Getting Real
The academic commitment to service learning at Emory

Vol. 10 No. 5
April 2008

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Getting Real
The academic commitment to service learning at Emory

Further Reading

“I would love to see a day when students, staff, and faculty choose Emory because they want to pursue the finest liberal education in order to civically make a difference.”

“The setting for testing our theories of neighborhood transformation and social change is outside the classroom and in the community.”

New Covenants in Special Collections

In the Dangerous Hands of Undergraduates
The teaching mission of Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

The Keeping of Records
Alice Walker’s archive as an act of self-authentication

The rising tide of faculty responsibilities

Letter to the Editor


Nine out of ten Emory undergraduates say they participate in volunteer activities. Through organizations such as Volunteer Emory, fraternities, sororities, and faith groups they serve hot meals at homeless shelters, tutor elementary school kids, clean up urban streams, and build houses, among other things. It’s admirable, necessary work that innumerable community service organizations rely on to fulfill their missions and stretch shoestring budgets. The impact of such pure volunteerism, though, is like taking aspirin for pain: quick but fleeting relief that leaves intact the underlying insult, be that poverty, discrimination, access to health care—take your pick.

“By no means is there anything wrong with this type of work,” says Michael Rich, an associate professor of political science and director of the Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP). “But I think we can do more—universities can do more—than just provide volunteer service exposure for students.”

One option Rich has in mind is service learning, a combination of conventional coursework and community engagement. In fall 2006, approximately 187 courses at Emory University incorporated service learning or other forms of community engagement. In a service learning course, students are required to participate in organized community work, while coursework, discussion, and assignments are geared to reflect and amplify students’ immediate experiences of civic responsibility and their understanding of a flesh-and-blood community.

The combination worked to surprising effect for Matthew Archibald, assistant professor of sociology, who launched his first service learning course several years ago with mild expectations. “I thought I’d let them volunteer and they could come back, tell their story, connect it to the class, and that would be that,” he says about his Organizations and Society class. What he hadn’t foreseen was the high degree of enthusiasm, scholastic rigor, and eye-catching presentations from his students. The sharpest among them proffered detailed analyses of the organization they worked for, its primary actors, and how it was embedded in the community. Archibald doubts they could have reached such a level of critical insight had they not ventured beyond Emory’s walls.

He even began to approach his own research a little differently. Because he’d asked his students to volunteer, he decided to volunteer himself, a kind of empathetic gesture intended to increase his own understanding of the inner workings of community groups.

“Just as I’d wanted my students to experience community work firsthand, I wanted to experience it, too,” he says. “I used to sit in my office and use computers to map trajectories of [community service] organizations, which was necessary because there’s so much quantitative work to be done. But it was totally abstract. I was not asking questions about how they were really serving their communities. The service learning component of the course pushed me into asking those questions because I realized there was a piece that I was missing.”

By stepping out and working with the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, he established new personal connections within Atlanta’s community service network that wouldn’t have been possible from behind a desk at Emory. Those contacts enabled Archibald, a relative newcomer to the area, to expand the horizons of his research on social movements and organizations.

Moving beyond “me”

In Spanish 317 (Writing, Context, and Community), all writing assignments relate to volunteer work that students perform in Atlanta’s Hispanic community, whether it’s helping children improve language skills or smoothing the naturalization process for Latin American immigrants. “I could have students write all day in different styles and they’d learn how to write, but it wouldn’t be real for them,” says Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, a senior lecturer in Spanish who teaches the course. “Here, everything becomes a lot more alive, more real. I put them in situations where they can learn about themselves, the world around them, and about the ‘other’ in an effective way.”

At first, students’ papers invariably describe their service work looking outward from their own, very personal position. “The person they describe is obscured by the intervention of their own voice and perspective,” Hartfield-Mendez wrote in a recent journal article in progress. Gradually, they move toward a realization that the views of people they interact with are equally valid, and they “begin to observe in new ways, and with a new awareness of their own perspective as relative.” In every semester since she first began teaching the class, Hartfield-Mendez has observed that students have “telescoped their sense of being related to the people in their service sites.” They progress from the limited, “self”-centered engagement toward more meaningful, cooperative relationships with members of the community they assist. They might even reconsider their relationships with the varied and various communities in which they themselves live and work.

