Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Students and Service Staff Learning and Researching Together on a College Campus

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Students and Service Staff Learning and Researching Together on a College Campus

Article excerpt

When I first witnessed this institution I kept seeing the steeple and I said, "I would like to go there one day." ... Once I got here I said, "This is the number one college, this is great to be here! ... I need to be learning something here myself."

This statement comes from an Environmental Services technician who once traveled on the train past Swarthmore College on his way to another job. He recognizes college as a place of "learning something" and he wants to "go" to this college. Although he has come here to take a job as an Environmental Services technician (formerly called housekeeping and custodial work), he says, "I need to be learning something here myself." He is coming here to place himself among others in a learning community, the local capital or "fund of knowledge" (Moll, 1992), not just to clean buildings.

This paper is about a program on a college campus in which students and staff members, mostly from Environmental and Dining Services, work together weekly in learning partnerships. The program, called Learning for Life (L4L), challenges the assumption that a college community consists of students, staff, and faculty who are equally positioned in the community, while it draws on their unequal and different positions as resources for learning. L4L assumes that service within a college community is a legitimate form of community service.

Community service from the perspective of a college community is usually thought of as service outside the immediate community, often in a disadvantaged community nearby. Community service from a broader perspective is usually thought of in terms of what a citizen does within the community, such as serving on the school board, coaching an athletic team, helping in the local schools, or running for office. In accepting quite a different definition of community service, Swarthmore College students, administration, and staff have recognized that although we are all members of this community, some members are more privileged or legitimate than others. Further, Swarthmore community members are positioned differently in terms of the knowledge capital that is the business of the college. Many staff members (Environmental Service technicians, Dining Services staff, Facilities staff) come from the low-income urban communities that students often serve through external community service projects. By conceiving of service as that which only serves those outside the immediate college community, we risk failing to recognize the needs of those who work among us. Many service staff members are among the "working poor," often holding two jobs, and some have been historically, educationally, and socioeconomically disadvantaged through racism and classism.

The cultural capital of a liberal arts college, as a selective academic institution, is learning. But in institutions of higher learning it tends to be the faculty and students within the community who get to learn and teach, or to identify as a learner and/or teacher. Yet staff can also participate in that fund of learning. L4L challenges the often-restricted access to that learning. It also disrupts the positions of who teaches, who learns, and who stands where among whom.

Learning as social practice informs this study's interpretation of the L4L student-staff partnership program. Socially-situated learning, defined as experiences in locally-situated social participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1999; Sfard, 1998; Street, 1993; Yagelski, 2000), as opposed to learning as transmission or construction of knowledge, has allowed L4L researchers to understand the ways in which language and identity are implicated in L4L.

The study revealed the impacts, expected and unexpected, of the one-on-one informal student-staff learning partnerships, student-staff leadership, and collaborative research, on transforming individuals and in shaping the larger college community. L4L facilitated evolving mutual participation in learning in the community, as well as fuller participation within the learning institution. …

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