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WID and Service-Learning

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As articulated in the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) model, each academic discipline has a set of writing conventions that are somewhat distinct from one another. This can relate to any number of things including the vocabulary, organization and structure, tone, length, citation style, or intended audience of a written document. Beyond academia, differences in disciplinary writing can become even more diverse, especially for fields that use writing for more practical, public-facing, or strategic purposes. These fields may include those in the financial, nonprofit, or government sectors. Although universities can provide training within these fields through traditional coursework, internships, and industry partnerships, the use of writing in these contexts necessitates an extended set of skills and knowledge that students and scholars may not be reliably exposed to in the university setting.  


Service-Learning work, however, offers a much-needed link between academia and the contexts beyond campus that allow students and scholars to become meaningfully exposed to more diverse ways of writing. As Service-Learning scholar Dr. Chris Anson describes, the “learning situation” in a course becomes more complex when it incorporates a service-Learning component (Anson, 1997, p. 169), since the applied nature of service work can simultaneously problematize, reinforce, and expand on concepts introduced in the classroom. For writing, the rhetorical boundaries between genres, and even disciplines, can be crossed depending on the nature of a service-Learning project. For instance, a project with a small nonprofit organization may require students to serve in a number of different roles and therefore take on a number of writing tasks that span multiple disciplinary conventions. These tasks could include annual reports, grant applications, white papers, and even marketing materials. In the classroom, students may get very limited or inconsistent exposure to these forms of writing without the intentional infrastructure of a Service-Learning program. So, the cross-disciplinary exposure that service-Learning can provide students at the college level is especially important once they graduate and enter the workforce. As forms of “professional” writing, these kinds of documents require close consideration of the following: 


Include link to OWL’s audience page Analyzing Audience 

For purely class-based assignments, students are often tasked with a limited audience; in many cases, this audience includes the class instructor, other classmates, or an imagined audience beyond the classroom. However, Service-Learning can task students with a real rhetorical situation where they write to, and for, a real-life audience from a diversity of backgrounds, non-academic and otherwise (Perkins, 2016, p. 95-96). 


Include link to OWL’s purpose page Purposes  

Perhaps the biggest asset of writing within a service-Learning context is the implicit and varied purposes the writing will serve. For example, if a student is tasked with helping a local nonprofit organization write a grant application, the purpose of the writing task can be quite clear: to secure funding for the organization. Having a clear sense of purpose in writing is fundamental to communicating clearly and effectively, and writing within a service-Learning context can provide students with a valuable opportunity to practice writing with a clear, practical purpose by applying classroom content to “real-world” situations (Baca, 2012, p. xi). 

On the classroom side of service-Learning projects, writing can play a central role through one particularly popular genre: reflection. Reflection is an important component of service-Learning because it tends to serve as the “conduit between [service] and academic work” (Stewart, 2011, p. 38). Reflective writing provides students and scholars with the opportunity to both document and develop their learning process through the course of a service-learning project, reinforcing a recursive connection between the theory provided in coursework and practice provided through the service experience. Even more, critical reflection – a type of reflection that presses students to connect their service-learning experience to broader, systemic processes that may produce or sustain societal inequities – provides an opportunity for students to develop a sense of social consciousness and civic responsibility. Reflective writing can be challenging, and requires continued practice, feedback, and revision. To find resources for how to go about critical reflection, please visit the critical reflection page.

Critical Service Learning

Even beyond the practical, jobs-related skills that students can gain through service-learning, this pedagogical approach can also help promote a sense of civic responsibility and participation as well as a clearer awareness of systemic social justice issues. These are the types of values emphasized in critical service-learning (CSL), an approach that prioritizes equitable, mutually beneficial relationships with community partners that focus on challenging existing systems of power and resource distribution (Mitchell, 2008, 53). While “traditional” service-learning tends to emphasize the potential benefits for students and faculty, CSL shifts the emphasis to building “authentic relationships” in the community to cultivate a sense of “social responsibility” and address “critical community issues” (Zastoupil & Sarmiento, 2022, p. 169; Mitchell, 2008, 51). In essence, CSL then becomes a “problem-solving instrument for political and social reform” where students are encouraged to act as “agents of social change” in service of community justice (Fenwick, 2001, 6; Mitchell, 2008, 51-52). 

Some scholars argue that CSL promotes more complex thinking and reasoning skills among students (Wang and Rodgers, 2006). Writing exercises such as critical reflection are especially important because they provide a means by which students can actively analyze and address their own perspectives within the context of social justice work.  

In both the “traditional” and “critical” models, service-learning is a useful pedagogical approach that exposes students to real rhetorical situations that can’t be reliably synthesized in the traditional classroom. Service-learning helps students develop professional writing skills through real-world writing tasks that cross multiple disciplinary conventions and speak to real, diverse audiences outside of the classroom. Additionally, service-learning promotes critical thinking and reasoning skills through tasks such as critically reflective writing assignments. 

Anson, Chris. (1997). On reflection: The role of logs and journals in service-learning coursesIn Adler-   Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters (Eds.), Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition, 169-180. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education. Print. 

Baca, Isabel. (2012). Service-learning: Engaging writers with their communities. In Baca, Isabel, 

  1. Service-Learning and Writing : Paving the Way for Literacy(ies) through Community Engagement. Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 2012. Print.

Fenwick, Tara J. (2001). Experiential learning: A theoretical critique from five perspectives. ERIC 

Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, No. 385. 

Mitchell, Tania D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: engaging the literature to 

differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 14(2). 

Stewart, T. and Webster, N. (2011). Problematizing Service-Learning Critical Reflections for 

Development and Action. Charlotte, N.C: Information Age Pub. Print. 

Wang, Y. nd Rodgers, R. (2006). Impact of service-learning and social justice education on 

college students' cognitive development. NASPA Journal, 43(2), 316-337. 

Perkins, T. (2016). Service-learning in the professional writing skills classroom: Marilyn Cooper’s “ecology of writing” in action. In Hickey, M. Gail. Reflecting on Service-Learning in Higher Education: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives. Ed. M. Gail Hickey. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2016. Print. 

Zastoupil, G. J., & Sarmiento, C. S. (2022). Service-learning, rights to the city, and justice in 

community practitioner preparation. Journal of Community Practice, 30(2), 169–180.