Urban Communities course

March 24, 2015

For two decades now, students at Augsburg College have known that Garry Hesser s courses were different. Students who took them weren t asked just to know the material, they were asked to study it in the community.

By following a semester of one of Dr. Hesser s courses entitled, Urban Communities, we can draw a picture of a high-quality curricular service-learning experience.

In order to learn about urban communities, Professor Hesser tells students on their first day of class, you will use the community as your laboratory. Students are pleased to hear this, many of them having enrolled because they were intrigued by the fieldwork component, and the chance to engage in actual observation that brings their classroom theories to life.

But then the professor adds a twist. There is an ethical problem with this kind of observation, he tells students. If you are going to take these observations from the community, you also must give back to them. Your relationship must be reciprocal. In fact, Dr. Hesser has already spent many weeks before the beginning of the semester contacting neighborhood organizations to see if they are in need of student volunteers. From this, he develops a list of organizations from which students may choose ensuring that the organizations that get student volunteers are organizations that need student volunteers. In the Urban Communities class, 25 students are split into five groups of five and sent to neighborhood organizations, where they will provide service over the course of the semester.

Tying students work in the community into academic theory is the major thrust of curricular service-learning. Dr. Hesser achieves this through a carefully constructed combination of observation, reflection, discussion, and presentation. Students are given a field journal to record observations from their experiences with the neighborhood organizations. Rather than being asked simply to free-write in their journal as they might do if the experience were not connected to academic learning students are asked to write one entry each week based on the course readings for that week. For instance, students study the concept of horizontal relationships in the class the ways different organizations work together within the boundaries of the community. For the corresponding journal entry, they are asked to write about any experience in their time at the community organization that reflects theoretical elements of horizontal relationships.

Back in class, students return to their groups of five and exchange journals, often coming across new discoveries, which they are asked to discuss with the rest of the group. Through this exchange, students recognize the variety of ways their theoretical lessons from class can be applied to the neighborhood organizations where they are working. During other class sessions, students are mixed into groups of five with one from each neighborhood organization. Here, students are able to learn from the very different experiences that others have had in very different neighborhoods. Once again, students are exposed to the great variety of ways that a theory, always the same on paper, can look very different in practice.

At the end of the semester, the teams of five students collaborate to produce an oral and written report. In the report, they use the basic theories of the course to describe the neighborhood association where they worked and to discuss the service that they have performed. By the time they have completed their curricular service-learning experience, students in the Urban Communities class are able to discuss these theories with the rich background of real experience and the understanding of how these theories can be used to help communities.


From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy

Contact person: Dr. Garry Hesser, Sociology Dep.’t, hesser@augsburg.edu

Augsburg College - MN, Minnesota
Contact Person: Contact person: Dr. Garry Hesser, Sociology Dep.'t, hesser@augsburg.edu
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