Disciplinary Pathways to Service Learning
Neghin Modavi, Ph.D.
Kapi'olani Community College
Personal Pathways And Disciplinary Connections
Two years ago I started to incorporate service-learning as a component
of my sociology course curricula in an effort to help students develop
a truly sociological understanding of the nature and scope of social issues.
My personal pathway to integrating service-learning as a part of my teaching
philosophy and strategy is thus linked to the core principles of the field
I began a teaching-intensive career as a sociology instructor at Kapi'olani
Community College in 1992 and with each passing semester I became increasingly
concerned with the inadequacies of traditional classroom and library-centered
approaches to teaching. Two of my courses, Social Problems and Sociology
of Aging, were particularly challenging. There appeared to be a missing
element, an unexplored dimension that somehow kept the academic material
on an abstract level and out of the realm of students' understanding.
Many of my students were not able to relate to actual living conditions
and obstacles that people face when they experience problems such as poverty,
homelessness, or domestic violence. These issues, needless to say, are
at the core of my Social Problems course. Similarly, students in
my Sociology of Aging course could not truly understand the problems
that the elderly experience in our youth-oriented culture. Most of my students
tended to accept cultural stereotypes and viewed the aged as a population
Most students were able to understand sociological explanations on the
abstract level and even managed to conjure them up in exams and written
reports. However, their grasp of the sociological approach was, at best,
tenuous. It was disconcerting to me, a teacher and sociologist, to see
so many students resist the very foundation of the field by rejecting structural
explanations in favor of individualistic ones.
My aim as a sociologist has always been to underscore the systemic nature
of social conditions and problems. Contrary to popular belief, this does
not mean that sociologists, including myself, ignore the role of personal
responsibility for our actions and problems. Sociology as social science
discipline highlights the cultural, political, and economic roots of our
social arrangements. The core mission of the discipline is to sensitize
students to the significance and power of social forces that shape individual
circumstances and the range of personal choices. What is emphasized here
is that individuals and society influence and shape one another. While
our actions give form to society, the very structure of that society also
constrains and shapes our actions.
My efforts in exposing students to the cultural, political, and economic
roots of social arrangements and problems were often met with cynicism
and disbelief. Like most other people, students were more comfortable with
individual and psychological explanations, rather than social ones. In
other words they were more likely to think that poverty and homelessness,
for example, are predominantly caused by an individual's lack of motivation,
laziness, or some other character flaw. They seldom considered such things
as lack of job opportunities, stagnating wages, or global competition as
significant underlying causes.
While the vast majority of students are quite aware of dangers inherent
in the idea of racial supremacy, for instance, they readily engage in social
Darwinistic ways of thinking when it comes to matters of economic inequality.
From this point of view poor folks are ultimately to blame for their station
in life and their suffering; they are the unfit and unsavory elements in
the social struggle for survival. Time and time again I have heard bright
students recount stories of acquaintances who had babies solely to increase
the amount of their welfare checks, or of people they'd known personally
who cheated the system.
While most students acknowledged after some prodding that they also
have known middle class or wealthy people who were corrupt or had children
for financial motives, they still failed to appreciate the full extent
of their selective perception and skewed observations. These harsh views
toward the poor were often precursors to other statements denoting antiwelfarism
and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Poverty and homelessness is, of course, only one example. Another area
rife with rampant prejudice and stereotyping has to do with issues of gender
inequality. The myth that some women ask for or deserve abuse (whether
it is rape, domestic violence, or sexual harassment on the job) still reigns
supreme. The primary image is that of a vengeful woman who brings false
accusations that result in the prosecution and conviction of many hapless
and innocent men.
A disturbing aspect of my observations had to do with the fact that
these opinions were not limited to age, gender, ethnicity, or level of
academic skills. Students from working class backgrounds and the well to
do exhibited the same stereotypical views toward the poor. Women as well
as men engaged in sexual stereotyping and typecasting. Similarly, mature
students or those with greater academic abilities were not necessarily
free of deep-seated misconceptions.
My initial reaction to these tenacious and culturally embedded opinions
was to incorporate more research and statistical findings. After all, many
governmental and academic studies conclude that there is no difference
between the number of children born to welfare and nonwelfare families.
