Stability, Sustainability, and Service-Learning

Ellen Cushman argues for a broader understanding of public when considering the purpose of a public intellectual.  Cushman notes public should include “the ones often located close by universities, just beyond the walls and gates, or down the hill, or over the bridge, or past the tracks” (329); that is, people often occluded from the policy making and debates occurring in isolated circumstances.  While this extension of purpose is admirable, I find there might be threats to its possible realization.  As Cushman states later in the position piece, “academics must have the secure position that autonomy (typically gained through tenure) provides if the knowledge they make is to be protected from censorship” (Cushman, 329).

The stability of the profession of teacher permits much activity.  For example, I honestly will not pursue advanced Trans-Atlantic and Pacific Partnership projects, which I categorize as service learning for reaching beyond the classroom, unless I have the security of tenure.  The challenges are simply too risky if I am simply a one-year contract – with possibility of renewal.  Laura Julier, Kathleen Livingston, and Eli Goldblatt offer encouragement to endure through volatility with organizations.  Eli states, “I simply have to learn to trust my ability to tell if things are going wrong for the partner” (69).  Great, but how to help a partner who recognizes an instructor might be gone after a year or in some cases a semester?  This concern is serious.  The discussion about assessment, for example, does not address the issues Tony Scott and Lil Brannon identify in “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment.”  The primary threat to assessment, according to Scott and Brannon, is programmatic instability.

Assessment must be sufficiently simple that a person might understand it within a week yet remain robust enough to appease accreditors, administrators, and other stakeholders.  Larger programs might have a “revolving door” (enter, exit, enter, exit, and on and on) of hires, so the assessment procedure must be resilient; should a WPA consider integrating service-learning elements given the possibility the courses dedicated to service-learning might only exist for one year, one semester, or maybe only a portion of a course’s activities?  On the one hand, I think it is necessary because many program outcomes seek to extend the involvement of students (and instructors) “beyond the classroom”; on the other hand, I think it is foolishness to suppose service-learning is sustainable.  This issue looms very large in my thinking because, again, it involves TAPP.  I have evidence that TAPP is beneficial, yet I do not have evidence that it is sustainable (rest assured, though, so long as I and some others are in universities, it will thrive).

How might a writing program integrate service-learning in a sustainable manner?

How might professional volatility dissuade (1) instructor (2) writing program (3) community participation in service-learning? Conversely, how might it encourage their participation in service-learning?

Scott, Tony and Lil Brannon.  “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment.” CCC 65.2 (December 2013): 273-298. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Stability, Sustainability, and Service-Learning

  1. I think you raise important issues,Matt. Teachers need to have stability (financial and professional) before they can implement an articulated service learing experience instead of a half-backed “let’s go help the poor” experience. Like you, I am willing to take risks with TAPP for an institution that is willing to bet on my vision and programs. Good service learning projects can happen only if they receive full institutional support, especially if these projects are promoted by untenured faculty with big ideas and no power.
    Assessment also seems to be a problem, but I am less prepared to respond on the assessment challenges you bring up.

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  2. Matt,
    A book that has done a nice job of addressing some of the discussions of stability versus agility is Paula Mathieu’s Tactics of Hope. Much of the community engagement literature prior to that book emphasized the need to develop solid, stable, long-term partnerships with agencies. This principle is great for some projects, but as Mathieu points out, sometimes a project addresses a need that then isn’t a need anymore. Sometimes an organization changes so radically that it’s not possible to continue with the project. So, she differentiates between strategy and tactic. Strategy is that long term planning that is wonderful for some projects and tactics are more on the ground, responsive to emergent problems, etc. To a degree, then, even someone who is not deeply rooted or permanent can participate in more tactical projects with their students. Strangely, I did more of my direct service learning projects as both graduate student and pre-tenure faculty member. In my case, because I also published on it, it actually helped me to get tenure.

    In terms of programs requiring service learning or community engagement, I’d lean away from imposing it on all teachers, because some will simply feel so out of place doing it that it will negatively affect teacher, students, and community partners. However, when I first arrived here, I brought with me a fairly simple service learning project, Writing Partners. It paired college students with middle school students in a writing relationship that allowed the college students to examine the letter genre and the issue of audience in fine detail and that allowed the middle school students to see into college through the eyes of their partners (as well as learn about letters). That kind of project is pretty simple to facilitate as a teacher, so many of the instructors at the time chose to participate but were not required to do so. I think that’s the key: if the program administrator values it, s/he can build a signature project (like TAPP!) and offer it to instructors.

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