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Writing in the Journal of Service Learning in Higher Education in January of 2018, Dr. T. Andrew Carswell of Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie, Pennsylvania, describes a research project undertaken to discover the capacity of service-learning courses to change student attitudes about poverty. His premise is that we know through other research that Americans are as likely to attribute poverty to lack of effort among the poor as to circumstances beyond their control. Attitudes of attribution also affect views of social programs to address poverty.

Meanwhile service-learning courses have been shown through research to improve student outcomes for citizenship, empathy, compassion, and understanding of social problems. Students are more likely to exhibit greater "efficacy to make the world a better place" (Carswell). Though this type of goal makes sense for a course at a Catholic university such as Gannon, or Xavier, and many liberal arts schools do include such goals in their missions, traditional-classroom courses often bypass such goals in favor of more academically assessable outcomes.

Students in Dr. Carswell's upper-level capstone psychology class engaged in 30 hours of community service working alongside underprivileged people, while studying poverty in the classroom. One of the outcomes of the course was that students would have a more positive view of people living in poverty, and Dr. Carswell set out to measure whether this was achieved.

Students in the course chose from four community groups to work with, including an after-school program, a food bank, a group that worked with immigrants and refugees, and a group that worked with recently released criminal offenders. The option let students decide what type of work they wanted to do, and many worked with more than one group. Classroom contact hours were reduced, (perhaps a luxury of a senior capstone course) and writing assignments asked students to draw connections between scholarly articles on poverty and experiences at the sites. Attitudes were gauged using pre and post-course completion of what's called the Undergraduate Perceptions of Poverty Tacking Survey.

Dr. Carswell found that student attitudes improved toward social welfare programs, and toward their own willingness to take action to help those in poverty. Student belief that people in poverty have limited access to valuable resources also increased. However, there was no real change in student attitudes toward perceived differences between the poor and non-poor. Nor was there an increase in belief in rights to basic necessities. Dr. Carswell discusses several possible reasons for the non-change in perceptions of in-group/out-group differences, including research that suggests this type of intergroup contact best affects intergroup attitudes when the groups are of equal status and the contact is cooperative in nature.

This last point relates to the ongoing movement within service-learning to effect meaningful change and to avoid perpetuating a classist, "service"-based hierarchy. This broad goal may prove service-learning's most elusive. (See my interview with Dr. Randy Stoecker on this problem http://cat.xula.edu/food/conversation-63/.) And we should also keep in mind that Dr. Carswell's sample was 18 students in one class. Yet, his results are encouraging when we consider the degree to which misperceptions about the poor permeate our society and drive public policy. Dr. Carswell's students and many others who complete courses like these will go on to shape policy and help shift perceptions as they move into professional society.

Though there is much work to be done, examples like these affirm the vital work of service-learning and higher education.

Download Conversation #68


A conversation between Jeremy Tuman and Richard Peters on service learning and  Xavier's new core curriculum.

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Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing for this blog professor, author, and social critic Corey Dolgon. I had heard Professor Dolgon speak at an IARSLCE conference, the International Association for Research on Service-Learning, and I was intrigued by his critique of certain universities' historic and ongoing actions that have disenfranchised or otherwise harmed the very communities the schools purport to serve. The talk was both wide in scope and specific in researched detail, the ability to achieve which is a defining characteristic of public intellectuals I admire, such as Henry Giroux, Robert Reich, as well as Professor Dolgon. The work of these scholars manages to clarify in plain language vast and intricate socio-political-and-economic movements in order to distill their tangible effects on our day-to-day lives.

Now Professor Dolgon has a new book out called Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism's Triumph over Democracy that traces the corrosive effects of recent (read post-Vietnam) political discourse and the public policy that flows from it regarding the civic institutions that uphold democracy, and thus on the common well-being of the citizenry. Such concerns, such considerations, may or may not play a part of any given service-learning course, depending on the discipline and academic level of the course. A capstone course in environmental sociology may well include as primary this type of far-reaching discussion, while a 1000-level English course designed to improve writing ability while engaging with community elementary schools may include such theoretical material in a limited, introductory amount, if at all. Yet whatever the service-learning course, the social disparities, deficiencies, and injustices addressed by community action are likely created or exacerbated by these larger forces operating just beyond our view. While teachers often internalize these realities, while they may inform our work in very close, almost second-nature ways, students may be only first learning about such broad historical contexts. Part of what we teach then in service-learning is not only course content or even the value and necessity of civic engagement, but also a larger awareness of, and a questioning of, the very real series of human choices that led to the situations the class addresses.

