Introduction to the Book Pre-Read
The following book is based upon a doctoral dissertation written for the University of Cincinnati’s Urban Educational Leadership Program. For the most part, it is intentionally written as a first-person narrative, presenting the reader with my research stance and explaining how this stance is intimately shaped by my personal life and nonprofessional experiences. The chapter will begin with one such experience, which I believe will serve to explain how I have arrived at a place in my professional career wherein I am focused on the synergy created when the campus and the community interact with one another. How those with access to resources and power can be made more whole by engaging with those with less access to resources and power is of particular importance.
The manner of interaction that I am most familiar with is service learning, wherein students, faculty, and community reciprocally participate in a collective living, learning, and leading experience. The University of Cincinnati defines service learning as follows:
A specially designed learning experience in which students combine reflection with structured participation in community-based projects to achieve specified learning outcomes as part of an academic course and/or program requirement. By participating in Campus-Community partnerships at the local, national, or international level, students gain a richer mastery of course content, enhance their sense of civic responsibility, and ultimately develop a more integrated approach to understanding the relationship between theory, practice, ideas, values, and community. (https://www.uc.edu/campus-life/careereducation/get-experience/service-learning.html)
The overarching goal of this research project is to understand the history and context of service learning at the University of Cincinnati from multiple perspectives and to implement improvements to the University of Cincinnati’s Service Learning Program moving forward into the future. This study will detail what I and the co-narrators of the study identify as key watershed moments in the program’s evolution, which will span the timeframe of 1921 to the present.
At the time of this writing, I am an associate professor in the Division of Experience- Based Learning and Career Education (ELCE) and am the academic director of the University of Cincinnati’s Service Learning Program. The experience described below, however—one that eventually led to this study—occurred much earlier in my life.
After relating this early learning experience, I will turn toward the purpose of this book and preview questions that guided the research. Following the discussion of purpose, I will briefly introduce the theoretical backdrop of this study, structuration theory. I chose this particular theory because it allows the researcher to accept and discuss both the deterministic qualities of the human experience as well as the socially constructed qualities. More often, theoretical discussions privilege one of these perspectives over the other:
deterministic/structural/systemic ← versus → constructionist/agency/choice
Structuration theory, the undergirding of this work, intentionally utilizes, and in fact requires, both perspectives in that the institutional culture of an organization contains and constrains individual choices and behaviors of its members. Conversely, the institutional structure can only change via individual choices and behaviors of its members. Therefore, to understand an organizational culture holistically, one must uncover and understand both the deterministic elements of an organization – the rules that govern behavior and choice – and the social construction of rules and behaviors that sometimes alter the deterministic structure bust most times simply reinforce it.
My own experiences and those of others have helped me to make sense of service learning at the University of Cincinnati. I will first share my research questions and rationale for choosing them, and discuss the subject matter for research. I will further discuss my research stance as the leader of the service learning program at the University of Cincinnati.
The Strange Loop of Writing
This graphic representation (https://www.mcescher.com/gallery/back-in-holland/drawing-hands/) illustrates my project. First printed in 1948, “Drawing Hands” is a lithograph by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher depicting “a sheet of paper out of which, from wrists that remain flat on the page, two hands rise, facing each other and in the paradoxical act of drawing one another into existence” (Hofstadter 2007, 363). Escher often used paradoxes in his works. Hofstadter (2007) calls this particular image an example of a “strange loop,” writing that “a strange loop is a cyclic structure that goes through several levels in a hierarchical system. It arises when, by moving only upwards or downwards through the system, one finds oneself back where one started” (363).
I find that the story is writing me as I am writing the story, creating a strange loop. The story being told here by me has also changed me through the writing process in that the very act of telling this story has been intimately linked to the telling and retelling of my story. The two are impossible to separate. Therefore, what the reader will observe throughout this narrative is a cycle of pulling back from the subject matter to discuss my relationship to it, followed by a closing back in on the subject matter itself. The strange loop of this work has been particularly useful for understanding the motivations underlying my professional journey of research, service, leadership, and teaching. A short description of my reflective practice will bring this section to a close. Chapter One will conclude with a brief discussion of this study’s significance.
Chapter Two will review the scholarly literature related to this study along with the theoretical framework. Chapter Three will detail the research methodology and will include descriptions of chosen methods and how they were executed. Chapter Four begins to lay out the narrative findings gleaned from the data. Chapter Five continues the narrative, particularly what has occurred during my time as a leader in the program. Chapter Six focuses on what the overall findings mean for service learning at the University of Cincinnati and for my personal practice as a university professor and academic director. Limitations of this study will also be discussed in this chapter, along with recommendations for future research.
