A 2016 book by University of Wisconsin at Madison professor Randy Stoecker makes an interesting critique of service-learning at universities, one that I've heard before, particularly in an interview I conducted with professor and activist Corey Dolgon. The critique is basically this: service-learning does a poor job of helping communities, and in some cases may do more harm than good.
The book is titled Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement (Temple University Press), and in it Stoeker argues that the reason for this poor job is mainly that service-learning projects are heavily focused on student learning outcomes and are less focused on the outcomes for community members. Teachers have many ways to measure student learning. Doing so is one of our primary functions. But when it comes to measuring outcomes in the community, often the measures are relegated to the numbers of people "served" or numbers of contact hours, and are not more qualitative measures.
There are good reasons for this. Qualitative measures can be difficult to obtain, since they often play out over time periods longer than the semester when students are present. Community organizations whose primary functions would ostensibly include measuring improvements also have difficulties making these sorts of measures, and also rely on numbers served instead.
Stoecker makes an analogy to point out the semester-length challenge. If fire departments ran like service-learning programs, the fire fighting would end at a set time regardless of whether or not the building is still on fire. Another point on this same analogy: firefighters would only fight fires near the station, when in fact the need may be farther flung.
But there's another key difference between a community and a classroom which Stoecker points out: classrooms are places designed for experimentation and failure. Learning takes place through trial and error, conducted within a laboratory that is sealed from the public sphere until results are in. Our communities are no place for this type of experimentation. Indeed treating them as such could replicate the negative effects of systems and structures that contribute to the problems communities face.
Efforts to address the gap between measuring student outcomes and measuring community outcomes are being made. Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, notes that a group called Democracy Collaborative is currently developing ways to measure the impact of campus service projects on communities. But he acknowledges that we aren’t close to where we need to be.*
Stoecker argues for an approach to community engagement that empowers communities, as opposed to an approach that views service through the lens of charity, and the recipients as needy, instead of as people caught within an unjust system. Seeking safe and uncontroversial routes, schools tend toward a model of simply helping those in need, and avoid supporting the messy politics of student activism. This approach, Stoecker notes, too often replicates power imbalances, with schools naming the community need and providing outside help to those seen as lacking resources to help themselves.
I would add that this critique is not a call to abandon service-learning, but rather to rethink our approach, especially those of us who have been involved with the same community organizations and have conducted the same projects for several years. Since we as teachers mainly determine the outcomes for our projects, there’s nothing stopping us from revising those outcomes to focus more on communities: on actively listening to members, on talking with them about past efforts and their successes and shortcomings, on advocating for systemic change through policy, or through public pressure in the form of protest. These are forms of student learning as well, as important as, and certainly tied to, outcomes of personal growth, awareness, empathy, and critical thinking. Instead of students learning from the teachers, and from the “experience,” perhaps teachers and students should learn from the people of the community as well.
*Andrew Seligsohn and Randy Stoecker were interviewed by Ellen Wexler of Inside Higher Ed, and information from her article is used in this post.