Vulnerability, Humility and Learning in GSL

December 8, 2018

“For all of this ambiguity, however, many of us are still drawn to support our students as they risk learning something unexpected and without the cold and clinical calculation of the those who seek their fortunes in elite social capital formation.”

The following blog entry comes from the author’s contribution to a chapter published as:

Calvert, V., Peacock, D., Underwood, M., Gleeson, J., Kennedy, A.P., Tavcer, S. (2018). Global service-learning: Enhancing Humility.  In Lund, D. (Ed.), International handbook of service learning for social justice (pp. 353-374). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

By Dr. David Peacock, Executive Director Community-Service Learning, University of Alberta

For those practitioners and scholars immersed in reflexive and critical modes of global service-learning and community engagement, it is easy to forget that our work remains a marginal exercise in contemporary higher education. The far more dominant model for ‘study abroad’ remains the neoliberal inspired social mobility programs designed to equip students for greater intercultural competencies to increase the graduate’s employability in internationally competitive labour markets.  I was brutally reminded of this at a recent ‘global mobility’ event at a selective, research-intensive university that showcased its suite of student mobility initiatives.  One student almost boasted of his experience in Hong Kong, and said that ‘if you want to meet the best business contacts from Paris, New York and London, then you’ve gotta go to Hong Kong’. This was the ‘advantage’ that his study abroad was giving him, a branding with which his university sought to recruit the ‘best and the brightest’ into its global mobility initiatives. Humanistic intercultural encounter gives way in this construction to an instrumentalist concern for the exploitation of economic opportunity, and the amassing of social and economic capital.   Study abroad programs in this neoliberal model primarily function to enhance the hyper-mobility of the elite, and sideline or even deny the kinds of ethical and reciprocal educational encounters that many of us would aim for.  

Yet all international travels for educational purposes are acts of power, nonetheless so when they arise from critical-humanist framings and projects. There are very few who enjoy the privileges of undergraduate transnational learning experiences, and the social, cultural and economic capitals these experiences both produce and are produced by.  Whenever reciprocal student exchanges between countries is impossible, for whatever reason, the power exercised by students abroad is felt acutely by the local host communities.  For those of us working in research-intensive universities in Canada, Australia, the U.S. and the UK, a critical question becomes how, and under what conditions, can global service-learning be constructed ethically and with relevance to ordinary peoples and their communities?  

To address only one side of this vexing question, we can ask what kinds of pedagogies can best cultivate the student dispositions and attitudes conducive to students as they engage peoples across radical difference.  As this series of writings suggests, one approach is to help students appreciate their humility before that which they do not know, and cannot be expected to know.  This involves teaching them that intercultural dialogue and understanding can ethically proceed when there is a valuing and recognition of the life-worlds and knowledge systems – ways of being – that lie beyond the experience and cognition of our students and our courses.  There is an open-endedness and surplus of meaning to global learning experiences, whether local or international, that cannot be completely accounted for and controlled within our knowledge systems, including our service-learning theories (Butin, 2007).  We cannot guarantee what our students will learn, the impacts of our programs for local peoples, or (much to the chagrin of our risk managers) rationally plan for all the exigencies of these complicated learning situations.

What we can do, however, is model to our students a way to critically and reflexively engage with our own race-making (and often whiteness), our own power and privilege as international sojourners and academics, and gradually and always incompletely surface our own unexamined assumptions about our own ways of thinking and being.  This kind of pedagogy requires a high level of trust among learners, and teachers, and a willingness to be humble, even vulnerable, through the emotional and intellectual labour required to critically interrogate our own place in the world.  Fortunately, students do not have to go abroad to experience this kind of transformative learning, and we can begin this pedagogy closer to home.    

Indeed, it was my encounter with an Indigenous woman as an undergraduate that provoked this kind of learning, which is never easy, and often very uncomfortable.   As a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Queensland, Australia, I became part of a community of young people responding to what we imagined to be the needs of the homeless in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Inspired by Catholic social thought, although very uncomfortable with religious language and public devotion, we became “Friends on the Street” with a street van, coffee and sandwiches. Our objectives were both simplistic and (we thought at the time) profound, to be-friend the marginalized on the streets, to help where we could, but mostly to seek companionship into the early hours of the morning and provide a momentarily safe haven on the street.