Service Learning, Reflective Discourse, and Action-Oriented Narrative Inquiry
The notions of “felt difficulty” (Dewey 1958) and “discursive agency” (Medina 2006) inspired and informed my decision to begin including an experiential and service learning component in my teaching (2005), which led to my position as director of service learning (2008) and as assistant professor of experiential learning (2013) at the University of Cincinnati. The story of service learning in Cincinnati will be derived through narrative inquiry and analyzed through a structuration theory lens, in order to make action-research-oriented improvements to the University of Cincinnati’s Service Learning Program.
Connelly and Clandinin (1990) posit that the process of narrative inquiry is one of living the story while writing it. They state that the process is one “in which we are continually trying to give an account of the multiple levels (which are temporally continuous and socially interactive) at which the inquiry proceeds” (4).
The central task [of narrative inquiry] is evident when it is grasped that people are both living their stories in an ongoing experiential text and telling their stories in words as they reflect upon life and explain themselves to others. For the researcher, this is a portion of the complexity of narrative, because a life is also a matter of growth toward an imagined future and, therefore, involves retelling stories and attempts at reliving stories. . . . Seeing and describing story in the everyday actions of teachers, students, administrators, and others requires a subtle twist of mind on behalf of the enquirer. (Connelly & Clandinin 1990, 4)
This central task of narrative inquiry—illuminating portions of a complex story while in the midst of living that story—is the driver of this case study. In hindsight, it is very easy for me to see why making sense of service learning in Cincinnati has been central to my professional stance as an educator and researcher. In thinking back to my letter of intent submitted to the University of Cincinnati's Urban Educational Leadership in 2005, I recall writing about how the campus could be and should be a driver for social innovation and the betterment of surrounding communities.
Even at that time, I suppose that I was operating within the strange loop of writing into existence what would eventually result in my current professional role. At the time of drafting that application letter, however, “service learning” was not a phrase that I had much familiarity with. I nevertheless was articulating the role that someone could play within dynamic intersections that occur when the campus and the community cooperate. Some twelve years later, I find myself articulating here exactly what that role embodies as a researcher retrospectively making sense of this story.
It is my hope that this study will strengthen the existing pool of research on the social structuration of service learning programs, both off- and on-campus, including how leaders may foster collaborative experiences and broadened subjectivities for all stakeholders. More specifically, I hope to tell the story of service learning in Cincinnati, including how key watershed moments and fresh acts have helped to intentionally and unintentionally evolve the program into what it is today and also into what the program is becoming.
While the narrative detailed in the forthcoming pages is focused narrowly on the University of Cincinnati, and even more narrowly on the service learning program there, what has been learned through this study will be transferable to other universities and organizations. Perhaps the most relevant findings are best suited to other service learning programs; many of the findings, however, may be applicable to many types of campus-community partnerships and other types of experiential learning.
This section has introduced the research questions and why this topic is personally and socially relevant for further study in the field of Urban Educational Leadership. The next chapter presents a review of relevant literature on the topic, as well as my theoretical frames and methodological selections.
No Seed Ever Sees the Flower
The past decade of my life has been dedicated to leading the Service Learning program at the University of Cincinnati (hereafter SL@UC). In many ways, however, the story and impact of SL@UC began well before I was employed to lead the program, and many years prior to being appointed assistant professor.
On my way to completing a doctorate in Urban Educational Leadership (2018), I completed a dissertation titled “Critical Curriculum and Just Community: Making Sense of Service Learning in Cincinnati.” Many pages were written detailing the criticality of service learning curriculum, particularly regarding how service learning affects students, faculty, institutions, and communities. More pages were committed to explaining the frameworks that undergird my praxis and pedagogy—structuration theory and collective impact—which were followed by more pages describing the inquiry into the SL@UC’s program evolution. All of this, however, was done to improve SL@UC and to positively affect the field of experiential education through an action-research lens.
Three research questions guided that work, each of which were answered to varying degrees. Answering these three questions has helped me to better understand the evolving role of service learning within the field of experiential education.
- RQ1: How has service learning in Cincinnati developed over time? What have been the key watershed moments?
- RQ2: How do service learning stakeholders describe the evolution of service learning in Cincinnati over time?
- RQ3: How can the Service Learning Program at the University of Cincinnati better serve stakeholders?
To answer these questions, I started a Service Learning Listening Tour four years ago (2014–2015) and spoke with many stakeholders, some with much institutional power but others with relatively little. In addition, I spent considerable time reviewing service learning literature and studying historical documents that not only were illustrative of the evolution of SL@UC 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.
The result of the work is that SL@UC is being actively improved because of the story that has been collectively told—1921 to 2019. By listening to that story and reacting to it, I and others are able to employ fresh acts (Giddens 1984) that will better serve institutional stakeholders through contributing to theory, contributing to higher education, and by contributing to both academic and nonacademic communities.
