Academic Service-Learning Workshop, Part 1

Attending a 2 day Academic Service-Learning (ASL) workshop. I'm not a big fan of ASL. I find the way it is discussed to be incredibly uncomfortable. I find the attitudes of the people who are passionate about it to be just shy of straight-up colonial paternalism. And the final thing that turns me off: History shows us that the solution to issues of poverty rarely, if ever, involves wealthy people marching into poor areas to tell poor people what they need to do to become less poor.

The workshop has made me a little less hard on ASL. Well, ok, a bit more ambivalent.

Day 1, Morning

We open with a talk from one of the University's top leaders on ASL. He confirms all the things I fear. Not only does he reccomend reading a book that claims, "All energy is imperialistic," and states, "Whatever the faults of ancient cultures . . ." It's the sort of book that pretends to be taking you on a spiritual quest, but front-loads the rightness of Christianity from the get go in an unappealing way. I'm fine with a book that's clear about its advocacy. I'm not fine with a poorly thought out one that shows its hand in really bad assumptions about judgement and the world as if those things were a priori.

I dismiss Google Books with a sneer, and return to the lecture. Here comes the typical ASL discourse: "Sometimes communities don't even know what their needs are. We can help them with that." As if anyone from the closed sphere of the University would be near a position to tell someone in poverty what they need. No, they don't need job skills. No, they don't need a Chromebook. What we might want to do is listen to them. . .no, sorry, how could they know what they need? The arrogance is palpable, and sadly, the University has accidentally created this attitude of foolish superiority. It's a wake up for me to make sure, in my classes, to question that attitude when it appears.

Finally, he concludes with two zingers: "Sometimes the best way to measure success with ASL is to just look at the hours students have put it. Just looking at the volume of hours is great." As if time doing community service was some sort of automatic critical project. Many students probably just confirmed uncritical and harmful views of minorities, classes, and neighborhoods. Some probably confirmed ideas that non-profits are full of waste and don't deserve government support. Others probably feel that poor people are unfit parents, or developed a sense of resentment for a particular community. Just putting in hours isn't good enough, sorry. Sadly, like most education professionals in administration, the good of the information is rooted in its empirical nature. It's clear and measurable - so the automatic response of administrators is to craft a story around it making it seem like the best information. He ends with, "Let's debate and argue about the value of ASL, but let's do it in the realm of facts, which cannot be disputed." Thank you, graduate of Dick Cheney's Argumentation School. That poor understanding of how argument even begins to work was the icing of ignorance on the rotten imperialist cake.

But then the facilitator of the workshop started to talk. He pointed out many antidotes to this attitude.

First, he discussed the importance of doing ASL projects with community members. I pointed out that his use of "with" instead of "for" or "to" was refreshing, as the ASL discourse is littered with the grammar of domination. I call this problem the Dative Problem, the easy slippage from "with" to "for." This is not charity work; it's charitable, critical work. This distinction is not lost on this teacher.

The second thing were his principles.

1. Do not compromise the Academic Integrity of your Course
2. Do no harm

Pretty good, simple, and clear ideas for approaching situations where easily the suffering of people could become an object of your actions.

I also enjoyed the way he kindly and carefully handled the most inane questions and comments. The room was full of people willing and eager to show off what a special teacher they were at any moment. His discourse was punctuated by them - "This might seem irrelevant, but look at how wonderful I am. I have been doing what he's talking about for years. I'm special, my students have incredibly special needs, but that doesn't bug me. I am so generous and smart. Look at me one last time. Thank you." He handled such interruptions with the grace of a master. It was nice to watch, and reminded me of what I need to work on.

The tone of the workshop skirted dangerous ideology again when we heard about a case study involving working with female prisoners. The presenter became very excited, smiling and laughing, whenever she would point out the benefits of her project - "I had all this data!" she kept exclaiming. The time trade off in working with prisoners was great, in her opinion, because she would have spent that time anyway gathering data for papers, and she had a lot more data than she thought she would get. Data! It apparently flows like a river of wine in ASL.

But what did the prisoners get? We learned that they don't think "it's bad to get out of prison and sell drugs again." Okay. They learned that they should set long term goals for their life. Apparently, before the project, they rarely, if ever set goals. Now they do. I suppose the benefit for the prisoners was a bad life-coaching session. The professor and her students learned that the prison system is another institution for the control and manipulation of minority populations. Foucault 101.

Maybe I am being unfair in my description, the presentation was only an hour long. But even in an hour one could have articulated clearer and better what the benefit was to both sides of the project. I am uncertain what the prisoners, who were identified as people who were part of a system that almost ensures life long participation. The best moment was the comment of a guard at the prison who developed a flicker of Buddhist-style compassion: "I realized these women could be my mother, daughter, or sister." Good awareness! But it seems like a side-effect of the project, not the center. The center was the data that was mined. I came up with the following SAT analogy.

colonization: natural resources (18th c.)
ASL: information resources (21st c.)

We are collecting tons of data, apparently, about how poor and disadvantaged people are. Little is said about the experience. One woman asked, "What about the experiential learning, the narratives?" The researcher nodded vigorously and made a noise of affirmation - but could not provide much in terms of narrative herself. It was disappointing, although her work received high praise. Ironically, during the following break someone repeated the tone of the group response to me in a conversation about debate: "Have you seen the Great Debaters? That is so wonderful and amazing!" I thought about response to the ASL project - the crowd was excited and praising it because, well, it sounded like a great movie. It fit the dramatic form of what ASL is supposed to look like on a screen.

The facilitator returned to teaching (thank God) and almost pulled me out of the sea of skepticism. One of the best parts of the workshop was early on I identified myself as highly skeptical about ASL. For the rest of the time, everyone refered to me as the skeptic. They liked to pull me aside and chat with me about it. They wanted to know more about me. I became, in Lacanian terms, object petit a, the object that won't properly fit in the longing, but should be made to satisfy. There's a hole in the whole, and it's what you said. I'm going to whittle you down so you can plug it.

A director of a soup kitchen spoke next and used the wonderfully hilarious term "academician" - who knows where that came from. He had a great attitude, especially about the double-edge of charity and the paternalistic attitudes that feeding poor people can engender. But he too was really interested in gathering data on services and what people need. This data mining seems and feels like resource extraction. It seems like the argument, "Those natives wouldn't know what to do with that coal vein anyway." I know it's not exactly the same, but the attitude of helping the disadvantaged by taking something from their sphere is a bit disconcerting. I plan to reflect on it a bit more.

Today is the final day, and we'll see how it concludes. I have been thinking a lot about the performance of those who attend these conferences. Why do people vigorously nod in affirmation when the speaker mentions some obscure, charitable work? Or a statistic that is supposed to be surprising about who makes up the majority or minority of charitable service recipients? It's sort of the same performance as the "thrilled about data" people: Let me latch on to this suffering group as an opportunity to perform for you how much I know, how much more sensitive and aware I am than you, and how I should be teaching this workshop. No performance other than the vigorous head nod could be more pathetic, especially from someone who is charged with the role and title of professor.