The FBI's own figures, for example, attest to the very low percentage of
false accusations and convictions in cases of rape and domestic abuse.
Although my arsenal of extensive and up-to-date facts livened up discussions,
my evidence did little to establish a strong foundation for sociological
explanations. Because of their lack of experience and first-hand knowledge,
many students held onto prejudicial thinking and traditional but erroneous
explanations, despite the fact that research often confirmed results to
the contrary. Research results, they argued, can be manipulated and made
to prove any point of view. Indeed, most of our discussions turned into
debates over values and viewpoints rather than the role of social science
in understanding and resolving social problems.
Of course I understood the temptation for accepting the individualistic
or victim-blame explanations. Individual blame is an easy way to label
a complex social problem and explain it away. This belief also serves to
make one feel less accountable for social ills.
In addition to the field-related pedagogical issues, I was also becoming
concerned with what I felt to be an erosion of a sense of social responsibility
among many students. Reflecting our highly individualistic and competitive
culture, students often expressed that they felt no obligation to help
marginalized members of the community. They did not see themselves as a
part of the problem or as a viable force in the solution of those problems.
In my view this apathy was possibly a reflection of a deep-seated socio-cultural
alienation. It represented a sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude
of social problems. Although students often expressed their resignation
to these problems, I wanted them to feel that they had the ability to exert
control and effect change. The service-learning literature refers to this
desire as promoting a sense of civic responsibility. I simply thought of
it as socio-cultural empowerment.
I do not mean to augment the problems nor do I wish to portray my teaching
as ineffective! On the contrary, I enjoyed the challenge and engaged in
healthy intellectual debates. Yet I was frustrated and actively sought
ways to address these concerns. Service-learning presented itself as an
option as a result of a conversation I had with a former student from my
Sociology of Aging course who came to visit me a year after he had completed
I remembered him as a very articulate and a difficult student who consistently
complained that the material in the course was simply opinions and debates
among the academic elite with little basis in reality. A year later he
came to see me in my office to let me know that I was, in his words, "a
very good teacher" and that the material in the course was "all
This revelation was brought about because of his experience working
with the elderly. As a nursing student he was required to complete an internship
in a nursing home where, he told me, he was able to see all the issues
we discussed in the classroom played out in real life. He stated that the
academic material now made a great deal more sense to him and that he felt
that he was a more capable nurse as a result of having the sociological
training in conjunction with the field work experience. He felt that he
had developed more empathy for the elderly and, as a result, he now planned
to become a geriatric nurse.
This enlightening chat led me to begin thinking about incorporating
some form of field work in my courses. Furthermore, I preferred a type
of involvement that went beyond mere observation and research. I wanted
students to personally and intimately connect with people and circumstances
and to work toward a positive change in the community. My decision to incorporate
experiential learning coincided with the Kapi'olani Community College's
campus-wide effort to launch and promote service-learning. The timing could
not have been any better.
I was not only able to get my students involved in community service,
but I also had the opportunity to meet with and learn from many other faculty
members in the college who were equally excited about the prospects of
this new approach in teaching.
Our effort in integrating service-learning on the campus is going on
its third year. It would be dishonest to portray service-learning as having
addressed all my concerns. Service-learning has not been a panacea ,and
I will expand on the pit falls and remaining problems in the following
section titled Practical Considerations. However, service-learning
has proved itself to be a powerful teaching tool to those of us who became
involved in it three years ago.
The service-learning experience has enhanced the education my students
receive in the classroom. The academic material suddenly becomes interesting
and relevant to their lives. Being placed in close working relationships
with members of the community has often been an eye-opening experience
for many of the students. They express how surprised they were at the scope
of their misconceptions and prejudices prior to their involvement. Many
of them also state that they felt a great deal of satisfaction from making
a difference in the real world. Because of this, virtually all of my students
who started service-learning as a class project have chosen to continue
their service after the completion of the course.
Students involved in service-learning often bring this excitement and
energy into the classroom and affect those students who do not participate
in such field work. The sharing of service-learning experience creates
a peer-led education environment and is beneficial for the entire student
Service-learning has been successful enough to keep me committed to
maintaining it as a major part of my course curriculum. I continue to experiment
with various mechanisms for its delivery. The following are some tips for
successful incorporation of service-learning in sociology/social science
Campus-Level Coordination. The degree to which different
colleges provide administrative infrastructure for service-learning varies.
