Each day I go into the fields
to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing; everything needs to be done…
—W. D. Ehrhart, “The Farmer”
While trying to make sense of service-learning in Cincinnati, I found that the metaphor of farming was a useful way to navigate the strange loop of writing; it was a way to organize my thinking and to share this story with you, the reader. But the plowing and the seeding of the growing fields, and the droughts and the dying of crops—these events did not pause when the storytelling began, nor was the farming done by me alone. Rather, and in a very interesting way that I find myself trying to understand today, the writing about farming service-learning in Cincinnati has been intimately connected to the act of farming service-learning in Cincinnati.
I have found myself taking notes while sitting on the metaphorical tractor, often unsure if I would be farming the next day. For some time, I even began to imagine stepping off the tractor, and handing over the plow, the drag, the digging fork, and the draw hoe to someone else. This thought of giving up the farm, relinquishing the yoke to another, was a poignant moment of felt difficulty for which I am eternally grateful. This moment enabled an intrapersonal fresh act—a rethinking of what it would take to effectively and efficiently farm the service-learning grounds in Cincinnati without my identity being at the center of the work. Perhaps this was the key finding of this written work.
On my way to completing a doctorate in urban educational leadership, I studied the service-learning curriculum, particularly regarding how service-learning affects students, faculty, institutions, and communities. I was intent on identifying the frameworks that undergird my praxis and pedagogy—structuration theory and collective impact—which helped me to critically evaluate the goals, practices, and outcomes of my own program. All of this was done in an effort to improve service-learning at the University of Cincinnati and to positively affect the field of experiential education through an action-research lens.
Three research questions guided that work:
- How has service-learning in Cincinnati developed over time? What have been the key watershed moments?
- How do service-learning stakeholders describe the evolution of service-learning in Cincinnati over time?
- How can the service-learning program at the University of Cincinnati better serve stakeholders?
To answer these questions, I went on a Service-Learning Listening Tour. From 2014 to 2015, I spoke with many stakeholders, some with considerable institutional power but others with relatively little. In addition, I spent significant time reviewing service-learning literature and studying historical documents that were not only illustrative of the evolution of service-learning at the University of Cincinnati but were also key in identifying the uniqueness of the program: the historical narrative of the University of Cincinnati as the founder of cooperative education. By listening to that story and reacting to it, members of the service-learning community in Cincinnati are able to employ fresh acts that will better serve institutional stakeholders through contributing to theory, contributing to higher education, and by contributing to both academic and nonacademic communities.
In chapter two, I briefly described the duality of structure and agency, which included a discussion of how the lens of structuration is useful in thinking about service-learning. It is now time to humbly propose an addition to existing theory by describing nuanced ways that institutional agents may shift institutional structure.
The question of how agency develops emerged throughout my research continually. I propose that the idea of fresh acts can be further conceptualized. As you continue to read about the evolution of service-learning at the University of Cincinnati, you will encounter several types of fresh acts that were described as important by the participants. These different types of fresh acts include what I will call (1) discursive fresh acts, (2) structural fresh acts, (3) intrapersonal fresh acts, (4) interpersonal fresh acts, and (5) passive-resistance fresh acts.
Generally speaking, fresh acts should be understood as something new being developed through agency, which shifts the institutional structure in some way. The existing literature, however, has failed to succinctly describe the nuanced ways in which these fresh acts occur. Based on what I have observed during my research, the following descriptions aim to do just that.
A discursive fresh act is understood here as occurring when something new is articulated by agents within a structure that alters or shifts the structure. For example, a supervisor within an institution may propose the hiring or firing of an individual and/or may propose a new program or endeavor. In these examples, what is said by institutional agents will not only serve to shift, in some way, the structure, but will also provide opportunities for new types of agency for other institutional members.
A structural fresh act is understood here as occurring when the larger institutional structure shifts, which provides opportunities for agents within that structure to draw upon new sets of agency and choice. For example, an institution may take the steps to transition from a ten-week quarter to a fifteen-week semester, as was the case at the University of Cincinnati. In this example, when the larger structure passes through a monumental shift, opportunities for individual members of that institution to enact agency are opened.
An intrapersonal fresh act is understood here as occurring when individual agents within an institutional structure reframe their potential agency and choice through reflective activity. For example, an institutional member may choose to think differently about their relationship to the larger structure, which opens up new choices and potential agency. In this example, individual agents reframe their understanding of the structure and their place in it, providing different approaches to how they may go about impacting the larger structure. The ways in which agents mentally organize and prioritize the happenings in the structure can fundamentally shift potential agency within that structure.
