there is optimism and positivity about the economic direction of the city. In the Times-Picayune of Sunday, September 20, Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., contributed an opinion piece that exemplifies this optimistic thread. He notes among positive growth markers that "our software sector is No. 2 for absolute job growth" in the U.S., and that the giant new medical complex in the center of our city is "predicted to create more than 30,000 new jobs, at an average salary of $92,000." Our homegrown industry in water management is also doing well by contracting in New York for post-Sandy work, along with presumably working on pressing local issues of water management.
Stefan Selig, U.S. under secretary of Commerce for international trade, joins Hecht in this narrative in another recent op-ed, in which he notes New Orleans' rapid growth, new industries, thousands of new jobs, and increasing property values. But the specific focus of his article is the booming export industry of the New Orleans-Metairie area. In an area of which many of us are likely unaware on a daily basis, we exported just under $35 billion in goods in 2014, including things such as petroleum and coal, chemicals, foods, and forestry and mining products. Our "export hub" ranks eighth in the country by this measure of dollar amount exported, ahead of San Francisco, Dallas, and Philadelphia. Foreign investors have taken note of our growth, Selig says, as noted by the Australian commercial explosives and fertilizer manufacturer Incitec Pivot, and their plans to build an $800 million plant in Waggaman. All of this industry and investment and growth supports many jobs, around 170,000 according to Selig.
But not everyone in New Orleans is benefitting.
The other strain of narratives emerging from K10 paints a much different picture, equally as eye-opening, but for all the wrong reasons. The number that looms for me over all of the positive growth numbers is 52. According to a 2013 study by Loyola University's Lindy Boggs Center for Community Literacy, 52% of African American men in New Orleans are unemployed. The study serves as a focal end-cap to a handful of other studies and reports over the last few years that indicate a singular basic truth: Black New Orleans is not better off ten years after Katrina than it was the day after or the day before, and by many measures it is much worse off. A group called the African American Leadership Conference produced a report in 2013 called the Katrina Pain Index, in which it disaggregated by race data produced by the New Orleans Index. Some of the findings of this reports were that African-American households earn on average 50% less than white households, and that 44% of African-American households earn less than $20,000, compared to 18% of white households. Meanwhile a report by the Urban League indicates that the percentage on Black children living in poverty has increased since Katrina, from 44% to a staggering 50.5% in 2013.
Something isn't adding up. If jobs are growing and industry is growing and New Orleans is doing better than ever, then why is half our population suffering so? I don't claim to know the answers to why or to how to fix it. In fact I claim not to know. A host of issues come into play when attempting to dissect and analyze this disconnect: education reform, criminal justice reform, deeply rooted racism at once cultural, historic, and systemic. But the bottom line is that if we are all not doing well, then we aren't doing well. If half of New Orleans is worse off, then New Orleans is worse off, period. The problems associated with this huge racial disparity in economic well-being cannot be ignored. They seep into our quality of life as a whole, whether its by the crime that continues to plague our city, violence that takes away too many of our young men, homelessness, mental health problems, and environmental degradation. This disparity and how to address it lies at the very core of Xavier's mission to promote a more just and humane society, and service learning is a way for our students and faculty to engage with other stakeholders, the community, to do just that. Service learning is unique as a pedagogy in its ability to produce outcomes of civic engagement and social responsibility. A spirit of volunteerism and of giving back is a valuable and necessary thing for students to have, but an experience in service learning goes well beyond that spirit, to instill the notion that social systems are created by us and can be changed by us, not just from the outside by alleviating the symptoms, but internally through our careers, our professions, our life's work. This is the world our students will inherit, and they have the power to change things for the better. It's our mission as service learning teachers to teach them why things must change, why its our responsibility to change things, and as best we can, how to effect change, even if we don't know all of the answers.
Faculty-in-Residence for Service Learning
Download Conversation #28
A conversation with Jeremy Tuman of Xavier University of Louisiana on teaching, learning and service learning.
Ultimately I think a transformative experience is one in which students internalize the idea that reality is not fixed — that all of these social problems are products, by-products, results of social structures that we as people create. We create them, and we can change them.
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 competency. 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 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, and currently serves as Faculty-in-Residence for Service Learning at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
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As many of us in Freshman Seminar begin planning our service learning projects for the spring, it's important to remember that part of the purpose of service learning is to further the academic goals of the course. Keeping the two aspects of service learning in mind, meanigful community action and integration of the course's curricular goals, helps to establish a strong purpose for the project and helps distinguish the project from community service. With this aim in mind, this might be a good time to take another look at what the academic goals of Freshman Seminar are:
The first three goals here speak the most to service learning, although the last two can certainly be furthered through a good project as well. But while goals 2 and 3 seem to lend themselves naturally to service learning, I think it's the first goal that really offers the most opportunity. It's this idea of a critical examination that will most distinguish this experience from service experiences the students may have had in high school and through church groups. In fact I see as a worthy aim of service learning to simply convince students that there is a difference. The difference, of course, lies in how we apporach the social issues we choose to address, how we present them, how we discuss them, what we learn about them. Add to this critical examination of social justice the aspect of its relation to a liberal education, and many more avenues are opened to explore: Are endeavors such as these built into how we conceive of the purpose of a liberal education? From where does this idea come? From when? From whom?
One measure of success might be the degree to which our students become aware of ideas like these. But perhaps a better measure is the degree to which our students internalize these ideas, how much they buy in, how much their perspective changes from one in which they see the value of giving back and doing their part, to one in which they understand and empathize with those they help. Freshmen entering their second semesters often know everything, but what they know is that some people need more help than others and that helping them helps only them. Often what they don't know is why some need more help, how helping them helps us all, and why it's our responsibility to do so.
In discussing what social problems my Freshman Seminar class might like to address for their service learning project, the class leaned heavily toward wanting to do something about crime in New Orleans, particularly the amount of violent crime, which struck them on an emotional level that left some of them unable to articulate much beyond anger. "It's just terrible," they said, "and it gets worse and worse all the time and nobody can seem to do anything about it." These reactions struck me in a number of ways, at once similar to the shocked, grief-stricken reactions of victim's families that we've grown too accustomed to seeing in the news, and at the same time far removed from academic literature on the subject by economists, psychologists, and criminologists, that often frame our discussions and study of violent crime and its effects. What's most apparent is that these students feel compelled to address this problem, not from a distance of helping out the communities of the less fortunate, but from the perspective of wanting to help their own communities, because the pain of communities ripped apart by violent crime is in fact their own pain.
The discussion then must turn to what causes young people to turn to lives of crime and violence and what can be done to stem these causes. Lack of viable economic opportunity and lack of education are commonly cited by students and experts alike as causes, and of course the two are related. Economists tell us that even a 5% increase in high school graduation rates can save the country billions of dollars in costs of crime, considering the costs of incarceration, policing, and adjudicating, along with the costs of property lost. Figures like these seem cold, and don't seem to sufficiently target the problem in a way that might issue a stronger call to action. Yet in the face of raw emotions such as those expressed by my students, figures like these sometimes offer the only level of clear thought available. If it seems like absolutely nothing can be done to stop this problem, then perhaps through education, tied to economic opportunity, is the only clear path.