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The arts, community service learning and social justice

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Sara Dorow, University of Alberta
Guest Contributor

“You know, [in class] you learn a lot of definitions, you learn about a perspective, you read a lot of texts . . . [CSL] was a great way to see what IS ethnocentrism, what IS social inequality. You only kind of know what it is until you are working with people and then it comes to light . . . [CSL] is just a different kind of learning,was how one student put the link between Community Service Learning and social justice in a follow up study.

Community service-learning (CSL) has taken off in Canada over the last five years or so.  While models of CSL vary quite a bit, they basically all take up the practice of linking community-based activities with academic learning objectives.  The idea is that learning might be more holistic, more complex, more ‘real’ when students move back and forth between classroom subject matter and related experiences in hands-on community programs and projects. What’s this about, and why should academics in the Arts – social sciences, humanities, and fine arts – care?

University and college students, similar to professors in our roles as both teachers and researchers, seem to be wedged somewhere between two learning paradigms: on the one hand, knowledge for knowledge’s sake and, on the other hand, instrumental knowledge that is ‘useful’ to society.  Scholars like Michael Gibbons refer to this as two competing conceptions of knowledge production; one form is academic and discipline-based (Mode 1), while the other is context-driven and interdisciplinary (Mode 2). CSL as a pedagogy can bridge the two paradigms of knowledge production and at the same time trouble them both. I say it can trouble them both but this is by no means inevitable; CSL is a messy pedagogy. 

This leads me to why CSL might matter to the liberal arts, and to the role of social justice in our teaching and learning practices.  If it is incumbent upon us to respond to the demand to produce ‘useful’ knowledge, then we must respond in ways that surprise and up-end the instrumental assumptions of such a demand.  Ien Ang makes an eloquent argument for this in her piece, ‘What Good is Cultural Research?’  She demonstrates how we might make ‘useful’, for example, the study of the power of representation.

CSL is one potentially important pathway to creating a surprising response.  By participating in CSL courses and projects, students are simultaneously challenged to respond to community needs and to develop critical interrogation of assumed forms of knowledge – including knowledge about what citizenship or justice is – and assumed relationships between theory and practice.

Scholars such as Handel Wright have developed the idea of ‘social justice praxis’ via CSL. Similarly Dan Butin refers to the ‘anti-foundational’ model of CSL, reminding us that it also might have the effect of turning students’ critical gaze back on their own social location in the university, and on its social role. How these relations are raced, classed, gendered, and in other ways unequal is pushed to the surface by CSL, where students move uneasily across social worlds, simultaneously being and encountering ‘the stranger.’

One of the real possibilities of CSL is the learning of transferable skills. Students can develop tangible skills in everything from public communication to workshop planning to community organizing – something that Arts faculties might especially embrace in the face of the ascendancy of Mode 2 knowledge.  That said, some scholars rightly sound a warning bell about sending students out to gain skills via ‘helping the Other.’  This caution mirrors feminist studies’ grappling with unequal extractive practices in qualitative research. It also challenges us to build that impossible tension into our CSL pedagogy, a real challenge, methinks, for those of us re-visiting the role of Arts in critical scholarship.

Sara Dorow is an associate professor of Sociology and the Director of Community Service Learning at the University of Alberta.

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Equity Matters