remarkable student essay), but more important, and I think the hallmark of such an approach is an “on-the-fly adaptability,” something hard to do for those steeped in traditional liberal arts pedagogy. As I reflect on this methodology, I think I know how I came to it. As part of my own “service learning,” I coordinate a TOPSoccer program in my local community. There we take athletes with a broad range of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, and every Sunday afternoon, with a group of remarkable volunteers, we play soccer, the beautiful game (and it is never more beautiful than with these kids). I attended a number of coaching courses and clinics in order to learn how best to work with disabled players (and learned many useful strategies), but when we are there, boots on the ground, it is clear that each child needs something different. Some need to learn how to dribble, pass, and shoot, while others need simpler challenges. Instead of teaching, we learned to focus on learning. What TOPS kids taught me is on-the-fly adaptability, the need to keep learning goals in mind, but with a willingness to explore with the learners multiple ways of getting there. That lesson has informed my teaching ever since.
Much time is spent in classrooms trying to get students to understand specific abstract concepts, and of course that form of pedagogy is important and valuable. I have often had seminars with small groups of students where we wrestle the entire semester with a single difficult philosophical text, but I have also come to recognize that there are other forms of engagement, ones that need to be embraced and supported by higher education in spite of the obstacles presented. Helping students understand the importance of community engagement, particularly through service learning, is an important part in their developing citizenship. With that in mind, I have tried devise ways where community engagement is not simply an add-on to a class but is instead a fundamental part of the learning.
Given my scholarly interests in questions of built space, the environment, embodiment, and material practice, I have looked for opportunities to devise pedagogical situations for students to engage in service learning around such issues as housing/homelessness and the environment and issues regarding disability and accessibility. Not long after Katrina, I worked with a colleague in an environmentalism class and was able to take his students to Jackson Mississippi for a large Habitat for Humanity build, which resulted in constructing six houses and the students producing essays, films and music about the work. This was followed later by the Mad Houser project (described in more detail in the "teaching efficacy" part of this dossier). There the students helped build homeless shelters while at the same time researched homelessness in Atlanta, various proposals to ameliorate the problem, and studied a number of innovative housing designs. They learned to set up and conduct interviews, edit archival material, produce audio and video, and coordinate with various public information organizations. In addition, some began an ongoing relationship with a number of organizations for the homeless in Atlanta, and continue to exploit opportunities to teach others about what they have learned.
My most recent course explicitly designed to focus on service learning was a class on Disability Studies. There I gave some basic guidelines but then asked the students to design their syllabus. What followed was a remarkable two weeks where they all rapidly developed a sense of the incredible range of the field and then negotiated with each other regarding areas of concentration. From the beginning I made it clear that the service component--the work each was to do with members of the disabled community--was a part of the pedagogical project and not merely an extra activity. Such an approach presents some course design difficulties, as each project must be folded both into the service work and also the larger intellectual project of the class. Here again, on-the-fly flexibility is the best approach as the integration of each individual project demands constant invention.