Community Service-Learning and Active Historians on Campus

By Jamie Trepanier, co-chair Canadian Historical Association’s Active History group

“One way of making education more holistic is to get outside the classroom and off the campus. It interrupts the programming that twelve years of classroom conditioning automatically call up; the change in environment changes everything. The class becomes a social unit; students become more fully rounded human beings not just people who either know the answer or don’t know it. Inside the classroom, it’s one kind of student that dominates; outside, it’s another. Tying course content to the world outside offers a real-world site for asking theoretical questions; it answers students’ need to feel that their education is good for something other than a grade point average.  And it begins to address the problem of the student who has no conception of what is possible after graduation…” – From A Life in School by Jane Tompkins, Duke University, Addison Wesley Longman, 1996 (from Service Learning website at St. Francis Xavier University)

Since joining the Active History CHA group a year ago I have been wrestling with the concept of what it means to be an “active historian”. While the teaching of history is an evident tool of engagement for the historian, and has been the subject here of some wonderful posts about the many diverse and fascinating projects currently on the go, I am still left with a familiar question I have had since my days as an idealistic undergraduate history student; how to mesh our sense of civic engagement/political activism/social responsibility with our interests and skills as aspiring/professional historians and, for those of us who want and actually get teaching positions, future educators?Getting to the intersection where theory meets practice and makes a tangible difference has been a long-standing challenge for scholars. While historians in public history programs at the graduate level, as profiled by Adam Crymble in a recent post on this site, or those engaged in community histories using oral history, such as students at Concordia’s Centre of Oral History and Digital Storytelling, focus on specific historical methodologies to engage with their communities, there are also tools out there for engaging undergraduates.

Community service-learning (CSL), defined loosely as “an educational approach integrating community service with intentional learning activities,” (Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning) is one such tool.  Students connect what they learn in class and in the community – between theory and practice – through reflections and analysis that may take the form of such things as journal writing, group discussions and written reports under faculty supervision, for which they receive academic credit.

Initiated in the United States, community service-learning was first adopted in Canada at Saint Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia in the late-1990s. Saint F.-X.’s pioneering in this regard should come as no surprise, given its historic role as a catalyst in the Antigonish Movement in the 1920s.

Boosted by a grant by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation (which runs out in 2011), CSL has grown across the country. A glance at the current list of universities participating in CSL partnerships in one form or another reveals CSL’s growing popularity in Canada. (For more on the growth of and challenges facing CSL on Canadian campuses, see a recent article published inUniversity Affairs)

If getting undergraduates to think critically about the applications of their learning and, hopefully, getting them engaged with their communities in the process while various community organizations themselves begin to reconnect with the academy in useful ways is an exciting exercise, it is difficult to gauge how much attention these initiatives have been given in university history departments.

I spoke recently with Jeffrey Keshen, Chair of the History Department at the University of Ottawa and a key player in that university’s adoption of CSL, about how historians might engage with CSL programs.

Keshen argues that opportunities for history students to use classroom skills in their communities are numerous; anything from interviewing veterans, labour or community activists; building community groups’ life histories; to helping in the writing of the histories of schools, NGOs, and not for profit organisations.  Such projects, he argues compel students to use their emerging skills to produce original works.  The key, he points out, is that faculty and students often need to make first contact with community groups about how they might help, as often they are too overburdened with the operational end of their work to be able to take advantage of such programs. The benefits to community and history student are mutual he says, “CSL makes students interact with the broader community.  That builds self-confidence, group work skills, understanding the application and limits of theory.  The organization can get benefits if the project is well defined and viable.”

The future of CSL programs is uncertain. Significant funding for CSL initiatives is set to dry out in 2011 and supporters of CSL worry that critical momentum might be lost.

While summer isn’t typically a time for deep reflection about teaching or university life, I think that it is a time when we can reflect on ways in which our university campuses allow for all of their members, not just graduate students and faculty, to become “active historians”. My hope is that those of you who have had some experience with CSL programs across the country or may know of history-related projects that students and faculty may have initiated will share your insights here.

As we drift into the hazy days of summer, some reflection about how universities engage with the wider community, and the role historians can play in that engagement, is certainly called for, and looking at how we might engage with and promote programs like CSL is a good starting point.

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2 thoughts on “Community Service-Learning and Active Historians on Campus

  1. Jim Clifford

    Great first post Jamie. I’ve been interested in service learning for a few years now and I hope more history departments start to include it in the programs. I don’t think they need to restrict themselves to directly history related projects you mentioned. Lots of history students go out into the world and work in many other fields. As Alix Green described, “Thinking with History” can help organisations develop policies and plans:
    I think our students could benefit from working with community groups, governments or business on a wide range of projects, particularly if we spent some classroom time discussing the wider value of “Thinking with History” and what historically trained individuals can contribute to a team project.

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