Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Dynamic Tensions of Service Learning in Higher Education

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Dynamic Tensions of Service Learning in Higher Education

Article excerpt

A Philosophical Perspective

Senior faculty in a peace and justice program at a small liberal arts college reject the efforts of a student affairs professional to help the faculty connect their teaching to practice through service activities in the local community. One faculty member openly wonders how "out-of-class" activities such as community service have anything to do with interdisciplinary theories of social justice. A director of an office of community service is upset because the provost has decided to develop a Center for Community Service Learning. The director sees this as an attempt to usurp the good work of student affairs and feels that attempts to engage faculty will be difficult, if not futile. A department chair in an American Thought and Language program at a large research university asks an associate professor being considered for promotion to full professor to explain in writing to the promotion and tenure committee the relevance of his research on service learning. Both the chair and the committee are apprehensive about service learning as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry. And finally, a local social service agency in a university town has had its fill of student volunteers after repeatedly receiving complaints from clients about patronizing attitudes expressed by the students.

The preceding examples represent real-life organizational tensions that we have encountered over recent years through research in the area of service learning. Tension revolving around the meaning and relevance of service learning may be summarized by the following four questions:

1. Is service learning best understood as part of the historical mission of higher learning as in fostering social responsibility and citizenship, or in new goals of developing empathy and multicultural understanding, or in traditional academic goals such as critical thinking and writing? In other words, what are the central learning outcomes we expect service learning to yield? This is what we term the Learning Question and relates to debates over the diverse set of learning outcomes and which are prioritized on campuses. This is sometimes characterized as a debate between affective versus cognitive conceptions of student learning as well as discussions of experiential versus abstract academic work.

2. Related to the first concern is the following: Is service learning to be associated with the formal curriculum and fall under the domain of faculty, does it pertain more to the co-curriculum and the work of student affairs professionals, or is it seen as an outreach effort and within a separate unit such as continuing education? How do organizational structures impact the ability of service learning to meet educational goals? What are the problems posed by making service learning a goal of more than one bureaucratic unit? This is what we term the Locational Question.

3. A third concern relates to the definition of work suggested by service learning. How does service learning fit within the expectations that accompany faculty and student affairs work? This is what we term the Organization-of-Work Question.

4. A fourth concern raised by contemporary debates about the meaning and relevance of service learning is associated with its implementation and evaluation. What key features should we seek to include as part of constructing service-learning experiences? This is what we term the Implementation Question, and it addresses the nature of the service-learning experience and how it is to be structured.

We recognize a degree of artificiality posed by these questions. Few serious higher education scholars or practitioners, for example, see an impenetrable divide between cognitive and affective learning, or classroom and out-of-classroom learning, as the work of scholars such as Kuh (1996), King and Baxter Magolda (1996), and Love and Love (1995), among others, clearly reveals. These questions are helpful nonetheless in that they highlight organizational issues associated with service learning. …

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