Academic journal article Composition Studies

Integrating Writing, Academic Discourses, and Service Learning: Project Renaissance and School/college Literacy Collaborations

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Integrating Writing, Academic Discourses, and Service Learning: Project Renaissance and School/college Literacy Collaborations

Article excerpt

Dewey seems to have felt that reforms in early education could be in themselves a major lever of social change. They could lead the way to a more just and free society, a society in which in his words, "The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods, but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality."

Noam Chomsky, "Democracy and Education"

Recent trends in Composition Studies and service learning have urged instructors to help students make connections between their course material and the world at large. Rather than functioning as deliverers of purely "factual" knowledge, teachers have been called upon to use service learning in order to help students actively and critically engage with academic material and connect it to lived experiences outside the classroom. Grounding abstract academic knowledge in experience helps the learner engage the material on multiple levels, including both the affective and the intellectual. In this way, learning is not kept at arm's length, but is given personal and social significance through the student's experience of its relevance to actual social contexts, or what students refer to as "real life." Recent educational research also indicates that service learning is an excellent vehicle for integrating academic knowledges with experience; service learning brings together multiple intellectual and social activities in order to provide students with a more substantial learning experience. In "Service-Learning in Today's Higher Education," Barbara Jacoby points out that much educational research indicates that "we learn through combinations of thought and action, reflection and practice, theory and application" (6-7). However, many educational theorists note that the experiential aspect of service learning programs isn't enough to support learning on its own; instead, according to Jacoby, such programs should assist learners in reflecting on their connectedness to "historical, sociological, cultural, economic, and political contexts" (7). This reflection helps students develop broader perspectives that extend beyond their own immediate experiences as students and as consumers of American culture. Or, as Bruce Herzberg indicates in his landmark article "Community Service and Critical Teaching," successful service learning enables "students to transcend their own deeply-ingrained belief in individualism" and meritocracy, helping them perceive the ways their lives are connected with and dependent upon the lives of those around them (312).

When we began a year-long service learning project as part of a pilot interdisciplinary program (called "Project Renaissance") for first-year students at The University at Albany, SUNY, our work was informed by these principles for service learning. Our goals included assisting students in grounding disciplinary knowledges in lived experience and encouraging students to see themselves as effective actors in a social context that extends beyond their individual lives. Thus, in keeping with Chomsky's comments above, our goals were both educational and social. We also learned a number of things about service learning that extended beyond our initial assumptions about its value in higher education. Our experiences confirm that reciprocity is an essential component of "learning" in service projects, both for the students doing the "serving" and the community being "served." The value of experience for grounding complex and often abstract disciplinary concepts was also reaffirmed through this project. We had, naively, expected that service learning might bring about a faster and greater transformation in students' perceptions of themselves and their relationships to broader social, intellectual, and biological communities, and found that such radical transformations come more slowly and unevenly than we had hoped. To our surprise, however, we discovered that service learning created a grounding point for the educational goals of Project Renaissance, bringing greater intellectual coherence to this multidisciplinary program than might have been achieved otherwise. …

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