While some campuses have in-house volunteer service offices, others may
provide no mechanism to help the faculty with implementing service. In
my experience, some degree of campus coordination and involvement is crucial.
Although Kapi'olani Community College does not have a permanent or a
physical facility to manage service-learning activities, the administration
has channeled resources to provide for a core of faculty members to act
as coordinators. The contributions of faculty coordinators is invaluable.
These bodies are able to disseminate information, prepare application and
other necessary forms, and arrange and conduct campus-level trainings and
other important meetings and workshops.
Among many activities hosted by the coordinators on our campus is an
annual summer service-learning workshop. This week-long campus-level conference
has proved extremely valuable in solving problems and generating new ideas.
Institutional Linkages With Service Agencies. One
of the most important activities of the campus coordinators here at Kapi'olani
Community College was their effort to establish a connection between the
college and a variety of community service agencies. Rather than having
individual faculty members be faced with such a daunting task, the coordinating
body managed to research and contact many organizations and subsequently
produced a directory of agencies to help faculty members make appropriate
placement of their students.
The campus coordinators have also helped by periodically arranging meetings
between representatives of agencies, interested faculty, and students.
The face-to-face interactions have been very important in clarifying expectations
of involved parties.
Equal Emphasis On Both The Service And The Learning. It
is important to distinguish service-learning from other approaches to experiential
education. Service-learning should not be limited to simply having students
perform volunteer work for community agencies. Although volunteer work
is worthwhile in and of itself, service-learning must be designed in a
way that ensures that the service enhances the learning as well as the
learning enhancing the service. Moreover, unlike some internship or practicum
programs where students perform services in addition to the course, service-learning
must integrate service into the curriculum.
I accomplish this integration in two ways. First, I have structured
and organized the course material so that what students learn in the classroom
corresponds directly to what they experience in the field. It is crucial
that the course material make connections to what students are doing in
This can be done through incorporating the issues in lectures, reading
assignments, or library research projects. If the text book does not cover
a particular topic, then it is imperative that supplemental readings provide
Whatever the arrangement, the academic theories and research about the
service-related issues must be covered in a timely fashion. A frustrating
outcome is to receive a paper in which the students state that the course
and service-learning were unrelated only because the relevant issues were
covered during the last week of the semester, well after the due date for
their reflective paper assignment.
The second mechanism I use to integrate learning and service is to require
students to link their experiences and observations to research and theoretical
arguments discussed in the classroom. This is done through maintaining
a reflective journal and writing an essay paper at the end of the term.
The main criterion for evaluating these writing assignments is students'
ability to examine and analyze the course material in the context of their
The above suggestions pertain largely to content courses. It is also
possible to integrate service-learning into social science methods courses.
I plan to teach such a process-oriented course within a service-learning
framework in the near future. In this course students will learn the basic
methods of social science research and statistical analysis by conducting
research for a community service agency. Here, students are not merely
conducting research on agencies. Rather, they will actively assess community
needs, and design, and carry out the inquiry as requested by a service
Narrow The Field And Get Personally Involved. In my experience,
a focused range of service options is a more practical approach to service-learning.
Limiting the students' choices to a few selected agencies will lead to
a more cohesive learning experience.
When I began experimenting with service-learning, I allowed students
to choose an agency from the above-mentioned campus directory. I wanted
students to be interested in what they were doing. However, this arrangement
created more confusion than interest. The process of placing students with
appropriate organizations took time and was frustrating to everyone involved.
Also, it is difficult for instructors to know about each and every agency.
What students get to do may be different from what is stated in the information
provided in the directory.
I now give students a choice among three agencies with which I have
established a close working relationship. For example in my Social Problems
course, students choose to work with a homeless shelter, a spouse abuse
shelter, or an HIV/AIDS service agency. I have met with the directors of
these organizations, visited the sites and have undergone their volunteer
training programs myself. The upshot of this investment in time and energy
on my part is that I am now better able to guide students. Most importantly,
I am able to incorporate the most appropriate reading/lecture/video material
to complement their experiences in the field.
