"Service Learning as Reinvention of the Instructor"
Presented at Making a Difference: Writing Programs at Work, The National Council of Writing Program Administrators Annual Summer Conference, July 18, 1998.
[Feedback is solicited and encouraged. Please email danika@u.arizona.edu]

Danika M Brown
University of Arizona

Originally, I was going to speak today about how service learning "re-invents" the instructor. While I am still going to discuss the implications of incorporating service learning for the instructor in terms of role in the classroom and in making decisions, I would like to put this discussion into a slightly different context.

I have been thinking lately about what it means to make classroom decisions, especially those decisions that have impact outside of the classroom. I have been thinking about ethics, and discursive practices which construct (or deconstruct) ethics. I would like to discuss the ethics of teaching and look at the ways that service learning calls for me as an instructor to be acutely aware of my own system of ethics as I work with a curriculum that significantly shapes the ways students view and interact with others.

Thanks to the work of people such as bell hooks and countless others looking critically at pedagogy, it has become a fairly accepted notion that all teaching is political, even in a classroom that purports to be depoliticized. Whether political agendas are put on the table for examination or not, all teaching revolves around ideological perspectives. Some perspectives reproduce the dominant (thus not necessarily recognized) ideological assumptions of power; some perspectives call those dominant views into question and suggest alternatives. We have grown accustomed, in the field of composition, to the notion that political ideologies are very much a part of our classrooms.

I would like to reframe this notion a bit and call attention to the fact that all teaching has ethical implications as well. Perhaps it will strike some as odd to make a distinction between politics and ethics, but I am currently concerned with starting with an ethical orientation by which political decisions and positions are established, so I am going to make that distinction here. For me, ethics and politics are deeply connected; but I believe ethics can and do precede politics. (In that sense, they are not synonymous.)

All teaching, then, has ethical implications and all teaching practices are rooted in the instructor's ethical system. Decisions about what texts students should read and why; ways instructors interact with students in and out of the classroom; notions of authority; ways in which student interactions during class discussion and group work is shaped, monitored, or even policedÍ.these are all instructional practices, which if examined, construct and reflect the system of ethics the instructor works from.

I believe most people have a difficult time articulating their ethical system. Ethics is one of those words which seems to imply its own definition. If asked to define our own ethics, many of us might respond with a reference to "fairness," "justice," "the good," the "golden rule," and any number of other vague terms to describe that sense of just doing the "right thing." I think it becomes clear in most examinations of ideological assumptions behind actions, that ethics or ethical practices are largely defined for most by the situation a person finds her/himself in, and by the political system that individual works from. That is to say, most people respond to situations based on ideological assumptions and never interrogate or identify their ethical systems. Ethics are relative in the sense that they are usually a product of those ideological values people live and breathe by.

The classroom constructs a space where instructors have significant interpellative influence on students (whether they want that influence or not). The fact that classrooms exist as institutionalized apparatuses for the transmission of values and knowledge, and the fact that students come to the classroom with preconceived notions that the instructor's "authority" is institutionally validated is inescapable. Thus, it seems to me, instructors have the incredible opportunity to see their ethical systems in practice and to give students an ethical framework from which to approach academic work. However, this also means that instructors have the responsibility of calling attention to that ethical framework, and--I would argue--calling that framework continually into question, in the same way that political ideologies must always be called into question.

So, what does this opinion of mine have to do with service learning? Why have I gone on at great length about ethics without even mentioning service learning? Herein lies precisely my point: often instructors embrace service learning based on the same ambiguous notion of ethics that I described before. Service learning is to enthusiastic instructors, the "right thing" to do. My argument here is that service learning has everything to do with an ethical system and even more than other approaches to teaching, provides a framework based on ethics for students to work from. However, unless an instructor is willing to examine her/his own ethical framework and the reasons for incorporating service, service learning can have serious ethical implications that are missed by both the instructor and the students.

Thus, when I think of service learning as "re-inventing the instructor" as my title claims, I think of it providing instructors the opportunity to articulate and act on an ethical system of teaching. In order to explain what I mean by these statements, I would like to articulate my ethical system and discuss the ways in which service learning has required me to identify that system, how it has challenged my understanding of ethics, and in what ways it helps me achieve putting that system into practice.

The sources I identify for my ethical framework are marxist and other critiques of capitalism, and the i/thou philosophy or philosophy of dialogue of Martin Buber, and (mostly) Emmanuel Levinas. I struggle daily with defining my ethics and the meaning of these theories I am indebted to. But, the major tenets of my framework I would identify as:

  1. We are obligated by the other; what defines us as individuals is our being in relation to the other
  2. Our relation to the other is asymmetrical; the other always has more power than the I
  3. We are responsible for our approach to the other
  4. We live in a society/culture (the university included) that predominantly objectifies humans, and that objectification is unethical.
  5. Language is the means by which we approach the other; language is the means by which we enact ethical relations and alter unethical relations.

