Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Points of Discomfort: Reflections on Power and Partnerships in International Service-Learning

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Points of Discomfort: Reflections on Power and Partnerships in International Service-Learning

Article excerpt

The tremendous growth of international service-learning (ISL) experiences across university campuses, particularly short-term ISL programs, has been affirming as well as troubling to ISL scholar-practitioners. As programs that "combine academic instruction and community service in an international context" (Crabtree, 2008, p. 18), ISL programs aim to increase participants' global awareness, build intercultural understanding and communication, and enhance civic mindedness and leadership skills (Berry & Chisholm, 1999). The growing body of research has affirmed that these goals are being achieved; for example, research has confirmed that participation develops civic participation skills (Schensul & Berg, 2004); expands understandings of diversity (Camacho, 2004); and serves as a transformational learning experience across a range of domains, including a better understanding of self, a shift in worldview associated with the political and the spiritual, and a heightened sense of civic responsibility (Kiely, 2004, 2005).

However, the growth of ISL programs has also raised some troubling concerns, many of which relate to the ways that the actual, on-the-ground activities seem to challenge or contradict the intended and purported aims of ISL. For example, while ISL aims to make a 'real' contribution to a host community, questions have arisen about the effectiveness, sustainability, and relevance of international service projects, such as whether such projects are fulfilling an actual need within the host community (Ver Beek, 2002). Questions have also arisen about unintended negative outcomes of ISL, such as the potential of ISL programs to reinforce the construction of the host community as needy (Crabtree, 2008) or position host communities as an object of study (Carrick, Himley, & Jacobi, 2000; Tilley-Lubbs, 2009). There has been a growing call within the field for ISL practitioners to engage in critical reflection of the experiential aspects of their ISL programs in an effort to uncover moments of contradiction between rhetoric and reality (Heron, 2007). As Himley (2004) contends:

   ... turning a careful, critical eye to the ethical
   desires, peculiar intimacies, agitated interactions,
   material realities, and power asymmetries ... we
   can excavate and explicate both the
   immediate and broader relations of power that
   structure these encounters and identify opportunities
   for at least partially progressive practice or
   effects. (p. 423)

We take up this call in this paper by turning our attention to one particular dimension of our ISL course: our relationship with our host partners. In this paper, we critically reflect on the experiential realities that unfolded with the partnerships that we had established in the context of our course. Thus, within Himley's (2004) recommendation, we focus primarily on the 'agitated interactions' that arose during our course. These are moments in which we felt particularly unsettled or uncomfortable with the way were relating to our host partner--what we refer to as 'points of discomfort.'

While there were others, we focus on three specific points of discomfort that kept rising to the surface in our post-trip conversations: a day of service in the garden, mealtimes at camp, and a trip into town. After a brief description of the course and the partners, we turn our attention to the events as they unfolded and consider what might have led to the 'agitation,' and discuss what these moments have taught us about the practice of ISL.

The Course and Our Partners

The ISL course we reflect on in this paper is titled, "International Field Experiences in Recreation and Leisure," which was a senior-level full-credit spring semester elective offered to students majoring in Recreation and Leisure Studies (our home department) in 2010. The course was developed as a departmental response to our university's growing interest in internationalization and community engagement, both of which had been foregrounded in the university and faculty's most recent academic plan. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.