Service-Learning, Student Philanthropy & Critical Pedagogy

An interview with Denison University faculty member Emily Nemeth

On the surface, “Critical Pedagogy” and the “study of philanthropy” might seem to be disparate topics–certainly not something you would cover in your average Education course.  Yet, these seemingly disconnected concepts were a great fit for Pay it Forward, the Ohio Campus Compact service-learning program* that infuses the study of philanthropy and course-related community service hours into a variety of different curricula across disciplines and provides $2,500 for the class to award to local nonprofits.

Ohio Campus Compact recently sat down with Emily Nemeth, Visiting Instructor in the Department of Education at Denison University to discuss her experience in teaching Critical Pedagogy: Gender, Race, and Class in U.S. Education as a Pay it Forward student philanthropy course.

OCC: How is this course different than one you’d teach without a service-learning component?

EN: I’ve only taught this course with a service-learning component. I find this to be an invaluable dimension of this course because it allows students to actually practice critical pedagogy and to see the ways that this approach to teaching and learning can be beneficial and meaningful for teachers and students. This year, our class has partnered with the ProTeen Center, which is a non-profit that supports students who are completing their high school diploma online. The students in this course work one-on-one each week with a student who has committed him or herself to completing his or her high school career. Critical pedagogy emphasizes the reciprocal nature of  relationships between teachers and students–that both teach and both learn–and encourages students and teachers to collaboratively explore issues of (in)justice and (in)equity in their communities–locally and globally.  The experiences Denison students have had at the ProTeen Center both inform and complicate the ideas we explore in class in that sometimes their experiences affirm the theories we’re discussing, and in other instances, they find ways to challenge and extend the theories based on what they’re witnessing.

OCC: Tell us about the work your students are doing with community partners as part of the course.

EN: I shaped the PIF component differently this year in that we decided to partner with just one organization, The ProTeen Center instead of four.  All of the students are completing service-learning hours with the youth at the Center by engaging in direct, one-on-one tutoring.  In addition to their service-learning hours, the students have formed student community boards investigating three separate, yet interrelated issues within the Center: 1. Assessing current resources, supplies, infrastructure within the Center and identifying ways to enhance the learning environment for the students and staff; 2. Exploring a potential, sustainable network for externships and connecting youth at the Center with these professionals in their local community; and 3. Assessing the students’ writing skills and identifying a sustainable way to support their development in this important area over time. In November, the three student community boards will present their research and proposals to the staff and students from the ProTeen Center, who will have the opportunity to select from one of the three proposals on how the $2500 will be spent and how other resources might be leveraged to address the issue.

OCC: What about the Pay it Forward program interests you most as a faculty member?

EN: First, I am inspired by the vision of Roger Grein and Ohio Campus Compact to invest in the potential of college students to form collaborative relationships with community organizations, to conduct research with and within these organizations to identify an area of need, and then collectively address that need.  In addition, I like the Pay it Forward component because it has enabled students within my course to explore the intersections between service-learning, philanthropy, and critical pedagogy, to name, investigate and address real needs within the community, and to have conversations about the benefits and the tensions within philanthropic relationships. One of my favorite class sessions last year was when students debated about how the PIF dollars would be spent. In their conversation, they drew on class readings and concepts to warrant their arguments, as well as actual experiences they had with community partners to ground their claims. I’m looking forward to this year’s conversation, which will look slightly different in that we’ve identified a way to bring the community partner into the conversation about the best way to approach the distribution of funds.

OCC:  Many faculty have told us that one of the best parts of teaching service-learning courses is seeing their students have that “aha!” moment when they realize that what they thought they knew about a social issue was totally turned on its head.  Have your students had any of those moments this year?  

EN: Yes, I frequently see students making explicit connections between readings and their service-learning placement. In fact, during our last class session, one of the students led other students in an analysis of our service-learning partnership through a critical theory lens, a focus of the course.

OCC: What has been the most challenging part of teaching the course?  

EN: The Pay it Forward grant has been somewhat challenging in that before incorporating the grant into my class, I had not had much experience with philanthropy. Deepening my understanding of philanthropy with my students has been a rewarding experience, and I have benefited from the knowledge they’ve brought to the classroom in terms of personal experiences with philanthropy. Each time I’ve taught with the PIF component, I have had a student in my class from the Denison Venture Philanthropy Club. These students have had very involved conversations about philanthropy with one another and with their faculty advisor  Dr. Fadhel Kaboub, and have brought those insights into our class discussions.

OCC:  That’s great.  Incidentally Dr. Kaboub also incorporates Pay it Forward into two of his Economics courses!  It’s great to see that cross-discipline collaboration.  Has anything surprised you about your course?

EN: I’m not sure if the feeling is surprised, or if it’s more of an excitement of seeing the way Denison students dialogue with one another about pressing community issues and witnessing their ability to respectfully debate amidst differing opinions. In light of the government shutdown over the last couple of weeks, their conversations remind me of the value of being able to have respectful, meaningful, informed debate, while remembering that the debate is not an end in and of itself, but should be used as a means to identify a collaborative solution.

OCC: How have your students responded to the service components of the course?  

EN: My students have responded positively to the service-learning components of the course. They have made important connections between the concepts and ideas we’re discussing in class, and what they’re experiencing at the ProTeen Center. Transportation is always a challenge with service-learning, specifically when the community partnership is not within walking distance of the College. We’ve hit a few bumps in the road with transportation, but beyond that, the service-learning opportunity has been a rewarding one in terms of the learning opportunities it offers and the relationships we’ve been able to form.

OCC: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us and thank you for your commitment to service-learning and community-engaged learning.  Any last thoughts or anything else you’d like to share?

EN: Thank you to the Lindorf Foundation, the Licking County Foundation, Ohio Campus Compact and the Alford Center for supporting this component in my course, and for giving us the opportunity to have these experiences.

About Emily Nemeth:  Professor Nemeth earned a B.A. in Education and Spanish from Denison University, a M. Ed., in Higher Education Administration-Service Learning from University of Massachusetts and is a Ph.D. candidate at the Ohio State University.  A former AmeriCorps member in the City Year program, Nemeth also has service experience with  I Know I Can, a Columbus-based college access organization and with the Alexandria and University District Freedom Schools.