Teach the Partnership:

Critical University Studies and the Future of Service-Learning

David J. Fine


Service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) educators must teach their partnerships – the specific histories, missions, and stakeholders involved – and thereby contextualize SLCE within the often problematic forces at work within and upon higher education (e.g., neoliberalism’s pressures to marketize, adopts the structure and value systems of big business).

I recommend that SLCE educators engage with the academy’s globalization – the process whereby higher education assumes a corporate mentality and expands its reach internationally – by designing instruction in the vein of critical university studies (CUS).  CUS is an emerging field that examines higher education in light of its history and cultural context. A CUS approach grounds SLCE in the institutions that simultaneously support and thwart the movement’s fruition. SLCE enhanced with a CUS framing sits with ambiguity and interrogates its own compromises, without sanitizing, idealizing, or infantilizing community members. CUS does not present higher education as an uncomplicated fount of truth from which good things inevitably flow, and it thus complicates SLCE educators’ positions by defining them as embroiled in and sometimes in tension with systems larger than their individual research, teaching, and service (however progressive). In other words, CUS strategically implicates both individuals and communities in the moral muddle that is SLCE’s relation to the global, corporate academy.

Thus, students – indeed all participants – might engage with SLCE’s ethical complications rather than assuming, in advance, that all SLCE efforts are inherently good. For higher education’s globalization affects more than service-learning abroad: SLCE must interrogate, with honesty and precision, the academic structures and institutionalized benefits that buttress its efforts. The mere appeal to prosocial, civic virtues belies the privilege of students, staff, and faculty housed in the powerful, neoliberal institutions of U.S. higher education. Resources, however necessary, are not innocent. I hence call for the SLCE movement to adopt a CUS approach, one that critically assesses the academy’s past, present, and future engagements.

DAVID J. FINE (dfine1@udayton.edu) is an assistant professor of English with specialization in literature, culture, and religion at the University of Dayton. Formerly, he served as the assistant director of Lehigh University’s Global Citizenship Program. His research, teaching, and service explore the interface of literature, ethics, and community engagement.

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