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Integrating public service brings new meaning to teaching, panel says

STANFORD--Although many faculty treat public service as a private matter, others find integrating community involvement among their most gratifying teaching experiences, a panel of Stanford teachers agreed Wednesday, May 8.

Moderated by Tim Stanton, associate director of the Haas Center for Public Service, the group addressed how faculty can integrate public service components into their curricula and what they can expect to get out of community involvement. The panel, part of Teaching Week, drew about 25 people to Mariposa House to hear how to make the connection between teaching, research and community service.

History Prof. Al Camarillo, who designed a two-quarter class in "Homelessness and Poverty in America," found that linking practice with theory was very meaningful for students. In the course, students read and discuss the issues, but they also spend 10 to 15 hours a week in case management internships at shelters for the homeless.

Not only did his students have a chance "to see the human side to that which they read about," Camarillo said, but for some "it has turned their career objectives around," encouraging them to go into some form of public service, public policy or social work.

One of Camarillo's students, Mike Simon, talked about the contrast between reading about homelessness and the reality of running around the shelter trying to find diapers for a baby. "It doesn't sink in like when you're sitting with a 5-year-old who can't spell his name," he said.

Simon said he gained insight into the agency as well, learning that "shelters keep people from being out in the cold, but staff attitude toward guests affects how people deal with problems."

Ann Watters, a lecturer in English, described the Community Service Writing Project, in which students write for public service agencies but within the framework of freshman English course objectives. Students learn how to write argumentative essays or research papers by doing grant proposals, newsletters, or other "real writing" for non-academic audiences.

Student projects have included a research proposal that urged the Filipino government to use biomass rather than geothermal energy, a grant proposal for the Crisis Pregnancy Center and a newsletter for the Urban Ministry.

"It gets students writing for other audiences," Watters said. And, it leads them to reflect on both the experience and the process of writing, such as how to change their writing style for their new audience. Freshman English deals with rhetoric, literature and social issues and this project covers them all, Watters added.

Involvement in public service projects can even suggest questions for basic research, said Shirley Brice Heath, professor in English and linguistics. Although she has done basic research on language acquisition and uses of language in various social contexts, it was her exposure to San Francisco high schools through a Humanities Center project that inspired her research looking at the nature of language environment for inner-city youths.

Public service "does take time away but it adds real breadth for thinking of basic research questions from new angles," she said.

Moral questions

Students doing community projects often are confronted with moral dilemmas that offer additional learning opportunities. Simon witnessed Child Protective Services coming into the homeless shelter and removing a baby whose mother had left her alone for a short time. The question arose about when and if to report rule infractions, such as alcohol use.

Likewise, Heath said, similar moral issues arise in the schools: Does a teacher report a student absent who is forced to stay home to mind younger siblings, when doing so would result in the student being dropped from the school? "Moral judgments come up all the time, and they're not treated in the textbooks," Heath said.

In Watters' writing class, one student faced the issue of not being able to complete an assignment for a social agency because she said she felt doing so would be writing propaganda rather than truth. Instead, she wrote a reflective essay about what she found in the halfway house rather than the cheery piece requested for fund-raising purposes.

Before integrating public service into university teaching, faculty have to get beyond the bugaboo of "applied research" and accept the value of experiential learning, Heath said.

"Faculty don't talk to each other about their public service," she said. "It doesn't count, it smacks too much of applied research -- that's the kiss of death." Yet a number of nationally known programs -- she cited Harvard Medical School's clinical program and New York University for law -- have recognized the changing nature of the population their students serve and the need to teach the context of their work, she added.

Realities of job market

"We have to face the fact that a B.A., even from Stanford, won't guarantee immediate access to the job market," Heath said. But students could create a bridge by serving internships in institutions compatible to their vocational interests. For example, a pre-med student could do an internship in a clinic or emergency housing center serving children with health problems.

And more and more graduate departments are demanding experience as well, she added. "We have to expand rapidly our notions of how to combine research, teaching and public service because of the changing nature of employment opportunities," she said.



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