Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Service for What? For Whom?

The House of Representatives last week passed the GIVE Act, which would, among other things, provide up to $6 billion in federal funds to increase AmeriCorps, expand volunteers to 250,000 (up from 75,000 currently), increase education funding, expand service-learning for K-12 education and colleges and universities, and expand service options for seniors and veterans. This bill is analogous to one currently in the Senate, the Serve America Act, which will most likely replace the House version. The Senate version was endorsed by both Obama and McCain back during the campaign on 9/11 in NYC. The likely money is that it will pass later this week.

I want to focus on one small aspect of this bill, what has been termed
“Campuses of Service” in the bill. The short story is that each state will submit the names of three institutions (one 4-year public, one 4-year private, and one 2-year institution). The Corporation for National and Community Service then chooses 25 “Campuses of Service” out of all of these submissions. There are six criteria for judging the submissions; I want to focus on the first three (the fourth has to do with work study, and numbers five and six focus on graduates going into public service employment and careers):

  • the number of service-learning courses offered
  • the number and percentage of students who were enrolled in the service-learning courses
  • the percentage of students on the campus engaging in activities providing community services, the quality of such activities, and the average amount of time spent, per student, engaged in such activities

What becomes immediately clear is that such criteria are neatly aligned to the Carnegie Foundation’s voluntary “community engagement” classification. This is the diffusion model of institutionalizing service-learning across higher education, most clearly seen in a highly popular rubric developed by Andy Furco. I have in my previous work contrasted this incrementalist vision with a transformational vision.

There is nothing wrong with either institutionalization model or the entire “Campuses of Service” premise if one believes that we in higher education actually know what we mean by “service” and “service-learning”; i.e., if in fact we actually know how to do it, how to teach it, and how to assess it. If, moreover, we know how to actually do the “4 Rs”: reflection, reciprocity, respect, and relevance.

The conventional wisdom is that we do. According to the most recent
HERI survey, faculty have overwhelming become attuned to community engagement, with 88 percent believing that colleges should be actively involved with local community issues and the majority finding it "very important" or "essential" to "instill in students a commitment to community service." Campus Compact is thriving, and President Obama’s consistent calls for a culture of service makes the bandwagon pretty darn big.

Yet I am not so sure. For if one begins to dig down into the details, it becomes pretty muddy pretty fast. The “campuses of service” and Carnegie classification models are deeply and distinctly campus-centric. As Amy Driscoll, the point person for this initiative at Carnegie,
acknowledges, community involvement and impact are the least amenable to institutions’ documented success. Or as Randy Stoeker, a key scholar in the community-based research movement, ruefully notes in a wonderful forthcoming book with Elizabeth Tryon, Unheard Voices, “By not knowing what service learning does to the communities it purports to serve, we risk creating unintended side effects that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the problems those communities suffer from…We may be setting into motion dialectical processes that ultimately undermine the entire effort of service learning.”

The federal model is an attempt to develop a useful proxy variable for service through sheer force of numbers. The more courses, the more students, the more hours, then, seemingly, the better the service. But this is silly and dangerous. It promotes quantity over quality, through-put of students rather than sustained impact, and sky-high numbers rather than on-the-ground changes. Stoeker and Tryon’s work, for example, found that the short-term nature of service-learning was one of the major problems faced by community partners. This needs to be acknowledged.

Even the service-learning field itself is worried. A
“democratic engagement white paper” getting lots of recent attention is a summary of a 2008 conference at the Kettering Foundation of the major players in the community engagement movement. The conference’s central guiding question was: “Why has the civic engagement movement in higher education stalled and what are the strategies needed to further advance institutional transformation aimed at generating democratic, community-based knowledge and action?” The conference attendees provided numerous responses (such as the lack of clear definitions and high fragmentation) before propounding a new model of “democratic engagement” rather than simply “civic engagement.” While laudatory, the binary nature of its vision and guiding assumptions of the academy and the community suggests, at least to me, that it will not have much traction for truly changing actual practices and policies in higher education. (I am writing more on this white paper for another time.)

So what’s my point? My point is that while the key players in the service-learning movement worry that their deeper vision of transforming higher education has not come to fruition, the movement they have launched is only further gaining steam. As I wrote a couple years back, my sense is that the service-learning movement is about to get swamped by the very institution it attempted to storm. This is of course not a one-way street. Higher education has of course embraced important aspects of community engagement. But look again at that HERI survey: Two-thirds of the faculty surveyed felt that community service should be considered when admitting applicants. Um. That’s really nice. But some states require every single high school student to perform community service in order to graduate.
Maryland has been doing this since 1997. So does every Maryland applicant now have an advantage in the college admittance race?

More likely, what is being expressed by faculty is an idealistic and idealized sentiment of “service.” It is a sentiment that sounds great in rhetoric but has highly deleterious consequences
in practice. It privileges a whole host of already hierarchical relationships about who serves whom, to what end, and for whose benefit. In the end, it all too often becomes all about the faculty teaching, the privileged college students volunteering, and the colleges which get the attention from all this activity. Not because anyone is doing anything “wrong,” per se. It’s just that the system as set up highlights and rewards exactly the wrong criteria for determining quality and impact.

Which takes me back, finally, to these “campuses of service.” What we are basically seeing is the institutionalization of service-learning exactly in the wrong way as envisioned by the founders of the movement. This is goal displacement, from attempting to make a difference to attempting to count the numbers. It is the end product of the quantification of the field. It is a mistake. All that is counted are students, courses, and hours. There is no community. There is no impact. What is left unquestioned, and thus unanswered are just the basic questions: ”Service-learning for whom?” and “Service-learning for what?”


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Nicki said...

Great and interesting post!! I am an undergraduate student at Marquette University in Milwuakee and employed by the Service Learning Office here. Our program is celebrating its 15th anniversary this Spring, and we are proud to say that we've grown from just ten courses offering Service Learning to now 65-70 each semester. As you stated, it is interesting to consider "All that is counted are students, courses, and hours. There is no community. There is no impact."
Our program does, of course, count courses and students and hours. But beyond simple statistics, our staff checks in with the community organizations at the end of each semester to reflect on the experience, and students are almost always required to reflect on their experience in class, through discussion and papers. Furthermore, our program creates five reflection sessions each semester so that students can come and discuss their experiences with others and form a stronger connection between class content and community service.
I cannot speak for all programs, but the program at Marquette certainly does go beyond quantitative data. You stated, "What is left unquestioned, and thus unanswered are just the basic questions: ”Service-learning for whom?” and “Service-learning for what?" Service learning is done for the student and for the community, and to help students gain a broader understanding of societal issues. Although not all students are able to successfully make these strong connections, many do, and their Service Learning experience has a lifelong impact. I very much support the bills in the House and Senate, and hope that Wisconsin submits Marquette as a leading campus for service.

Tania Smith said...

This is insightful and timely, Dan. I am quoting this blog post and discussing some of your other publications in an article I am submitting for publication today, about rhetoric and the service-learning movement. - Tania Smith, University of Calgary, Canada.

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