Teaching Citizens: Service Learning for Political Engagement
By Dr. Catherine Gabor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, SJSU
I have always taught Professional Writing and Career Writing as service-learning classes. The fit was perfect: students composed professional documents (brochures, reports, etc.) for community partners who had neither the human nor financial resources to complete. As a California Campus Compact-Carnegie Foundation Faculty Fellow, I infused my existing class with service-learning for political engagement by setting up projects with local agencies and nonprofits that had a political or policy-making bent. The wonderful students we have in the CSU system (I have taught this class at California State University Sacramento and at San Jose State University) jumped right in to the newly-focused class, drafting high quality documents for their politically-oriented partners.
For about half of the students, the experience was transformational. For example, one student stated, “I believe writing is one of the most effective forms . . . to be politically active and a lot of decisions are made because of writing . . . not just [by] officials but [by] citizens like us.” The members of this student's group, who were writing a report on the efficacy of a sobriety program for homeless individuals, all reported feeling motivated to use writing as a means of political engagement and action in their future lives: both personal and professional. In fact, the City Manager's Office asked for copies of their resumes. Another student, who was studying to be a high school English teacher, also indicated that the experience had opened her eyes to new career options. She said that she is considering a career in youth advocacy because she could use her "English major skills," such as writing and analysis.
To my surprise, in the end-of-semester interviews, several of the students stated that they had not learned anything about "political engagement" through writing. I was shocked. I thought that my "bookends" approach would solidify the writing assignment/service-learning/political engagement connection: early in the semester the students defined political engagement --in class discussion and in a short paper; then, at the end of class, they wrote reflective papers, defining themselves as rhetorical citizens and referring to their writing projects as evidence of their citizenship. While this approach turned some students on to civic and political engagement in amazing ways, some of the students never felt the connection.
Thanks to the suggestions of my colleagues in the California Campus Compact-Carnegie Foundation Faculty Fellows group, I now include a mid-semester activity: each student group has to explain how their project is political and/or connected to policy-making. During this class session, the other students and I ask questions and help them articulate the connections between their writing projects and political engagement.
While I have been a long-time practitioner and researcher of service-learning pedagogy and a politically-engaged person, this fellowship has given me the opportunity to combine the strands of who I am, helping me live my life as a teacher-scholar-citizen.