'The Unheard Voices'

Every semester, "service learning" programs send students out to local community organizations to get their hands dirty, putting to use the concepts they learn in the classroom. The intended outcome is a symbiotic relationship between the college and the community.

August 4, 2009

Every semester, "service learning" programs send students out to local community organizations to get their hands dirty, putting to use the concepts they learn in the classroom. The intended outcome is a symbiotic relationship between the college and the community. In The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning(Temple University Press), Randy Stoecker, professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, and Elizabeth Tryon, community partner specialist for the Human Issues Studies Program at Edgewood College’s School of Integrative Studies, explore the relationship between college and community, asking whether the latter benefits as much as service-learning proponents say.

With the help of Amy Hilgendorf, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in human development and family studies, Stoecker and Tryon tapped into community organization staff members' empirical knowledge by publishing interviews that were conducted and analyzed by service-learning students. Issues ranging from supervision to training to poor student performance are addressed, with concluding recommendations for ways for colleges and community organizations to make better use of each other.

Stoecker and Tryon spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the book:

Q: “The results of our current institution-centric version of service learning,” you write, leave too many organizations “dissatisfied with the outcomes of service learning and too many communities underserved.” How would you respond to service learning faculty who may be reluctant to believe their students’ work might actually be doing more harm than good?

RS: All responsible faculty will consider the question of community outcomes to be a legitimate research topic, and we see our research process to be as important as the research findings. One of our main points is that we need to start asking about community outcomes in more sophisticated ways. The usual evaluation process, when one is used at all, is the superficial satisfaction survey. When you ask community workers if they are satisfied with students, they almost always say yes. But when you ask them what those students accomplished, too frequently the answer is "not much." A number of us are now moving to a civic engagement model where we map out project goals -- changing a public policy or growing an organization or refurbishing a playground -- and then we evaluate the extent to which we achieved the goal and different strategies impacted that achievement. This forces us, first of all, to have actual goals for service learning rather than just placing volunteers with agency staff who have to struggle to constantly find things for them to do. Second, it gives us something to actually measure or document.

ET: Some of those faculty can legitimately claim they are not doing harm, and kudos to them for either being lucky or prepared. However, so many of the 67 organization staff we interviewed had concerns about student skills, cultural competency, and burdens on their staff time, that this is documented by us as well as several other recent studies. It’s not that a negative experience always happens, but we feel it happens often enough that it is of value to retool the process to increase the quality of the impact on the community. An authentic, reciprocal partnership helps encourage a richer and deeper engagement experience for the student. And, as we state in the book, the dialectical process will ultimately winnow out the programs and faculty that ignore those issues, because eventually the community organization will decide it’s not worth the hassle to keep taking those students.

Q: Of course every service learning program must be tailored to institution and community needs, but can you point to some baseline concerns faculty should be mindful of?

RS: There are only two baseline concerns: show up in the community, and listen. Of all the concerns we heard from community workers, the one we heard the most is that they wanted the faculty, not just the students, to be involved in the community. And then they wanted the curriculum to serve the work that the students were doing. Minimally, they wanted to see a syllabus before they saw a student. Maximally, they wanted to be involved in constructing the actual syllabus.

ET: Basically, even though “of course” it is common sense to tailor the service-learning project to fit both institutional and community needs, what we found in practice was that this maxim was not being observed by faculty in many cases.

Q: You mention throughout the book that one of the more provocative, and unexpected, revelations to come out of your research is just how problematic the short-term model of service learning can be. Yearlong commitments typically fare better, you write, but short-term programs are not necessarily doomed. How can short-term programs improve?

RS: The first thing we can do to make the best out of the situation is to not think that making the best out of the situation will be good enough. Short-term service learning will almost always shortchange the community, except perhaps in the project-based model defined below. If we have a long-term civic engagement strategy, we can find places for short-term civic engagement as a sub-strategy. If faculty make a real commitment to an organization for an extended period, they can incorporate short term placements along the way. The faculty person provides the continuity in this case.

ET: So, say you have a request from the local community radio station for help with a marketing approach to target the college-age demographic, and a business strategy professor who wants to give all his students a real-life project every semester. The first semester is spent meeting with the station staff to determine what research needs to be done to enhance the fundraising capacity of the station, doing the research, and then using the results to create a marketing plan. The following term, students can implement the suggestions they and the station decide are the best from the previous semester, and the station is ready to roll out a new campaign. Of course this approach only works when the organization has other funding means too, and is not about to go under!

There are also schools moving to a year-long course model in this area. More than half the course offerings are 2-semester, 2-credits each. Students can accept this if it is worked into their degree program, and often find their Human Issues course the most meaningful of any they took in college.

Another way to mitigate the burden of short-term placements is to create strategic partnerships with organizations that have a diversity of project opportunities. That way, if an intern or two are giving a good 150 hours of real work, sending a class of 25 students to do 5-10 hours of service is more amenable, based on the organization staff we spoke to. Those interns can even supervise the short-term students, rather than burdening the regular staff.