For me, then, my goal as an instructor is to enact this framework of ethics, and this framework has led me to service learning. Incorporating service into my classrooms and researching/analyzing others' use of service in the classroom has also defined this framework. It is this constant defining and redefining, looking for ways that service enacts and calls into question my own sense of ethics, that I am referring to when I suggest that service learning re-invents me.


My experiences with service learning and working with other instructors who are interested in service learning have revealed to me the extent to which ethics are not often examined in the curriculum. For example, I would describe most instructors as finding the appeal of service learning as rooted very much in the ideological belief that our society is fundamentally inequitable and that disenfranchised communities need help. Sending students out to do community service, perhaps encouraging them to remain committed in communities is appealing and, we would say, ethical. Our students' literacies, we feel, can be lent to communities for community benefit.

In this framework, the instructor (vis a vis the institutional power of the university) provides literacies for students which empowers students to go into the community to empower the community to be achieve some access to those literacies. I am thinking here of the primary examples of service learning in our field which have students work with literacy training or the like--where students go out into underprivileged communities to share education or to provide "voice" for those communities. In exchange for their service in the community, students are provided with additional primary research sources (they can use their community contacts and contexts as objects of study), and they receive the benefit of a more credible "ethos" based on enriched personal experience. The community becomes the vehicle of advancing their standing in the university (or at least advancing their projects in the specific composition classroom).

I do not believe this to be a re-invention of anything; I do not believe this framework to be the ideal response to a critique of capitalism or the enactment of an ethic of i/thou. I do believe my analysis of this articulation of service learning has led to my re-invention as an instructor, however.

The problem with the empowerment model for service learning is that it reproduces the very hierarchies and objectification that led me to service learning to begin with. The notion that our job as instructors is to "empower" students with institutionally valid identities, and that they can take those institutional identities into a community to empower others there while (to a certain extent) exploiting the community for fodder for research and their own professionalization enforces the construct of the university as the most legitimate game in town. The university, the insitution, in this framework, is constructed as having power; the community is constructed as disempowered and neatly understood in categories of "disenfranchised groups," or "disadvantaged peoples" or the poor, the hungry, the homeless. There is nothing transformative in this picture. By telling students that they have the privilege of their university status and further telling them that this privilege gives them entrée into communities to help the "poor," we simply further validate our power as instructors in a privileged institution, contribute to the dichotomy, no the hierarchy between the university and the community, and send students the message that they can understand people in neat categories.

Herzberg's concern with his own experiences in service learning was that he felt the students saw their interactions with the individuals they tutored as separate from the larger institutional problems behind poverty and  illiteracy (Herzberg, 1994). My response to this is that the empowerment model always ignores larger systemic questions because all empowerment suggests is broadening the possible entrée into the privilege of capitalism. Empowering people to participate in our privilege will always be isolated, will always be answered by the continued disempowerment of other groups. Communities have no power because we tell them they have no power and that they need to be empowered. We tell students they have no power in the academy, that they need to be empowered, and then they reproduce this initiation in the community.

While those who talk about and write about service learning suggest that these consequences are simply a by-product of students' preconceived notions and are difficult to overcome, but urge the continued use of service learning activities because at least some good comes out of it, I take exception to this position and would suggest that it is the unexamined ethical and ideological assumptions on the part of the instructor that ensures that these activities have these consequences.

I believe this because my experiences with students and communities have forced me to call those assumptions into questions. These experiences have re-invented me.

Over the years, I have read students' journals which have revealed their belief that they are entering communities with privilege, that their presence in the community is from a position of power, or conversely, that they are afraid to enter communities because they don't fit in because of their privilege or are threatened by the character of those communities. I have read journals after students have been working in communities and have cringed at the level of "pity" expressed. I have read that my students recognize just how disempowered the people they worked with were. As I read those journals, I recognized that my students were confirming the dominant framework for understanding communities: they saw themselves as in a "better" position, the communities were worthy of their pity and their help, they were glad that they had the opportunity to help some individuals gain access to opportunities for better lives; they recognized that the system has cracks and their answer was to help individuals avoid those cracks. In the meantime, they continued their academic work, drawing on the community as they would draw on a book, taking a position in an argument and turning that argument in for their instructor's approval.

The whole thing bothered me greatly. I didn't feel like I was initiating any transformation. I certainly didn't feel like I was doing the community any favors. In fact, I felt like I was sending students in to further objectify communities and to reinforce the distinction between the community and the university.

