Last week we had our first session for the new cohort of CESL’s Faculty Fellows. The fellowship is for UMass Amherst faculty who would like to develop Service-Learning courses in collaboration with off-campus community partners. For me, it is one of the highlights of the academic year to meet the new cohort, and learn more about who they are and the courses they are creating. Faculty from the School of Education, Arts Extension, Dance, English, History, Sociology, the Honors College, Architecture and Languages, Literatures, and Cultures are included, and the first session captured why it is an important part of what we do at CESL.
We started the session with a paired dialogue that allowed each faculty member to introduce their partner—and then reflected on that experience in ways that parallel the work we do to facilitate the connection between our community partners and our students in our service-learning classes. We considered, what does it mean to attentively listen? To reflect on what we have heard, and seek feedback on whether we have gotten it “right?” All key questions we ask in our partnership work.
Our small group discussions yielded reflections on how to translate “good will” into transformative social justice work; how can we balance our pedagogical needs within a course, with those of a community partner; the dynamic of activism versus service; how do we navigate the many places our students are “coming from”—from those that have only experienced service as charity, to those who may express fear or disconnection towards a community setting or partner, as well as those students who are already active in political and social movements.
At one point, in a discussion of the challenges and doubts that are part of the development of any community-based pedagogy, I called my own service-learning practice “heretical,” and noted that I practice like a heretic because I still strongly believe in the transformative power of reciprocal community-based learning—for faculty, students and community partners—but have my own doubts about the orthodoxy of the field that often glosses over the difficult questions of this work—especially in the complex political and cultural moment we are living through.
Yet, I believe that we can build programs, courses, and outcomes for both students and communities that promote change and that are imaginative, reflective, compassionate, complex, restorative and empowering. And that the cultivation and realization of this is essential if we are to create spaces for social justice in the academy and the world. So, onward, aiming for another year of critical and transformative work—perhaps not reaching the ideals we may set for ourselves, but moving just a little closer to another world we know is possible.
Best wishes for a productive academic year.