RS: Also, as we discuss in the book, project-based service learning -- where everyone collaboratively designs a doable short-term project with documentable outcomes -- allows for getting the most out of those short-term students.

ET: These would be the less complex items on an organization’s to-do list, that aren’t direct service but things they would like to accomplish if they had the staff capacity.

Q: With a U.S. president deliberate in his promotion of both service and higher education, and with studies showing that more faculty consider civic engagement an important goal of undergraduate education, do you worry that a continued push for service learning programming might result in focus on quantity but not quality?

RS: Yes. It is intriguing that research faculty have to jump through stringent hoops protecting human subjects in order to do simple interviews, even after they have gone through years of training. But anyone with zero training in community development can send students (who have even less training, if that is possible) out to do actual interventions with community people. Now, putting an institutional review process into place for service learning is far messier than it sounds, because it would need to protect the rights of students to work with social action groups, but it is still something we should consider. And we also need to rethink how we prepare faculty and students for civic engagement. This is, ultimately, community development work, and it should require community development training. That is as true for the natural scientist sending students out to do water testing for a community as it is for an education professor sending students out to do tutoring. If you don't understand community systems, the chances of making messes are pretty high in either case. For students, it requires training in nonprofit organizations, in communication skills, and in the particular skills they will be doing -- so child development for students tutoring kids, research methods for students doing a door to door survey, etc.

ET: Civic engagement is a wonderful direction for education to be going in general but, like many such well-intentioned ideas, needs training and evaluation systems in place to ensure the implementation doesn’t cause more issues than the problems they are meant to solve.

Q: Randy, you talk early in the book about wanting to be a “useful academic.” Can you talk about the – maybe unexpected – ways service learning played into that?

RS: When I was a second-year graduate student -- over 20 years ago -- I was brought up short by Tim Mungavan, a community activist who challenged me to become more than just another student exploiting his community by taking people's time to mine data on which to build my career. Learning from him brought me into the field of community organizing, and the legacy of Saul Alinsky, one of whose many famous quotes says "Another word for academic is irrelevant." Those two people have haunted me ever since. And ever since I have been trying to find a way to move beyond exploitative relations with the community and then surpass irrelevance. So, from the very beginning, my focus has been on how to build the community's power. Thus, I approach service learning from that goal, not from the institutionalized goal of enhancing student learning. Consequently, service learning has never been satisfying to me, because it's never been built on a foundation of community change rather than student development. But, in the end, I'm no better than those that I criticize because, when we did the project that led to this book, I was shocked to find that common practices I had fallen into -- sending my students out to the community without me, accepting short-term service learning as a viable practice, not setting clear goals for service learning assignments -- were the very things that bothered community workers and hindered community impact the most. The research gave me the opportunity to discover I have not fully surpassed either exploitation or irrelevance.

Q: After compiling from community organizers opinions and messages that you admit might be tough for service learning advocates to stomach, are you optimistic about the future of service learning’s role in higher education and its impact on communities?

RS: Strangely enough, I am. First, Temple University Press published our book. Second, I just returned from a gathering of rural service learning faculty, and the entire weekend we spent talking about and thinking about community outcomes. It is the first time I have been in a service learning gathering where someone didn't try to shift the focus back to students. We have had the good fortune to be invited to talk to people across the country, and even a little overseas, about the issue of community impact. Organizations like Community Campus Partnerships for Health are focusing on community impact. National Campus Compact is making community impact a central topic in their work. The minuscule literature on community impact in service learning seems to be perking up just a little bit in the past year. The wave is coming. It will be a struggle. The bias toward student learning will not go away.

The most important things we need to work on next are the theoretically-informed strategic issues between student learning and community outcomes. Our book argues that this is a dialectical process. It is not a simple win-win process. As long as institutions of higher education practice a model that sends out untrained students to get a disciplinary-driven education on the backs of already exploited and oppressed communities, while those communities need already trained and skilled students to support community-driven development goals, the system won't work. So we have to work both sides. We build community demands for better service from faculty and students, and build the changes in the institutions necessary to meet those demands. With the pressures coming from a growing contingent of community-engaged faculty and service learning staff, powerful national organizations, and communities themselves, institutions won't be able to resist much longer.

ET: Yes, me too. I agree that the meetings I’ve been to since we submitted the manuscript for publication have had more emphasis on reciprocity and respect in campus-community relationships.

I came to an academic career rather recently, having spent 35 years as a touring and recording jazz artist, the last 15 of which I also ran a grant-funded organization in music education. So I recognize and empathize with the urgency in the eyes of community organization staff we’ve been talking to. I feel it’s a responsibility and a privilege that the academy, with all the resources both public and private that are devoted to their survival, keeps asking the question “Education for what?” to stay relevant in our fast- changing society. Especially now, with economic challenges being harder than most of us alive today have ever faced, it just makes so much sense to create educational models that serve the legitimate dual purpose of supporting rigorous study and creating community capital to improve quality of life for all.


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