January: MLA 2019

This past weekend was MLA 2019 in Chicago, and I thought I’d write some reflections on my own panel there while it’s all still fresh in my head.

I chaired and presented on a panel titled “Service Learning and Literature.” I proposed this panel well before beginning or even knowing about my current role as a Digital and Applied Learning Specialist at Stony Brook. A year and a half ago, while I was designing my first course with an experiential learning option, I realized how little guidance there was out there for creating meaningful experiential or service learning English courses.

To clarify how I’m using the terms experiential and service:

  • I’m using experiential learning as a broad umbrella term for learning situations (including lab work, internships, independent studies, fieldwork, service learning, etc.) in which students use current skills and gain new ones in “real world” settings (regardless of how we feel about the phrase “real world”).
  • Service learning is one component of experiential learning that has service to a specific community or institution as a core focus.

Many models of experiential learning that I found didn’t draw on the unique skills, concepts, and content of the English courses they were tied to (especially literary ones), and most that claimed to be service learning courses just didn’t satisfy my idea of what service should be. During my BA and MA at Tulane, where service learning was integral to the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans, I came to understand service as a genuine, impact-based contribution to the community. But what I found in my research was a widespread pattern of English/lit service learning that centered on undergraduate students reading to one audience or another. There is value to that work, to be sure, and I’d rather those courses exist than not exist, but it doesn’t fully harness the potential of the undergraduate English major or minor (or even the student enrolled in a required intro to lit or intro to comp course). I recognized that missed opportunity especially after teaching my first experiential/service learning course.

I created the MLA panel to showcase three examples of successful service learning at vastly different institutions (Tulane, UNC Pembroke, and Stony Brook) and to create a space in which those experienced in or even vaguely interested in implementing service learning in English could hold an open discussion. The panel featured:

  • Mike Kuczynski who is founder and director of Tulane University’s “Archives and Outreach” (an undergraduate public humanities initiative), a graduate certificate program in Documentary Literary Studies, and the faculty work group, “Tulane Archival Collective.” His presentation focused on issues of public access to archives and culturally historic materials. He addressed this topic through a discussion of his partnership with New Orleans’ Lake Area New Tech Early College High School that provides students access to African-American cultural archives otherwise largely invisible to the city’s African-American public. Here are two lines that have stuck with me from the presentation:
    • “In an electronic age, when so much information is mediated by screens, the students we work with seem to crave physical encounters with manuscripts and books”
    • “…what the community wants from the university is respect—respect that is based in a deep rather than shallow educational partnership”
  • Michele Fazio (UNC Pembroke), who is Coordinator of Gender Studies at UNC Pembroke and who has served as president of the Working-Class Studies Association and is currently co-editing a book on working-class studies. Her presentation discussed her service learning courses that bring students to a migrant labor camp in rural North Carolina, tying together course literature, course concepts of food insecurity, gender, race, labor rights, etc., and real-world experiences within the community itself. The service that students have performed to the community there range from the recording of oral histories to a grant proposal to fund a mobile health clinic for migrant workers.
  • Susan Scheckel (who has been integral at expanding experiential and service learning in the humanities through her roles co-chair of the Experiential Learning Committee at SBU and as a member of the Provostial Taskforce on Applied Learning for SUNY) and I co-presented on our service learning partnership with the Long Island Museum, where students conducted primary source research on topics closely connected with course concepts related to nineteenth-century American culture (especially race, individualism, spiritualism, etc.). The service aspect of this partnership centered on students transforming their research findings into social media posts aimed at increasing young people’s interest in the museum. Our presentation focused largely on the nuts and bolts of setting up a first-time service learning partnership, and it also included a reflection video from one of my students—a perspective that we don’t often get at conferences. For more on this project, see this post.

I was overjoyed at the success of the panel. It was encouraging to be in a room of so many individuals who all care deeply about creating impactful and effective service learning experiences. The biggest sign of success is that the conversation continued in the room for a half hour after the session was supposed to end!

Well, I’ll close with an encouragement for any readers interested in implementing service learning into their English courses to contact me—I’m always happy to share my insights!

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