An interpersonal fresh act is understood here as occurring when individual agents within an institutional structure form new relationships with other agents, which serves to shift the structure and provide new types of agency and choice. These relational fresh acts are developed through forming new relationships.
A fresh act of passive resistance is understood here when individual agents within an institutional structure both consciously and subconsciously push back against organizational movement, but in a way that is not overt. Rather, individual agents enact choice by passively ignoring in part or full those structural forces that appear to be damaging to the integrity of the program, which is this case is UC’s Service-Learning program.
A more detailed application of these nuanced types of fresh acts will be shared in later chapters. In particular, the reader will encounter the historical timeline of service-learning at the University of Cincinnati, as that narrative has been co-authored by myself and the case study’s participants. The narrative will be punctuated by these different types of fresh acts. Each of the different types of fresh acts, it will be explained, has served to fundamentally shift the larger evolving structure of the Service-Learning program at the University of Cincinnati..
Narrative inquiry has deep roots in the social sciences. Mary Boyce, for example, whose research focuses on organizational behavior and managing change, discusses three foundational perspectives used to study story and storytelling in organizations—constructivism, interpretive symbolism, and critical theory—all of which undergird much qualitative research. The narrative approach is an active process of inquiry, underscoring the importance of storytelling in meaning making within organizations. Narrative is a meaning-making process, which explains how stories can help organizational members better understand how decisions occur.
People are storytelling animals, in that almost all forms of human communication are fundamentally narrative in nature. Of particular interest to my research into service-learning at the University of Cincinnati, though, is the idea that stories not only reflect but create human experience. In “Narrative Analysis in Ethnography,” Martin Cortazzi argues that it is “through life stories individuals and groups make sense of themselves; they tell what they are or what they wish to be, as they tell so they become, they are their stories.” Thus, an institution like the university is as malleable as the stories we tell about it.
Organizational Change through Stories
Narrative inquiry is useful for understanding individual’s lived experiences, the history of an organization, and for understanding how organizations can change. Brenton Faber’s dissertation, “A Rhetoric of Change: Examining Discourse and Organizational Change,” introduces a discursive model of change, taking the view that organizations are discursive products developed through interactions between members. Peggy Gill echoes this work, stating that narrative inquiry provides the framework to facilitate conversations that develop organizational change processes, including the social construction of reality by organizational members.
Stephen Denning, program director for knowledge management at the World Bank contends that storytelling and narrative inquiry are powerful tools for understanding leaders and members of an organization going through change. In particular, by trying to understand the complexity of organizations through narrative inquiry, storytelling is a valuable approach to understanding and leveraging change for individual members and, thus, the organization itself. 
Applying Narrative Inquiry to Lived Experience
In writing about narrative inquiry, Clandinin and Connelly focus on Dewey’s view of experience, drawing on his understandings of interaction and continuity that underscore those experiences. They discuss that an individual’s lived experience is always occurring through interactions with others, and these interactions are always occurring through the continuum of space and time. They write: “Experiences grow out of other experiences, and experiences lead to further experiences. Wherever one positions oneself in that continuum—the imagined now, some imagined past, or some imagined future—each point has a past experiential base and leads to an experiential future.”
Tineke Abma echoes this understanding in discussing how groups gain knowledge and understanding of issues by telling the stories of their lived experiences. It should be noted, however, that the storyteller and narrative inquirer are included in the melee of experiences, as narrative inquiry is a way of understanding experience. It is a collaboration between researcher and participants, over time, in a place or series of places, and in social interaction with milieus. An inquirer enters this matrix in the midst of an ongoing conversation, and progresses in the same spirit, concluding the inquiry still in the midst of living and telling, reliving and retelling, the stories of the experiences that made up people’s lives, both individual and social.
The researcher in this project, I am also simply another storyteller who is living the experience with others. The story being told here includes my own subjective experiences, but these are simultaneously tethered to the lived experiences of others. In an article included in Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology, D. Jean Clandinin and Jerry Rosiek articulate this understanding well, stating that narrative inquiry is an exploration of the social, cultural, and institutional narratives within which individual’s experiences are constituted, shaped, expressed, and enacted—but in a way that begins and ends that inquiry in the storied lives of the people involved. Narrative inquirers study an individual’s experience in the world and, through the study, seek ways of enriching and transforming that experience for themselves and others.
