In “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning and Activist Research,” Ellen Cushman joins a conversation regarding the nature of the “public intellectual” with several service learning-related emphases. Among them, she argues that previous notions of the “public” part of “public intellectual” have neglected the lower class and have not called upon academics to interact with the public beyond the walls of the ivory tower. Cushman calls for a wider community involvement that emphasizes both service learning and activist research.
Though it’s difficult to pin down one exemplary passage, the overall feel of the article struck me as problematic. Cushman anticipates the nature of my objection when she writes, “One limitation of service learning courses can be students’ perception of themselves as imparting to the poor and undereducated their greater knowledge and skills” (513). Exactly. Cushman seeks to avoid this danger by engaging in activist ethnographic research in which “the researcher and participants engage in openly negotiated, reciprocal, mutually beneficial relations” (514). But even a self-aware, ethically-informed, activist approach to research can’t avoid where her article starts: seeking to become a public intellectual.
Service learning can’t avoid the reality that students are, in effect, using their community engagement as a means to an end whereby they gain course credits and, eventually, a degree. Even if mutual knowledge making occurs to the benefit of the student, researcher, and community members, Cushman’s premise still lifts-up the predicating aim of producing public intellectuals. Such an aim is perfectly acceptable, but I wish it were more clearly communicated.
An alternative way of approaching the challenge would be to stay away from activist research aims altogether, or at least, to resist these impulses for many semesters of community engagement. Rather than jumping to ethnographic approaches that generate materials from which to publish, would-be public intellectuals could approach service learning as a site, first and foremost, for their learning. Using this approach, only after years of working with a community organization, or working to learn about a particular problem facing a community, would a researcher transition to a public intellectual approach.
My hesitancy comes from several personal influences. First, I’m aware of the unfortunate tendency for (particularly Christian) faith-related organizations to jump to “helping” before they fully appreciate the situation. For example, our world has hundreds of wells dug with the best of intentions that now lie dormant because they were put in the wrong place, or in a community that lacks organization and resources to manage the well longterm.
Second, within the academy (and within myself) I’m aware of the instinct to approach all experiences and knowledge-making as potentially publishable activity. Such an approach must color how we build community partnerships; even if partners are mutually invested, they are still potential “subjects” for publication (feminist theory may allay this concern, but not eliminate it).
In sum, I find myself in a strange place. I’m all for public intellectuals—indeed, we need more, particularly those with awareness of the pubic beyond the ivory tower. I’m also all for service learning (or “community engaged learning” as the composition pedagogies collection names it). But, even so, Cushman’s piece strikes a dissonant chord.
- For you, does Cushman successfully alleviate concerns of students perceiving themselves as “liberal saviors” (513)?
- Do plans to publish on data gathered during service learning classes poison the possibility of true relationships of mutuality?
- How, then, should public intellectuals approach service learning…if at all?