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A Word on Nomenclature

// By Joe Bandy, Assistant Director, CFT


As is obvious from the variety of teaching models associated with “service learning,” the term is a label for a wide variety of community-oriented pedagogies throughout higher education.  Traditionally, the term, “service learning,” has been a more common label for these pedagogies and it is under this moniker that the practice has been institutionalized in the titles of higher education initiatives, centers, curricula, professional societies, conferences, journals and books.

However, the term “service” in “service learning” has received some criticism, particularly from supporters who regard the pedagogy as a potentially powerful force for both education and community development.  They have argued that the language of “service” can mislead students or faculty into relationships with communities that are not mutually beneficial, and thus work to reinforce stereotypes or inequalities.  Insofar as students regard themselves as “working for” and not “working with” a community “client,” they may see the community partner through paternalistic lenses.  At its worst, this may limit a community’s voice, limit the effectiveness of community-based projects, and reinforce campus-community inequalities.[5]

In part because of these reasons, an array of other terms with different connotations have become common:

  • Community-based Teaching  or Learning These are terms that are frequent substitutes for service learning but reference many of the same teaching practices.  They do emphasize, however, the language of community work over that of service.  Also, by highlighting community, they focus students, faculty, and partners on the interdependencies and shared identities that define a specific place.  These relationships and commonalities, however, can be sufficiently broad to accommodate communities of various definitions and various spatial scales, from the local to the international.
  • Civic education Vanderbilt University’s Doug Perkins argues that “civic education” goes beyond service learning, by encouraging more transformative and less incremental change.  Whereas service learning connotes sending students into the community to volunteer to assist with direct social services, civic education prompts students to go beyond ameliorative service and begin to address problems at their systemic political, economic, and socio-cultural root causes.  Understanding community engagement through the lens of civic education requires an analysis of power and oppression across multiple levels of development and social organization.  Framing the work of community research in terms of oppression, liberation, and wellness, Perkins asserts that students and educators must be sure to analyze a wide array of social problems, particularly those that threaten to make both our social and natural environments unsustainable.[6]
  • Civic engagement Some prefer this older, more general term as a catch-all to describe activities inside and outside of the curriculum, and even inside and outside of educational institutions altogether.  Michael Delli Carpini, Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts, argues that “Service-learning and civic engagement are not the same thing in the sense that not all service-learning has a civic dimension and not all civic engagement is service-learning. For definition’s sake, civic engagement is the broader motif, encompassing service-learning but not limited to it. One useful definition of civic engagement is the following: individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.”
  • Public Scholarship According to Jeffrey Bridger and Theodore Alter, public scholarship represents a broad “movement to develop new and productive connections between the university and its publics” that is inclusive of service learning as well as “research and outreach efforts that address critical social, economic, political and environmental issues.”[7] Like “civic engagement,” public scholarship is a general term that includes all scholarship – research and teaching – that focuses on public needs and problems.

It is worth noting, however, that these terms also have their detractors.  Therefore, no one term transcends all limitations or is innocent of criticism.  Further, many who continue to use the term, “service learning,” do so largely because of its continuing prominence in the field of education and endeavor to debate and overcome the limitations of the word “service.”  Also, its defenders state that “service” emphasizes community action through good works, while other terms may promote merely experiences of, rather than work with, a community.  Thus there is more commonality among these terms than may sometimes be apparent in debates within the field.  Indeed, practitioners who use each of these terms generally seek to fulfill Ernest Boyer’s ideal that “…the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems.”[8]

In light of this, the following teaching guides will privilege the term “community engagement.”  Like “community-based teaching” above, community engagement emphasizes the spatial and social dimensions of a shared place, whether local, national, or international.  However, rather than merely being based in a community, “engagement” highlights the ways that students, faculty, and community members can act with one another in mutually beneficial ways.  This said, “service learning” appears frequently throughout the guide, especially in references to scholarly literature and institutes in higher education that continue to use and debate the term.

Other CFT Guides About Community Engaged Teaching


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This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.