Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 1
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Using Linked Courses to Scale Institutional Walls
Deborah B. Normand,
is Assistant Director of the Center for Community Engagement, Learning, and
Leadership and an English Instructor;
This paper describes two models for integrating technical writing with discipline-specific courses through service-learning: a linked course model and a linked project model. Both models allowed students to practice discipline-specific communication by writing grant proposals and other necessary artifacts. Our collaborations enabled us to become more reflective practitioners by seeing what we do through the lens of another discipline. Working with the community and writing for the community are means of increasing critical consciousness about complex social problems while working within the semester system.
In Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition, Thomas Deans articulates for service-learning practitioners three paradigms for community writing: writing for the community, writing about the community, and writing with the community. The goals for the writing with community model are:
(1) Students, faculty, and community use writing as part of a social action effort to collaboratively identify and address local problems.
(2) Students and community members negotiate cultural differences and forge shared discourses.
(3) University and community share inquiry and research. (17)
writing with community members is the ideal collaboration, many of us may not
have established long-term relationships with local communities such as the
partnership between Carnegie Mellon and Community House in
Linking community nutrition with technical writing, both required courses in the nutrition curriculum, allowed us to tailor a writing course to the communication goals of nutrition and further our commitment to community-based teaching and learning. Community nutrition is a junior-level course in dietetics where students learn about food assistance programs in the community and learn to design interventions to improve the diet and health of the community. Technical writing is a junior-level composition course for science and technology majors.
In community nutrition, students develop and provide nutrition education materials and classes to clients in agencies as diverse as the food bank, adult day care centers, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and local hospitals. Students develop lesson plans, present educational programs, and evaluate the success of their instruction. Working in the community introduces students to future clients and agencies that serve them, provides them with empathy, and gives them practical skills to provide services. Yet developing the necessary communication skills needed for working in the community is difficult for many students. They are challenged to read and understand peer-reviewed literature and “translate” it for groups with different literacy and interest levels.
Linking community nutrition to technical writing allowed students to practice discipline-specific communication by writing texts and preparing oral presentations for peers, co-workers, government agents, and lay audiences. They wrote using a variety of genres and employed the conventions of their discipline.
However, technical writing is not just about workplace writing. Writing for the community is a means of increasing critical consciousness about the complex social problems that created a system that does not adequately fund the groups with whom students work. So for their service-learning project, students prepared grant proposals to obtain funding for a local nonprofit agency for grandparents who serve as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. This organization was unknown to the students, but one that they could identify with immediately, as it is the type of agency they had worked with in previous service-learning projects in their nutrition classes and the type they might work for after graduation.
To write compelling grant proposals, students educated themselves and their instructors about the legal, social, and emotional problems for senior citizens who are primary caregivers of their grandchildren. Their sources included the center director, census records, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) website, information from a board meeting of the center, and one another. As human ecology majors who regularly complete projects in the community by working with people from different economic levels and age groups, these students are probably more aware than other university students of the diversity in our community. Service-learning is part of their academic identity. What they learned from the sources added to their understanding of the problems facing grandparents who are primary caregivers, including an understanding of how power relations within society marginalize caregivers because of their economic status, age and race.
A result of their work was increased understanding of the social dimension of the problem the caregivers face. In writing for the agency, students were better able to understand how theoretical issues learned in community nutrition are linked to real community problems. Two examples illustrate how drawing on their backgrounds and sources and reflection resulted in our added understanding of the social dimension of the issue.
One student told us about a high school friend raised by grandparents. The student had not considered the legal, social, and emotional problems the family faced until beginning the service-writing project. This example prompted us to discuss the differences among our backgrounds and those whose parents were not their primary caregivers. In this instance, the writing prompted the student’s connecting a previous life experience that clarified the social dimension to systemic social problems. The facts about the grandparents’ issues, the student’s previous life experience, discussions with the class, and the information learned in human ecology courses informed everyone’s understanding
Another student represented the class at a board meeting of the center. Regretfully, this attendance was the only interaction students had with anyone associated with the center, other than with the director. Because primary caregivers may not have legal custody of their grandchildren, problems occur when they interact with state, school, and insurance bureaucracies. They are hesitant to discuss their methods of circumventing these systems with nonmembers present. In her report to the class, the student offered us new insight into the civic dimension, and thus we gained a greater understanding of the complexity of the problem. As Paulo Freire taught us, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (53). Our added understanding of the problem for primary caregivers reinforced the fact that knowledge is action and active. Thus, students were able to tie civic goals to the practical communication objectives of the course.
The second model was a linked project in which a service-learning design project in a biological engineering course was linked with proposal writing in technical writing to fund the design project.
Biology in Engineering is a first year course introducing
students to engineering and biological engineering and the fundamentals of
engineering design. The learning objectives also include the development of
communication and interpersonal skills and civic responsibility. The majority
of learning experiences in the course were integrated into a semester-long
service-learning project, which involved working with a community partner to
design a therapeutic playground for the McMains Children’s
The service-learning project had a significant community partner component; the college students met with the McMains staff and executive director, the therapists who worked with McMains clients (ages 2 – 21), the children at the center, and the parents of these children in order to determine the needs and wants of each group with regard to the playground. Meetings occurred during a several week time span. The executive director and staff set up additional meetings for college students who needed more information during the design process. The college students based their designs on the input of all stakeholders and on a list of activities and equipment required by physical and occupational therapists, but paid special attention to the drawings of “dream playgrounds” completed by the children. Groups of 3-4 college students created separate playground designs, all of which were presented to the children, parents, therapists, staff and executive director at the conclusion of the semester. These groups worked together with the instructor and selected college students to consolidate the best parts of all designs into one.
