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Research on Student Civic Outcomes in Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Methods
Date Reviewed: January 25, 2018
Research on Student Civic Outcomes in Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Methods is the third volume in a series dedicated to research on service learning. This volume, with its timely focus on civic outcomes, is divided into three sections. It begins with an introduction to how student learning outcomes are embedded in service learning, then moves on to various theoretical frameworks by which one can situate research. It concludes with some nuts and bolts aspects of conducting research on student civic outcomes in service learning, defined as “a course or competency-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in mutually identified service activities that benefit the community, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility” (10).
All three chapters in Part One are useful to the novice in this research area. “Introduction to Research on Service Learning and Student Civic Outcomes” provides a taxonomy of service learning courses, with essential attributes and levels of development for instructors to improve the quality of civic learning opportunities within service learning courses along with clear factors for individual as well as institutional research and assessment. “Student Civic Outcomes in Higher Education” offers a helpful literature review of civic outcomes, while ”Student Civic Learning through Service Learning” concludes Part One with two pertinent questions: (1) What do we know about cultivating civic learning through service learning courses? (2) What do we still need to learn about how the variables of course design influence civic learning? One key point repeated in each chapter is that civic outcomes in service learning should focus on learning with others and not doing for others.
Part Two explores research on civic outcomes in service learning through multiple disciplines and theoretical perspectives including social psychology, political theory, educational theory, philanthropic studies, human development, community psychology, critical theories, and activity theory. The chapter “Critical Theories and Student Civic Outcomes” most directly questions the “individualistic” and “server-centered” approach to service learning (184), noting, for example, that serving at a soup kitchen often counts as service learning but protesting does not (187). A critique of the AAC&U Civic Engagement VALUE rubric is particularly thought-provoking on issues of access and power (187-190).
Part Three turns more directly to the how-to of conducting research with chapters on quantitative, qualitative, and longitudinal research along with chapters on institutional characteristics and using local and national datasets. One of the most interesting chapters in this section, “Documenting and Gathering Authentic Evidence of Student Civic Outcomes,” asks “What counts as good evidence of learning and for whom?” (303). The chapter identifies two challenges familiar to those who work with assessment: making outcomes explicit and collecting authentic evidence (304-305). Unfortunately, much existing research depends on indirect evidence, and the chapter recommends use of the AAC&U VALUE rubric along with ePortfolios to enable formative and summative assessment.
Each chapter of the volume concludes with an extensive reference section. The volume is worthwhile for teachers and researchers who want to improve students’ service learning as a site for civic engagement.
Creating Citizens: Liberal Arts, Civic Engagement, and the Land-Grant Tradition
Date Reviewed: January 25, 2018
Using examples of community and civic engagement (CCE) at Auburn University, this collection of essays provides readers with a lens through which to view a number of debates in higher education. In the broadest sense, the essays address the question of the role of higher education. More narrowly, they ask questions such as, how do universities respond to increasing public pressure to demonstrate clear connections between education and job placement? Since the volume focuses on civic engagement, authors ask what the ideal relationship between a university and its surrounding community might be. How, for example, does a public university foster such relationships, of what sort, and to what end? With increasing pressure on students to graduate in four years, along with widespread perceptions of higher education as a form of job-specific training, it may seem rather bold for educators to promote a liberal arts education. However, Brunner argues that one can address these questions by looking to the ancient Greek and Roman liberal arts models, which “foster personal growth and civic participation” (1).
Through diverse case studies, the authors illustrate the high impact learning experiences that occur in CCE situations. For example, students in political science who do internships have a higher degree of satisfaction with the course, learn nuances about relationships between theory and problem-solving in a community, and often reconsider their career choices. This reconsideration results, in part, from the reflective component of CCE, which helps students make connections between classroom learning and their internships via writing assignments. These connections further illustrate the critical thinking (among other skills) that liberal arts education fosters – skills which align with employers’ desires in hiring.
While much of Creating Citizens focuses on teaching and student-learning outcomes, Brunner also addresses the contentious issue of how promotion and tenure committees are to evaluate the work of engaged scholarship. How, for instance, does engaged scholarship measure up to traditional peer-reviewed scholarship? Again, this is not a new question, but one that nevertheless impacts pre-tenured faculty decisions for research plans. Brunner notes that engaged scholarship combines teaching and service, is as rigorous as other peer-reviewed scholarship, and upholds university missions and values by engaging faculty in mutually-beneficial, community-based problem-solving. In short, students, faculty, the university, and the community all benefit from CCE.
Readers may wonder how the final essay fits within this volume; though interesting as a reflection on the role of non-native activist anthropologists working in India, the connection to the thematic foci of the other essays is tenuous. Overall, however, this volume would be of interest to educators looking for practical models of CCE that can be adapted to fit one’s own institutional location, mission, values, and vision for community relations. Land-grant institutions such as Auburn explicitly aim to promote application of research, in this case through CCE, a model that any institution of higher education would do well to consider adopting.
