Service-Learning & Graduate Students

Allyson P. Brantley

As an undergraduate, service-learning changed my life. I know, it sounds exaggerated and cheesy, but a summer-long immersion service experience in Tijuana, Mexico confirmed my interest in the study of the history of the United States-Mexico borderlands. My experiences as a volunteer in a migrant shelter continue to shape my academic and political interests and commitments. And now, as a graduate student and teacher, I strive to integrate service and community-based learning into my own classroom. As I’ve researched and thought about this, I’ve found vibrant conversations on the role of service-learning in higher education, as well as administrators and educators deeply committed to advancing community engagement in colleges and universities across the nation. One question remains, though: where do graduate students fit into this vision? I have struggled to integrate service-learning into discussion sections for lack of time and autonomy but, as researchers and teachers have shown, there are ways in which graduate students can include service-learning projects into sections, tutorials, and mentoring activities.

But before I try to answer that question, some background on recent discussions on service-learning:

Scholarship and interest in service-learning has boomed over the past twenty years – ranging from on-campus centers dedicated to service and community-based learning to the peer-reviewed Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (founded in 1994). Most recently, in 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement published A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report and “call to action about how institutions of higher learning can embrace and act on their long-standing mission to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship.”[i] The report highlights research on the importance of civic, experiential, and service-learning in influencing college students’ and graduates’ commitments to diversity and civic involvement. Experiential and active learning, the Task Force argues, make better citizens. The report makes a clear and forceful case for across-the-board investment in new centers and initiatives for civic and service-learning. It also offers an alternative to online learning, advocating instead for hands-on, real-world problem solving and learning.

So what are we talking about when we talk about service-learning? And who can do it?

Service-learning integrates carefully organized service activities into academic curriculum, offering students leadership roles, hands-on experience in their communities, and intentional conversations and reflections about service experiences and social justice. Service-learning – as a form of “civic learning” – prepares students to be, well, better citizens in a democratic society.

This kind of learning can take many forms and can occur in any field. Colleges and universities across the country are integrating service-learning into course offerings and community engagement into campus life. For example, in May 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) adopted the United States’ first “civic learning policy” and the number of administrators or administrative staff focused on community engagement at universities has ballooned in the past decade.[ii]

And data shows that students are eager to engage in community service and community-based learning. Just this semester at Yale, sixty percent of 852 respondents to a survey of incoming freshmen indicated that they hoped to become involved in community service.[iii] But as A Crucible Moment warns, students drift away from community service during their college years. A 2009 survey of data from 24,000 students found that “the longer students stay in college, the wider the gap between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution provides opportunities for growth in this area.”[iv] The Task Force’s call to action thus centers on institutional support for service as means through which faculty might better promote service-learning and students can build connections with the communities around them.

Most discussions of service-learning and civic engagement in the classroom focus on the roles and responsibilities of administrators and faculty. So where do graduate students fit in? As teaching assistants and first-time course instructors, graduate students have unique opportunities to respond to student needs and integrate new approaches into their classrooms. Service-learning, as researchers Jonathan D. Garrison and Audrey J. Jaeger have found, enters graduate students’ pedagogies by “serendipity” – often because faculty first ask or require graduate students to integrate service activities into their discussion sections. For example, in the case of a public history course, graduate students might be responsible for chaperoning students to a local library or research facility to assist with cataloguing, as well as leading discussions that tie the service activity to learning goals and offer space for reflections.[v] Or in the case of an introductory biology course, graduate teaching assistants might help students design and teach “hands-on biology activities” for youth in local after-school programs.[vi] As Garrison and Jaeger argue, once graduate students have experience with service-learning, they are likely to intentionally integrate it into subsequent courses for professional and pedagogical reasons, seeing service-learning as important in shaping students’ motivations to learn and bringing real-life experiences to classroom discussions.[vii]

Using the resources of faculty as well as teaching and service centers like Yale’s CTL and Dwight Hall, graduate students should not shy away from integrating service-learning or community-based projects into their courses or discussion sections. Key questions to consider, however, might be: What am I hoping my students will learn? How will service-learning fit into the broader aims and learning objectives of my course? How feasible is such a project? And what impact will service-learning have on community partners and organizations? Graduate students might consider incorporating short service-learning projects into multiple section meetings, such as the creation of a database of local history resources. Longer-term projects, if so allowed by the course and instructor, could include preparing students to teach their subjects to community members and youth. I’ve included more examples and links below.

Of course, a service-learning project will always require something new, or more, of students and instructors by moving instruction and learning out of the classroom and into the community. But the benefits are many. Studies have shown that service-learning has a positive impact on learning outcomes, helping shape students’ analytical and interpersonal skills as well as their personal values and priorities. Graduate students can play an important role and, in so doing, will shape the future of service-learning.

Some Resources & Sample Projects:

Gail S. Begley, “Making Connections: Service-Learning in Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology,” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 14, no. 2 (2013): 213-220. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3867759/)

Campus Compact (A coalition of over 1,000 colleges and universities committed community-based learning and engagement): http://compact.org

The Democracy Commitment (An initiative of community colleges nationwide): http://thedemocracycommitment.org

Dwight Hall at Yale: http://dwighthall.org

Emily E. Straus and Dawn M. Eckenrode, “Engaging Past and Present: Service-Learning in the College History Classroom,” The History Teacher 47, no. 2 (February 24): 253-266. (http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/pdfs/F14_Straus_and_Eckenrode.pdf)

The Generator School Network (A wealth of resources for service-learning, with a focus on K-12 education): https://gsn.nylc.org

Indiana University Bloomington’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning: Service-Learning Program (Examples of service-learning courses and syllabi): http://citl.indiana.edu/programs/serviceLearning/index.php

Miami University’s Office of Community Engagement and Service: “Faculty Resource Guide for Service-Learning”: http://miamioh.edu/student-life/_files/documents/community-engagement/service-learning/faculty-resource-guide-sl.pdf

Michael P. Orleski, “Service Learning in Introductory Astronomy and Physics”: http://www.aps.org/units/fed/newsletters/spring2013/service.cfm

The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning: https://ginsberg.umich.edu/mjcsl/about

The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), v. (https://www.aacu.org/crucible)


 

[i] The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), v. (https://www.aacu.org/crucible)

[ii] Innovations in Civic Partnership Blog, “Massachusetts Adopts Nation’s First Statewide Civic Learning Policy,” May 8, 2014 (http://www.icicp.org/2014/05/massachusetts-adopts-nations-1st-statewide-civic-learning-policy/); and Lina D. Dostilio, “New Focus on the Community Engagement Professional,” Campus Compact Blog, August 26, 2015 (http://compact.org/resource-posts/new-focus-on-the-community-engagement-professional/).

[iii] “2019 by the Numbers: First Impressions,” The Yale Daily News, August 28, 2015.

[iv] A Crucible Moment, 5.

[v] Emily E. Straus and Dawn M. Eckenrode, “Engaging Past and Present: Service-Learning in the College History Classroom,” The History Teacher 47, no. 2 (February 24): 253-266. (http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/pdfs/F14_Straus_and_Eckenrode.pdf)

[vi] Gail S. Begley, “Making Connections: Service-Learning in Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology,” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 14, no. 2 (2013): 213-220. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3867759/)

[vii] Jonathan D. Garrison and Audrey J. Jaeger, “From Serendipity to Resolve: Graduate Student Motivations to Teach Using Service-Learning,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Spring 2014): 41-52.

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