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.
Plow, harrow, disc, water, pray
till my bones ache and hands rub
blood-raw with honest labor—
all that grows is the slow
intransigent intensity of need.
I have sown my seed on soil
guaranteed by poverty to fail.
But I don't complain—except
to passersby who ask me why
I work such barren earth.
They would not understand me
if I stooped to lift a rock
and hold it like a child, or laughed,
or told them it is their poverty
I labor to relieve. For them,
I complain. A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend. A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.
—W. D. Ehrhart (1987)
Why farming? I have asked myself this question many times throughout the months and months of telling this story. While trying to make sense of service learning in Cincinnati, I suppose that the farming metaphor was an easy way to navigate the strange loop of writing; it was a way to organize my thinking and share the 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 case study.
Contributions to Experiential Education Theory
In Bourdieu’s (1977) work Outline of a Theory of Practice, what people do without thinking is the focus. Bourdieu (1977) asks about where the system comes from, how it is produced and reproduced, and how it can be changed. Action is what we do and is not necessarily tied to intention, while at the same time it is not random or accidental. Rather, action is, for Bourdieu (1977), based on practical logic. Leonardo (2004) further develops this thinking to move us toward actual choice—better understood in the language of this book as agency—and the actual work required to maintain status quo inside systems. Leonardo maintains that the theme of privilege obscures the subject of domination, or the agent of actions, because the situation is described as happening almost without the knowledge of those who are privileged and powerful. This conjures up images of domination happening without the agency of the privileged, rather than on the backs of the underprivileged. The study of privilege and structural power, then, begins to take on an image of domination without agents, and it obfuscates the historical process of structural domination in exchange for describing the state of structural dominance (Bourdieu 1977).
My faculty role has developed within an evolving institutional structure, and these focal points have repeatedly emerged in my work over the last ten years. My contributions to the literature, and particularly the contributions toward a deeper understanding of individual agency within institutional structure, have been instrumental in expanding the impact, scope, and outcomes of my faculty contributions to my academic unit, to the university, to the field, and to the community.
Contributions to Higher Education
By emphasizing the duality of agency within institutional structure, I have tried to move from merely describing programmatic evolutions to prescribing different courses of action relative to them. What I found through this writing is applicable to other stakeholders and programs. That is, change can be accomplished through collectively living and collectively telling the story. The key seems to be found in collaboratively making sense of and restructuring an institutional reality that benefits many types of stakeholders, a perspective that can be understood by drawing from Giddens’s (1984; 1990) structurational perspective, Putnam and Stohl’s (1990; 1996) treatment of the bona fide group perspective, Bormann’s (1985) theory of rhetorical vision, and McPhee’s (1985) work focusing on structure and decision-making. In his book Imagining the University Barnett (2013) writes:
Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. “Impoverished” because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and “hopelessly” because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either a hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defense of the emerging nature of “the entrepreneurial university.” Against this background, the questions arise as to what, if any, are the prospects for imaging the university anew? What role might the imagination play here? What are its limits and what might be its potential for bringing forward new forms of the university? This then is the problem before us: the problem of the place of imagination in developing the idea—and the institutional form—of the university. (1)
Contributions to Community
Throughout the last decade, one pressing question that continues to go unanswered for me is whether higher education is a means to prepare students for the marketplace or a means to make the world a better place. One pathway leans toward the capitalistic culture of the west and the other toward social justice. My fear is that most of higher education is focused on the former, geared toward creating cogs for the capitalistic machinery of the consumption culture, but we—higher education—can do better. Perhaps we can do so by understanding the ongoing structuration of higher education, including how its stakeholders (from the campus and the community) are or are not empowered as agents within it—because we are limited in our ability to explore. Our day-to-day responsibilities often constrain work that would better the communities that host our universities. We can do better, which means that our students can do better, which means that our communities will be better. That said, we must have freedom to imagine alternative ways for the campus and community to collaboratively interact. Toward this path of creating alternative and imagined universities, Barnett (2013) writes:
Sir Ken Robinson has convincingly argued that education kills our creativity and imagination, but this is not a foregone conclusion; we can change this. . . . Imagination is about continuous renewal, experimentation, reinventions, exploration, adaptation, creation and all of this in contexts that are relevant to those engaged in the process. It is not about maintaining the status quo, but about continuously questioning and rethinking the status quo. It is imagining what a better future would be like then taking control over the future, through imagination, rigorous dedication to humility—a feasible utopia. (194)
Contributions to Experiential Education Praxis
At the very core of my teaching and practice is the notion of multiple subjectivities. I believe that we each have points of view, but these are simply views from fixed points. We individually have incomplete pictures of reality, and this is why we need one another—to fill in the gaps. We can each offer unique perspectives, but these are inescapably limited by our inability to be omniscient. Our points of view, then, are understood to be particularly grounded by individual experience and, at best, simply incomplete. At worst, they are fundamentally unjust.
