In today's fast-paced, highly interactive, communication-oriented society, traditional lecture and discussion courses no longer stimulate students the way they once did. In fact, students are eager for courses that provide hands-on learning experiences linked to real-world problems. But, as my research on the subject demonstrated, the potential for academically-based community service to enrich the undergraduate curriculum at Penn remains unrealized, and students, faculty and administrators all have a role to play in changing this situation.
In Spring 1998, I gave College of Arts and Sciences students a mock schedule and asked them to pick between two versions of the same courses, one conducted in a traditional lecture/discussion format and the other utilizing academically-based community service. (Academically-based community service entails exploring academic theories through real-world problem solving with a broadly-defined local community as a standard part of coursework.) Regardless of gender, major, minority status, amount of volunteer hours per semester or class level, students overwhelmingly chose the academically-based community service version. A majority of students also stated that an ideal education would include academically-based community service courses.
Enrollment in existing academically-based community service courses at Penn is lower than would be expected given these findings. Although the faculty members I interviewed in a related research effort claim that they have been diligent in publicizing such courses, most students polled asserted that they were unaware of the many academically-based community service courses that are currently offered.
Students' lack of awareness both limits their opportunities for involvement and increases the likelihood that existing courses, already looked upon skeptically by the majority of faculty, will fail.
Although students are interested, feelings of inefficacy prevent them from clamoring for a more interactive, problem-solving, real-world-linked academic experience. When asked to what extent they perceived administrators to be responsive to their concerns, students commonly answered "some," "little" and "none."
The results were similar when students were asked how much influence they felt that they had upon the academic curriculum and how accurately they felt that student leaders represented their interests. In sharp contrast, the faculty I interviewed maintain that they do heed student concerns and assume that the dearth of dialogue reflects a disinterested student body.
Students not only want to take academically-based community service courses, but also feel that such interactive, hands-on learning adds a critical dimension currently lacking in theoretical instruction. Enrollment in current courses remains low because most students do not know that they exist, and Penn students have not actively requested more of these courses because they feel such efforts will have little influence on faculty and administrative decisions. Ironically, faculty assume students do not care because they do not see students actively seeking out or soliciting non-traditional academic experiences.
Students need to feel empowered to influence the nature of their learning experiences and faculty members need to collectively reach out to encourage student involvement in course design. Without that involvement, there is little hope that non-traditional academic experiences, such as academically-based community service, will find their rightful place at Penn.
Bethany Rubin (C/G'98) is an Urban Fellow in the Office of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Editor's note: The Sept. 3 "Point of View" was edited for space. The full text is available on the Current Web site.
Originally published on September 17, 1998