Why Service-Learning and Community Engagement?
by Lori E. Kniffin & Patti H. Clayton
What is behind the not-uncommon question “Why service-learning and community engagement (SLCE)?” Are the questioners wondering “Why should the academy invest in this?” … “Why should I consider teaching in this unfamiliar way?” … “Why isn’t community service sufficient?” Are they pondering the purposes of education, their own purposes, or perhaps the connections between them? We encounter the “why” question at the big picture—the role of higher education in society—and on the ground—the rationales that shape the SLCE practice of individual organizations, institutions, and practitioner-scholars. We share here possibilities for thinking about and answering “Why SLCE?” at both levels.
At the broader level, higher education had the “original purpose” of “preparing graduates for a life of involved and committed citizenship” (Newman, 1985). Social, economic, and cultural forces—such as war, technology, markets, and politics—have influenced the academy’s civic purpose over time (see Edward Zlotkowski’s framing piece for the SLCE Future Directions Project, 2015). In 1999, college and university Presidents articulated a heightened sense of their institutions’ roles as “agents of our democracy” in the President’s Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, calling for higher education to not “be complacent” in the face of such challenges as poverty and unemployment and to “explore new ways of fulfilling the promise of justice and dignity for all.”
So what do we mean today by the academy’s “civic purposes”? The Carnegie Foundation’s Elective Classification in Community Engagement puts the question of “why” front and center in what has become the leading definition of community-campus engagement. The “partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors” has as its purposes:
to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.
The Thirtieth Anniversary Action Statement expresses Campus Compact’s current understanding of higher education’s civic purposes, calling for campuses to “prepare our students … to deliberate, act, and lead in pursuit of the public good” and to “embrace our responsibilities … to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically” (p. 2). We are interested to see how institutions working with this document will shape higher education’s understanding of its civic purposes—and the role of SLCE in advancing them—in the coming years.
At the more micro level, we find the following framework helpful in understanding the diversity of SLCE rationales held by—and associated pathways followed by—individual campuses, organizations, and practitioner-scholars.
Saltmarsh and Kecskes (2005) proposed the green set of pathways:
- Mission pathway: the “why” is about fulfilling the purposes of one’s institution (e.g., the organizational mission, the land-grant mission)
- Community pathway: the “why” is about contributing to community change
- Epistemology pathway: the “why” is about generating knowledge
- Pedagogy pathway: the “why” is about educating young people
Conversations with student leaders in SLCE in the U.S. and Canada generated additional (pink) rationales, including, for example:
- Identity pathway: the “why” is about enacting one’s faith or personal values
- Legacy pathway: the “why” is about carrying forward family responsibilities or traditions
- Professional pathway: the “why” is about cultivating career-related networks
- Innovation pathway: the “why” is about being part of new and generative processes
In addition, the “why” for individual campuses is often linked to (yellow) meta-level institutional priorities, including, for example:
- Recruitment and retention of both students and faculty
- Diversity and inclusion
These dozen illustrative types of “on the ground” answers to the question of “why SLCE” can provide a framing for professional development, critical reflection, funding solicitations, team building, partnership development, marketing, and on and on. How might you use them? And what would you add to them?
- Campus Compact. (1999). The Presidents’ declaration on the civic responsibility of higher education. Providence, RI: Authors. Available at http://www.compact.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/Presidents-Declaration.pdf
- Campus Compact. (2016). Thirtieth anniversary action statement. Boston. Authors. Available at http://compact.org/actionstatement/
- Newman, F. (1985). Higher education and the American resurgence. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
- Zlotkowski, E. (2015). Twenty years and counting: A framing essay. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 22(1), 82-85.
Lori E. Kniffin (email@example.com) is a doctoral student in Cultural Foundations of Education and a graduate assistant at the Institute for Community and Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her previous role at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University, she taught an SLCE junior-level leadership course that worked to advance food justice on and off campus for five years. She is chair of the IARSLCE Graduate Student Network and the inaugural Fellow on the international Service-Learning and Community Engagement Future Directions Project (SLCE-FDP; www.slce-fdp.org).
Patti H. Clayton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an SLCE consultant (PHC Ventures, www.curricularengagement.com), a Senior Scholar with IUPUI and UNCG, and a Visiting Senior Scholar with Kansas State University. She facilitates professional and organizational development, co-produces practice-oriented scholarly resources, and is currently co-facilitating the SLCE-FDP (www.slce-fdp.org).
Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts. Check in regularly to learn more about and contribute to discussion of foundational knowledge, promising practices, helpful resources, and future directions of SLCE.