Integrating Service Learning into a History of Feminist Theory Course

By K, Karol | Transformations, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Integrating Service Learning into a History of Feminist Theory Course


K, Karol, Transformations


Hooks' commentary is a common experience for students coming to grips with feminist theory. Teachers themselves often are unable to make sense of what they read. During graduate school, I had the surreal (albeit interesting) experience of being thanked by a professor for my lucid and reasonable explanation of Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. However, once a reader overcomes the problem of understanding the text, she is left asking what relationship does this or any feminist theory have to my life and the lives of women and men who surround me. Based upon my experience leading a course on the History of Feminist Thought, teachers might offer unspoken answers to these questions by integrating a service learning component within the curriculum of a feminist theory course.

Service Learning: Its History and Place within the University Classroom

Service learning is the pedagogical technique whereby students undertake service in order to understand more fully the ideas presented in class lectures or via texts. Service learning traces its founding to the work of twentieth-century educator John Dewey, who sought to establish a connection between students and their larger community so that they would utilize their academic skills to analyze and improve society (Fertman, 1994; Kahne and Westheimer, 1999). He emphasized the totality of the learning experience, which included both the intellect as well as emotions (Eyler and Giles, 1999). Many proponents of service learning also were affected by their participation in social events such as the civil rights movement and the anti-war crusade (Stanton, Giles, and Cruz, 1999).

Service learning raises a number of important issues which are tied to feminist pedagogy as well as to critical pedagogy. Service learning exemplifies the goal of women's studies pioneers to revolutionize the university. These leaders encouraged greater student involvement in the learning process, labored to diversify the student population and the curriculum, and recognized multiple ways of knowing (Maher and Thompson Tetreault, 2001). Specifically, service learning challenges traditional epistemology by replacing detachment with connectedness. It values subjectivity, a quality that largely has been excluded from the pursuit of knowledge and an attribute that usually has been ascribed to women. Furthermore, service learning questions traditional notions of authority within the classroom. The instructor and the texts that she assigns are no longer the ultimate arbiters of truth; instead, the student's lived experience contributes to the attainment of knowledge. Finally, service learning substitutes activity and engagement for the passivity that epitomizes many college classrooms (Bell, Morrow, and Tastsoglou, 1999; McGoldrick, 1999; McVicker Clinchy, 2000; hooks, 1994).

The Course: The History of Feminist Thought

In Fall 2000, I offered a course on the History of Feminist Thought. Within the university curriculum, the course fulfilled an elective for history majors and women's studies minors. The class had three main goals. Firstly, I wanted to familiarize students with the history of feminist thought from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries in Europe, the United States, and the Third World. Secondly, the course would help students improve their writing and public speaking skills. Finally, the class would provide students with the resources to answer the following questions: What is feminism? Are there feminisms? How has feminist thought changed over time? Is it possible to transform feminist theory into practice? How does practice assist in the development of theory?

Lectures and assignments enabled students to achieve the course objectives. Each class consisted of a mini-lecture, which introduced students to a particular form of feminist philosophy or to a specific issue raised by feminist theorists, placed the topic within its historical context, and identified the major contributors to the philosophy or concept. …

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