But, mostly, I recognized that I had to take responsibility for framing the service and framing the ethical system from which students were entering the community. Students do come with preconceived notions, and one thing we all thought service learning would accomplish would be a breakdown of those preconceived notions. But that is only possible if I, as the instructor, make those preconceived notions visible and part of the conversation BEFORE I send students out to test them. And, further, preconceived notions are certainly not going to be changed if the very activities students are participating in confirm those notions.

I had to stop, articulate what my ethical concerns were, and actively address how to enact that framework in service learning activities. How?

I would like to provide a recent example of a servicelearning activity I utilized which midstream brought all these issues to the fore and which I needed to address as the semester progressed. I think that this example demonstrates exactly my claim that service learning reinvents the instructor as it requires the instructor to examine ethical implications and address ethical systems.

The course was English 102, which at The University of Arizona is a composition course that draws on literary texts for rhetorical and contextual analysis assignments. Because I feel language (literary or not) is the means to reaching the other as well as the means to social activism, I themed my course around the concept of literature as social action/social witness. The students read short stories and a novel that dealt with social issues. Through the course of the semester, they were required to work in groups to define service placements that addressed a social issue of relevance to them. They could work in their placements as groups or individuals, and there was no strict requirement about the type of placement they found. As a group, however, they were required by the end of the semester to develop an "anthology" of literary readings for an audience impacted by the social issue. They needed to write an introduction that explained how they learned about the audience, the audience's needs, and how they saw the texts they selected as being witness for or advocacy for that audience.

It became clear to me extremely early in the semester that the ethical implications of this assignment were very much along the lines of the problematic situation I described above: my students saw their "audience" as a categorizable group of people who were disempowered; they felt the service they were engaging in was a means by which they were lending their privilege to empower the community; they felt their anthologies would represent some form of expertise on the issue and the audience based on their short service to that community. The students were not questioning the larger issues that made their service in the community a necessity, nor were they questioning their own contributions to, implicit acceptance of, a system that caused the situations they were witnessing. The students were not recognizing the great deal of power the individual's in those communities possessed because they were defining "power" from an institutional and ,further, capitalistic framework.

I was alarmed at the fact that I had failed to lay bare the ethical system I had intended them to work from. I realized that the only ethical thing for me to do was to address these issues immediately, even if it meant redesigning the whole second half of my course on the fly.

I started with an overt examination of the ethical and ideological system I was taking for granted and they had little experience with. I brought in readings specifically to put the framework on the table. As the students read the novel, we read essays that discussed the ways the characters in the novel were oppressed within a racist/classist system; more importantly, we looked at essays which demonstrated how the characters in the novel drew on their strength as a community and recognized the power they always already had outside of the dominant system to deal with that oppression. That is, the articles suggested how dominant discursive practices disempower people as they promise to empower them. The novel presented a response to that, an alternative ideological framework from which a community could be understood as strong and self-validating.

Next, I had the students read essays on "ideology" so they could understand their own preconceived notions, and then they read the Communist Manifesto. The students were required to write an essay analyzing their own reactions to the manifesto and to determine how their particular ideologies framed those reactions. We discussed the alternative frameworks that marx and engels suggest, and we examined how we might understand the communities they were working in differently from that perspective.

While I am still not entirely happy with the way that the service learning activity came out, my students were actively engaging in questioning their reactions to the communities and I watched many of them turn their attention to identifying systemic changes they knew needed to take place rather than focusing on the good they were doing for the individuals they worked with. As we discussed my ethical system, my regard for the other and the responsibility we have to approaching the other with all respect, as we discussed the way the novel and stories they read showed them how the other has much more to offer them than they do to the other, I saw a distinct shift in focus from what the students thought they were bringing into the communities to what they were learning from the people they worked with. Students began writing about how the person they were working with opened their eyes to something in life they didn't recognize before. They learned about a lot of things that were not elements of research papers, but were significant contributions to their sense of selves and human interaction. Ultimately, seeing these individuals not as victims and helpless disenfranchised categories, helped students to understand the real human costs of capitalism and systemic problems. They didn't view the individuals as people needing to be saved, but as individuals. This made the systemic problems all the more real and all the more dire for them.

What this example demonstrates for me is that it isn't so much that we need to drastically alter the models of service learning activities we engage in. However, it does demonstrate to me that contrary to what Bruce Herzberg said offhandedly during his keynote, it DOES matter what our ideological framework is when we decide how to incorporate service learning, in fact when we decide IF we should incorporate service learning. Because service learning has far reaching ethical implications, it is especially important that we proceed with great awareness and that we, as instructors are aware of what our ethical assumptions are, and further, that we make ethics and ideology an integral part of any course in which students are engaging in community service. To not do so, at least in my estimation, is unethical.