The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning
reviewed by David D. Blouin - February 03, 2010
Title: The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning
Author(s): Randy Stoecker and Elizabeth A. Tryon (eds.)
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1592139957, Pages: 232, Year: 2009
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Since an initial explosion in the 1980s, service learning has become increasingly popular on college campuses around the country (Stoecker & Tryon, 2009, p. 3). Many faculty and university administrators, in part, promote service learning because they believe it facilitates student learning. In fact, student benefits are generally well supported. An extensive body of research indicates that service learning can be beneficial for students by, among other things, enhancing jobs skills and improving grades (see Mooney & Edwards, 2001). Yet, one of the primary reasons service learning has become so popular is because of the belief that it enhances student learning and provides service to the wider community. In reality, because of a dearth of research, we know very little about whether service learning actually provides a service. That is what makes Randy Stoecker and Elizabeth Tryons edited volume, The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning, both an important contribution to the literature and a breath of fresh air.
Based primarily on in-depth interviews with representatives of some 67 community organizations, Unheard Voices documents a communitys perspectives on service learning. The book itself is the product of a community-based research project which partnered community organizations in Madison, Wisconsin, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin and Edgewood College, and undergraduate and graduate students at the schools. The book chapters, written primarily by small teams of students, highlight themes that emerged from interviews, such as community organizations motivations for involvement with service learning, how organizations select service learners, and common strategies for training, supervising, and evaluating service learners. The book focuses extensively on common challenges, including specific chapters on diversity, short-term service, student/organization fit, and communication between students, faculty, and community groups. Unheard Voices concludes with two useful chapters summarizing the main findings and providing specific recommendations based on these findings. An epilogue adds a thoughtful discussion on the future of service learning and advocates for new and improved models, where community outcomes are the first priority, not the last, and service learning is structured to maximize community impact (p. 187).
In addition to being both a practical guide to administering more responsible and effective service learning and an important addition to the literature, this is an exceptionally well-organized and clearly written book. Although written by different authors, the chapters fit together well, making connections with each other without being overly repetitive, and adding their own unique insights. Each chapter begins with a short introduction followed by a helpful italicized outline of the main themes. The themes are then articulated and generally supported with copious and poignant quotations from the interviews. Data analysis is also commendable, consisting of rich, detailed evidence, and quantitative summaries that indicate whether experiences are common or relatively isolated.
As the editors explain in the foreword, the book sets out to amplify the unheard voices of community organizations staff in the service learning relationship (p. vii). In my view, the authors succeed commendably. The book is a treasure trove of information about community organizations common experiences with service learning; some expected, some less so. This book should be required reading for any service learning practitioner. As one of the editors, Randy Stoeker, admits (and I can also personally attest) even the most well-intentioned service learning practitioners can end up inconveniencing community organizations and members, or worse, unless they understand the organizations with which they are partnering. Although there is ample discussion of the positive benefits of service learning, the authors generally focus on the many things that often go wrong. While some may find this disheartening, I agree with the editors that this critical focus does not undermine service learning so much as provide a basis for empowering practitioners to improve it. As Stoecker and Tryon write, . . . the greatest threat to the sustainability of service learning is to continue our current common practice (p. 17).
Some of the findings from the book, though important, are not surprising. Community organizations, for example, want mature, well-prepared, motivated, and dependable service learners and too seldom get them. They also want service learning students and projects that help them accomplish their missions, not ones that drain them of valuable time and resources. Such expectations are only met, they report, when faculty and students understand their organizations needs and goals. In short, beneficial service learning relationships are based on true partnership characterized by mutual understanding and open communication. Other findings are less expected. The editors, for example, report that many organizations have an altruistic motive to educate the service learners and that some prefer not only to initiate service learning relationships but also to screen potential students (p. 20). Perhaps the most damning finding is the near universal frustration that organizations experience with short-term service learning courses. In reality, such courses, which involve requiring students to do 20-30 hours of service work for credit, to supplement an existing class, is probably the most commonly utilized model across the country.
Despite my general praise, I would be remiss if I did not point out a few of the books potential limitations. Although the scope of this qualitative project is impressive, at times I question how generalizable the findings are to other settings, such as large urban and smaller rural areas. Differences in setting can lead to differences in community organizations perspectives. For example, in other places community organizations may be less well-equipped to handle service learners, or more or less interested in doing so (and service learners less plentiful) than is the norm in Madison. Secondly, not all of the books recommendations are practical, nor always advisable. Different communities and organizations may call for different recommendations. In the chapter on Challenges of Short Term Service, the authors report that semester-long service learning courses may not be worth the trouble. They suggest year-long projects and courses as a potential fix, an option that strikes me as very unlikely at most colleges and universities. In the same chapter, the authors report that some organizations prefer students involved in short-term service learning to work on projects. In a similar study, a colleague and I found just the opposite: that organizations generally prefer to place short-term service learners into existing programs rather than have them work on new projects (Blouin & Perry, 2009). Finally, as the editors themselves point out, talking with community organizations is not the only way, nor may it be the best way, to really find out whether service learning provides a genuine community service. Doing so would also require speaking with, and evaluating whether community members themselves the people that community organizations serveactually benefit.
Unheard Voices makes an important contribution to the continued evolution of service learning. Serious considerations of its many insights will hopefully lead to not only continued research on the community perspective, but, to an increasing number of truly collaborative service learning projects and courses that facilitate student learning and serve communities.
Blouin, D. D., & Perry, E. M. (2009). Whom does service learning really serve? Community-based organizations perspectives on student learning. Teaching Sociology, 37, 120-135.
Mooney, L. A., & Edwards, B. (2001). Experiential learning in sociology: Service learning and other community-based learning initiatives. Teaching Sociology, 29, 181-194.