An Interview with the Editors of Service Learning and Literary Studies in English

Laurie Grobman and Roberta Rosenberg discussed their edited volume, Service Learning and Literary Studies in English, with James Hatch on 2 April 2015.

Cover of Service Learning and Literary Studies in EnglishJH
: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about your new volume, Service Learning and Literary Studies in English. Could you tell me what exactly service learning is and how it is different from an internship or volunteering in the community?

LG: Service learning is a partnership between the academy and a community partner. The students provide some kind of service to meet a community partner’s need. Reciprocally, the community partner—and the pedagogy—provide students with a rich learning experience.

RR: Service learning should also enhance the learning experience—in this case the study of literature—by providing students with an opportunity to reflect on both their service and the literary texts, finding both the similarities of experiences as well as the dissonances.

JH: How does teaching literature with a service-learning component differ from teaching a traditional literature course?

RR: In the traditional literature course, the teacher is often thought of as the source of the knowledge in what some theorists refer to as the “banking concept of education.” But in service learning, the teacher, the student, and the community all contribute to the learning experience.

LG: Even in the many literature courses that are already dialogic, service learning adds that real-world, and hence human, connection. Students see themselves as part of something meaningful, and literature has a role in that work.

JH: I can see how service learning may benefit the community, but how does it enhance the study of literary texts?

LG: It’s an interesting question, and in my experiences—and in the chapters in the book—we see the enhancement change depending on the course, texts, community partners, and service activity. For example, in a recent women’s literature course, my students did a short historical piece on our local boys’ and girls’ club. Their real-world research echoed in so many ways the voices of women in the literary texts. They were really blown away by it. One student noted, “they really only referred to the women in the newspaper by Mrs. Husband’s name!”

RR: In our introduction we say that service learning asks “new questions” and provides “new answers” about literature. This often comes from the dialogue that is set up among the literary text, the classroom, and the community.

Here is another example from the book: In his essay “Reliving and Remaking the Harlem Renaissance,” Scott Hicks describes how he has students work on a literary magazine with the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina. The issues of developing a canon and who speaks and selects texts for a literary movement speak to the exact historical moment that his students are studying, the Harlem Renaissance, and they confront these issues as they read Harlem Renaissance literature.

LG: Since I began this work many years (decades?) ago I noticed an interesting paradox: that bringing in a real-world component may actually enhance the study of literature as literature. This happens only if structured in a deliberate way. For me, this pedagogical awareness was precipitated by a sense of “Where did this text go?” The students dismissed the text in favor of the real. But then I learned how to help students focus on the specific characteristics of literature that Roberta mentions above. I recall very specifically how Matthew Hansen demonstrates in his essay that by rewriting Shakespeare’s plays to be performed by children from disadvantaged schools, the college students were able to see inside the text in such vivid ways. They became almost like textual insiders—seeing what may often be hidden in a normal study of literature.

JH: Can you say more about service learning’s benefits for teachers and community members?

RR: Since service learning by its very definition must benefit the community by meeting a real need (and not the need of the academy) there is always a benefit. For instance, several of the projects described in the book work with people whose voices are often not heard—the elderly or the poor—and by giving them a voice for their ideas and experiences through life writing, our service provides the community with a benefit.

LG: For teachers, this work is unbelievably rewarding—in the best cases—although also challenging. There is something very special when it all comes together. We often use the word transformative, and it really fits. The connection among students and community partners and literary texts is deep and exciting. It’s hard to explain without sounding corny. But we do see our students grow in ways that go beyond their growth from literary study alone. One other very important component in the learning in addition to literary learning is to understand their role as citizens in a democracy, to understand their responsibilities to contribute to the public good (and, more controversially, to social change). But it is the combination of literature and service learning that sparks this.

RR: I would also like to mention some practical benefits to faculty members who do service learning. In our “Resources” section of the book, we note many new publications in civic engagement that will be of interest in our scholarly essays. This field is growing as the academy responds to the notion of the public intellectual and the ways in which the university can interact with and be of aid to the community. For those faculty members interested in expanding their outreach into grants, this section also lists the many federal agencies and foundations that support service-learning projects.

JH: Seen from literary studies’ particular point of view, what would you say is the importance of service learning?

LG: It is part of the move toward public humanities—contributing to the public good while revealing that the humanities (and in our case, especially literature) has that role. One point we try to make is that service learning isn’t for every class, faculty member, or student. But those who do it well respect literature as art that has a purpose beyond itself. And this is important for our disciplinary “crisis.”