The authenticity that service learning engenders can exert appreciable influence on students’ educational and professional aspirations. “I’ve had students who were pre-professional and not planning to become teachers tell me that because of their service learning experience in my course, they were going to take a couple years and work for Teach for America or change their career paths to become educators, because they understood the importance of public education in the community,” says Karen Falkenberg, a lecturer in educational studies who teaches several service learning courses. Archibald reports similar re-examinations, as does Rich, who ascribes to service learning the capacity not just to clarify career choices, but to illuminate ethical corridors and serve as a bridge connecting students’ passions with meaningful action.

Service learning gained traction at Emory in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the advent of the Theory Practice Learning initiative (TPL) at Emory College. TPL was Emory’s version of the wave of experience-based pedagogy sweeping the country at the time. In essence, the program was designed to help faculty integrate classroom instruction with hands-on experience and community action. “It’s rooted in the theories of John Dewey and pragmatism and that part of the liberal arts tradition to educate a participatory, ethically engaged citizenry,” explains Bobbi Patterson, a senior lecturer in religion and the driving force behind TPL’s emergence. “For many years I harped on the idea that a student can gain educational capital by taking theoretical notions and working with them in real-world contexts.”

Dewey, an educational reformer and leader of the progressive movement during the first half of the twentieth century, believed that higher education was most effective when it included experiential elements in which students shared their learning with the community beyond their institutions. He wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”

Service learning has become a common practice in higher education, but it is not universally praised. Criticism ranges from the practical (it robs time from established curricula with no proven benefit) to the political (it imposes a particular, biased viewpoint on students). The shots come from both sides of the political spectrum. The phrase “participatory democracy” Patterson mentions, for example, has its roots in the liberal political movement of the 1960s, which raises concern among conservatives. Conversely, some liberals consider some of the volunteerism promoted by service learning as an excuse for government to cut back on social programs. There’s also the assertion that many students volunteer primarily to build their résumés and increase marketability, and that for most the practice doesn’t become a habit after graduation.

“In our blood line”

It’s a tricky path from good deeds to good citizenship, and it takes time. At first, says Patterson, students don’t know how to link the theories in the classroom with what they see in the field. “That interchange, even in the best pedagogical situations, is tough to grasp and then actualize or move through. Our students are usually very good at ideas and they’re very good at being nice. They’re not so strong at bringing those two together, and that’s what a truly academic commitment to this would be.”

One thing students figure out quickly is that community service is a collaborative and rather complex affair—not, as many imagined, a one-way dispensing of goodwill to “fix” people with good intentions for a few hours each week. During regular reflection periods in class, Falkenberg frequently hears students admit that they didn’t know nearly as much as they’d thought about what it took to truly help a community. “By the end of the course, a lot of them say, I had no idea how much I was going to learn from this experience. It’s a big eye-opener for them,” she says.

As more of the types of activities that TPL had promoted were funded and carried out through other avenues at Emory, TPL, now part of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum, came to play a less prominent role than it once did, explains Hartfield-Mendez, but its philosophy has permeated Emory’s culture. As Patterson puts it, it’s “in our blood line,” and its core values extend well beyond the college. With the exception of the medical school, every academic unit at Emory offers service learning classes. The Vision Statement and Strategic Plan pay homage to the ethically engaged university and the importance of strong community interactions, while funding for programs that promote community engagement are on the rise.

This is as it should be, says Rich: “If we are the training ground for the next generation of leaders, as every institution of higher learning claims to be, then we have an obligation to provide educational experiences to prepare students to exercise that kind of leadership rather than let them figure it out on their own after they get their diploma.”—S.F