Long-Term Tracking and Placement. An emergent issue we
are faced with at the college has to do with helping students continue
their work with an agency through subsequent terms. Often a worthwhile
agency may have training requirements that alone surpass the minimum hours
of service that an instructor requires for his or her course. The typical
requirement at our college is thirty hours of service, however the spouse
abuse shelter I mentioned earlier has a required twenty-hour training program
before students get to work at a shelter site. These are instances where
it would be most practical to help students begin a service-learning project
in the course and continue their work in future courses.
The role of campus coordinators is crucial in this respect. They can
develop plans for long-term tracking and counseling of students and for
working with the administration to further highlight service-learning courses
in the college catalogue during registration periods.
Guidance, Guidance, Guidance. Over the last two years
my initial hand-out on the service-learning project has expanded and grown
into an elaborate guide. I found it necessary to clarify my expectations,
particularly those having to do with the nature of reflective writing assignments.
I provide my students with tips on how to distinguish between descriptive
and reflective writing as well as a list of significant questions and issues
to get them started. It is also a good idea to have samples of good and
not-so-good written projects on hand to share with students.
Neither Extra Credit, Nor Mandatory! My experience with
service-learning simply as an extra-credit option was a total disaster.
Students only became interested in service-learning toward the end of the
term when it became apparent that some of them needed extra-credit to pass
the course, which, needless to say, it is too late to get involved in any
type of service-learning. So I never offer service-learning as extra-credit
I also do not require my students to do service-learning. Community
college students often have family and job obligations which may prevent
them from volunteering their time. Moreover, some students are simply not
mature or interested enough to handle an assignment that can be emotionally
taxing. I give students a choice between writing a traditional library
research paper or service-learning. Those who opt for service-learning
are often the ones who are able and interested enough to finish the project
Fast And Early Placement. It is best to place the interested
students with an agency as soon as possible. Delays in placement are frustrating
and often lead to a time crunch at the end of the term when students often
find themselves unable to fulfill the required service hours.
Service Learners As A Classroom Resource. It is important
to utilize the service-learning students as a resource in the classroom.
The valuable insights of such students should be shared so that their classmates
can benefit from their observations. Classroom and group discussions, in
my experience, become more lively and focused when service-learning students
are asked to speak about their projects. Students who chose not to participate
in service-learning are themselves invariably interested in hearing about
the service work of their fellow classmates. Often those students involved
in a library research project on a similar issue become engaged in debates.
This creates a cooperative and peer-led learning atmosphere that can not
be achieved through lectures or assigned readings alone.
Introduction to Social Problems - Soc 218
Instructor: Neghin Modavi, Ph.D.
General Course Description & Objective
This course is a theoretical and substantive survey of the nature and
causes of social problems; selected types to vary from semester to semester.
Upon successful completion of this course, the student should be able to:
- Apply critical thinking skills to evaluate social problems.
- Detail and evaluate proposed solutions to social problems.
- Define sets of circumstances which become problematic for large segments
of the population.
- Identify attitudinal changes toward social problems.
- Develop an objective approach to the observation and analysis of social
problems in society.
More About This Course
This course focuses on selected problems as they relate to four areas
of social inequality: class, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
This course also places strong emphasis on writing and service-learning
as teaching/learning strategies. Please read this syllabus carefully and
develop a clear understanding of the nature of the assignment options,
expectations, and evaluation criteria.
In addition to the catalogue-stated objective (listed above), this course
- Foster critical analysis of popular media and the coverage of social
- Understand social problems as rooted in societal structure rather than
- Develop a better understanding of the scope and nature of social problems
through experience and observation within the community.
- Foster a deeper sense of connection to the community and concern about
- Generate a stronger dedication to resolving social problems.
Term Paper Or Service-Learning Options
In this course, you have the option of producing either (a) a library
research paper or (b) engage in a service-learning project and produce
required writing assignments. Choose one option or the other. You cannot
do both! Both options have equal weight and are worth 55 (maximum)
points. Students need to make a choice early in the semester. Please consult
the course calendar in this syllabus for decision deadlines.
