Do No Harm: Reflections on Serving the Community, the Academy, and the Student

In “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research,” Ellen Cushman makes a compelling argument about moving learning from the constraints of the politically entrenched academic classroom to the praxis of the community project, which is always in need, always situated in the urgency of the moment. Thought leadership, she contends, should extend beyond the walls of academic conversation and into the realm of action. She cautions teachers who incorporate service learning into their curriculum, however, to prepare students for “reciprocal and dialogic relations” with community members centered on “mutually beneficial give-and-take” (512) and to avoid the pitfall of perceiving themselves as “liberal saviors” (513).

In one example of active community engagement, Cushman cites from a volunteer experience at a YMCA. The supervisor insists that the children at this site learn best when they don’t associate a particular activity with learning. In other words, the most effective teaching the YMCA supervisor has observed takes place when the formality of education is removed from the learning equation. I have to pause at this example because it provokes a couple of really important and troubling questions for me:

1-      Is formalized education helping or hurting learners?

2-      Does formalized education in its current form truly serve the needs of the community?

These questions prompt me further to think that the first and most effective thing educators can do is get out of their own way. When we attempt to replicate and relocate the class structure of the academy outside of the classroom, we run the risk of alienating those in the community with whom we partner. Moving the academy into the community in this way may be viewed as an attempt to transpose one Discourse community, often viewed as powerful and elite, over the existing, often marginalized, community. I visualize the figurative gatekeeper extending his gaze to the grounds near and far surrounding the symbolic tower. It is difficult to serve a community initiative in this capacity because community assistance in this example turns into intellectual conquest.

In relation to these concerns, Cushman asks the right question: “How can public intellectuals link the love of art and human decency if we continue to value university-based knowledge and language more than community-based knowledge and language” (517). I think of the practitioner-faculty at my college who visibly squirm when they are confronted with the language and theories of academia. They quickly retreat into their communities of practice, rank and file, to protect against what they perceive as an eye of judgment, a curriculum of exclusion.

3-      How do we “engage broad audiences in pressing social issues” to “enact the kind of civic-minded knowledge-making” Cushman endorses (517)?

4-      In what way do internships, externships, and clinicals factor into service learning and community engagement? Are these additional bridges between the academy and practice? Do they benefit the community in the same way or in a different way than service learning?


One thought on “Do No Harm: Reflections on Serving the Community, the Academy, and the Student

  1. Thanks, Rob. Looks like we were asking similar questions here.Your metaphor of the gaze of the gatekeeper is quite apt, I think. We both seem to be searching for more ways to guarantee that service learning, as Cushman describes it, is not exploitative. Or, alternatively, just claiming so would be fine with me as well.

    I wonder as an alternative approach if we moved to models such as living-learning communities in those areas near campus that Cushman calls out. What if, rather than volunteering, faculty moved into the communities and lived as neighbors?


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