Service Learning Pedagogy


Overview | Courses Taught | Professional Development | Samples | Service Learning | Evaluations

Statement of Service Learning Philosophy

When I began teaching, I had what I thought was a wonderful and original idea: I would have my students do community service over the course of the class and integrate that volunteerism into an assignment. My rationale was that the world was in fairly bad shape and if students had some exposure to the messes out there, they might actually want to do something about it. The students did volunteer work of their choosing, reported on that work to the rest of their class, and incorporated what they learned into response essays on the other issues we were writing about in class. I felt like I was doing a good thing and encouraging students to do the kind of community work I found so important but so separate from my academic work.

It turns out, a lot of people had the same idea. I quickly became aware of a trend in education called "Service Learning," and I read and researched this trend with a lot of enthusiasm. After finishing my Masters degree in Literature, I decided to pursue a job in Community Education and eventually go back for my PhD in a field that would allow me to develop activist pedagogies. I worked at a California State University and was part of a service learning advisory committee, participated in the development of a service learning office there, and continued reading and researching the implications of this pedagogy. In the years since, I have become far less enthusiastic about service learning because I realized that service learning has been framed in what I feel to be a counter-productive fashion. Service learning generally is a method of incorporating community service with course curricula in ways that have students go into a community (generally framed as a "disadvantaged" community) to volunteer their skills and privilege in order to give those of less advantage some assistance. While I do not mean to dismiss the value of community service or volunteerism, the problems I see with service learning are:

Because of these limitations (and others), I have spent much time trying to understand and enact alternative forms of community involvement from the university. Part of this work has involved studying the ways the university itself works and the constraints that activist academics face working in an always (and increasingly) corporatized structure. The very nature of the university as an institution tends to reproduce conditions in society that require social inequality and fragmentation, and require dominant socio-economic systems to remain productively in place. Consequently, when a good idea, a progressive or activist idea happens in the university and becomes institutionalized, often, the result is a transformation of the idea/project/person into a form of the idea which better serves, not activism, but the dominant system. What the nature of the institutional constraints mean, then, is that academics who attempt to do activist work with communities face incredible constraints-some institutional; some the products of institutional demands on their personal time; some the result of acculturation; some the result of institutionalized assumptions.

On the other hand, community activists need broad support and can benefit from the resources available from the university in general, and the commitment to critical tools of individuals in the university in particular. Working with the university is often difficult to initiate and even more difficult to control. Community groups welcome student volunteers, but the placement of students in communities is (as I have indicated) sometimes problematic for activist organizations, and often create more work for those organizations. Additionally, it is generally the case that the community activist is not invited to participate in the creation of curricula or to advise on the issues that are studied inside the university.

I believe collaboration with the community is a valuable and necessary activity for those of us teaching and researching in the university who consider ourselves cultural critics or activists. However, I believe such collaboration must be done in a thoughtful, meaningful, and critical fashion. And I believe such work must be genuinely collaborative. To that end, I have participated in service Iearning discussions, conferences, initiatives, and have developed my own methodology for incorporating community work and issues into curricula and research. I have outlined my most current project below and have included information about several of my conference and workshop papers to demonstrate my approach to community collaboration.

Service Learning Project Development

In the summer of 2000, I applied to the Corporation for National Service for a fellowship/grant that would enable me to design and pilot a pedagogical methodology over the 2000-2001 academic year. The Corporation for National Service is a federal program implemented by Bill Clinton to foster and support community service in America. CNS runs Vista and Americorp and the National Learn and Serve programs. Learn and Serve is the connection of education and community service through service learning programs and research. I suggested to CNS that much of service learning was directed at individual student experience and did not take into account creating sustained partnerships between the university and community, nor did it allow for alternatives to traditional models in terms of community activism. I was granted funding for the year based on the agreement that I would do the local pilot project and develop a reproduceable model methodology and resource to be given to CNS for dissemination.

The Methodology in Brief

The principles behind this project's methodology is that making community-university collaboration responsive to activist agendas requires a slightly different approach than simply sending students out to volunteer in the community. My working assumptions are:

To enact these principles, I have simply designed a methodology that puts activists from the community and the university together to work on course and research projects that will benefit both groups.

As simple as this seems, it does require a good deal of facilitation for any broad impact. To that end, I have met with activists, attended meetings, read about issue-based events and projects underway. I have also met with university instructors and researchers that tend to identify themselves as seeking activist options to their work and listened to what they study and teach. From those conversations, I have been able to invite a limited number (limited in size, scope, diversity) to participate in this local pilot of the methodology. In addition, I have been able to make initial connections between community work and academic projects that "match". The function of the workshop sessions, then is for me to not only get two groups of already connected-though not always obviously -- people together, but to also get everyone asking the right questions, and to provide a space for a collaborative activity to occur.

Ideally, from these sessions, every community group and every instructor or researcher involved will form at least a small project in collaboration around a common issue. Some of these projects might result in students from an instructor's class performing some necessary related research that makes resources available to the community organizations. Some projects may involve having the community organization teach an aspect of an instructor's course. Some projects may enable a researcher to refocus a research project based on community activists! input or needs. What comes from the collaborative opportunities should be unique to both the community organizations' and the instructors/researchers particular needs and strengths.
Complete information, including my proposal, goals and outcomes, progress reports, and the final monograph I produced for the Corporation for National Service can be found online at:

Scholarly Work on Service Learning

"Service Learning as Re-Invention of the Instructor." Paper presented at the Writing Program Administrators Conference, 1998 which examines the implications of service learning and the necessity of linking service learning activities with an ethical framework, Online at:

"Learning to Serve?: The Necessity of Marxist Critique in Service Learning Curricula." Paper presented for Rethinking Marxism 2000, September, 2000. Paper discusses the critique of so-vim learning while emphasizing the necessity of not dismissing the value of utilizing action oriented community experience in the classroom. Online at

"On Trying to Get it Right: Reflections on Some Ethical Issues in Community-Academic Partnerships." Danika, Brown. December 2000. Paper presented to workshop participants in "Connecting Community and Academic Activism." The paper provides a "best practices" approach to tying theoretical and practical concerns in working with communities in service learning academic research projects. The paper also is directed toward community organizers in terms of the limitations and constraints that academics face in doing this type of work. Online at: