Sunday, September 7, 2008

Service Learning: The Hidden Imperialist Agenda--(Mis)using the "Other"

My promised post:

Sooooo, The World's Most Narcissistic Psychology Professor Who Daily Validates the Claim That Psychologists Are Fucked Up hit upon the trick of using the venue of Service Learning to turn the bright light of administrative admiration upon himself (okay, its really only a dim bulb but let that go).

Down here, in the land of undergraduate teaching, we are seeing a wave of interest in Service Learning as the band aid for a hemorrhaging student population. Its supposed to "engage" students and make them seem less spoiled, kind of a quick let's nip this rampant overly-materialistic student value-system before they need to be shipped off to an MTV Exiled experience, and we can get them to help people right here in the yoo-ess-ayy where its safer.

Myself, I teach a student population that could be a recipient of service learning, so I am a bit bewildered by the focus on Service Learning at a community college. And most of the research, actually, argues for a generation that is more focused on "contributing" than previous ones. But, I guess, the overall concern in America for the "purpose-driven" life leading to fulfillment drives this agenda. *sigh* Once again, the American debate is about forcing others to do what we deem correct and proper with an almost evangelical fervor, instead, of having the faith that people will find their own way to fulfillment or respecting their right to do so. Its good to know we don't limit our desire to save the world to the world but, also, are busily doing it to each other. Restores your faith in logical consistency, at a time when there is none. Logical consistency, that is. We seem to have an excess of Faith.

But enough personal commentary--the rather narrow focus of this blog is teaching anthropology and I find that being an anthropologist--at least of the kind I am--means that I am just not down with Service Learning.

Because, first , I need to look at what students are learning. And. second, and perhaps most importantly, I need to think about the communities being "serviced". Need I remind everyone that the last chapter of almost every intro textbook is "Development Anthropology". I have to teach that--many times every semester. And I did live it, having worked as a consultant for USAID and the International Red Cross way back in 1994 at the beginning of international concern with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanzania. Its an issue for me.

Those of you skimming this entry for the juicy bits, they begin now:

Enter our Psychology Professor of the Long Title. Email goes out on the Faculty and Administration distribution list soliciting (I kid you not) travel-size shampoo bottles, toys, and PAMPHLETS ABOUT SPOUSAL ABUSE WRITTEN IN SPANISH (yes, I am shouting) because, because, because, dude is going on a "Medical Mission" to the Texas/Mexico border, taking a group of our students along on a pre-existing visitation by the University of Houston's pharmacy students. Seems that a couple of years ago, a small handful of church-goers decided it would be a good idea to reach out across the border and do some good. One of the church members teaches at the Pharmacy school and organized her students to, periodically, drive down to Mexico to an area of population aggregation centered around those American-owned export-assembly plants on the border known as Maquiladoras . The stated goal of the visit was for the pharmacy students to hand out (donated) pills for Type Two Diabetes to the many sufferers in these border communities. I almost exploded with the effort of trying to figure out what to protest first. I started small.

I went for the shampoo bottles. Shampoo bottles to communities that don't have access to clean water? That may bathe in the Rio Grande. Little plastic bottles. Hello, Marie Antoinette! What next--cake for diabetics. Can we talk about the, absolutely, horrendously foul disgusting moment of placing a student in such a power relationship? Oh, by all means, lean down from the float of the good ship America and hand out beads and trinkets to the "natives". Hey, no more tears--ya got clean hair for the day and an empty plastic bottle. And I gave it to you. Isn't it wonderful. Don't I feel good about myself for a moment. Where's the bus? Can we go now? Exiled is on tonight and I haven't Tivoed it, yet.

Then, I moved on to the "Mission" part. Yes, he confirmed via email it was part of a church effort. Do you hand out bibles? Well, yes but there is no overt missionizing. In shock, I responded, saying that to say handing out bibles is not overt missionizing is disingenuous. I was told I was patronizing. *blink*

Doctor Narcissism posts the pictures of the trip on Flikr. (He is featured in every shot). He is in green scrubs (shades of HTS--he wears the uniform of what he is not). I can't figure out what, exactly, they did. No one is actually qualified to do anything medical, I am not sure even if the pharmacy students can legally hand out pills--that is if they were in America, but I guess since its Mexico they feel our legality and morality and ethics don't matter--something about that border just transforms everything, huh? It even allows a Chinese-American, non Spanish-speaking psychology professor to "counsel" individuals in a maquiladoras community. Is anybody wondering what the crises hotline number will be on those Spanish spousal abuse pamphlets?

Call up a colleague at UT-Health Science. *deep sigh*, yes, we know about this, we don't care for it. We have been operating clinics on the border for years now and there is a lot of thinking going into our projects (I have a list of links about the issues far too extensive for this post if you are interested). We particularly don't like the message that Type Two Diabetes should be treated with pills. Its a poor message when what needs to happen is a change in diet. Coca Cola. High Fructose Corn Syrup.And, don't get me started on the spousal abuse issues. Oh, now its my turn for the deep sigh. I see. Worse than I thought. Could have guessed it if I hadn't been so focused on those damn shampoo bottles.

And now my problem, I am now just a lone voice in the wilderness, raining on their parade. No, don't do this is not a message they want to hear. But if I am committed to my discipline this is what I must say. Think of those communities. Think of the nature of the interaction. Think. Think. Think.

These issues continue and should resonate with all those teaching those introductory level courses. Read this post on the SACC (Society for Anthropology in the Community College) blog, which begins with the problems experienced by a fellow anthropology prof who is required by her institution to incorporate a Service Learning component into all her courses, even the Distance Learning ones. A nightmare, an absolute nightmare.

So, now you can see, my need to post a positive view of a development project. Money and effort legitimize. If I can point to those who overtly reject these perspectives, my criticism are legitimized. I think. I hope. But, riding the wave of a North America-centric view of the world, I realize, I haven't a chance in the world.

But, just so we are clear. This is what we should be teaching our students about life in the Maquiladoras.


Maximilian C. Forte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maximilian C. Forte said...

There is something almost antique about the kinds of situations you described, it's amazing to see this continue even as an economic meltdown in the U.S. is starting to be glimpsed -- I am speaking here of the foreign aid impulse. The reason why American (and for that matter Canadian) foreign aid will continue even in the depths of economic crisis at home is that it was always a good way to subsidize the businesses of the granting country, while building ties of dependency. Now when you (re)add national security imperatives to the mix, and think of the foreign debt incurred to sustain a presence abroad, and that countries such as China ultimately debt-finance American expansion, and you get quite a powerful mix of actors and motives to sustain something that on the face of it seems entirely irrational. Anyway, enough from me. (sorry I had to delete the previous version...typos as usual)

larry c wilson said...

The American scholar who tried hardest to protect the innocent from those who would "do good" come Hell or High Water was William Graham Sumner. It is unfortunate that the ignorant of today shunt him aside into a box labelled "social darwinism."

Pamthropologist said...

Larry, thank you for the wonderful moment you gave me. I get to pause and consider all the people I would like to shunt into that box.

Max, I suppose I could try to spin some wider academic meaning about Arnolds's "Imagined Communities" or Appadurai's imagination as a global process with all those -scapes, which account for the national discourse which drives these actions. But I have so many objections to those views--which I suspect I don't truly understand anyway, having tossed the books aside with a disgusted snort because of the overly incomprehensible density they exhibit. Some of us need to translate that crap into teachable form, you know. And I hate to give an inch to those game simulation, gaming ethnographers who think they can shoehorn their work into these frameworks. (Hey, now we can imagine our own community and that will be a legitimate teaching tool). Because then, the next thing you know we have more anthropology simulations to rant about. But your anticipated critique (based on your post) would be the one that resonates with me. The story shouldn't just be about the postmodern discourse justifying these actions but in the underlying power relations that drive them. Why discuss superstructure without base?

Anyway, after many years in the trenches, the only true meaning I adhere to is the knowledge that many, many people at the top feel the "other" is to be used for their own sad purposes. I will make Larry supremely happy by quoting his favorite:

“All history is one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others.”

I, sincerely, hope that this is an Ameri-centric view, because I prefer to live in the starry-eyed optimism of Hart's view of "humanity".

Anonymous said...

Could you revise this. Clarify nouns, properly punctuate and make a clearer thesis. Its difficult to read. Thank you.

Pamthropologist said...

Everyone's a critic.

Sincere apologies and abject humiliation but the voices in my head don't like me to revise, they can't control me as well when I, actually, think in a non-stream of conscience manner.

Nicole Ives said...

So, is there a way to incorporate service learning without "othering". I am in the midst of trying to incorporate service learning into my community college course and am having a difficult time. I'm leaning toward having my students work with students taking ESL classes...many of my students are ESL students themselves. Is it hopeless? Am I a bad person perpetuating all that is bad and wrong with America if I have my students do an optional service learning project in the class?

Pamthropologist said...

Hi Nicole,

I wish there was some way to bump a post up when you blog. I think we (anthropologists) have a lot more to discuss on this issue. I guess there is only me to sucks when you have to find a solution to your own rants.

So...what should we consider? Relationships of equality--the particpants should be ale to "share" as equals. The encounter should be meanfingful--participants must feel that have something to offer. The nature of that "something" should not be fall under what we could ethically label as "interference". Finally, everything should be, entirely, voluntary; which, I guess, would be why I would be reluctant to assign it for class because then its never entirely voluntary, even if it is optional.

As I understand it, Service Learning which is coerced in any fashion, actually, backfires. Those students who were required to participate end up volunteering less in later life than those who didn't (saw that in a social psych text).

Discussion? Thoughts?

(I like the idea of "mentoring" (my word for your explanation) ESL students. Wonderful program. But should they get academic credit for it? Should it be part of a class? What is the goal? What will be learned? (I mean these to be real, philosphical questions not rhetorical--I really am asking.)