The service-learning project requires you to donate your services (minimum
of 30 hours) to a non-profit organization of your choice. The objective
of this project is to link the academic material covered in the course
to actual life situations in the community. In this way, your learning
is not only enhanced beyond the classroom and the library but also makes
a difference in the community.
The nature of service is integrated very carefully with the lecture
and reading material. You need to make a choice among the following three
agencies. Your instructor has established a working relationship and a
well-structured framework for your services with the above agencies. These
- IHS -Institute for Human Services (Homeless shelter/services)
- Pacificare (HIV care/services)
- Shelter for abused Spouses and Children.
Again, please consult the detailed guideline for the service-learning
project that is attached to this syllabus. This handout spells out the
objective, expectations, and procedure for engaging in service-learning.
Refer to this guideline and the course calendar for due dates and additional
Note that the service-learning option also has a strong writing component.
The project requires that you produce a reflective journal and a 10-page
essay-type paper. Consult the guideline about these requirements before
deciding on service-learning.
The grade breakdown for service-learning
Reflective journal 20 points
Essay paper 35 points
Total 55 points
Also you need to be aware that service-learning is about commitment.
Beyond the hours of service you will also be attending several campus-wide
meetings and consulting with your instructor outside the classroom. You
must take these demands into consideration as you make your choice.
How does service-learning fit in its course?
Service-learning can be used as an option instead of producing a traditional
(Library/Literature) research paper. That is, you can choose to either
write a research paper or engage in service-learning. Both options
have equal weight and are worth 55 (maximum) points. You need to make a
choice early in the semester.
What is Service-Learning? What is its purpose?
The service-learning project requires you to donate your services for
a non-profit organization. Service-learning goes beyond volunteerism. While
the project is intended to provide much needed service in the community,
it also aims to link the academic material covered in the course to actual
life situations in the community in order to enhance your learning beyond
the classroom and the library.
The primary aim is to provide an opportunity for students to examine
the underlying social causes of social problems and assess the proposed
solutions to these problems. Therefore, students are to engage in critical
analysis of their selected issues through application of course material
and classroom discussions.
Service-learning is a national trend in higher education in the United
States. Indeed, instructors at KCC are among many college campuses in Hawai'i
and other states who are exploring ways to connect community service to
Again, it is important to stress that service-learning at college level
is not envisioned simply as charity work. Although doing community good
is significant and worthwhile, as college instructors we are concerned
with education and social change. In this way, service-learning is regarded
as an endeavor that engages students in deep critical thinking about the
course material and, hopefully, fosters concern about community needs and
dedication to resolving problems.
What is an appropriate service? What organizations and agencies should
Remember the course concentrates on four areas rife with social problems.
These are inequalities in race/ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation.
The nature of services in this assignment reflect this focus.
As stated earlier in the syllabus you have a choice of three (3) agencies
to work with. They are:
- IHS - Institute for Human Service
- Shelter for Abused Spouses and Children
IHS provides shelter and services for the homeless. Pacificare provides
services for people with HIV. The services provided by the Shelter for
Abused Spouses and Children is self-explanatory.
Note how the issues of gender, sexual orientation, class, and racial/ethnic
inequalities weave through the problems of poverty and homelessness, wife
battery, and HIV infection. Our purpose in the course and your objective
in the assignment is to make these connections. Review the attached information
sheets on these agencies at the end of this guideline for more information.
Each agency highlights the range of tasks expected of volunteers. Phone
numbers and names of contact people are also provided.
You need to know that these agencies require many hours of intensive
training. The Shelter for Abused Spouses and Children for example requires
commitment way beyond the 30 hours that satisfies requirements for this
course. It is possible to coordinate this service with future courses you
may take in this campus so that you may continue to satisfy service-learning
It is possible to work with agencies other than the ones listed above.
The agencies/organizations must provide services for the community to alleviate
or eliminate a social problem. Donating your time to social service programs
sponsored by a church is acceptable. However, merely engaging in activities
that proselytize a faith, no matter how significant and meaningful to an
individual, is not considered service-learning by your instructor.
Moreover, you need to know that volunteering for organizations that
promote sexism and racism in society also are also not acceptable.