The Action Research Model
In the 1940s, Kurt Lewin and his colleagues introduced the action research model as a form of research inquiry that could potentially solve real-world societal problems. Some of the very early action research projects were used to address issues in the for-profit world, where researchers collected data to incorporate large-scale change and improve organizational problem-solving. Since then, action research has also been used to implement reform to educational systems on a large scale and to develop improved curricula in the classroom.
Columbia University’s Stephen Corey is one of the earliest champions of action research in the field of education, writing that “the scientific method in education would bring about change because educators would be involved in both research and the application of information.” With some criticism and evolution, the action research model continues to be used in educational settings. In recent years, it has been used, for example, to increase understandings of classroom dynamics and to improve teaching and learning, for evaluating inclusive school programs, and in managing change in an interdisciplinary understanding of a large organization.
In their seminal work, “Why Action Research?” Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire define the action research model and advocate for its importance in many fields. While the founding traditions of the model do appear distinct, there are clear and key guiding principles of action research that link them together. For Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire, the key and uniting focus of action research is in “how we go about generating knowledge that is both valid and vital to the well-being of individuals, communities, and for the promotion of larger-scale democratic social change.” They go on to write that action research challenges the claims of a positivistic view of knowledge which holds that in order to be credible, research must remain objective and value-free. Instead, researchers should embrace the notion of knowledge as socially constructed and recognized that all research is embedded within a system of values and promotes some model of human interaction.
Action research can be a more authentic form of research because it is grounded in democratic decision-making, mutual accountability, and a participatory world view. With the unique triangular structure of a service-learning relationship, this mutual accountability and participatory lens lend itself to projects, like service-learning, in which stakeholders work together to enact positive change.
In addition to rejecting the flawed assumptions of the positivist worldview, Brydon- Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire write that action research links seemingly disparate fields by adhering to “a shared commitment to democratic social change” and “the integration of theory and practice.” They discuss this commitment to democratic social change by stressing the importance of valuing the experiences of all research stakeholders. In fact, they propose that the traditionally understood researchers and researched should have equal footing: “A key value shared by action researchers, then, is this abiding respect for people’s knowledge and for their ability to understand and address the issues confronting them and their communities.”
In many ways, the purpose of action research is interwoven with and supported by the topic of my study, service-learning, and the method, narrative inquiry. Giddens’s work and that of the many service-learning researchers discussed above are very much tied to the underpinnings of action research in that the relationship between individuals, and between individuals and larger organizations, can only be understood in the contexts of these relationships.
The Service-Learning Listening Tour
Starting in 2015, after serving for seven years in a leadership position at the University of Cincinnati, I began conducting what I called a Service-Learning Listening Tour, wherein I spent many months meeting and having phone conversations with stakeholders. While I have continually collected informal feedback and data since shortly after being hired as the associate director of academic–community partnerships, the bulk of my research came at a turning point in the program at UC starting in 2015. The narrative that arises from the listening tour includes voices of stakeholders who have been instrumental in the evolution of the program over time. At any institution, you need to find these individuals: the advocates that will help tell the story and provide critical feedback and perspective that will help shape the program as it grows. At UC, these include stories from professor emeriti, the director of the university’s Center for Community Engagement (the original funding agency of my position), the director of the university’s First Year Experience and Learning Communities program, the vice provost for international programs, the public relations director at the University of Cincinnati, several professors of experiential learning and career education, and several university faculty who have employed a service-learning approach to their teaching. In addition, this narrative will include the voices of the archivist for the university, several educational partners, the director of Ohio Campus Compact, the vice provost for enrollment management, and the senior academic researcher at the university.
I asked the following questions:
- How would you describe the history of service-learning in Cincinnati?
- How would you summarize the success, or lack of success, of the initiative over time?
- What ideals from the original framing of the initiative have been met, and what ideals have not been met?
- Is there anything else that you would like to tell me today?
To share this story in its most empowering iteration, I have combined these individual narratives and punctuated them with what I am calling different “watershed moments of unfreezing” that have been illustrative of the program over time. These watershed moments of unfreezing are those moments that myself and the co-narrators agreed were particularly important to different turning points in the evolution of the program. There is much to this story that is not being told, as is the case with all stories, but what follows is the story of service-learning at the University of Cincinnati as it has been experienced by myself and the participants of this narrative inquiry.
These discussions didn’t happen all at once, but rather through informal discussions and follow-up over the course of a year. The specific purpose was to observe how members made sense of service-learning in Cincinnati. From here, I was able to identify areas for improvement and change.
