COMPANION: Undergraduate Spotlight

A Cold January night in Southern Minnesota

I’m sitting in my room at the Gainey Center with the beige land-line phone in my hand, poised to dial the next number. As a former telemarketer, I’ve had experience cold-calling before, but now I have no script. Along with twenty other new UST faculty down in Owatanna, Minnesota, I’m attending the “Mission Camp” where we’re unpacking UST’s mission statement. Earlier in the day, we were sitting in a circle discussing a reading when a fellow faculty member impatiently interrupted: “Yes, but this is very theoretical. What are we doing about civic engagement? What can we do?”

I headed back to my room at the end of the day, energized by this exchange, thinking I had the answer: service learning, of course! I had taught service-learning courses at the University of Minnesota as a graduate instructor just the year before, and my plan was to do that at UST—once I had a couple years under my belt, I told myself. All in good time. But that welcome outburst changed my timeline. I decided I would start doing service learning—NOW.

Naïve Beginnings 

I began in the most naive, haphazard way possible: I started cold-calling community organizations that I found off the University of Minnesota service-learning website—it was the website I was used to navigating. (I didn’t even know UST had its own service learning website. Naïve indeed). I found a couple of organizations whose mission spoke to me: the Domestic Abuse Project, the Council on Crime and Justice, Aeon (they do affordable housing), Cool Planet (an environmental org), the Animal Rights Project, the Alexandra House (a domestic abuse shelter), and the Aliveness Project, which works with AIDS survivors.

Notice how many of these organizations start with “A?” That’s because the U of M’s list was alphabetical, and that's where I started. (I told you this was a haphazard effort!)

I was slated to teach ENGL 304: Analytical and Persuasive Writing that following semester, and I was looking for Twin Cities-based, social justice-oriented organizations that would have writing projects for my writing students. After all, I thought, if students were to learn “persuasive” writing in this course, what better way to teach it than to have students write for organizations whose mission it was to persuade the public on a particular issue? In my field of Rhetoric and Composition, this kind of writing is called “community writing,” and I wanted my course to be a community writing course. Here is the flier for the final presentations students gave at the end of that semester:

The idea behind partnering with so many organizations was that I wanted each of my fifteen students to feel passionately about the mission of the organization with which they partnered. I figured: the more organizations, the more likely they’ll find one that they can get behind!

That was my first mistake: 1) no matter how many orgs I partnered with, student commitment to the mission is something that grows over the semester; it’s not something they feel at the time they choose which organization to work with and 2) the sheer number of organizations I partnered with that first time made the workload of my first service-learning experience unsustainable for me, which leads me to the first guideline I’d share:

1.  Have a plan for the pilot: establish goals for the semester, and ways to assess how you reached those goals.

My goals were not modest enough for this course. I wish I had thought through what was appropriate for a pilot, and scaled back my number of partners for the first-go-around, knowing I could make the course more complex later as I gained more experience in service learning. Speaking of assessment, an important part of that is the end-of-semester post-mortem with your partners.

2.  Have a post-mortem with each partner, and be prepared for tough love.

During the “post-mortem,” ask your partners frankly if the partnership was worth it to them, how the roles worked/didn’t work, and how they liked working with undergrads. I had one post-mortem—just one—where I wasn’t prepared to hear that the partner did not enjoy working with undergrads as much as they thought they would. This was great to know, and we parted amicably.

3.  Write “job descriptions” for students that you co-author with the partners. 

One way to prevent the post-mortem that’s full of tough love from your partner is to co-plan the course together by co-authoring a document that describes the work of each partnership to students.

During your initial meeting with your community contact, there will be a lot of energy as you think up exciting new schemes for the semester! You’ll get so much energy from meeting with your partner that sometimes each party walks away with different ideas of what the partnership really entails, and what each party’s responsibility is. This is why you need to collaborate with your partner on some sort of written document.

I decided on the genre of the “job description” because I’ve essentially created writing internships with each partner, and students get to decide which internship they’ll “apply” for. The “job description” genre describes the process students will have to engage in as they shop around each of the organizations I have chosen, attempting to find a good fit. So I compose the document, and send it to the partner for revisions until we both agree on each detail.


The Evolving Purpose 

Be sure to include in the job description the purpose of that particular partnership. If there’s a theme to this list of guidelines, it’s this: make sure at all times you have in sight the (ever-evolving) purpose of why you’re partnering. This sense of clear purpose will inform the changes you’ll need to make as the partnership unfolds. The purpose should sound something like this: without service-learning, this course would not meet certain course objectives. Therefore:

4.  Accomplish core course objectives that have to do with CONTENT through service-learning work.

Ask yourself: is service learning the best way to teach the content I’m about to teach?

I can’t imagine the Analytical and Persuasive Writing course without service learning, given the course content (social justice and community writing). Service learning is essential to the way I teach this course. This has become truer and truer as the semesters pass.

I started to want the class schedule to reflect that as much as possible. One way I did this animates my next guideline:

5.  Fully integrate service learning into the course by reducing the workload on days where students are expected to visit their sites.

In this digital age, it was possible to reduce the number of physical visits my students made to their organization’s site. (Some of my organizations don’t even have a physical space, so students met with the contact at a coffee shop nearby.) If service learning in your course is truly integrated into the curriculum, then reducing the workload on those rare days of site visits shouldn’t be too problematic.

6.  Be prepared to switch out partnerships—a lot—according to what works, and the evolving purpose you have assigned to service learning in the course.

In the service learning I do, I partner a lot with volunteer, grassroots, community-led organizations as well as large non-profit organizations with paid staff. In both of these organizational structures, turnover is somewhere between normal and above that. As your contact changes, so will the nature of your partnership.  The goals of the course also affect the partnership (again, the theme of purpose here).

I do hope that faculty new to service learning can learn from my own initial piloting and continual landing.

Here's to humble beginnings, and essential, ever-evolving partnerships!

“COMPANION” is a newsletter of the Center for Local and Global Engagement. Subscribe here.