Bringle and Zlotkowski interview
Service Learning in the Disciplines: An interview with monograph series editors Robert Bringle and Edward Zlotkowski
By Ted Marchese

-- from the March 1997 AAHE Bulletin

AAHE has undertaken a multiyear initiative to enrich service-learning practice. The primary activity of the initiative is an eighteen-volume monograph series to be released over 1997-98 entitled "AAHE's Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines." The first volume was released this month.

As its title implies, the distinguishing characteristic of the Series is that the contributors to each volume are scholars writing for peers in their own discipline. This disciplinary context is critical to making service-learning work — and to interesting faculty in trying the pedagogy. Across the volumes, theoretical essays illuminate issues of general importance to educators interested in a service-learning pedagogy; pedagogical essays discuss the design, implementation, and outcomes of specific service-learning programs.

For this Bulletin interview, AAHE vice president Ted Marchese visited in January with Edward Zlotkowski, the editor of the series, and Robert Bringle, coeditor with Donna Duffy of Middlesex Community College, of the coming volume in Psychology. Zlotkowski is professor of English at Bentley College and founding director of the Bentley Service-Learning Project; currently, he also is senior associate at AAHE. Bringle is associate professor of psychology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and director of its Office of Service Learning. — Eds.

Marchese: Bob, when did service-learning hit your radar screen?

Bringle: I believe it was 1980. The National Council on Aging sponsored demonstration projects to get college students involved with geriatric and elderly populations. . . . I'd been part of a study group on gerontology, and we received a grant to try service-learning in a psychology of aging course.

Marchese: Did they call it "service-learning" then?

Bringle: Actually, yes. The term goes back before 1950, I learned.

Marchese: So, what happened?

Bringle: It was serendipitous; we found that service-learning is a very powerful form of pedagogy. As part of the course, we had students visit homebound elderly persons. Students became quite engaged in the lives of these individuals, and it had a large impact on the students' thinking about themselves and the energy they brought to coursework.

Marchese: Interesting report . . . how about data?

Bringle: Evaluation was part of the project from the start. We had a comparison group, a pre-test and post-test design, and measures of knowledge of aging as well as attitudes toward the elderly and the student's own aging. Statistically, the results showed effects on the students' attitudes, but we were also struck that so many students told us they came out of the course with a different, deeper sense of themselves . . . some changed careers because of the experience.

Zlotkowski: From a liberal learning perspective, the fact that students made the connection between studies and their own lives is the significant outcome.

Marchese: Ed, you've been teaching twenty-five, twenty-six years . . . how did you come upon service-learning?

Zlotkowski: Several years ago, I moved from a liberal arts faculty to an institution that has a very strong business focus. I found there that I couldn't take the same things for granted, that institutional and student attitudes were different. That led me to experiment with courses that might give me more opportunity to have some kind of impact on students not predisposed to the English, German, and Latin I had been teaching. And that led me to an interdisciplinary course intended to push students on the mental models they bring to their learning and personal lives. I found that students had very strong preconceived notions about poverty and wealth, about who is poor and who is wealthy. My questions were a teacher's: How could I open minds here? How could I impact their learning in this unit of the course? It was purely a pedagogical undertaking from the start.

Marchese: And you did what?

Zlotkowski: In Fall 1989, I prepared and sent students out to work in a homeless shelter. The educational returns were a revelation to me. The quantity of written work produced and the quality of classroom comments jumped up, and carried over into the rest of the course even when we'd left the topic of poverty. This one step, I saw, had set something powerful in motion.

Marchese: What then?

Zlotkowski: I became interested in whether the same idea would work in other courses, with other instructors. Within a year, five of my colleagues at Bentley tried it, with similar results. Then we discovered that other people had been doing this for years and it had a name, "service-learning."

Bringle: By the early 1990s, the movement to expand service-learning was being spurred on by Campus Compact and the new Corporation for National Service. In Fall 1994, inspired by it all, I decided to integrate service-learning experiences into the introductory psychology course I was teaching.

Marchese: Did it work as well as in the advanced course you described earlier?

Bringle: Frankly, it wasn't as powerful, though it was gratifying in other ways. What I learned from the experience is that different courses require different approaches, and that the pedagogy demands attention to details . . . but those details aren't overwhelming.

Marchese: Did you look to the literature for explanation or help?

Bringle: Yes. The National Society for Experiential Education had a set of volumes by Jane Kendall that was helpful to me; Campus Compact also has useful publications. For my own teaching, the most helpful event was to attend a Partnership for Service-Learning workshop led by Ed Zlotkowski. Ed provided me a better understanding of the pedagogy and alerted me to the classroom "details" I needed. His work also provided a model for the administrative work on service-learning that I was beginning.


Marchese: Only a tiny fraction of all faculty will experience such a workshop.

Zlotkowski: That fact, among others, became the starting point for this monograph series.

Bringle: Higher education needed a literature genuinely useful to faculty, focused on where we work and what we teach.

Zlotkowski: "Where we work" matters because so many of the "models" for service-learning have little reference to institutional type or student situation. What works for a community college may be undoable in a comprehensive university, for instance. All of our monograph authors, I think, have been keenly attuned to context.

An even bigger stumbling block comes up in workshops all the time. That is, faculty will focus in on my disciplinary background and say, "That's all well and good for you folks teaching composition or comparative literature, but I teach — !" There's a rightness to their reaction: Teaching philosophy isn't the same as teaching organic chemistry. If I handed a general article on service-learning or even a collection of course syllabi from various disciplines to an accounting professor at Bentley, she'd likely not do anything with it . . . it would be too easy to dismiss. It would lack a recognizable disciplinary context, details and specificity an accounting teacher could do something with.

Marchese: Bob, as an editor of one of these monographs, something about the idea must have clicked for you.

