2000px-vote_with_check_for_v-svgBy Matt Dolloff (mdolloff@gsu.edu)

Debra Greenwood in Journal Of Education And Training Studies defines service learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” (62).  Many of us plan service learning for our students, and today, I’d like to share how I’m implementing a service-learning project that hits all of these definitional criteria in a social justice context.  Moreover, since I use the four inquiries for second semester composition that I adopted as a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, (1) inquiry into oneself, (2) historical inquiry, (3) academic inquiry, and (4) inquiry into community, I can demonstrate how effectively to weave a service learning project into that pedagogy. In addition, I’d like to share recent research that indicates what strategies are most successful for these types of projects.

This spring, I have embedded a voter registration drive into my two English 1102 classes, which at Georgia State University – Perimeter College in Atlanta is the second half of the freshman composition year.  We are also reading Just Mercy, and one of the many social justice topics that author Bryan Stevenson touches on is voting rights.  He says, “Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several states, disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Act of 1965” (16).  Indeed, according to The Sentencing Project, almost 6 million, or 2.5%, of otherwise eligible voters nation-wide have lost the right to vote in this manner, and in that number are over 2.2 million, or 7.7%, of African Americans.  In Tennessee, 18.9% of African Americans are ineligible per this rule, behind only Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky.  Many of my students are familiar with this situation and know family members or friends affected by it.  This being a presidential election year, I asked my students how many of them intended to vote and how many were actually registered.  We discussed how so many people could become disenfranchised and how so many of us disenfranchised ourselves by not registering and voting.  This was the first step in producing a “meaningful” project.

The first goal was firmly to establish the need for this project, so we decided to survey only Perimeter students and inquire into their attitudes about this election year and voting.  Together as a class, we spent a period and a half formulating questions: not just what we wanted to ask, but also what demographics were relevant.  This was an excellent exercise in precise and efficient wording; moreover, after some lively debate, we determined as a class that certain demographic nuances, such as religion and race, might be more than we could handle collectively in the data analysis.  We ended up with this simple survey (see attached).  However, as simple as this appears, some students, for example, circled NO on the age question, some writing in that they would be 19.  If only our students would be so hyper-literal when it comes to the syllabus and assignments!  Still there was value in seeing how others could misread what was so apparent and obvious to ourselves.

In the end, my two classes surveyed almost 400 Perimeter students and the results were mixed.  While roughly 84% of eligible voters intended to vote, of those, only about 60% were actually registered.  Here we are at 7 in the morning on a cold winter Tuesday processing our results. To be sure, some students gathered no surveys, while others thankfully more than 40 apiece.  Nevertheless, this tabulation day was exciting, where everyone had to participate in order to keep our data correct.  Students helped one another to efficiently process their data; students with many completed surveys shared theirs with students who had none; students edited others’ numbers while others added the results and calculated percentages.  For the pertinent issues, we discussed as a class how we should organize the findings.  For example, should “jobs” be included in “economy”?  Or, is there any way to separate those wanting stricter gun laws from those who want freer access?  Or, are refugees in a separate category from “immigration”?  Each of these questions led to engaged discussions of definitional nuances.  These charts were produced by a student for her survey write-up. We also learned that about 20% of GPC students were Republican, 37% Democratic, and 41% Independent or Other.  We discussed how not committing to a major party, in a sense, self-disenfranchised voters because they had no say in the primaries and for whom they would ultimately have to cast a ballot.  Again, most importantly for our project, while a high percentage of students intended to vote, many of them were not registered.  This survey and discussions served as a solid introduction to inquiry into oneself and inquiry into community.

Clearly we had established the need for our voter registration drive as a way to “strengthen our community,” and students began to see themselves as part of a larger community of political engagement.  Of course, some students said they felt uncomfortable about approaching strangers for the survey, but in the Journal Of The Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning, Hullender argues that, “Service-learning environments are complex learning contexts that generate a level of disequilibrium or anxiety that may […] result in transformative learning” (60).  In other words, coercing students to go out of their comfort zones is crucial to service learning success.  As we at junior colleges know, there are dangers to this strategy as well since so many of our students, particularly at-risk first generation males, often resist civic engagement or any other engagement for that matter.  But performing this survey collectively and working as a team to put together the registration drive so far have softened the impact of disequilibrium.  Indeed, Pelco argues in the Journal Of Higher Education Outreach And Engagement that “the implementation of a variety of high-impact educational strategies that work to engage the vast majority of students, rather than the creation of many interventions targeted to specific subgroups, may be most efficacious” (63) on at risk students.  Our project has given us the sense that we are all in this together.

Another definitional criterion of service learning is reflection, but rather than traditional reflective papers, which often turn out to be little more than flattering the teacher and giving lip service to the project, I assigned each student a survey write-up where they also had the opportunity to interpret and reflect upon the data they collected both individually and as a whole.  (See assignment.)  This assignment led to painless, almost unaware, and mostly sincere reflection processed with pedagogical assessment in a written assignment.  Moreover, those students who collected no data became keenly aware that the only reason they were able to complete this assignment was the diligent work of their classmates, thus strengthening their sense of community.  This paper also appealed to various learning styles, as I allowed students to organize and display data as they saw fit.  Some wrote prosaically, other produced charts and graphs, others struggled with crunching the numbers, others were highly expressive, but in the end, I had 100% compliance on this paper in both classes.

