Six Semesters of Service-Learning with Professor Bret Keeling

By Megan Fowler

Street Team member Megan Fowler sat down with First-Year Writing faculty members Bret Keeling and Chris Featherman to talk about how Service-Learning is integrated into two different sections of the same course. Professor Keeling’s students are partnered with seven community-based organizations (826 Boston, X-Cel, BalletRox, Boston Scholar Athletes, Let’s Get Ready, the Hurley School, and EMK), while Professor Featherman’s students serve as writing tutors in the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science Writer’s Room, a space run by 826 Boston. 

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Professor Bret Keeling with his former S-LTA, Megan Fowler.

Could you please provide a brief overview of your course and how service-learning helps meet the course objectives?
The course that I have the Service-Learning component attached to is my first-year writing class and one of the reasons I like to do it with the first-year writing class is because of all the emphasis here at Northeastern on experiential learning. I think so much emphasis gets put on co-op at some points and that students can lose sight of the fact that there are other ways to get involved in the community as well, so I like to do it with the first year students.

In terms of the course objectives, actually one of the objectives that I think I’m least successful at meeting right now, is where the ultimate goal is having the students be able to see that writing is this powerful tool for promoting social change; it’s not just writing about their opinions. It’s one of the hardest objectives, and I don’t think any of the classes have really gotten there yet, but it’s still a worthwhile goal.

How has having students engaged in Service-Learning influenced your thinking about your field?
It certainly has made me realize that some of the things, and especially speaking to my own vision of the English departments, in terms of my experiences and my reality of it you could say, is that a lot of times we think of literature, for example a text, as something we can look at, absorb information from, and just appreciate aesthetically; and I realized that even in a literature class we don’t have to treat it that way. It can be much more of a social and cultural artifact as well. Something I started doing in my literature classes since implementing Service-Learning in my writing class was that in the end-of-term project students have to write Learning Letters that talk about what was relevant in the literature to the real world. In other words, I teach modern fiction and if we read something written by Virginia Wolfe from 1923, it’s looking at why should we bother reading that today.

How has Service-Learning affected your teaching?
Well I always say that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, but I do think that if I had to say there was a time I at least attempted to multi-task, it’s there. It’s complicated things because trying to make sure that when you’re doing something that serves a particular pedagogical goal, let’s say for the writing program, that I can still make sure that students will see the relevance to Service-Learning, and sometimes that doesn’t work out fully. Especially the beginning of the semester it’s difficult to have students do anything related to service because they haven’t started serving yet; while also trying to introduce them to the college environment and things like that. So that’s somewhat problematic still, but one other thing I think with service affecting my teaching is that is has made me more… I don’t want to say willing to do certain types of things, but it’s made me more knowledgeable about how decisions I make can impact people outside of the classroom as well. For example, in service when I ask students to do something I think, “Well this could have direct impact on their work with the clients of their community partners or the administrators,” and I think about that a lot more. In fact one of the reasons I talk about this and in a different sort of context – about a year or so ago – we always talk about audience awareness and it made me more aware of a lot more audience memberships than I ever thought of before; including the S-L TAs and the Center of Community Service itself – these are also part of the audience and I impact them as well.

If you were a student in your own course, what would you do to get the most out of your experience?
I think that there are a couple of things I would do. One – and I think this is something the TAs do a good job bringing to the students’ attention – is to be open to new things. I’d have to be very conscious of making that effort. But also not just in the context of serving – it’s one thing to say “Okay I’ll be open to whatever is happening here, it’s new to me so I’ll experience it new and try to withhold judgement.” But also to be open to things in the classroom itself, like when you’re asked to do something that’s different and you think, “You know well I’ll try this, I don’t know how it’ll work out.” I often remind students or let them know that when we talk about essays, and students always think about their papers as essays, that it comes from the French and the verb actually is “To try, to make an attempt at something.”

What have you learned from working with an S-LTA?
A lot about cooperating and a lot about collaborating. I think every semester I’ve gotten better at getting the TA involved. During your semester (the author was a previous TA for the class) I thought of ways where you could be more involved – I asked you to have something, an activity to do, for each of the three portfolios and it was kind of your day. Something I’m trying to do right now is in the class we tend to exchange more frequent emails and I try to get her involved, and some of this depends on the willingness and interest of the TA; but [the current TA]’s degree is in Education so she’s really interested in classroom activities and is very good at collaborating on how to be involved in the different classroom activities. This is something that grows out of previous semesters – also when we do their group projects they meet with the TA when they aren’t meeting with me, so there’s a sense of teamwork between the two of us.

What is your favorite service-learning activity that your S-LTA has brought into class?
By far because it works out differently every semester, which surprises me, is the Build-a-City or Build-a-Community activity; we tweak it so it has more of a community identity to it. That’s always worked out really, really well. It’s low stakes and fun but if the students give themselves over to it I think it’s the best one. In terms of my class I like it because it demonstrates unequal distribution of assets and things like that, it also helps students realize some things that they might not consider an asset really are – like a hospital, which really is an asset and helps them to realize maybe there isn’t a museum but there is something else.

Do you have any tools, tips, or tricks about utilizing or incorporated Service-Learning that you could share for other faculty members?
I don’t know how I would word that but I can tell you, and in fact I was just talking to our administrative specialist about this this morning, is rethinking my own approach to Service-Learning. One of the things, and this is still in the thought process, is to try to focus a section with the students from Criminal Justice so that in the fall when they come in they would be placed in the course and know about the Service-Learning component in advance and their department would be the ones supporting that aspect of it. It would broaden the kinds of partners we could use with the class – the next step would be to get Becca involved.

If that’s the advice I would give to myself then the advice I would give to anybody is just to be thinking about how anything you’re doing inside the class is relevant outside of the class. I think there’s so much talk of transfer of knowledge and something that happens in one class makes you think of something in another class, but it can also go outside the boundaries of the class.

Is there anything else about the Service-Learning program that you would like to touch on or share, anything you really enjoy?
My experience with it has been really positive. I realize that everybody’s experience is different and in terms of the service, even when I have a less engaged class, it never makes me think that I’m going to stop having the Service-Learning component attached to it. It’s hard for me to imagine having the first-year writing class without having the Service-Learning component. I would find myself questioning what’s meaningful about it on some level.

Megan is a former S-LTA and a current member of the Service-Learning Street Team. 

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