Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Critical Community Service Learning: Combining Critical Classroom Pedagogy with Activist Community Placements

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Critical Community Service Learning: Combining Critical Classroom Pedagogy with Activist Community Placements

Article excerpt

In recent years, community service learning (CSL) has become a prominent pedagogy in higher education (Speck & Hoppe, 2004). CSL combines "real world" experiences and academic learning, encourages moral development, promotes citizenship, and facilitates a sense of social responsibility. It is not surprising, however, that what constitutes citizenship and social responsibility is the subject of debate. There is no agreement, for instance, that social justice is an intended outcome of CSL (Marullo & Edwards, 2000; Zlotkowski, as cited in Chambers, 2009). In fact, critics have suggested that CSL too often is comprised of community experiences maintaining a charitable or voluntary orientation, fails to explore and address the root causes of injustice (Kahne & Westheimer, 2006; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004), and ignores critical issues such as the presumption of neutrality, privileging of "whiteness," and imbalance of power relations that support social inequalities (Butin, 2003, 2007). In this paper, we share a model of CSL that responds to these criticisms--critical CSL. We use the term critical CSL to invoke an association with the critical theories that have informed both a justice-oriented perspective and the development of critical pedagogy. Critical CSL can be understood as an approach that embraces the explicit aim of social justice. As Mitchell (2008) explained, the goal of critical CSL is to "deconstruct systems of power so the need for service and the inequalities that create and sustain them are dismantled" (p. 50). Thus, critical CSL is potentially effective when paired with a critical pedagogical approach. However, few authors have shared detailed accounts of how critical CSL might function and how critical pedagogy might work with critical CSL to support students' learning.

The critical CSL that we explore in this paper was used in a graduate seminar taught by Donna Chovanec, one of the paper's authors. In 2009, with support from the University of Alberta Community Service-Learning Program and approval from the University Research Ethics Board, the instructor initiated a qualitative research study, asking the question: How might a critical/radical CSL pedagogy inform a critique of conventional service-learning in post-secondary contexts? The research team (1) reviewed CSL literature and collected the following data: three written homework assignments completed by students as part of the course; a short online survey adapted with permission from J. Westheimer; and individual, in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 21 students who had completed the course six months to two years prior. In addition, the instructor and one student completed written anecdotes on specific aspects of the course experience. Phenomenological analysis of the data revealed that the course/critical CSL experience facilitated students' willingness to go deeper into social issues by analyzing root causes and enabled many students to develop an awareness of systemic inequality, power inequalities, the beliefs and practices that support domination, and their own positionality in the social system (Chovanec, Kajner, Mian, & Underwood, 2012). These research findings prompted the research team to interrogate the pedagogical dimensions of the course that combined critical classroom pedagogy with activist community placements.

Focusing this paper on the course pedagogy, we draw from critical pedagogy theory, research study data, and instructor and student anecdotes to explore the pedagogical dimensions of our experience with critical CSL. Four dimensions are included: course/placement integration, critical pedagogy in practice, the intricacies of recruiting and supporting activist placements, and ethical considerations. While critical CSL requires careful design and consideration of the risks involved, we conclude that it can be an effective approach for critical educators.

Course/Placement Integration

Effective CSL engages the community as partners in student education and tightly integrates the academic part of the course and the community placement (Bowman, Brandenberger, Mick, & Toms Smedley, 2010; Bringle, Hatcher, & Games, 1997). …

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