Kill It to Save It takes apart several myths of modern American life that have allowed public policy to work against the public good. The first to go is the idea of the rugged individual, free to succeed on his own terms without need of governmental assistance. As policies purport individual freedom and economic opportunity, the vast amount of economic gains go to a smaller and smaller few. At the same time, the sacrifices required to make this upward wealth transfer possible are to public education, public health care, and public resources. The public is sold a bill of goods about the boundlessness of upward mobility in this country, while the shrinking of public resources needed to support such mobility make it less and less likely. All investments in the public good are cast as socialistic handouts to the lazy, while the holders of wealth need only to keep the policy-setting system rigged in their favor to keep the subsidies, negative actual tax rates, and other forms of corporate welfare flowing their way.

We needn't look further than our own communities to see the damaging effects of years and years of such neoliberal policies. The homeless people on our streets are permanent communities within communities, structurally forever shut out of integration. Our poorest neighbors are crammed into the least funded schools, almost ensuring by design their failure. Entire neighborhoods bear the marks of years of redlining, employment discrimination, and racist law enforcement policy, from the war on drugs to stop-and-frisk. Professor Dolgon traces these situations back to the public discourse and propagandized ideologies that shaped the policies that created them.

No matter what aspect of social injustice our service-learning course seeks to address, it's worth remembering that no form of injustice is naturally occurring. Our society was made by us, and can be changed by us as well.

Download Conversation #63


A conversation with Randy Stoecker of University of Wisconsin-Madison on liberating service learning.

Randy Stoecker is a Professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, with a joint appointment in the Center for Community and Economic Development. This position has taken him into expanded work in academy-community partnerships and community leadership development. He has been involved in work trying to amplify the community voice in service learning, and provide strong information technology support for nonprofit organizations, and build community power. Most recently, Dr. Stoecker and his students have worked with Community Shares of Wisconsin, SouthWest Madison Community Organizers, and The Natural Step Monona.

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This semester Dr. Treva Lee, Xavier's Director for Institutional Compliance and Planning Initiatives, led a class of first-year students in a service-learning project to mentor local youths in the concept of Pi.

On Saturday, March 11, thirty Xavier students joined twenty other community volunteers and twenty local professionals serving as mentors to teach and mentor around 150 area school kids, as part of  STEM NOLA's STEM Saturday event celebrating Pi Day, at Gernon Brown Recreation Center. Two other Xavier faculty, Carroll Diaz (Math) and Floristina Payton-Stewart (Chem), participated as instructors as well, along with some of their students.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group, kindergarteners through second-graders, learned the concept of Pi through math problems using skittles, construction paper cut-outs, checkers pieces, and building blocks. Skittles were used to graph Pi. Checkers were used for math demonstration of Pi. Construction paper cut-outs were used to make a chain to infinity, meaning each group of kids as they came to the station added their cut outs to the chain to illustrate how Pi never ends. The same concept was used with the building blocks.

The second group, third through eighth graders, led kids through three activities designed to demonstrate the concept of Pi. The first was measurement demonstrations, comparing the ratio of various-sized circles' circumferences to their diameter. The result of these measurements is always the same: it's always Pi. Next was a mathematical cryptography (word decoding) and mirroring (more word decoding) competition. Last was a kite building demonstration, designed to teach the concept of tetrahedral molecular geometry.
Despite some grumbling about having to meet at Xavier at 7:30 a.m., the students had a great time.
One interesting component of the project was the idea of "tiered mentorship." The area professionals served as mentors to the Xavier students, while the Xavier students served as mentors to the youths. As another component of the project, students also completed four hours of volunteering in the STEM NOLA office to learn about the administrative side of the non-profit. Some students were so successful in this capacity that they have been asked to return and may land spots on the payroll.
STEM NOLA is an organization founded by New Orleans native, and former Tulane University engineering professor, Dr. Calvin Mackie. Its purpose is to expose community members to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to inspire them to engage in these opportunities. STEM NOLA designs and delivers activities, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholders across the city, specifically focusing on underserved communities. Participants gain skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. STEM NOLA realizes that any effective community-based STEM program must be broad enough to include everyone, yet focused enough to reach people where they are, on their level, and to take them to where they need to be in order to compete and succeed in life.

Treva A. Lee holds a Ph. D. in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans. She received her B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Counseling from Xavier University of Louisiana. In her twenty-five-plus years at Xavier, she has served in numerous capacities, including as a teacher in the Freshman Seminar program, in which this service-learning project took place.

-Jeremy Tuman

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Download Conversation #50

Corey Dolgon

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.

-Jeremy Tuman

Download Conversation #44

Eileen Doll

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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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 Servi

by Jeremy Tuman

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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

Ryan McBride

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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