Community and service learning: Three experiences

It’s time to get experiential, reflective, memoir-ish (try saying it). I’ve had three shaping experiences with community learning experiences. They begin in high school.

I went to a Catholic high school. To graduate, we had to complete so many hours of community service. I don’t remember how much. The only service experience (out of my four years there) that I can recall is when I signed up to go prep and serve a meal at a shelter in Minneapolis. I remember learning, for the very first time and in an eye-opening way, how to use a commercial kitchen can-opener—you know, the kind that’s attached to the counter, that you get to really slam the can with. Beyond that, I only remember someone anonymously buying pizzas for everyone in the shelter, and then an older kid chiding me for my wondering how much money two dozen pizzas cost. After our trip into the city, I was never asked to think about what I was doing, why I was doing it, or how it was possible for me to be doing it in the first place. My brief time there prepared me more to work in a deli than it did anything else. We worked with consumers and not people. As it was, we were most certainly confirming “an inside-outsider understanding” of our academic purposes (Julier, Livingston, and Goldblatt 60). Through our uncritical acknowledgement of the situation, we did more to affirm the hierarchical distance between our groups than to understand and eventually shorten it. Community-engaged pedagogy and writing go hand in hand. Some sort of writing integration into any of the service learning at school would have made this trip to the city many times more meaningful.

My second “out there” experience came during English 120. We worked in groups to profile an organization in the community. My group had to profile the Fargo library, what seems a “writing about” kind of community-engaged project. I think we were led through a decent process for this. I interviewed the director of Fargo libraries, took photographs, wrote blog posts, and pretty much thought critically about the role of a library in a community.  However, I had a less than stellar time working with my group and ended up being terrified of the final product we had produced. That I was terrified signifies an important thing about community-engaged work: someone “real” was involved, and they were going to read our work, and I knew that. In this case, it was the director himself who seemed interested. I never did send him a link to our work (I’m embarrassed to admit that). This was my first experience heading outside the classroom to write, learn, and be seen doing it.

Finally, I am now engaged not in a class-based community-engaged project, but a community-engaged project that warrants critical reflection nonetheless. I recently became a tutor for Giving + Learning, the EL tutoring program that Dr. Brooks facilitates. I’ve been tutoring a pre-literate individual with whom I can communicate only the most basic things. Cushman writes of the “liberal savior trope,” where one comes to the rescue of some vulnerable individuals of the community (513-4). All of the ingredients are here: I’m a liberal and ableyoungwhiteheteromale, super-duper fluent in English, coming to the home of a pre-literate man many years my elder. (As Mohamed and I once discussed, I’m no McNair scholar.) How does one avoid the trope? I don’t consciously try to brand myself as a “savior,” but I’d like to think that (wouldn’t I?), and I could be thinking that way anyway, and goodness it’d sure be easy to. Cushman’s response: activist research, which is basically making knowledge with individuals (514), not from, around, or in spite of them. I am not formally researching, but I am learning. I hope very much that the other individual is learning. We certainly create knowledge together—or at least, due to our limited ability to communicate, exchange knowledge. I try very hard to make our time together transactional, as the name Giving + Learning implies. I do sometimes worry that the balance is tipped, though. When our relationship ends, which is coming soon, the politics of my location will allow me to move around easily; however, his learning experience will be jarred. He will have to start anew with a tutor (if one can be found), and he still has much time before him to learn English. The way I chose to structure the tutoring experience is somewhat troubling: perhaps I should have considered the situation further.

Q1: What previous experience do y’all have with community-engaged projects? Have you witnessed the liberal savior trope play out?

Q2: I think that much of the reading still focuses on what the researcher/student intends to effect with community-engaged projects. Perhaps there’s a slightly unexamined angle to this: what happens to the researcher when the researcher is seen doing research? I don’t necessarily mean in a data-influencing way but in a researcher’s experience kind of way. For instance, I felt terrified being seen doing my research and writing about the library. What happens to the seer when it becomes the seen?


2 thoughts on “Community and service learning: Three experiences

  1. One of the really essential and important keys to understanding community engaged approaches to teaching and learning is that volunteerism and experience are not service learning or community engaged learning. The key is the structured learning experience, the presence of readings, activities, reflective writing to process the experience so that what happens is more often education than miseducation. So, your first example would not count as community engaged learning by any self-respecting community engagement teacher. Instead, it would count as volunteerism: possibly helpful to the organization but unlikely to lead to learning on the part of the participant. You seem to recognize this in your critique, but it’s a frequently misunderstood piece.


  2. Thanks, Tyler. Your post pushed me to reflect on my own community engaged learning and, surprisingly, I’m at a loss to recall anything other than studying abroad. This is actually quite a shock as I attended a liberal arts college that emphasizes its progressive connections to the world, and a seminary that is all about educating Christian leaders.

    That noted, I can recall many assignments along the way that pushed us to make ‘real world’ connections. For instance, my senior thesis was on how hymns and contemporary music are approached in congregations. It wasn’t experiential learning, by the book at least, but it was also incredibly practical work. Similarly, seminary assignments often included writing curriculum, sermons, etc. Exam questions were often geared to actual situations in a parish. [Oh, and I did complete 15 months of internship experiences, I suppose, but those are built into the curriculum and required by all students so it feels less of a different sort of experience.]

    This leads me back to the discussion we started in class. Ideally, I hope all learning is experiential. It’s all integrated. It’s all public (because it’s for citizenship). Perhaps…*maybe…some schools are more intentional about building this approach in to their entire curriculum?


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