The way in which civic goals were integrated into an engineering course may not seem immediately evident. However, playgrounds are an appropriate way to introduce principles of democracy in the context of engineering design. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires equal access to public accommodations and is a major influence on playground design. The concept of equal access was used to illustrate design strategies, but also ways in which to frame engineering problem-solving from multiple perspectives with an emphasis on equality, dignity, and respect. In this way, the playground project served as a springboard to general civic and social issues. Students’ success in integrating these issues is illustrated in their end-of-the semester evaluations:
The most important thing I learned this semester was the ability to think in different ways. I had to think like a child to design a fun playground. I had to think like a parent to design a safe playground. I had to think like an engineer to design a complete playground.
I learned that a large part of the success of a design is knowing how to get the best description of what the client desires. We had to be creative in getting the children…to express their wants through their drawings, friendly conversation, and observation of which equipment they played on most. It took a great deal of listening and observing to get the overall needs of the clients.
Since the technical writing course included majors from several engineering disciplines and from other colleges, the service-learning project had to meet the learning objectives of several disciplines as well as the community’s needs. Writing grant proposals for funding of playground construction was the solution. Students investigated the target community; educated themselves about the physical limitations of children with disabilities; researched requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; and learned about the construction products used in the project. Their sources included their classmates taking biological engineering; the biological engineering instructor; the center’s children and their parents; the director and staff of the center; and websites for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, funding agency, playground equipment, and products used in the playground project. Groups of 4 – 5 students targeted specific phases of the playground construction for their grant proposals. The design was built with $50,000 received from their grant proposals.
A benefit of having students who were not in the same curriculum was the added expertise each student brought to the project. For instance, the first phase involved removal of several trees and ground preparation of the site. The forestry students tackled this need for funding, as several of them were familiar with such projects, having worked on like ones in summer and part-time jobs. Another student who knew the owner of the company that would provide the soft surfacing for the playground connected classmates with the website for the particular product and offered them additional information about the surfacing material. What all students learned from the sources, including one another, enabled them to understand what was for many an abstract idea before the project began—that equal access is a right of all citizens.
Deans points out that “every service-learning course and teacher should heed the ancient Greek dictum: know thyself. This demands that service-leaning teachers interrogate the assumptions and aims embedded in their own practices and proceed in the light of critical self-awareness” (20). Our students received the rationale for all writing, speaking and interviewing tasks, tying those explanations to the communication goals for the courses. They provided formative assessment of the assignments. Thus, students became active participants in shaping both the courses they were taking and our future intentions for the courses. Critical self-awareness dictates that we involve students in the ongoing dialogue of assessment. Indeed, effective reflection is synonymous with assessment.
Students in both sections of technical writing assessed their service project as part of an oral presentation to their classmates, discipline-specific and writing professors, director of the community agency, and representative from the granting agency. Each student also submitted a report on the service writing and collaborative experience.
Comments such as the following were typical: “I selected the grant proposal as the text I am most proud of. This text shows how I have learned to write while following specifications set forth by the grant-awarding organization. Additionally, it shows my development from an uninvolved, emotionally detached writer to a socially responsible one.” Another student reported that “…writing for a cause I believe in causes me to put greater effort into my work…. This class will have a lasting impression on my professional career path. It has enabled me to see writing through another window.” Both of these writers were dietetics majors who were involved in service-learning as part of their curriculum. Yet the responses of students are due, in some part, to the teaching philosophy of the professor. If we make service-learning a given in the classroom, students will more likely recognize its value to all shareholders, including themselves.
Critically assessing our courses should move beyond just questioning if they meet the learning objectives set forth by our departments. Rather, as Bruce Herzberg reminds us, we should question the course content in every discipline:
I don’t believe that questions about social structures, ideology, and social justice are automatically raised by community service. From my own experience, I am quite sure they are not.
Such questions can and should be raised in a class that is engaged in a community service project. Here, too, there is no guarantee that students will come to see beyond the individual and symptomatic…I don’t see why questions like these cannot be raised in any course in the university, but if there are prime locations, they would be (and are, at Bentley [College]) courses in economics, political science, sociology, and composition” (309).
Preparing grant proposals involves more than just writing texts. Students draw from discussions of ethical issues within their disciplines and from experience in previous community projects completed in their disciplines. For us, that means heeding Ira Shor’s suggestion to seek “generative themes from student life or from social issues” and design our “pedagogy with civic commitment.” We want students who “accept the civic responsibility to connect the personal with the social in such a way that we conjointly pull ourselves further into civic thought, feeling, and action” (Ashley 9). Students who investigate the complex problems of the community group for whom they are writing, whether that group is composed of grandparents raising their grandchildren or children with disabilities, are beginning what can become a life-long process of critical inquiry into a system that does not provide equal services to all citizens. That means that we enable our students to become active learners who are critically engaged in the community at the same time they are applying the abstract concepts and practical tools learned in dietetics or biological engineering with the practical oral and written communication skills of technical writing.
Responding to a Reflections interview question about what he means by “something of public value,” Edward Zlotkowski responded, “I want my students to recognize that they are not isolated individuals for whom the university is merely a vehicle of personal gain, and that the skills they are developing are not simply of use to them alone. I want them to recognize that they are members of communities, and that as citizens in a democracy, everything they do has implications for the health of our society. In short, I want them to learn to be productive in ways that simultaneously benefit both them and their fellow citizens” (1). Our collaborations not only allowed our students to be better citizens, but they enriched us as well. We were able to tie our philosophical goals to course and community goals. The link enabled students and professors to make real that connection between academia and community and use what we learned. Ultimately service-learning at its best creates democracy.
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