Service learning, Guatemala, and Kelly Clarkson: Just me, myself and I

I believe that we all agree that community engaged-pedagogies provide compelling ways to stimulate experiential (and independent) learning and social activism. Students who have the opportunity to use their literacy skills to solve problems that afflict a variety of social groups learn the value of pluralistic liberal education. Ellen Cushman makes a very strong case for service learning when she describes knowledge generated by service learning as “exoteric” and made in interaction as opposed to isolation (Cross Talk, p. 513). Cushman also points out that the most sensible strategy for community engagement projects is to tie community partnerships with teachers’ research agenda and opt for “long term, well resourced, stable collaborations” (Guide, p. 64). This configuration of community-engaged pedagogy is a good antidote to half-backed and glib projects of collaboration that may impact negatively the process of education.

Now I would like to dwell on the problems and challenges that come with the implementation of this approach. Julie, Livingstone and Goldblatt write: “As students interact with others outside their classroom around issue of social justice, economic disparity, or identity…they are building a knowledge base that allows them to ‘join the academic conversation from a position of authority’” (Guide, p. 59). The assumption behind this claim is that the world that is outside of the classroom is populated with enlightened people whose influence on students can only be positive. But it is the second part that I found even more puzzling. How can experience outside academia help students to join the academic conversation with a position of authority? Would Gee and Johns agree with this idea?

Very sensibly, Julie, Livingstone and Goldblatt point out that before sending students out into their communities it is important to thoughtfully consider “the meaning, mutuality, and purpose of the work with community partners” (Guide, p. 60). They seem to be perfectly aware that good intentions can breed bad results. Ideally, instructors should spend time with groups and organizations to analyze their motives, their philosophy, to find out who is sponsoring certain programs and why. It seems to me that American corporations are constantly trying to whitewash their public profile by sponsoring countless service experiences and “giving back” initiatives. Halliburton wants to revitalize neighborhoods, support local youth, and protect the environment. Monsanto claims that “philanthropy and community outreach have always been a big part” of their life. The point that I am trying to make is that we need to carefully assess programs, organizations, charity initiatives before we ask our students to become involved with these groups.

Guatemala and Kelly Clarkson

Two years ago I went to  a conference entitled “Global Perspectives on Civic Engagement” and centered on the experience made by six NDSU students who volunteered with God’s Child Project in Guatemala for ten days. The students reported on Guatemala’s problems with a broad brush and focused on how they were emotionally affected by the sight of poverty. Pathos in spades but no mention of the causes that led to the present situation (how social inequality is connected to the legacy of Guatemala’s colonial past, for example).

The students also prepared a video streaming photos taken during their stay. The video featured a soundtrack made up of American hits such as What Doesn’t Kill You by Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger // just me, myself and I.” Not the best choice of lyrics when it comes to provide a description of a service experience that is all about moving beyond narcissism and selfish individualism. It was hard to find a photo that did not portray one or two students posing and smiling for the camera while mixing cement or playing with a skinny orphan child.

I am not sure what students took away from this experience.


How can experience outside academia help students to join the academic conversation with a position of authority?

In your experience, do success stories with service learning outnumber failures?

What makes these kinds of experiences successful for students?


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