Service-Learning Is ... How Faculty Explain Their Practice
O'Meara, Kerry Ann, Niehaus, Elizabeth, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning
As a child of civil rights activists in the 1970s, I learned that responsible people take thoughtful and caring action to bring about changes in the world ... I believe that those early sensibilities explain my deep connection with service-learning. In fact, service-learning was a concept that seemed to be a natural outgrowth of what I had to teach my students--how to communicate with the video medium. It was so natural for me that it drove me to academics from a career as a video producer. I have always felt my strengths were in the practice of social work and my contributions tend to be more in my ability to link practice to theory. I watched these students develop, literally within a day, feelings of political efficacy that will stay with them into adulthood. That feeling of satisfaction is why I teach political science, why I teach at [my] college, and why I use Service Learning as an option in all of my classes. I have the privilege of teaching at an institution where the faculty and administration understand the important role our university plays in not only improving the academic skills of our students but the important role the university plans in solving the many issues we face as a community ... there exists an indomitable spirit that invigorates our university and our community and propels us to work together to improve the lives of all who live here. We know that what we do together makes a difference and it is through this spirit of contribution and cooperation, that I have been able and, in fact, encouraged to maximize service-learning opportunities for my students.
These five quotes, offered by five different nominees for the Campus Compact Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning, present a set of assumptions regarding the purposes of service-learning and its connection to the faculty member involved in it. As an explanation of his/her work, each discourse is embedded in a specific social context and a set of values, beliefs, and social practices. While one faculty member's discourse identified his service-learning as deriving from his own family history and role models growing up, another represented her service-learning as the natural extension of disciplinary goals--the desire to teach a specific subject well. A third faculty member explained her work as an experiential educator committed to providing theory to practice opportunities, while a fourth discussed the power of service-learning to enhance political self-efficacy. Finally, a fifth nominee explained how service-learning is a natural outgrowth of working and living in an institutional culture that values and promotes this kind of work. In every case, these faculty members explained their work in ways that suggest different sets of problems that service-learning helps them solve and different ways in which they are themselves positioned within the service, with different implications for practice.
Many researchers have explored faculty engagement in service-learning. However, scholarship rarely considers the ways in which the discourses used by faculty to describe service-learning--that is, the stories they tell about what it is they are doing and why--construct images of subject positions, problems, and solutions that inform our beliefs about and practice of service-learning. Identifying dominant discourses used by faculty to describe service-learning can provide another lens on how to support faculty in this work, as well as what beliefs may be working against its acceptance in different academic cultures. It may also help service-learning advocates to consider the strengths and limitations of using different dominant discourses in any particular college or university environment or national policy-making arena (Allan, Gordon, & Iverson, 2006). The purpose of this study was to understand the dominant discourses used by faculty to explain service-learning and the dominant images of participants, problems, and solutions these discourses present. …