On Service Learning in Writing and Rhetoric

protection-442906_1280From Leslie Wolcott —

I have had, and continue to have, several hesitations in doing service learning. However, I found it essential to do service learning work in classes such as Rhetoric and Civic Engagement and Writing for Social Change.

Once the students and I worked through our anxieties about doing real writing in the world, we found that this work was exciting, as well as rewarding. I’ve had a number of students make connections in service learning classes that resulted in jobs with partner organizations when they graduated (see links below).

I’m new/not from here/don’t have time to get out. How do I find a partner organization?

First of all, service learning doesn’t have to mean leaving campus to work at a nonprofit or other agency. Some of the best works my students have done has been looking at situations where they could make a contribution right here on campus.

Secondly, if your students decide to do off-campus work, you need to take the time to build a relationship with at least one person within an organization. Meet in person. Bring what resources you have to explain ideas for partnering, including things like your syllabus and past student work. Meet over the course of the semester to provide feedback and revision just as you ask your students to do so.

What if the partner organization winds up doing more work than the students?

Partnering with a class for a service learning experience is work-intensive. For the first class, the partner organization may be the one to do most of the set-up. You can do a lot to help partner organizations prepare and benefit from these relationships. Blake Scott and Melody Bowden’s textbook Service Learning in Technical and Professional Communication is helpful in thinking about how students can prepare to do partner work, and in helping organizations set clear expectations and goals.

For example, I ask partner organizations who write requests for proposals describing 2-3 writing/rhetoric related projects they think my class could work on. Work on the project does not start until both parties agree to the terms set forth in the student-written proposals.

What if the students encounter uncomfortable situations?

They will. This is undoubtedly one of the most valuable parts of service learning. Students might learn that riding the bus is difficult, or that the legal system can be overwhelming to people with limited resources. They may mess up, but that is one of the most useful lessons they can learn. Instead of trying to avoid this, see how you can work with it by being supportive. I do this by making a reflective synthesis project at the end of the semester count as much more than the final deliverable students create for the partner organizations.

How do I make my class an official service learning course?

Check out UCF’s Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) and fill out the Service Learning Course Approval Application (online link to http://www.explearning.ucf.edu/categories/143)—they can share a number of useful resources and ideas.

Samples of UCF Student Service Learning Projects:


One thought on “On Service Learning in Writing and Rhetoric

  1. Leslie, thanks for sharing some of your experience with service learning–it’s great to see the results in action in your student’s work, and you’ve definitely taken some of the mystery out of the process. Even when we know what resources are out there, it helps (me at least) to hear how someone has walked through the process.


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