The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2006: 35.1
Service v. Volunteerism
This time of year is planning season for me. I've given up on controlling the weeds in my garden; my husband and I have hosted our requisite series of house guests; and I've begun to feel guilty dividing my days between catching up on scholarship and taking our dog for a swim in the nearby lake. It's high summer and the fall semester is just around the corner, which means it's also time to really start considering my courses and begin syllabi construction.
In the small town where we live, community members seem acutely aware of these circadian rhythms of academia. Just the other day, the head of a local nonprofit group stopped me to ask if we might be able to sneak some work for his organization into one of my courses. This is common practice in our town, where we all seem to engage in an awkward dance of soliciting either projects or participants from one another each semester. A service project with this nonprofit group sounded ideal: I like this individual and his organization; I also liked the prospect of a ready-made project handed to one of my writing courses (more time for me and the pup to get in our daily dog paddle). “Sure,” I told him. “That would be great. What do you need?”
His idea was to use my composition students in a clean-up project around the town's community center. The students could help haul away junk that had accumulated on the grass around the center; in return, they would be invited to eat at one of our monthly community meals. In theory (and the heat of an August afternoon), this seemed like a great idea: the students could engage with the town and get a free meal; the town would have a cleaner shared space.
But here's the rub. As best as I can tell, this project has very little to do with the outcomes of my college composition course. I suppose you could make a case that moving a pile of junk from a yard to a pick-up truck is a little like the revision process, or that stacking old barn wood is kind of like crafting a paragraph, but these metaphors are a stretch—even for me.
I thought about the proposal further. What this community member wanted wasn't service; it was good, old-fashioned volunteerism. Great for operating a town; less than ideal for running a writing course.
This distinction between volunteering and doing service is crucial when considering community-engaged pedagogy. To volunteer is to give of one's self without interest or expectation of return. That's never—or at least rarely—what we want in an English course. We want our students to receive something in return for all of their efforts. And that's where service needs to replace volunteerism. Students need to receive something more than the satisfaction of contributing to a group or organization when they engage in service. They need outcomes reified, skills applied, and dispositions enhanced. Similarly, community members need an expectation that there will be a return for them as well.
Service projects, then, must walk that fuzzy line between volunteer hours and course content in a way that is advantageous for all constituents. And it will undoubtedly be different for every project. Robert Sigmon—one of the leading scholars of service learning—explains this balance through what he calls “a service and learning typology,” or what I call the “upper case/lower case dilemma.” Sigmon stipulates four categories of service learning projects, based on which element (the service or the learning) dominates: sL (learning dominates; service is secondary), Sl (service dominates; learning is secondary); sl (service and learning are both discrete, unrelated elements) and SL (service and learning are both significant and integrated).
Sigmon would probably say that my community member's project falls under the third category (sl) . He would also argue that, of these four combinations, the last is the preferred and even ideal. I don't completely agree. Yes, service and learning must be fully integrated with one another and with the stipulated course goals, but I don't think they need to exert equal force in a course. A small project—such as staging a public debate on a volatile topic or creating a single brochure on an issue you are studying in class—can have a powerful impact on a composition course. Similarly, some courses such as technical or grant writing would benefit from as many service-oriented projects as you can conceivably squeeze into a single semester, even if it means surrendering some of your outcomes.
Finally, Sigmon's third category— sl —sounds a lot more like volunteerism than service to me. The main function of a service project should be the application of course skills in a real-world environment. If a project is not fully incorporated into the learning goals of a course, it isn't really service. Perhaps more significantly, it isn't really useful—unless you need your yard cleaned.
When she isn't swimming or avoiding the weeds in her garden, Kathryn Miles is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Environmental Writing Program at Unity College. You may contact her at email@example.com with questions, comments, or ideas for future columns.
Return to Table of Contents