RR: In many respects, service learning provides one answer to a 1997 PMLA debate about the public intellectual. Although many theorists supported this notion and wanted to see literature take its place in the community, there were few examples that could be pointed to at the time. But civically engaged literary studies may provide at least one avenue.

JH: Civic engagement seems a natural fit for courses in multicultural literature or women’s studies, but how would a professor of Shakespeare or Victorian literature adapt a course to include a service component?

RR: Diana Archibald discusses this issue in her essay on Victorian literature and Dickens. As she notes, her students believed that they had very little in common with the Victorians in terms of problems or attitudes, but after they viewed Victorian social problems and their own—issues of waste, homelessness, unemployment, and illiteracy—the students could understand the ways in which Dickens as a writer of literature could have a profound impact on his time. And this led the students to realize that literature in our own time could have a profound impact on these issues (and new ones). The study of literature was not something to be cloistered in a classroom but rather it had (and could have) a dramatic impact on any given society.

LG: I’d like to add that the question you raise is something we try to address in our book by discussing the continuum of community impact from public good through social justice. That is, service learning and women’s and multicultural literature (and even Victorian literature in Diana’s chapter, as Roberta described) are often about social-justice issues. But literature is also so important for its public-good effect—the rich cultural and aesthetic experiences that writing and literature provide. I learned a great deal about this from our contributors. My own work with service learning and literature has been mainly in women’s and multicultural literary studies. But I have new appreciation, for example, about how students working with the elderly to write their life stories is so important to add joy and meaning to people’s lives.

RR: I also think that service learning provides our often insulated students (who might not read newspapers or magazines outside their specific interests) with an opportunity to experience the other and to develop empathy and a change of position in their thinking. This postmodern notion of the importance of changing one’s position and empathy, spoken about by Martha Nussbaum and others, is a benefit.

LG: Even those students who are not insulated may benefit from being exposed to new and different perspectives. Service-learning pedagogy is increasingly concerned with nontraditional student populations.

JH: If faculty members want to incorporate service learning into their courses, are there best practices and sample syllabi available?

RR: In our introduction, we speak about the best practices for the field of service learning in general and our own best practices for literary study. Interested faculty members will also find a large number of very helpful Web sites with sample syllabi and guidelines—service-learning folks are quite generous!

LG: I want to say that reading the eighteen or so chapters in the book is an excellent first step for newcomers. Although we stayed away from step-by-step implementation suggestions in favor of richer theoretical and pedagogical discussions, the book provides ways to go about these projects and build on them. It can be scary to try something like service learning. Once you leave the classroom, you lose control of what may occur. But as many service-learning practitioners agree, those times when things go awry can also yield the most learning for students.

RR: In addition to our book, I would suggest that interested faculty members join the MLA Commons group I set up: Service Learning in Literature, Language and Composition. In addition, most universities today have a center of community engagement. I set up one at my university, and it is now run by a group of people who help faculty members find community sites, do workshops on best practices, and act as community liaisons.

JH: Thank you both for participating in this interview. Interested readers can find this book in the MLA bookstore.

Image of Laurie GrobmanLaurie Grobman is professor of English and women’s studies at Penn State University, Berks. Her teaching, research, and service interests center on service learning and community-based research. She is the author of Multicultural Hybridity: Transforming American Literary Scholarship and Pedagogy and Teaching at the Crossroads: Cultures and Critical Perspectives in Literature by Women of Color and the coeditor of Undergraduate Research in English Studies and On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring. She was the 2012 recipient of Penn State University President’s Award for Excellence in Academic Integration and a 2014 winner of the U.S. Professor of the Year national award.


Image of Roberta RosenbergRoberta Rosenberg, professor of English and director of an interdisciplinary minor in civic engagement and social entrepreneurship at Christopher Newport University, teaches courses in multicultural American literature, women’s studies, and the writing of civic engagement. She is the author of three books and of numerous articles on American literature and culture that have appeared in MELUS, Pedagogy, Studies in American Indian Literatures, and Studies in Jewish American Literature, among others. In addition, she was the editor of DoubleTake Magazine (with Robert Coles and Terry Lee). Her community work includes consulting with federal, state, and local governmental agencies and many arts and cultural not-for-profit organizations.