The Lives of Campus Custodians Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy
Date Reviewed: July 26, 2017
I decided to review this book because of a story one of my professors, Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, told me in college. While he was doing his dissertation research at a university in India, he learned the most not from the esteemed faculty, but from an “untouchable” custodian. Similarly, in the preface to this book, Peter Magolda describes Juanita “Pat” Denton, the head custodian of the residence hall Magolda was directing for his first full-time job, as his mentor: “I learned that custodians knew as much, if not more, about the residents and the condition of the residence hall than I did” (xix). The invaluable lessons he learned from Pat, combined with frustration that higher education scholars have virtually ignored custodians as subjects worthy of study, led Magolda, a professor emeritus of educational leadership at Miami University, to write The Lives of Campus Custodians.
Magolda combines more than a year of participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and literature review to give us a valuable glimpse into what daily life is like for custodians on two different college campuses. I especially enjoyed the many tell-it-like-it-is quotes from custodians that Magolda includes, such as this one from George: “In 1974, HU was like a new world for me. . . . [Recently] I heard that the president thought the wages here were comparable with other jobs in the region. Comparable to what? They [new custodians] are still starting off at $9.35 an hour. And health care premiums continue to rise. . . . It’s not much higher than minimum wage. The university mismanages its budget, and custodians have to pay the price” (107). Such first-hand observations highlight the usually hidden impacts of cost-cutting measures and other corporate managerial practices on campus custodians, many of whom do not earn a living wage, and who, like Samuel, have to watch their money so carefully that he will only buy his mother her favorite kind of cake for her birthday if it is on sale (71).
The book is also eye-opening about “community engagement,” and offers new ways to think about it. I teach a service-learning class every spring and have helped lead the faculty advisory group for our Office for Community Engagement. Yet until reading The Lives of Campus Custodians, I had never thought about having our students engage with an important but largely invisible community: the low-wage staff working at our university. As Magolda thoughtfully puts it: “Typically, higher education civic engagement involves working with communities outside the university, such as service-learning excursions to address societal ills. Yet the findings from this study suggest that subcultures within universities are equally in need of civic revitalization” (173). Moreover, Magolda challenges readers to consider, “Why does civic engagement by those on the margins, such as custodians, seem odd?” (188; Magolda provides several examples of civic engagement by custodians in the book).
Toward the end of the book, Magolda offers a series of concrete suggestions for how to improve matters for both custodians and the university, directed at administrators, supervisors, students, faculty, and custodians themselves. These range from “sponsoring professional development workshops that provide custodians with essential human relations and communication skills to share their wisdom with the larger campus community” (198) to encouraging custodians to unionize (or find other ways to band together and bargain collectively).
Unfortunately, there are also some serious problems with The Lives of Campus Custodians. First, the book is often quite repetitive, with the same phrases used almost verbatim in subsequent paragraphs (61, for example), and later chapters repeating previous material, even including the same quotes from custodians. Second, the book too often simply summarizes its findings, rather than analyzing them using relevant theoretical frames. For example, given the topic of this book, it seems very strange that structural and symbolic violence, internalized oppression, positionality, and even labor and immigrant history (many of the custodians Magolda interviewed were refugees from Eastern Europe) are never mentioned. Third, the book often feels heavy-handed in its critique of the growing turn toward “corporate managerialism” in contemporary American universities (a trend which I also find deeply disturbing); at times it seems as if Magolda wrote the book more as an opportunity to critique campus corporatization than to illuminate the lives of campus custodians. And fourth, the vast majority of the custodians Magolda interviewed and worked with were White – 99 percent at one campus, and at least 78 percent at the other (18-26). This means that the book has relatively little to say about racial inequality, which is a serious issue for custodians on many campuses (one welcome exception is a spot-on quote about how racial politics affects custodians by self-described “huge-ass Black man” Calvin ).
Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges' Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students
Date Reviewed: July 10, 2017
“Stop telling your children that they are smart,” is the new rage in parenting advice. Research has demonstrated that praising children for their smartness tends to undermine their performance. Kids who believe that success is due to innate ability also tend to think that failure is caused by innate inability. When they encounter hard tasks, they are prone to give up and to view themselves, or the task, as inept. Nearly every college professor has experienced the frustration of such students, who often feel that their smartness entitles them to automatic A’s on every assignment, regardless of the effort, accuracy, or sophistication of their work!
In Are You Smart Enough? veteran educational researcher Alexander W. Astin calls upon college faculty to recognize that our institutions have helped to create this problem. Looking at the primary measures that colleges utilize to evaluate their success – standardized test scores, retention and graduation rates, course grades and GPAs – Astin’s central claim is that postsecondary institutions are more focused upon identifying smartness than developing it. College rankings, for example, are heavily weighted toward the standardized test scores for incoming classes. Course grades and GPAs mainly serve to mark students’ progression toward degree completion, to identify low-performing students who may need to be dismissed, and to aid in admissions for graduate and professional schools. Standard metrics do not assess the information core to colleges’ mission: what students learn and when they acquire the knowledge. Postsecondary education, consequently, has become more concerned with identifying and acquiring smart students than with developing students’ intellectual and academic capabilities.