The UC watershed moments broke down into six distinct stages, explained similarly to the way in which one would tend a garden, perhaps for profit, perhaps to feed the community. I have always considered my professional role as leader of service-learning at the University of Cincinnati to be that of a grower or farmer of service-learning partnerships and pedagogies, and have often experimented with different ways to yield a positive “crop” for the university and the community. I often failed, as farmers do, but I learned much through those failures. In addition to telling my story and our story through this metaphor, I have taken the liberty to extend that metaphor backward through time to include the other caretakers of the program and its forerunners.
In this chapter, I have contextualized the theoretical and methodological framework for this study. It contains a description of data collection and analysis, including a brief discussion of the Service-Learning Listening Tour that informed this case study. Finally, this chapter discusses the trustworthiness of this work in that all knowledge is culturally situated, and all research promotes particular human interactions.
Questions for Discussion
Securing support for a service-learning program requires a deep and thorough understanding of what is happening and what still needs to happen. At the University of Cincinnati, much time was spent asking multiple types of stakeholders, both from the campus and the community, questions like, What have been the key watershed moments in the development of service-learning at UC? How can the service-learning program at the University of Cincinnati better serve stakeholders? Listening is important. In thinking about your respective institution:
- Who at your institution has the largest megaphone? In other words, who is listened to the most?
- To whom should you be listening? And perhaps as equally important, to whom should you not listen? Whose voices from the campus and the community are important to hear? Whose voices have been left out?
- How could you summarize, present, and leverage what you learn by listening to stakeholders? With whom would you share what you learn?
Preview of Chapter Four
In chapter four, I will interrogate my role as the storyteller of service-learning in Cincinnati and outline the ways in which future chapters will use terms like structure and agency. I will also include chart that offers a more detailed explanation of some terms not carefully considered in earlier chapters of this study.
- W.D. Ehrhart, "The Farmer," Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54926/the-farmer-56d235de67f35. ↵
- Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984). ↵
- Mary Boyce, “Organizational Story and Storytelling: A Critical Review,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 9, no. 5 (1996): 5–26. ↵
- Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich, eds., Making Meaning of Narratives, vol. 6, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999). ↵
- Ellen S. O’Connor, “Telling Decisions: The Role of Narrative in Organizational Decision-making,” in Organizational Decision Making, ed. Zur Shapira, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 304<EN>323. ↵
- Marin Cortazzi, “Narrative Analysis in Ethnography,” in Handbook of Ethnography, eds. Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Loftand, and Lyn Lofland (London: Sage Publications, 2001), 384<EN>394. ↵
- Brenton Faber, “A Rhetoric of Change: Examining Discourse and Organizational Change,” (PhD diss., University of Utah, 1998). ↵
- Peggy Gill, “Narrative Inquiry: Designing the Processes, Pathways and Patterns of Change,”Systems Research and Behavioural Science 18, no. 4 (2001): 335–344. ↵
- Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-era Organizations (Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000). ↵
- D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). ↵
- Clandinin and Connelly, Narrative Inquiry, 2. ↵
- Tineke Abma, “Fostering Learning in Organizing through Narration: Questioning Myths and Stimulating Multiplicity in Two Performing Arts Schools,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 9, no. 2 (2000): 211–231. ↵
- Clandinin and Connelly, Narrative Inquiry, 20. ↵
- D. Jean Clandinin and Jerry Rosiek, “Mapping a Landscape of Narrative Inquiry: Borderland Spaces and Tensions,” ed. D. Jean Clandinin, Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 35<EN>75. ↵
- Clandinin and Rosiek, “Mapping,” 42. ↵
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- Alison Cook-Sather, “Students as Learners and Teachers: Taking Responsibility, Transforming Education, and Redefining Accountability,” Curriculum Inquiry 40, no. 4, (2010): 555–575; Robin L. Harwood and Joan G. Miller, “Perceptions of Attachment Behavior: A Comparison of Anglo and Puerto Rican Mothers. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 37, no. 4, (1991): 583<EN>599; Stacy K. Dymond, “A Participatory Action Research Approach to Evaluating Inclusive School Programs,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 16, no. 1 (2001): 54–63. ↵
- Mary Brydon-Miller, Davydd Greenwood, and Patricia Maguire, “Why Action Research?” Action Research 1, no. 1 (2003): 9–28. ↵
- Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire, “Why Action Research?,” 11 ↵
- Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire, “Why Action Research?,” 11. ↵
- Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire, “Why Action Research?,” 14. ↵
- Giddens, Constitution. ↵