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Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The double entendre in this book’s title may be clichéd but it is often apt, and in this case Randy Stoecker makes a strong argument that service learning and the rest of higher education civic engagement (“service learning” functions as a catch-all term) is in need of liberating so that it can be liberating. Stoecker accuses “institutionalized service learning” (ISL), as he calls the prevailing practice, of reinforcing an oppressive neoliberal political-economic order. As a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin, he speaks from experience.
What keeps most service-learning practitioners captive, Stoecker asserts, is a failure to theorize about how service learning does and/or could operate. He offers a theoretical view that enables him to (1) reflect on and criticize ideas in current practice and (2) project alternative ideas as points of articulation for liberating service learning – in both senses alluded to above.
Stoecker develops his vision in twelve chapters divided into three parts. A “prelude,” “interlude,” and “postlude” provide other vantage points, ironizing Stoecker’s implied authority on the matters at stake and illustrating metaphorically the problems and promises of service learning. An index of names and topics is also provided.
Part I, “The Problem and Its Context,” surveys the current state of ISL. In chapter 1, beginning with a critical incident from September 2013 – a disciplinary hearing for students who, in support of labor unionization efforts at the University of Wisconsin, occupied the Chancellor’s office – Stoecker explicates his worries about who ISL truly serves. In chapter 2 he recounts the emergence and eventual institutionalization of service learning in U.S. colleges and universities from the late nineteenth to early twenty-first century, emphasizing evidence that suggests ISL has come to serve bureaucratic requirements rather than community initiatives. Chapter 3 makes a preliminary analysis of the avowed and actual theoretical commitments of current practice, pointing to a need for sustained examination of the meaning of four core concepts: learning, service, community, and change.
Part II deepens the analysis. The author argues that ISL supposes “learning” is for students to accrue from service. “Service,” then, means charitable giving, rather than helping communities learn how they might wield their own power. So concepts of “community” in ISL neglect political-economic issues of structural injustice. Accordingly, “change” comes to be seen as a matter of advancing individuals within an unquestioned neoliberal order.
Part III re-envisions the core concepts. The crucial move is to start with a critical theory of “change” as social change. In this light “community” may be grasped not as a vague given but as a goal; “service”is seen not as charity but as casting our lot together to form community and effect change; and “learning” means learning to be learners in service to a shared struggle for change – in short, learning to be liberated.
Although Stoecker offers something to annoy everyone, I still recommend Liberating Service Learning for its challenging examination of the spirit of service learning, in its present state and as it might be in future.
Experiential Education in the College Context: What it is, How it Works, and Why it Matters
Date Reviewed: March 4, 2016
Experiential Education in the College Context provides a useful introduction to both the theoretical underpinnings and the practical application of experiential education. Roberts, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs and Director of the Center for Integrated Learning at Earlham College, writes out of his experience as a faculty member, administrator, and philosopher of education. His volume is well-equipped as a guide for leaders in higher education interested in “harnessing the power of the live encounter between students and teachers” (xi).
Roberts divides the volume into two main sections, the first covering theoretical aspects of experiential education and the second exploring its practical facets. Each section is comprised of four chapters. Chapter one introduces the reader to the current educational landscape, noting that it is not merely a time of “disruption and destabilization,” but a time of “tremendous opportunity” (18). Chapter two defines experiential education, teasing out some of its many implications through three curriculum models. In chapter three, Roberts sorts experiential education models into “four core methodologies”: active learning, community-based learning, integrative learning, and problem and project-based learning (63). Chapter four identifies models such as the seat paradigm and the teacher as expert paradigm that educators should leave behind as they embrace an experiential approach. In chapters five through eight, Roberts shifts to the practical application of the theoretical principles discussed in the first half of the book. Chapter five considers design, chapter six facilitation, chapter seven assessment, and chapter eight the integration of experiential education in the college classroom and across the campus. Finally, the Afterword places experiential education in the wider world of the academy, and an Appendix offers a reference list for a variety of experiential education programs.
My one critique – and it is a small one – of Roberts’s work is that he quotes too many secondary scholars at length. Block quotes fill the pages and definitions abound. The volume would have been infinitely more accessible had he compiled the many definitions in a glossary in the back of the volume and confined his extensive dialogue with other scholars to the footnotes. Still, Roberts’s volume provides rich descriptions of the variety of practices that fit under the experiential education umbrella and offers useful examples for incorporating these models in the classroom. In short, the text offers a fine introductory resource.
Roberts wrote this book “for students who wish to learn more about the theoretical concepts behind the approach, for faculty who might be interested in what experiential education looks like in practice, and for administrators trying to respond programmatically and creatively to a rapidly changing landscape in higher education” (xi). While I am not convinced that many students will wade through its theoretical waters, the volume does address the needs of faculty and administrators investigating the possibilities that experiential education offers. I will carry Roberts’s image of “teachers as curators of experience” rather than “content providers” with me for a long time (81).