This last semester, I offered an optional “add-on” service learning (sometimes called experiential learning) component to my early American literature course. It was a great experience, and I want to share it with other instructors who might benefit from offering something similar. So, this post is going to: 1) explain why I did this, 2) discuss how I went about doing this, 3) tell about the experience for me and my students, and, 4) showcase my students’ work.
Why I Offered a Project-Based Service Learning Course
If you’re not familiar with service learning, a simple description of it is a method of learning in which students actively participate in the learning experience, usually through field work, study abroad, field work, internships, and other kinds of “hands-on” (or, dare I say, “real world”) activities. Students study a subject and then transform that knowledge into a new product outside of the classroom.
During my undergraduate studies at Tulane, I took a service learning course that I’ve thought about frequently ever since. It was the Fall of 2007, two years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the city was still largely in tatters. Tulane took a lead role in helping to rebuild the city. One way of doing that (other than the wide array of service clubs and weekend volunteer activities) was through service learning. My class studied the Vietnamese experience in New Orleans, reading numerous pieces of fiction and secondary scholarship about the Vietnamese-American experience. We then traveled to the Vietnamese community’s public market in New Orleans East every other Saturday morning to experience the culture first hand- talking to people, trying different foods, listening to music, watching smokey 7 a.m. card games. With better academic, cultural, and personal understanding of the community, we began a project to help design a charter for a new, tri-lingual charter school in the area. We performed and transcribed interviews with community members on their priorities, preferences, and concerns with the new charter school- everything from music class to bus operations. By the end of the semester, we had organized our research findings into a document that would serve as a basis for the writers of the school’s actual charter. It was one of the most interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding classes I’ve ever taken.
With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to attend an event at Stony Brook’s Humanities Center last spring, in which English Department Alumna Michele Fazio spoke about her successful service learning projects at UNC Pembroke. I left the event feeling inspired to use my position of influence as an instructor to give students a meaningful experience that will benefit them and others. I decided to implement an optional EXP+ offering for my EGL 316 course on early American literature.
How I Went About It
The process for setting up a service learning course at Stony Brook is simple. Admittedly, my course itself was not designated EXP (experiential)- I only created the optional add-on “course” (EXP+) for interested students to enroll in. All that’s required is finding a partner institution or individual to act as the supervisor, sitting down with both that supervisor and interested students to discuss expectations, and filling out a contract with the student. The student then submits the contract to the departmental administrator, enrolls in the zero credit (and thus free) course. That’s it!
I chose the Long Island Museum (LIM) as a partner institution because of its relevant collections and its proximity to SBU’s campus, although a number of other organizations were eager to host our students. They also have an amazingly friendly staff (shoutout to Christine, Andrea, and Jonathan!) that was always willing to help make this a great learning experience for students. Two of my students enrolled, along with three of Professor Susan Scheckel’s students (the content of her course and mine overlapped, so we decided to work together in designing the structure, content, and expectations of the project). In the beginning of October, Professor Scheckel and I met with the LIM staff to make sure that we were all on the same page, and then a few weeks later we had an introductory session at the museum archive. After that, we had research sessions at the archive once a week for the rest of the semester.
During our introductory session, the staff took us on a guided tour of the vault, which was amazing. Students got to see important works of American art and hear from the experts the stories behind each work. They also got to touch artifacts, which- for anybody who hasn’t yet had the experience- is a powerful experience. It was immediately clear that students were excited simply by being in the presence of so much historical “stuff.”
That excitement never really subsided, either. But there was also a noticeable anxiety in the students at first. I had experienced that anxiety myself in 2007- students are in a new, unfamiliar learning environment and they’re not sure what they need to do to success (or how to do it). Professor Scheckel and I tried to mitigate that nervousness by providing clear plans and specific steps for the students to execute.
Students began by choosing an item in the collection that they wanted to pursue. Their ultimate responsibility was to write social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) for the LIM to use. This turned out to be a challenging yet rewarding lesson in writing. Students had to think about audience, they had to clearly, concisely, and meaningfully transform pages and pages of notes into a few sentences, and they had to revise numerous drafts. Once they began their research on their items, however, their anxieties diminished and they soon demonstrated confidence in their new abilities to perform research using a variety of primary, archived materials (letters, diaries, ledgers, sketches, etc). See below for one student’s blog post that narrates her findings.
If you’re an instructor and you’re considering incorporating service learning into your pedagogy, I have a few suggestions: 1) DO IT! It’s rewards provide a different sort of gratification than our normal academic work; 2) Begin small with an EXP+ optional add-on for students, rather than making it a mandatory component of your entire course. You’re bound for some trial and error as you first begin, and it’s a lot easier to manage things on a small scale. Once you’ve gotten the feel for things, then try out an entire class of EXP; 3) Prepare for some, but not a ton of extra work. I was able to rely on the amazing staff at the LIM to take the lead on a number of issues, but you will have to be there to guide students, to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction, and to give feedback on (and grade) their work. Is it worth it? I say wholeheartedly: “Yes!” Will I do it again? As soon as I get the chance.