Recent studies indicate that for a service-learning project to be successful, it cannot be performed in isolation.  That is, to teach Hamlet one week, have a voter registration drive the next, and then return to Oedipus the next will have virtually no beneficial outcome for students.  Winston in the Journal Of Higher Education Outreach And Engagement points out that “Notably, classes with merely a service add-on showed no positive effect on any political behaviors under examination. This finding stresses how reflection can heighten awareness and deepen knowledge about community needs and facilitate the attitudinal and identity development that promote lasting activism” (100).  We scheduled our voter registration drive for Tuesday, March 1, which was also Georgia’s primary day, I fully expected the project to have lasting implications.  In the short run, students have coined the slogan “This is our vote!” for the registration drive, they have planned the decorations, they have produced posters to share our survey results, and they will recruit students and man the table – all after we have reviewed as a class the requirements for such a drive as stated on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, which I had posted on our webpage and on which I had written a reading quiz homework assignment.   (See photos.)  We coordinated with Student Life, who provided us with computer tablets for registration, and students pitched in money for donuts.  By the end of our drive, my students had registered 62 students – and staff too.  It was exciting for all of us each time a person agreed to register, and each of them got a “I Registered To Vote” sticker.

In the long run, I hope my students will follow through on civic engagement after graduation.  Surveying graduates from a “mid-sized university in the Southeastern United States” on their political engagement since graduation, Winston separates those who participated in at least one semester-long service project versus those who experienced only the add-on project or participated only in club, volunteer, or student government activities.  He concludes, “Analysis demonstrated that organizational involvement, campus leadership, and volunteering had limited influence, whereas service-learning had the greatest impact of the factors studied on political participation after college. Service-learning significantly affected behaviors such as voting and donating money to political candidates as well as forms of political activity that more explicitly reflect social change activism such as social movement organization membership and participation in protests” (102).  As the tireless faculty advisor to our Chess Club, I found this information a little disconcerting, but luckily, I had landed on voter rights as a social justice issue before I read this article indicating that increased voter participation was a measurable consequence of service learning.

The next challenge was to ensure that this service project was not perceived to be done in isolation.  I required them to read a lengthy article from the New York Times following the Shelby County v Holder case last year that rolled back parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and I wrote a homework assignment to ensure that it was read.  We had discussions about the historical sweep of voter rights legislation and activism since the Civil War and used this example as a template for similar inquiries into other topics.

For their next paper, the Historical Inquiry, I had them choose either a social justice issue or a particular civil rights case, incident, or legislation to investigate and provide historical context.  Students have chosen – entirely on their own – everything from the Troy Davis case, to sexual abuse of women in prisons, euthanasia, the Memphis three, ethnic immigration exclusion, sodomy laws, capital punishment in the Mideast, and many more.  The week before Spring Break, students made presentations about their topics so that we as a class could be introduced to and learn about so many more issues than we could individually.  These presentations were the best I’ve ever received from students, who set a higher bar for themselves than I had expected.  We spent three class periods on them.  Ultimately, their final research paper – the academic inquiry – will focus on an actionable, local, social justice issue that they feel they could envision themselves becoming a part of.  The idea is to empower students to understand that they can get involved and make a difference in an area that is meaningful to them, using our service-learning project as a simple template.

At our college, second semester composition is also supposed to be in part about literature, but rest assured that there are plenty of works on social justice and mercy to read, such as Emily Dickinson’s poem “Color – caste – denomination,” W. E. B DuBois’s short story “Of the Coming of John,” and Shakespeare’s forgiveness play, “The Tempest.”  Of course, Just Mercy itself provides so many opportunities for students to find a purchase on a variety social justice issues, voting rights being just one.  By no means are we sacrificing good literature for purely logos-driven analysis.  In fact, in almost a reverse sense, the realities of social justice or injustice have made my students better readers of fiction.  I trust that a fully comprehensive and integrated service-learning semester in composition will have enduring consequences.  So far so good, for on the nuts and bolts of implementing our voter registration drive, one of my at-risk students told me after class, “I want to help.  It’s just too important.”


Works Cited

Greenwood, Debra Abston. “Outcomes Of An Academic Service-Learning Project On Four Urban Community Colleges.” Journal Of Education And Training Studies 3.3 (2015): 61-71. ERIC. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Hullender, Ren, et al. “Evidences Of Transformative Learning In Service-Learning Reflections.” Journal Of The Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning 15.4 (2015): 58-82. ERIC. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Pelco, Lynn E., Christopher T. Ball, and Kelly S. Lockeman. “Student Growth From Service-Learning: A Comparison Of First-Generation And Non-First-Generation College Students.” Journal Of Higher Education Outreach And Engagement 18.2 (2014): 49-66. ERIC. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Winston, Fletcher. “Reflections Upon Community Engagement: Service-Learning And Its Effect On Political Participation After College.” Journal Of Higher Education Outreach And Engagement 19.1 (2015): 79-103. ERIC. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.