It was there that I met Glenda, and Indigenous woman who had had her children stolen from her by the Australian government when she was a young mother. She never saw her children again, and it almost broke her spirit. She was a 60 year-old who slept rough, had aged quickly, and battled alcoholism. One night on the street Glenda, unexpectedly, gestured for me to come over to her. She asked me to sit with her, on the ground, on her blanket. She put her arm around me. It was “her country,” she told me, and she welcomed me to it. When a homeless person offers you his or her blanket to rest upon, it is an act of high hospitality.  Yet for Glenda, this simple act was more than that, it was an assertion of her right to be there, her moment to educate me about how Indigenous peoples have never ceded their land to anyone, and that the country that we had parked our street van on was her country, and that we were visiting, and she was the host.  I did not realize this all of this at the time; it was a much less an intellectual moment than a deeply visceral and powerfully personal experience of acceptance and challenge that profoundly moved me.  I subsequently studied the colonization processes that so damaged Glenda’s family and life, and how my Catholicism was deeply implicated in this colonial process of dispossession and violence.  Perhaps I would have come to these realizations without my encounter with Glenda?  Yet somehow her embrace and acceptance of me, despite what must have been my extraordinary naiveté, gave me a sense of meaning and purpose in the search for that understanding.

Many years later, completing a Master’s degree in Education, I detected a similar pattern in my Canadian students as they spent three months living with host families in the highlands of Ecuador and assisting in schools, youth activities and community-based art projects.  For those students who did seem to experience a ‘transformative’ learning experience, the themes of vulnerability, their discovery of persisting structural differences in their emerging interpersonal relationships, and an experience of acceptance, were crucial (Peacock, 2013).  Lengthy and intensive pre-departure seminars and the three-month immersion experience appeared to elicit an openness and receptivity from participants to learning transformations. Their voluntary vulnerability (it remained anchored within structural privilege, and so a choice) was met with what participants experienced as a radical acceptance from the host communities who sheltered, nourished and cared for them. What often resulted for participants was a reconfigured solidarity with their host communities, in which participants were at once reminded of their privilege and challenged and invited into new modes of interpersonal relationships across difference. Within a welcoming embrace, participants recognized their privilege vis-à-vis (literally face-to-face) the other in a new way, and were empowered to reconfigure their relationships in light of a new global solidarity and expanded sense of responsibility.

Yet these transformations, when they occur, are never complete.  We still teach and learn within an economy of prestige and privilege that deeply implicates us in oppressive relations with peoples we have met on the other side of the world. This happens, of course, despite our best intentions and desires to become more just and to better structure our programs to become more reciprocal and valuing of our international partners.  For all of this ambiguity, however, many of us are still drawn to support our students as they risk learning something unexpected and without the cold and clinical calculation of the those who seek their fortunes in elite social capital formation.  If these students are humble enough to be open to sense of dis-ease with themselves and with the wider suffering of the world; if they can begin to sense that these two phenomena might be in some way related, as Glenda taught me, then they deserve our support and encouragement.

Butin, D. (2007). Service-Learning in Theory and Practice: The Future of Community Engagement.  Equity & Excellence in Education, 177–183.   

Peacock, D. (2013). Relating Across Difference: A Case Study in Transformative Learning. In Benham  Rennick, J. & Michel Desjardins, M. (Eds.), The World is my Classroom: International Learning and Higher Education (pp. 160-191). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


David Peacock is the Executive Director of Community Service-Learning in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, Canada. His research encompasses global service-learning, student equity policy and practices in higher education, curriculum theory, community-university engagement and ‘first generation’ university students’ participation in experiential learning programming. David is an academic co-lead of the Community-Campus Engage Canada working group of the Community First: Impacts of Community Engagement research project, Carleton University.  

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