Astin places much of the responsibility for this preoccupation with smartness upon faculty. While faculty often complain about the culture of entitlement that exists among undergraduate and graduate students, we create this culture through our admissions and grading standards, which imply that our job is to reward – rather than enhance – smartness. Many faculty view their jobs primarily as imparters of specialized content knowledge; we expect students to already possess the analytical and communication skills necessary to acquire that knowledge when they enter our classrooms. Astin claims that faculty preoccupation with student smartness is a product of our preoccupation with our own, as evidenced by institutional processes for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Just as colleges expect incoming faculty to be fully formed experts capable of displaying our smartness, faculty expect students to be sufficiently formed when they enter our classrooms.
Astin does not merely critique the institutional culture; he provides concrete guidelines for shifting our focus to growing and developing student learning. In particular, he recommends utilizing narrative evaluations in course grading. He also advocates expanding our assessment of student development to include the affective outcomes that are often central to college mission statements: leadership, citizenship, and service. He writes that colleges should pay particular attention to students’ spiritual development, given that a central component of the college experience is students’ exploration of their sense of purpose, their moral and ethical commitments, and their self-development.
Astin’s text is a significant contribution to the emerging literature critiquing our culture’s obsession with innate ability. It explores themes similar to those in Carol Dweck’s bestselling book, Mindset (Random House, 2006), but unfortunately does so with less substance and more redundancy. It would have been helpful if Astin had integrated evidence from educational and neurological research to support his core assumption that intelligence can be, and should be, developed among young adults. He could also have provided more substantive suggestions for changing academic cultures, with attentiveness to not only admissions and grading, but also to student support services, academic advising, institutional effectiveness, faculty governance, development, and alumni relations.
Overall, Are You Smart Enough? is an important and thought-provoking text for postsecondary faculty. While primarily focused upon undergraduate institutions, its central argument is just as relevant to graduate and professional programs.
The Power of Integrated Learning: Higher Education for Success in Life, Work, and Society
Date Reviewed: July 6, 2017
Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al., U C Press, 1985) was required reading in my first-year seminar in the late 1980s. That book, and the liberal arts education into which I was being initiated, changed my life profoundly. It introduced me to new modes of thought (sociology, philosophy, religious studies), instilled a critical sensibility (concern about individualism in American culture), and planted a seed about the importance of religion within a culture (and why it is worthwhile to study it). When I saw the name of one of Habits’ authors attached to a new book on integrated learning, something my own institution takes very seriously, I was intrigued.
Sullivan is a senior scholar at the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, and on one level this book merely reports on distinctive activities and programs at some of the member institutions. Those brief descriptions can be helpful and inspiring, especially if your school is embarking on similar programmatic development. A sizeable appendix offers short campus profiles of the twenty-five institutions. In the introduction, Sullivan addresses his readers as people (parents, prospective students, future faculty) who may be “looking for a college that seriously tries to integrate the liberal arts, professional studies, and civic responsibility” (1). There is a dizzying array of initiatives, but the book succeeds in its agenda of persuasion: that the ideals of integrated learning are significant and worthy.
Yet, there is a second aspect to Sullivan’s agenda, and at that level the book is a lot more interesting to those already situated in higher education. Woven throughout the book, Sullivan offers insightful commentary on the significance as well as the effectiveness of integrated learning. For example, at the end of the first chapter Sullivan connects the importance of service learning with emerging research in developmental psychology. Drawing on the work of William Damon who writes about the importance of forming a sense of “life purpose,” Sullivan argues that “growing into a mature, educated person committed to significant purposes requires living in a community where values are taken seriously and structure behavior in everyday life” (27). That is precisely what our more innovative programs can do: cultivate that needed sense of purpose, which in turn fosters resilience. But in Sullivan’s hands, resilience is not just about retention and graduation rates – it is part of a larger mission to produce a healthier civic culture with an engaged, proactive citizenry. Later, Sullivan posits, “the key factor is that the members of such societies share a sense of membership in some larger whole. This gives them an ability and willingness to recognize that the well-being of each group depends on cooperation with the others. Such shared expectations and bonds are the prerequisite for a functioning, pluralistic democracy” (60).
For those in theology and religious studies, this book offers a larger context in which to understand the work of instilling the virtues of tolerance and understanding. Those involved in service learning, study abroad, civic engagement, or vocation-related programming will appreciate that such initiatives are celebrated in these pages. At this level, the book can be a needed tonic for beleaguered faculty. If you share Sullivan’s ideals and his sense of the role liberal learning can play in that vision of a pluralistic, democratic society, then this book serves as a reminder of how your work contributes to that mission.