Service Learning Across the Curriculum

It is no surprise that service learning continues to gain momentum in liberal arts curricula, since the outcomes resonate well with many college mission statements. Preparing students for community and global citizenship is and should be a major priority. The new, peer-reviewed “Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education” illustrates the interdisciplinary conversations of this growing component of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Many majors are building in service learning courses and projects to engage students in relevant applications of theory to practice.

Some traditional liberal arts fields, including my own, however, have left the responsibility of service learning to other departments. But I suspect (and hope) that the growing interest in service learning pedagogy and the success of student writing across the curriculum initiatives will inspire faculty in all disciplines to altruistic pursuits. Music has understandably ignored the pedagogy of service learning for two main reasons: 1) students already give to the community through a variety of concerts, tours, and workshops. Everyone from young children to senior citizens benefit from these offerings. 2) Music students gain knowledge and relevant experience through these performance opportunities. The issue with this model is that there is a disconnect between volunteerism and the actual learning. Students are not expected to reflect and articulate the gifts of music to the cultural vibrancy of their communities.

Any field and subfield can develop a service learning component, but faculty should take a thoughtful and practical approach to designing a successful experience. A deterrent to exploring this possibility is the content course–no surprise! Any attempts to coordinate community partnerships with the schedule of course topics will be a challenge and the result could be a poor educational experience for students and an awkward exchange with the community. It is better to identify relevant needs and pair skills that can meet those needs.

The research paper assigned in my upper-level music history course requires several transferable skills, notably archival research methods and writing. Local libraries and historical societies house unkept artifacts of musical life that, while rarely conforming to course content goals, offer something culturally significant to the community if properly catalogued, interpreted, and shared by the able hands of undergraduate music majors. In the process of working with local collections, student have an opportunity to develop archival research skills while actively engaging with local history. While the exercise may not meet content needs, it certainly meets skill development needs as students have an opportunity demonstrate the relevance of their major and the course through service. Where local organizations find difficulty in managing collections with limited funds, students can help and learn something in the process.

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