Service-Learning Is ... How Faculty Explain Their Practice

Article excerpt

   As a child of civil rights activists in the 1970s, I
   learned that responsible people take thoughtful
   and caring action to bring about changes in the
   world ... I believe that those early sensibilities
   explain my deep connection with service-learning.

   In fact, service-learning was a concept that
   seemed to be a natural outgrowth of what I had
   to teach my students--how to communicate
   with the video medium. It was so natural for
   me that it drove me to academics from a career
   as a video producer.

   I have always felt my strengths were in the practice
   of social work and my contributions tend to
   be more in my ability to link practice to theory.

   I watched these students develop, literally within
   a day, feelings of political efficacy that will
   stay with them into adulthood. That feeling of
   satisfaction is why I teach political science, why
   I teach at [my] college, and why I use Service
   Learning as an option in all of my classes.

   I have the privilege of teaching at an institution
   where the faculty and administration understand
   the important role our university plays in
   not only improving the academic skills of our
   students but the important role the university
   plans in solving the many issues we face as a
   community ... there exists an indomitable spirit
   that invigorates our university and our community
   and propels us to work together to
   improve the lives of all who live here. We
   know that what we do together makes a difference
   and it is through this spirit of contribution
   and cooperation, that I have been able and, in
   fact, encouraged to maximize service-learning
   opportunities for my students.

These five quotes, offered by five different nominees for the Campus Compact Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning, present a set of assumptions regarding the purposes of service-learning and its connection to the faculty member involved in it. As an explanation of his/her work, each discourse is embedded in a specific social context and a set of values, beliefs, and social practices. While one faculty member's discourse identified his service-learning as deriving from his own family history and role models growing up, another represented her service-learning as the natural extension of disciplinary goals--the desire to teach a specific subject well. A third faculty member explained her work as an experiential educator committed to providing theory to practice opportunities, while a fourth discussed the power of service-learning to enhance political self-efficacy. Finally, a fifth nominee explained how service-learning is a natural outgrowth of working and living in an institutional culture that values and promotes this kind of work. In every case, these faculty members explained their work in ways that suggest different sets of problems that service-learning helps them solve and different ways in which they are themselves positioned within the service, with different implications for practice.

Many researchers have explored faculty engagement in service-learning. However, scholarship rarely considers the ways in which the discourses used by faculty to describe service-learning--that is, the stories they tell about what it is they are doing and why--construct images of subject positions, problems, and solutions that inform our beliefs about and practice of service-learning. Identifying dominant discourses used by faculty to describe service-learning can provide another lens on how to support faculty in this work, as well as what beliefs may be working against its acceptance in different academic cultures. It may also help service-learning advocates to consider the strengths and limitations of using different dominant discourses in any particular college or university environment or national policy-making arena (Allan, Gordon, & Iverson, 2006). The purpose of this study was to understand the dominant discourses used by faculty to explain service-learning and the dominant images of participants, problems, and solutions these discourses present. …