Your instructor has a copy of Service-Learning Program and Agency
Directory that will help you in linking up with local organizations
that have expressed interest in working with college students.
Finally remember that your instructor has to approve any and all
placements. So please, consult with your instructor at every step of
What Are Student Obligations and Responsibilities?
It is important to remember that many of these agencies operate under
heavy demands and have limited funds and time. Often, there may be staff
who provide orientations and training for volunteers as well. Therefore,
it is critical for students to think about the commitment they make to
the agency. In addition, agencies are not interested in working with people
who either don't show up or simply quit on clients who may have developed
attachments to volunteers. Service-learning should not be chosen
as an option by students who are not certain of their interest or availability
in terms of time.
Few Points about Procedure/Requirements
Placement/Approval - Prior to contacting the organization, you
must obtain the approval of the Instructor. This is to ensure that
your choice fits the requirements set out by your instructor.
Remember, you are responsible for making contacts and arrangements and
not the instructor. Do this by the third week. Then arrange to meet the
instructor for a longer visit to discuss journaling and other assignments.
Make sure to present a copy of your course syllabus and this guideline
to the person you plan to establish contact with at the agency. It is important
for them to understand the nature and scope of your assignment. You need
to obtain their signature on an Agreement Form (which I will provide
for you). In addition, the University of Hawai'i requires that you sign
a Waiver Form (which I will provide also) prior to engaging in service-learning.
Doing Double Duty- You may find yourself enrolled in two or more
courses that incorporate service-learning in the curriculum. You need to
talk with the instructor if you are involved in a service-learning project
for other courses. Please do not attempt to satisfy requirements for two
courses by a single service-learning project.
Attendance at Meetings - You must attend several campus-wide
meetings.. The schedule will be set by the Service-Learning Advisory Committee
Minimum Hours of Service - You are required to donate a minimum
of thirty (30) hours of service to the organization. There is no maximum!
Writing assignments include a journal and an essay. Both require that
you engage in reflective writing. This is a significant component of your
assignment. Reflective writing is a type of writing that reflects on your
experiences. In this course you are required to think deeply about community
service in connection to social problems and social change. In other words
you examine the underlying causes as well as solutions to problems based
on your knowledge gained in class as well as your experiences in the community.
Reflective Journal - You must maintain a detailed journal. Your
journal will be collected and evaluated mid-point in the semester and again
at the end of the semester.
Begin your journal as soon as you finalize your placement. You should
engage in some pre-reflection prior to getting involved in actual work--examine
your goals, expectations and reasons for doing the type of work you have
chosen. What do you believe the problem is caused by? What are your fundamental
values with respect to this issue? Do you have any pre-judgments?
To help you in making your daily journal--you may reflect upon:
- How you grapple with issues, problems, and frustrations as well as
accomplishments and positive learning experiences.
- Difficult (or disappointing) as well as satisfying experiences.
- How you attempt to link and synthesize text and lecture to what you
experience and observe in the community.
- What are you learning about political, social and economic issues.
- Most importantly, what are the societal causes of these problems. In
other words, do not limit your writing to what is happening and what you
did but reflect on why certain events or behaviors take place.
The journal, then, is a chart of your growth and development, both academically
and personally. Tips on maintaining a journal
- Separate the page in half. On one half write facts--what happened.
On the other half, write your feelings and perceptions. Put more energy
and thought into this segment.
- Do not edit as you write. Write your thoughts freely
- Observe confidentiality. Use pseudonyms.
- Write every day. Do not wait until the end of the semester. It won't
- While you are involved with the work, remember to examine the agency
personnel. What is their relationship with their clientele?
Essay Paper (Analytic Summary)
This paper is a brief report (10 pages) that summarizes your reflections
This analytic summary must link your experiences to the academic material
covered in the course:
- Has this experience made your sociology course more relevant or interesting?
- Do you maintain the same views as to underlying sources of social problems
as you did at the beginning of the semester?
- What solutions do you propose to change society for the better?
In addition, the report must address:
- History and mission of the organization
- Your exact duties and responsibilities
- Major problems faced by the organization (money, staff, policy)
- How did the experience compare to your expectations of it?
- Has this experience changed your view of government or social service