Bringle: It made sense to me to develop the disciplinary base of the pedagogy. There are certain elements of service-learning that are generic to which you must pay attention. But it requires creativity to match a service activity to course objectives, an instructor's style, and an institutional setting. A richer set of examples or models, with details about how and why decisions were made, I thought, would be a big help in stimulating the natural creativity of faculty.

Zlotkowski: In developing the pedagogy by field, we could also invite the national disciplinary associations to co-create this new knowledge base with us. The American Psychological Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Political Science Association, the American Chemical Society . . . just about every learned society we approached wanted to contribute. Or led us to authors.

Marchese: Bob, at times I hear these monographs sounding like "teaching tips," at others I hear you talk of developing the "disciplinary base of the pedagogy." Explain.

Bringle: Both elements are present. That is, as we've discussed, there's material on doing service-learning in particular courses, the lessons learned from that, and how to think creatively about your own teaching.

But the second part is what the discipline has to offer to service-learning. My discipline, Psychology, for example, has well-developed bodies of knowledge about attitudes, motivation, cognition, and so on. So we have psychologists writing chapters that analyze service and service-learning in terms of social cognition, helping behavior, developmental theory, and therapy.

Marchese: Psychologists also have long-standing interests in evaluation.

Bringle: Yes, because we're empirically oriented and want to know the effects of our work, psychology faculty also have much to offer on measuring outcomes, experimental design, as well as the theoretical context within which to interpret what might go on in a student's service experience.

Zlotkowski: In the Composition volume, service-learning becomes a way to ask, "What constitutes valid discourse?" "What are the discourse communities our students need to navigate?" In the Political Science volume, the pedagogy becomes a way to raise basic questions about citizenship and civic literacy.

Every single volume has managed to show not that the discipline is burrowing its way into its special identity but ways that point toward a scholarship of integration … that contribute, from disciplinary footings, to a larger academic dialogue.

Bringle: For example, in the Psychology volume, one chapter takes the theory and research findings about expert vs. novice problem solvers and applies them to service-learning experiences.

Marchese: Remind me, Bob, . . . expert chess players . . . ?

Bringle: Expert chess players not only play the game better, Ted, they play it differently. The chapter's authors have taken that literature and asked, "Can we use that knowledge base as a means for developing protocols for novice and expert community problem solvers?" Dwight Giles, Janet Eyler, and Susan Root thereby provide a way to assess an important, intended outcome of service-learning.

Zlotkowski: For me, the key issue in these examples is that of expanding the circle of discussion about service-learning within disciplinary frameworks. General talk about the phenomenon carries one only so far. Universities are organized around, and faculty live within, disciplinary communities, and that's where we hope the next level of conversation can occur . . . in disciplinary meetings and journals, in departmental committees and colloquia . . . not by outside advocates but by people like Bob Bringle, who are committed to their institution and field and whose work is appreciated by academic colleagues.

Bringle: I don't have the idea, by the way, that service-learning solves all problems and everybody should do it. Just as not every course will involve a laboratory, for example, or has to require a term paper. My goal is that service-learning become a recognized way to bring about certain kinds of learning, that it be an integral part of a department's undergraduate program, and that it be appreciated as one of the valuable things we do for our students.


Marchese: Bob, now you direct IUPUI's Office of Service Learning. Has that assignment changed any of your thinking about all of this?

Bringle: I accepted the assignment a couple of years ago because I was looking for a new challenge, and I had a long history of work in curricular reform. But it was a big jump from worrying about classroom details to thinking about all of this at the institutional level.

Zlotkowski: I had the same experience at Bentley . . . how to take what I and a few others were finding at the classroom level into the arenas of institutional policy. It was a problem that all my liberal education didn't prepare me for. Fortunately for me, in a business-oriented academic environment I found all kinds of colleagues who were versed in organizational theory and practice. I remember what a revelation it was, while coteaching a course with a management professor, to discover books such as Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline and how excited I was to meet people who had thought carefully about translating knowledge and ideas into programs.

Marchese: You used some of those ideas to help bring about the tremendous growth in service-learning at Bentley.

Zlotkowski: I and others, yes. But later, when I looked around more widely, I couldn't find a lot of organizational strategizing going on in the service-learning field. So I thought that might be my contribution.

Marchese: Which led to the present monograph series.

Zlotkowski: You've seen now its two aims, both designed to bring the movement to another level of acceptance: resource development for individual faculty members, so they don't feel isolated or compelled to reinvent the wheel; and resource development for entire disciplinary groups, of all different kinds, so they don't feel their particular issues and priorities are being overlooked.

Bringle: It's important to emphasize that all this isn't necessarily new. We have numerous professional schools in my university and a lot of faculty members in them have experience with field-based learning. They tell me, "We're already doing that." Once that's acknowledged, we're able to talk about what new service-learning ideas can add to their curriculum. Another connection of value is with colleagues engaged in collaborative learning, general education, assessment, faculty roles, and so on . . . all of us are looking, in one way or another, to improve student learning.

Marchese: Ed, a lot has been written about the success of service-learning at Bentley.

Zlotkowski: In a given term, about 20 percent of Bentley's 3,200 students are engaged in service-learning. By now, every one of our undergraduate academic departments and more than 20 percent of the full-time faculty have sponsored service-learning initiatives.

Marchese: Bob, IUPUI is perhaps a more-typical institution than Bentley, but your effort is more recent.

Bringle: We started by offering stipends to faculty to develop a service-learning component in their courses. We also sponsor workshops for faculty, convene a statewide conference, publicize course opportunities among students, and put out a newsletter. After three years, more than forty service-learning courses exist, across twelve of the schools.

Marchese: I especially liked the tag line on IUPUI's flyer to students: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." Gentlemen, thank you.

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