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.