Additionally, I believe that our discourse or language-use is that which contains and constrains our reality, but it is one of the only means we have at our disposal through which to share our limited points of view (Sharp 2005). This understanding is what fuels my pedagogy (and research about that pedagogy), and thus underscores my teaching philosophy. Put plainly, to understand and impact this world, one must be able to experience it from multiple subjectivities. Therefore, to teach people in this world, one must be able to teach it from multiple subjectivities and remain open to others as they express and develop their own respective subjectivities (Sharp 2017).
Through my previous work titled “Sensemaking in Cincinnati: Sharing Stories of Racial Discord” (Sharp 2005), I shared that collectively “making sense” and collaboratively re-structuring cultural reality is possible, but not easy. In fact, doing so makes people uncomfortable, especially when some of the people are operating from a privileged perspective. We must learn to walk in others’ shoes, nevertheless, seeing the world from their vantage points, and we must do so as thinkers, teachers, and social researchers who keep focus on the unfair power imbalances and unequal access to resources found in our culture.
I believe that deconstructing the privilege–poverty dichotomy through language, education, and experience may be a way to proactively structure a more equitable and socially just world (Sharp 2005). People need to become uncomfortable if positive change is going to occur, and as educators we may be able to situate students, colleagues, and peers into some of those uncomfortable settings, perhaps causing a broadening of their subjectivities through their own moments of what Dewey termed felt difficulty— opportunities for being uncomfortable enough to learn something new.
This is the impetus for service learning and experiential pedagogy for me; First, we want to help campus-community stakeholders find learning experiences that they normally would not encounter, perhaps allowing them to feel uncomfortable enough to need the theories and skills being taught in the class in order to respond to their own moments of felt difficulty. Second, we want them to discuss what they learn and ask them to reflect on why they feel uncomfortable. Third, we want them to be able to articulate what role they could play in alleviating those uncomfortable moments, which should include their understandings of social responsibility and how they are motivated to become active change agents within their own communities. In this way, teaching can work towards restructuring a more just and inclusive community in Cincinnati, the USA, and the world.
Contributions to Experiential Education
Ideally, and through the lens of communication theory, I am pursuing scholarship through the perspective of what Fine (1994) called “working the hyphens.” She writes:
By working the hyphens, I mean to suggest that researchers probe how we are in relation with the contexts we study and with our informants, understanding that we are all multiple in those relations. (135)
Toward this end, I have written that members of the dominant culture must first discursively acknowledge the role they play in perpetuating social injustices (Sharp 2005). I fully understand that before researchers can deconstruct social injustices, they must acknowledge to what degree they feed them. This informs my current perspective as researcher.
Therefore, my scholarship portfolio is punctuated by works that highlight the seeming dichotomy that exists between those “with” access to resources and those “without” access. It should be noted, however, that the seeming dichotomy between privilege and poverty is complicated. In fact, it should be understood that those people and communities who are often portrayed as lacking material resources are often rich in other, often more important, ways. Conversely, those peoples and communities who are often seen as being rich in material resources are often poor in those same ways. Understanding and respecting this complexity is what drives successful service learning, and when this complexity is oversimplified and forced into a one-sided relational flow of interaction, service learning can often do more harm than good.
The key is found in understanding the nuanced ways in which all people, regardless of socio-economic status, have assets and deficits that, when shared within the flow of authentic relationships, can mutually reinforce one another in a reciprocal and holistic way. In their book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, Block and McKnight (2010) discuss this complexity, including how we often fail to leverage it in any meaningful way. They discuss how communities often exist in isolation from one another, and how the value of the potential synergy between communities is ignored due to the larger structural system in which we are forced to operate. They write:
Systems that are constructed for order cannot provide satisfaction in domains that require a unique and personal human solution. They are unable to provide the satisfaction that they promise because of their very nature. This is not a critique of any individual’s leadership or method of operation. It is that systems have a limit; by their nature, they cannot provide prosperity or peace of mind or a life of satisfaction. (37)
When done well, service learning practice and scholarship can actively dissolve the barriers that exist between peoples and communities, thus tapping into and leveraging the potential synergy of diverse lived experiences. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988), for example, believed that the fundamental idea of action learning and research is bringing people together to learn from each other’s experience, and this reminds me of Genor and Schulte (2002), who wrote about cultural disparity that it “lives—it morphs its way through the structures and system that shape our lives. We need to be shaping back, all the time” (342).