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Service Learning:Transfer,Time,Travel Part 1

Over the past three years, my students have contributed to cross-disciplinary service learning projects focused on homelessness and poverty. As many of you know, my writing students (along with social work and sociology students) have been constructing community perception surveys, creating awareness raising events, and providing local community service. We have invited community leaders to come talk to us about local patterns, including hard facts about local suffering.

Sometimes our students have been willing to share that they have direct experience with homelessness and poverty, and they have been able to see that experience as a source of authority and knowledge rather than as a source of shame. These activities and experiences have inherent value regardless of how well they directly translate into my usual first year writing curriculum.

It makes sense that such service helps students to mature and become more thoughtful about their place in the world, but in my own research for a writing pedagogy project, I’ve also become interested in how service learning helps students transfer academic skills to other contexts.

For example, in my English 112 class, we learn about rhetorical appeals and how they can be used effectively and ethically. One type of appeal in particular is crucial for making sense of why one writes or says a specific thing at a particular time. Ancient Greeks called it kairos–saying the right thing at the right time, or having something specific to say because of the particular time and place. The quality of time for a given message or idea is very difficult to teach if students feel distanced or alienated from the writing situation.

Because the number of people experiencing homelessness in Northern Michigan has been rising, and because local people are finding housing increasingly unaffordable, there have been many local situations creating some urgency for us. For example, over the past few years, we have been struggling with the question about whether to open a permanent site for our winter shelter (Safe Harbor), and our local paper has published many stories about the dramatic disagreements at city council meetings arising from this issue.

There is strong kairos for talking about homelessness in Northern Michigan, and my students writing on these issues have been able to tap into that kairos to make sense of their own research as they write advocacy argument essays for my classes. Looking at what is going on now (kairos) in our own communities offers my students a specific sense of timing that has helped them demonstrate stronger academic writing skills for my assignments because they have an understanding of the motivations and potential uses for such writing. Next week I will discuss how literal and metaphorical travel combine with timing in service learning to help create situations where students practice skill transfer.

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