Learning Partners: A Service-Learning Approach to Popular Culture

Jo B. Paoletti, University of Maryland College Park


In this paper I describe a way of incorporating "outsider" views about American popular culture through a service-learning approach. In fact, the service-learning aspect of this project is only one which readers may find innovative; I could as easily have positioned this paper as one on the necessity of "outsider" views in any discussion of American culture, or on the use of web-based resources and tools in the teaching of popular culture. But I chose to foreground service-learning because I find that it is an approach that is less well-known in the humanities than in other disciplines, and because i felt that part of the success of this experiment was due to the structure, reciprocal nature of service-learning.

What is Service-Learning?

Service-learning is, is you want to be cynical, is one of the latest educational fads to hit higher education, "old" as a concept (about a decade) but relatively new as a term. It didn’t really surface on the scholarship of teaching radar screen until about 5 years ago. But casting aside cynicism, I also see in service-learning the latest manifestation of John Dewey’s progressive crusade for active, hands-on learning and one which makes a lot of sense, intellectually, pedagogically and ethically.

To begin with what service-learning is NOT, so as to disintegrate some common misconceptions, it is not the same as community service -- voluntarily doing good for the sake of helping people. In fact, service-learning is not volunteering at all, since it is a class activity similar to a term paper or other kind of project, and therefore a requirement, not something a students does of the goodness of his/her heart.

So when does community service become service-learning? When it

- is tied to learning objectives of a course or curriculum

- includes preparation, service and reflection

- is mutually beneficial, satisfying a real need in the community

During the 1999-2000 academic year, I incorporated service learning into two courses. The first, AMST 212, Diversity in American Culture, was a general education online course enrolling 25 students raging from sophomores to "super seniors". The other course, CPSP 118R, is a one-credit colloquium for 59 first year students participating an a themed living-learning honors program in American Cultures. Both groups of students represented a wide range of majors, from the humanities to engineering.

One of the central objectives in both courses was to get students to think critically their use of the terms "American" and "ethnic" and to examine the assumptions behind their use of those labels. In AMST 212, some of this is accomplished in a unit on food and foodways; in CPSP118R it is incorporated into a semester-long emphasis on the students’ own identities, culminating in a final project entitled "American Me". In the seven years I have taught AMST 212, it became obvious that it was easier for the students to grasp the complexity of the term "American" when there were international students in the class than when all if the students had grown up in the United States. The outsider view provided by students from other cultures provided an essential challenge to my students assumptions or habits of thinking. In the CPS program, we had never had an international student, but I had accidentally discovered the value of this kind of interaction when one of my students signed up to be a speaking partner with a Korean student taking an intensive English class on campus. Her experience, incorporated into her "American Me" project, was the main inspiration for my Learning Partners experiment. At this point, I will describe the two course experiences differently, for though they both involved students from the Maryland English Institute and both took place during fall 1999, the resemblance ends there.

AMST 212 - Diversity in American Culture

The solution for AMST 212 lay in the serendipitous location of the American Studies Department and the Maryland English Institute, at either end of the second floor hallway in our building. This had resulting in an informal relationship between the two units; AMST students and staff had participated in the MEI Speaking Partners program, paired with an international student for a semester to help him/her practice spoken English. MEI students had enrolled in AMST courses in order to learn more about American culture and society. My colleagues in MEI had the opposite problem from mine, in that as the sole American in the classroom, the instructors were often cast in the role of sole authority on American life. The MEI students were eager to learn about America but unable to interact extensively with Americans, either because of their weak language skills of from sheer lack of opportunity; as often happens, most MEI students lived and socialized with their own compatriots.

Two of the MEI instructors and myself developed a proposal for a suite of online courses that would intersect periodically to allow MEI and AMST students to discuss course-related issues. The decision to move the interactions online was to avoid problems of scheduling by taking advantage of the ability of electronic discussions to take place any time (asynchronously, in a bulletin board format) and anywhere (either on the bulletin board or synchronously, via a chat room, but with the students able to log on from home or work). Ultimately it made sense to put the entire class online, not just the AMST-MEI discussion, so that the students’ interactions would not be complicated by new technology; by the time they are introduced to each other, they have been using electronic communication in the "home" class for several weeks.

It took about a year to develop all three courses and test various types of interactions. During Winterterm 1999 (a compressed, 3-week version of the course), I piloted the online version of AMST 212 and we incorporated a real, face-to-face international potluck dinner with a group of students from MEI, to observe the interactions between the students having no previous contact. In the summer, one of the MEI courses was also online and we paired up students as email "learning partners", with the AMST 212 students being assigned to interview the MEI students about their perceptions of American food. In fall 1999, one MEI class and the AMST class not only paired off as learning partners for the "American food" assignment, but we scheduled two rounds of real-time chats over the four-week period during which the two courses overlapped.

From the perspectives of both classes, the experiment was a great success, and he plan to continue to coordinate the two courses. The last iteration was the most successful, due to the careful planning of the roles of each class to ensure that the exercise was mutually beneficial. The summer version of the courses bear this out; the AMST 212 side of the interaction was being graded, but the MEI side was not. As a result, the students in the voluntary, MEI class didn’t always follow through on or even answer phone calls and emails, causing extreme anxiety and frustration among the students in the AMST class as their deadlines approached.

CPSP 118R Colloquium in American Cultures

The College Park Scholars Learning Partners program was much more complicated, encountered many more problems, and was much less successful. About one third of the participants praised the program, but the rest had negative experiences. Some of the problems were organizational, similar to those in the AMST 212/UMEI007 example, but some can be traced to developmental issues related to doing direct, face-to-face service-learning with first-year students.

The Plan

College Park Scholars is a living-learning program for first and second-year students, who are invited to participate based on SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA and extracurricular interests and activities. Students select one of 12 themed programs, ranging from Life Sciences to Arts, and over the course of the next two years earn credits towards a citation in that area. The program incorporates many innovative approaches to learning, especially experiential activities such as field trips, workshops, service-learning and internships. The American Cultures program focuses on the interdisciplinary study of diversity; students learn to understand the ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, etc, dimensions of their own identities and the identities of others.

One of the service-learning options that had worked quite well for American Cultures students in the past was the MEI speaking partners program. For three years previous to this experiment, small numbers of CPS students had volunteered as speaking partners to fulfill their service-learning requirement, and all had been very positive about the experience. In fact, at least three of them chose MEI as the site for their sophomore "capstone" project, working as undergraduate teaching assistants in the intensive English classes. It was this history that encouraged me to develop the Learning Partners concept and incorporate it into both AMST 212 and the CPS-AM program on a larger scale.