Magazine article Cross Currents

Service Learning as a Transgressive Pedagogy: A Must for Today's Generation

Magazine article Cross Currents

Service Learning as a Transgressive Pedagogy: A Must for Today's Generation

Article excerpt

The phrases "curriculum infusion," "teaching/learning anti-racism," "teaching against resistance," and incorporating "diversity" or "multiculturalism" into the curriculum are all attempts to democratize, de-canonize, and open up traditionally Euro-centric teaching approaches in the humanities and social science courses. I have discovered within the last six years, that the best way to put these notions into practice is with the creation of a special topics course: The History of Violence in America. This course includes a challenging pedagogy, namely, service learning. The challenge is due to the fact that most of my students have been subjected to rote learning that is intended to ensure that they score well on standardized tests, or to the banking system of depositing knowledge which students regurgitate at the conclusion of the course, or as often articulated by them--to "give the teacher what he/she wants." More school boards are requiring their students to complete a certain number of community service hours before graduation from high school. Still, my observation of the students I teach indicates that before college, too few of them are being exposed to a transgressive method of service learning that intentionally generates critical thinking about cultural and social assumptions, specifically about structures of privilege, hegemonies of power, as well as about innovative strategies to arrest systemic violence or learn how to dialogue with others within their own and also in neighboring communities to create healthy living environments for both of them, "toward the good of a more equitable society." In fact, according to Eleanor M. Novek, "traditional hierarchical educational strategies do not encourage" these kinds of relationships or "liberatory pedagogies." (1)

Each semester I ask myself: are my students--a population of mostly white middle- and upper-class youths who hail from mostly mid-Atlantic states--prepared for a teaching methodology that challenges not only the ones to which they are accustomed, but one that inherently interrogates their access to certain opportunities that are inaccessible (or not readily available) to other members of our society? In my students' own words about depressed communities, women shelters, and middle schools, this paper highlights some of the benefits and outcomes from requiring students to perform twenty hours of service in a course entitled about violence in America. This transformative pedagogy inspires hope, promotes social justice, advocates agents of change, commitment to building community, and cultivating a universal recognition and respect.

My working definition of service learning is borrowed from Eyler & Giles:

       Service-learning is a form of experiential education ... where
       learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection ... as
       students work with others through a process of acting and
       reflecting to achieve real objectives for the community and
       deeper understanding and skills for themselves. (2)

Suffice it to say, "service learning," sometimes understood as "community service," is not novel; indeed it is not original with me. Yet, it registers an air of curiosity. To the students, the service requirement initially seems odd in a course about violence. In fact, on the first day of classes, as I walk the students through the syllabus, I reach the service component with some hesitancy; for I know from past experience this additional commitment of time will initiate a small exodus. It is because my students are clueless at the start that the "service learning" component in this course works. Not until about mid-semester are students having epiphanies, either visually or conceptually, that bring into focus the link between serving in an underprivileged community and studying the repercussions of a history of systemic violence in the foundational institutions of our country.

Seeds are planted throughout the semester--during lectures, through essay assignments, in structured journal entries, during in-class discussions and reflections--that make possible the linkage between service and the materiality of the course. …

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