Service-Learning and Cultural Critique: Towards a Model for Activist Expository Writing Courses (BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SERVICE-LEARNING IN THE BENTLEY EXPOSITORY WRITING PROGRAM)
My own use of service-learning projects has been limited so far to two courses, not because of any reservations about the value of service-learning as an educational program. On the contrary, I think service-learning is the most valuable and exciting new idea in education since advent of the computer, at least. The benefits seem endless, but the most general and important, I think, is the enthusiasm generated in students (and teachers like myself as well) by the tangible evidence that learning matters and has direct application in addressing problems in the world outside the campus. I've always felt that one of my biggest challenges as an educator was to make learning possible by convincing students that what I want them to 1earn matters, and service-learning by its very nature does that more successfully than any of my professorial pep talks ever have. The great majority of students that I have assigned service-learning projects to have, regardless of their initial attitudes, come away from those projects with a sense that they had participated in something profoundly important. Some of those students, Perhaps more than I know about, have sought out other service-learning projectts or continued to perfom community service outside their work at school.
As someone trained in critical theory and cultural critique, however, my enthusiasm has been accompanied by a lot of anxiety over how service-learning can be most usefully and responsibly implemented. My worries have focused largely on exactly how service and learning should work together to enhance each other.
This dilemma can be addressed in different ways according to the course. At a institution like Bentley College, stressing business education, students are often learning skills in management, accounting, public relations, marketing, and so forth, which have direct application in the institutions where they perform community service. In my own expository writing classes, which stress critical thinking and the summary, analysis, and synthesis of texts, the connections are not so clear.
Most obviously, there is a danger that community service and learning become separate, though perhaps equally valuable and rewarding, activities for students, connected only superficially by some writing assignment I concoct. (I think that would be a fair description of what happened with my first experiment in service learning. ) On a subtler level, I'm concerned that community service, however immediately beneficial to specific people, could work in a larger way as a kind of volutary band-alding of social problems that not only ignores the causes of problems but lets off the hook those responsible for the problems. I'm equally concerned that the learning side of the program could work in the same way, by disseminating explanations of social problems that also focus on symptoms, in the worst cases blaming the victims, letting those responsible off the hook again.
Let me hasten to say that by "those responsible" I mean all of us, who through direct participation in institutional actions, policy-making, ideas, and attitudes, or indirectly, through silence and compliance, offer support to pervasive economic, social, political, and
cultural systems that produce the kinds of problems that community service addresses. This sounds like sweeping and empty generalization, perhaps. Unless we keep this large, ultimately cultural, view of the problems and our own complex relations to them in mind as we design and implement practical service-learning projects, however, and unless we make efforts to make students see that their relations to comminity service are complex and problematic as well, I think we run a very real risk of doing unintentional harm that may outweigh the intentional good.
My own response--it would be presumptious to call it a solution--has been to link community service projects with cultural critique. The general aim is to get to students to begin recognizing their own positions within cultural systems that they need to analyze and critique, and that they have to do so inevitably from within. Hence one of the requisites for critique is constant concern for the ways in which one's own approach is always shaped by the very systems and practices one wants to think about. To offer a metaphor that I've used in trying to explain this to my students, the service part of the projects treats symptoms, while the learning part aims at diagnosing the disease--only in this case everyone is infected to some extent, and the doctor's judgment may be impaired by the infection.
The immediate applicability of cultural critique to community service lies in its insistence on seeking out the links between those who provide services and those who receive them. It asks students to think about the relations between the life and career dreams they are pursuing at college and problems like homelessness and illiteracy, and to see those problems as more than individual failures in a land of equal opportunity. In searching for connections between social and institutional practices, economic and educational systems, the construction of class, gender, and race in the production of social subjects, cultural critique
tries to establish analytical paradigms that lead to social trasformations, that will eventually obviate rather than repatr safety nets that serve as apologies for the inadequacies of late capitalism.
The methods of cultural critique do not come all in a fifteen-minute talk or a day or a semester, of course. On the contrary, cultural critique is of necessity an ongoing project that fails if it fails to incessantly re-examine its own premises. In the time remaining here, then, I want to try to illustrate the principle of service learning as service plus cultural critique by describing a service learning project I used this past fall in an expository writing course.
The project focused on the analysis of homeless shelters and soup kitchens as public spaces. The general point was to help students see how public spaces are constructed, not just as material places, but sign clusters operating within larger cultural systems of meaning and belief. Students were divided into groups of four or five. I gave the groups packets of general information on the Bentley Service Learning Program and then asked them to contact Service Volunteer Center to explore various opportunities available. As groups they then planned two service visits, choosing institutions according to the interests, and in some cases the particular skills, of the group members. As it turned out, one group worked in a soup kitchen close to campus, another in a public nursing home, and two groups worked at homeless shelters, one a family shelter in Boston and the other a shelter for men in a suburb.
