Getting Real

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.

—Bobbi Patterson, Senior Lecturer in Religion

Vol. 10 No. 5
April 2008

Return to Contents

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


Academic Exchange: In 1989, you began the Theory Practice Learning initiative at Emory. Can you sum up its ideas?

Bobbi Patterson: Theory Practice Learning was Emory’s version of a wave of experienced-based pedagogy sweeping the country at that time. It was tied to notions of civic participatory democracy, and 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. For nine years I headed TPL, which is basically teaching faculty how they can teach theory while respectfully engaging communities as partners in learning. TPL is now a program within the Center for Teaching and Curriculum in the College strongly allied with the Office of University Community Partnerships. It has become a regularly practiced pedagogy across the university. Now it’s in our bloodline. People seem to be doing all kinds of courses that have experiential components.

AE: Would you like to see community outreach and service efforts coordinated through some more centralized mechanism?

BP: I would love to see something more centralized and more integrative of the various offices and programs engaged in similar work. Volunteer Emory has been a fantastic partner, but it remains outside the general academic curriculum. I’d like to see Emory create a hub, quite typical in universities across the country. Stanford, Penn, Michigan, and Michigan State all have centers for community-based or service learning. I could see the OUCP becoming that kind of hub initiating and coordinating the varieties of pedagogies and research projects engaged with communities across our campus. It could help train faculty and graduate students to do this work in scholarly, serious ways—the scholarship of teaching. We need some centralized mechanism, or sites end up overrun with students from four or five different courses, all of which converge to want to “help.” That’s a problem. Another problem is that there is a lot of theory behind the pedagogy of experienced-based learning, and if you’re not aware of that you’re not going to make maximum use of this kind of experience. You have to be able to frame it.

AE: Clearly, it’s not nearly enough for teachers to simply send students out into the community and then come back and report about it.

BP: I call that niceness. I’m not a big fan of niceness. I’m a big fan of justice and ethical engagement in partnerships among communities and scholars. I’m for rational, analytical, critical-thinking partnerships. It takes carefully planned ,sequenced pedagogical modules. Students don’t know how to bridge the theories in the classroom with what they see in the street, or center, or neighborhood. That interchange, theory and practice, even in the best pedagogical situations, is tough to grasp. Our students are very good at ideas and they’re very good at being nice. They’re less strong in bringing those two together.

AE: How can service learning be applied in the sciences?

BP: One of the innovators at Emory was Preetha Ram, now dean of science initiatives. She taught analytical chemistry by testing the streams that ran through Lullwater Park. She also had her class take Fernbank Elementary School kids to a stream to teach them the basics of analyzing the water quality. That’s the type of thing that can generate interest in science with urban kids. Pat Marstellar has done major work with science education involving Emory graduate students and undergrads. Their work along with the science education approaches of Bob DeHaan are excellent models of how science unfolds in experience-based models.

AE: What, in a larger sense, is the importance of service learning?

BP: The major purpose is rooted in the founding notions of higher education in the United States, which started in the mother schools of the country whose dreams were to create democratic citizens, liberally educated and committed to activating the common good. This is our founding legacy, and it differs significantly from the German model of the research university, which now holds sway. If democracy is going to survive in its most participatory thriving forms, this is crucial. That’s what it’s about. There’s a lot at stake as far as I’m concerned.

AE: Would you favor an Emory-wide requirement for students to take service learning classes?

BP: 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. It’s one of our core legacies of heart and mind, and there are others. If the place carried that message by what we did in classes and partnered with communities and through research, you wouldn’t have to require it.