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Understanding Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Crossing Boundaries through Research

reviewed by Lisa Scherff - March 01, 2013

coverTitle: Understanding Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Crossing Boundaries through Research
Author(s): Julie A. Hatcher & Robert G. Bringle
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617356565, Pages: 228, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

As co-editors Hatcher and Bringle state in their introduction to Understanding Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Crossing Boundaries through Research, the present volume is the eleventh, and most likely final, title in a series devoted to service learning. The chapters in the present title were selected from peer-reviewed papers presented at the 2010 meeting of the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE): “International Perspectives: Crossing Boundaries Through Research.” The purpose of the conference was to answer questions related to service learning across diverse contexts and differences between service learning in the U.S. and other countries.

Service learning allows students to go beyond their university classrooms, connecting theory to practice within purposeful, genuine experiences (Dodd & Lilly, 2000) and offers a “potential pedagogy for community-oriented teacher preparation” (Boyle-Baise, 2005, p. 447) through which pre-service teachers can develop a better understanding of their local community’s culture and context (Murrell, 2001), including its assets and needs (Scherff, in preparation). When carried out well, service learning combines strong ties among the partners involved in the activities, and fluid and reciprocal forms of learning and reflection among all participants (Vickers, Harris, & McCarthy, 2004).

It is worth noting that co-editors Hatcher and Bringle state “unfortunately, many of these questions remained unanswered with little new insight generated from the conference presentations or papers” (p. xiv). However, the present volume shows that “the field of service-learning and community engagement is firmly established, yet the field has further work on the horizon in order to maintain its strength and legitimacy . . . [thus] chapters focused on service-learning research more broadly and theoretical perspectives that can guide further research” (p. xix). Therefore, while the conference may not have met the convener’s expectations, the chapters in the book should prove helpful to many readers, especially those who are interested in learning how to conduct, research, and report on service-learning initiatives.

The book is comprised of three sections—Keynote Addresses (two chapters), Cultural Contexts for Research and Practice (four chapters), and Disciplinary Contexts for Research and Practice (three chapters)—and covers a range of cultural (e.g., U.S., Germany, Hong Kong) and disciplinary (e.g., teacher professional development, dental education) contexts. Rather than summarize the chapters, because some were of greater quality than others, in this review I want to highlight a few key points that I found beneficial from my own missteps with implementing and writing about service learning initiatives.

As a faculty member who has led service-learning initiatives, one question that sometimes came up from colleagues and administrators was Is it research?  In his chapter “Improving Rigor in Service-Learning Research” Michael Q. Patton, using a “model of analytical rigor . . . [with] eight attributes of rigorous analysis” (pp. 5-6), offers readers a way to triangulate their service-learning data in order to provide greater confidence in the significance and importance of their findings (i.e., evaluations). Patton’s suggestions should prove immediately helpful for those studying their service-learning initiatives to help turn their data into publishable reports, articles, and book chapters.

“Center and Periphery in Service-Learning and Community Engagement” by Sandmann, Moore, and Quinn raises several critical points for readers through their use of postcolonial theory to study the power dynamics in community engagement settings. As a university “academic” it is easy to go into a community setting with the answers, or the assumption of having answers, to their (real and/or perceived) needs. Although university sponsored service-learning efforts start with good intentions, it is tempting to go into the community as the all-knowing expert who has much to teach (and does not see learning as part of the process). Through the use of terms such as “university and community, researcher and community partner, and town and gown”  “. . . academics position communities and community leaders as peripheral in a geographic sense, and potentially marginal in the activity of community engagement” (p. 29, their emphasis). The authors offer two points for consideration for university faculty who want to work in community settings:


The success and sustainability of collaborative partnerships involving community- and university-based actors relies on the relationships among the partners at least as much as on funding.


University administrators and faculty must recognize that they are an integral part of the community, not separate from it. (p. 39)

Another chapter that resonated with me is “Another Look at the Dissemination of the Racial Identity Interaction Model in a Cultural-Based Service-Learning Course” by Simons, Blank, Fehr, Barnes, Georganas, and Manapuram. As a literacy educator, year in and year out I face the demographic represented in the field: white, middle-class females. Many times, these students articulate views about “those students” and/or “that school” that they read about in the newspaper or hear about from family and friends. Simons et al. examined undergraduate students’ racial attitudes and multicultural skills through studying variables such as awareness of racial privilege; institutional discrimination/racism; social justice/diversity/ethnic identity; and, multicultural awareness. Although they only studied 54 students, their findings were interesting and important. One troubling finding that should be followed up in future studies is that while participants had increased “understanding of social injustices . . . they decreased their intentions to continue in ongoing service beyond the course” (pp. 59-60). Why not continue? Did the greater understanding about injustices then cause levels of discomfort that made them too uncomfortable to take further action? Answers to questions like these are why service-learning and community engagement initiatives are critical to study and write about.

I applaud the editors for pulling together studies that offer different perspectives and methodologies for readers to consider. While not all who finish the book will leave with a takeaway from every chapter, certainly all readers can learn important points, whether they are new to service-learning or hoping to expand their efforts.


Boyle-Baise, M. (2005). Preparing community-oriented teachers: Reflections from a multicultural service-learning project. Journal of Teacher Education, 56, 446-458.

Dodd, E., & Lilly, D. (2000). Learning within communities: An investigation of community service-learning in teacher education. Action in Teacher Education, 22(3), 77–85.

Murrell, P. (2001). The community teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

Scherff, L. (in preparation). Service learning in new spaces: Transforming preservice teachers. In E. Morrell & L. Scherff (Eds.), Powerful English Education: Critical & Culturally Relevant Teaching and Research.

Vickers, M., Harris, C., & McCarthy, F. (2004). University-community engagement: Exploring service-learning options within the practicum. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 32(2), 129-141.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17037, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:01:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Scherff
    Florida State University
    E-mail Author
    LISA SCHERFF is associate professor of Reading and Language Arts at Florida State University. Dr. Scherff's work has been published in journals such as Teaching and Teacher Education, Journal of Teacher Education, and Journal of Literacy Research. With Leslie Rush (Wyoming) she is co-editor of the NCTE journal English Education. She is currently working on an edited book with Ernest Morrell (Teachers College): Powerful English Education: Critical & Culturally Relevant Teaching and Research.
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