While the groups were planning and carrying out their service visits, I had them read two essays that offer cultural critques of public spaces. Both essays dealt with what I took for granted would be familiar spaces for students--McDonald's restaurants and shopping malls--so that they could focus on the conceptual frameworks offerred by the essays rather than the information. As a first writing assignment, I had the students summarize the essays
with precisely that in mind, asking them to focus on the way the writers went about analyzing the two spaces. The two essays happen to work together nicely in that way, because they each argue by playing off two analogies against one another, but analogies that work in slightly different ways. Joseph Trimmer compares the history of McDonald's to two familiar narratives, the "American dream story" and The Wizard of Oz, as a way of suggesting the different meanings McDonalds has for its corporate owners and the consumers who use it. John Fiske looks at the shopping mall by comparing it to two other kinds of public spaces, a church and a battlefield, in order to suggest different ways of thinking about "mall rats," teenagers who hang out at malls, not to shop, but rather to socialize and to consume the images rather than goods. In one scenario, Fiske suggests, the mall rats appear to be heretics intruding where they've no right to be, but in the other they look like rebels fighting for territory unjustly denied them. The point of the essays is not simply that public spaces look different from different points of view, but that as sites of cultural practice such spaces are constructed through negotiations between various groups who use them in accordance with their different interests and perspectives.
The student groups then were to write a collaborative essay drawing upon the strategies used in the two essays to analyze the institutions where they worked as volunteers. I think collaborative work is valuable in a number of ways if it's managed well, and it seemed especially appropriate here as a way of encouraging a cooperative spirit in the service end of the assignment as well. I encouraged students to talk to as many people associated with the institutions as possible, and told them they were free to consult other sources and people on campus if they wished.
This invitation to expand the assignment was a habitual gesture; I hardly expected any of the groups to do that. I was wrong. In the past I've occasionally had an industrious or exceptionally engaged student who exceeded the demands of an assignment, but this time I was stunned to see that all four of the class groups had done so in various ways, doing additional reading and using ideas from other course like sociology and psychology courses to refine their essays. In addition I found that all the collaborative essays reflected a firm understanding of the idea of translating conceptual paradigms from one topic of study to another, which I've found generally to be the most difficult idea to get across in expository writing courses.
The group that worked in the nursing home found, through a series of informal interviews with workers and residents, that the former group conceptualized the space as a kind of hospital, whereas the latter tended to think of it as a kind of family home. This difference, they discovered, led to all sorts of conflicts over the organization of space in the building and the scheduling of activities, conflicts which tended to be exacerbated by misunderstandings of motives on both sides. Similarly, the group that visited the soup kitchen found that the workers there tended to think of the establishment as a free restaurant with a limited menu, while the guests thought of it again as a home with a large dining room. This group also observed conflicts and misunderstandings, and concluded that these had less to do with procedures or the quantity and quality of food than with modes of communication. A guest who became indignant at being told that the house rule was "one serving to a customer," for instance, was perfectly satisfied when he was told instead that he couldn't have a second helping because that wouldn't leave food to go around.
Both the groups that worked in homeless shelters were struck by differences among the guests rather than between guests and workers. In the suburban shelter for men a group noticed that the guests tended to cluster in two factions who were consistently polite when they interacted but tended to talk disparagingly of each other among themselves. By talking to various guests they found that one group was composed primarily of men who seemed altogether socially disaffiliated, and thought of the shelter as a more or less permanent home, while the other group was comprised of men who had recently become homeless, usually because of extended unemployment, and thought of their situation as a temporary one that they were actively working to change. In the family shelter on the south side of Boston, on the other hand, all the residents considered themselves temporary and their homelessness conditional--by talking to administrators of the shelter, students discovered that potential guests were carefully screened to determine that their need for the facilities would probably not exceed two months. Among these guests, as well, however, the students found what seemed to be factions that divided along racial lines, and found that white residents tended to think of others, particularly African-American families, as "welfare cases" who were at the shelter to stay.
What impressed me as much as the students' success in coming to grips with an analytical approach and applying it thoughtfully was the recognition, again on the part of all four groups, that they themselves, as volunteers, formed part of group within these institutions with interests and agendas of their own. The students that observed some conflicts between those working in the nursing home and soup kitchen
Try to think of more familiar public spaces that you might compare the shelter to. Like Fiske and Trimmer, though, you should try different comparisons to see what aspects of the
shelter each seems to account for or fail to account for, and use these to build a coherent analysis. Alternatively, if you have a chance to find out enough about the lives of the people at the shelter, you might try, as Trimmer does, to see how those experiences compare to stories we tell ourselves about life in America.