Paula Mathieu is the third person who has Skyped into our pedagogy class. We read Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition for class, which is a really well-crafted account of Paula’s experiences with service learning and community work. What I like best is how carefully she approaches the issue of service learning. She never dictates what service learning should be, but she does emphasize that classrooms (and institutions) should engage in reciprocal relationships with the community organizations. She places importance on being respectful of community members and not forcing students who are disinterested in service learning to do these projects.
Our class conversation with Mathieu really concretized these ideas. She was very a gracious speaker and was very careful in making sure that we knew she wasn’t trying to tell us the best way to approach service learning or the right/wrong ways to work within communities.
Here are some of the highlights:
Writing is a way of social action but is also a way of thinking and a way to problem solve.
Paula said that her responsibility as a composition instructor is to her students and their writing, and she tries to frame writing as a way for students to make sense of important issues and questions.
There’s no way in our university for students to know that they’re getting into a service-learning course, and I’m uncomfortable with forcing students to do service-learning projects without them knowing that’s what they’re signing up for.
I thought this answer was really valuable. When asked if she does service learning in her first-year composition courses, Paula said no. She does, however, offer service learning as a component in elective courses. This response emphasized her stance that service-learning projects are only worthwhile when everyone is invested in the project. Forcing first-year students to work within a community is detrimental to both the students and the community members.
The number one element is some sort of human involvement. If you are involved in some sort of project that you could see your students engaging with in meaningful ways, that’s great. To me, it’s about organic relationship building.
Paula cited human involvement as one of the preconditions for a teacher to set up a course with service-learning components. This relates again to the importance of genuine investment. She told us that she only gets involved with community work where she has an existing personal relationship, rather than trying to build a (superficial) relationship that is based only on the conditions of an academic project.
Reading Tactics of Hope, and speaking with Paula gave me a different perspective on service learning. I thought it was incredibly important that she stressed writing over service learning and investment over forced participation. I’ve seen (and been part of) many service-learning projects where students were uninterested, the organizations saw the students as intruders, and there was no reciprocal relationship built between students and community members. I think this idea of reciprocity, of both parties negotiating the project and benefiting in some way, is the key to successful service learning.
Mathieu, Paula. Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook Publishers, Inc., 2005.