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Pedagogy 5.3 (2005) 427-444

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Living the Rhetoric:

Service Learning and Increased Value of Social Responsibility

Through service-learning, youth become both engaged and educated. They are more involved with their studies and motivated to learn, and their sense of civic and social responsibility increases at the same time they are contributing to a bright future for our nation.
—National Commission on Service-Learning

As a reflective practitioner, my primary goal in teaching writing is to help students discover their own processes of writing and to evaluate their growth and development as writers. My approach is very learner centered, and I ask students to observe their skills and assess their progress. I also work hard to provide bona fide rhetorical situations so that the writing they do in class is real—their audiences are authentic and their purposes are genuine. Most recently, I have incorporated a service learning component into my composition courses because, as Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters state in their introduction to Writing the Community (1997: 2), "service-learning makes communication—the heart of composition—matter, in all its manifestations." Above all, I want students to believe that writing does matter.

As a result of this approach, I became interested in investigating the shift that has occurred in composition toward what Thomas Deans (2000: 2) [End Page 427] identifies as "initiatives that move the context for writing instruction beyond the bounds of the traditional college classroom in the interest of actively and concretely addressing community needs." I am concerned with examining the theoretical implications of service learning and the intersections between academic discourse and social action. For this particular research project, I wanted to consider the supposition that service learning increases students' understanding of the community as well as their sense of civic and social responsibility. I decided to begin this examination in business writing, one of the core communication courses for business and technical field majors. Business writing has a very practical purpose, and writers in this area have a natural tendency to engage with the community. However, this community is often depicted as consisting of large, for-profit organizations whose focus is often on the bottom line. Indeed, the examples in the business writing textbooks highlight these organizations, and even the practical experiences (internships, etc.) that students have outside of the classroom reinforce this paradigm. I believed service learning would offer the students a different perspective—one that would give them an opportunity to experience "business" from a nonprofit point of view—and would impact their understanding of societal issues and civic engagement. For I felt, as Thomas N. Huckin (1997: 58) did, that "this may be the only chance they have during their undergraduate years to directly apply what they have learned in class to problems in their community." However, through this research I discovered that many students had difficulty grasping the significance of their work within the community and understanding their possible roles as citizens who can effect change. These findings have an impact on the way service learning is initiated and offered in the business and technical fields, the way faculty themselves are involved, and the way assignments and projects are designed if this pedagogy is to influence students' sense of civic and social responsibility.

Overview of the Course

The course in this study is an advanced writing class required of students enrolled in the business curriculum and other technical fields. The general purpose of the course is to introduce students to various discourse practices in the discipline and, in this particular service learning section, to prepare them for the citizenship role of a business professional. The specific goals were to provide students with a variety of opportunities to develop strategies for understanding writing as a process, writing for specific audiences/purposes, and writing collaboratively, as well as an understanding of social issues and ways business communication skills can be used to effect change. [End Page 428]

In this course, the students worked in small groups of two or three students with community-based agencies...


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