Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Curricular Transformation
Diversity Digest Volume 10, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity and Learning: “A Defining Moment”
Institutional Diversity in a New Nation: Lessons Lived, Lessons Learned
The Pedagogy of Sentipensante: Recasting Institutional Core Agreements
Transforming Our Institutions for the Twenty-first Century: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer
Creating Institutional Transformation Using the Equity Scorecard
Curricular Transformation
Service Learning, Multicultural Education, and the Core Curriculum:
A Model for Institutional Change
Drop It Like It’s Hot! Hip-Hop in the Twenty-First-Century Classroom
A Sustainable Campus-Wide Program for Diversity Curriculum Infusion
Campus-Community Involvement
El Camino Real: Where Culture and Academia Meet
Faculty Involvement
Advancing Diversity through a Framework of Intersectionality: Inclusion of LGBT Issues in Higher Education
Transitioning on Campus: Creating a Welcoming Climate for Transgender People
Complicating Diversity Categories: Jewish Identity in the Classroom
Student Experience
Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources and Strategies
Beyond Tourism: Race, Space, and National Identity in London
Graduate and Professional Degree Attainment for Students of Color
Affordability of Postsecondary Education for Students of Color
Diversity and Learning Resources

Service Learning, Multicultural Education, and the Core Curriculum: A Model for Institutional Change

By Sharon Adams, director of the Institute for Service Learning; Cheryl Ajirotutu, associate professor of anthropology and associate director of the Cultures and Communities Program; and Gregory Jay, professor of English and director of the Cultures and Communities Program—all at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

UWM students and community members form relationships through the Walnut Way oral history project.

UWM students and community members
form relationships through the Walnut
Way oral history project.

Cities like Milwaukee are hubs of international commerce, scientific inquiry, immigration, and sociocultural exchange, providing incomparable resources for students to learn about, and work successfully in, the global communities of the twenty-first century. As a major public university located in such a city, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) is positioned to create a distinctive learning environment for students. Wisconsin’s cultures and communities are rich with resources that can be brought into our classrooms. At the same time, our classrooms should extend into our communities so that students better understand the world they are studying. The program at UWM can serve as a case study of successful multicultural service learning for individuals at other schools that share our access to diverse urban resources and wish to reformulate traditional pedagogies.

Like most American universities and colleges, UWM has a token “diversity” requirement: students must take one three-credit course that focuses on the experiences, cultural traditions, and worldviews of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and/or Asian Americans. Since most students pursuing a bachelor’s degree earn a minimum of 120 credits in approximately forty different classes, this one-class requirement represents the most minimal of gestures towards multiculturalism and diversity. Currently there is no campus-wide requirement for community engagement or service learning. As faculty at UWM, we wanted to present an alternative to this approach. As we reflected on the new realities and commitments of the twenty-first century, two questions stood out:

  • Is there a practical way to make meaningful community engagement part of the core curriculum at a large research university in the twenty-first century?
  • How can multicultural education best prepare students for engagement with the diversity of the twenty-first-century world, given the lack of diversity that still characterizes our campuses?

We responded to these questions by creating the Cultures and Communities Certificate Program and its Institute for Service Learning. Together, the program and the institute offer an alternative general education option that allows us to mainstream diversity and community engagement in the core curriculum.

A Model for Diversity and Service Learning

UWM service learners help plant a garden in the Walnut Way community.

UWM service learners help plant a garden in the Walnut Way community.

The Cultures and Communities Certificate Program allows undergraduates to fulfill their general education requirements with a focused set of courses that engage both diversity and service learning. The program creates a new distribution of course rubrics (in U.S. and global studies, the arts, and science and technology), within which multiple classes carry the Cultural Diversity (CD) accreditation. Students who complete the certificate are more likely to take three, four, or even five CD classes. Students are required to take at least one service-learning class, ensuring that they experience the pluralism that is Milwaukee. Academic learning about diversity in the classroom is tested, expanded, and reflected upon through “real-world” experiences in the community. Through these experiential learning contexts, education takes action (appropriately, this is the motto of the Institute for Service Learning).

The Institute for Service Learning (ISL) assists UWM faculty in designing the community engagement assignments for their syllabi and provides logistical support for student placement and agency relations. From its inception, ISL sought to act as a bridge between communities, faculty members, and students, connecting UWM students to Milwaukee’s social and cultural fabric through their academic course work and bringing campus resources to local education, arts, and social service institutions. Initially, UWM used a community service placement model that focused primarily on providing service for others. In this model, a service-learning coordinator connects students with community sites to perform volunteer service. While this approach was successful in placing large numbers of students in service, faculty members were often minimally engaged with community placement sites, and community agencies had limited awareness of academic requirements. Most disconcerting, students were without means for critical analysis and often processed service-learning experiences in ways that reinforced racial, ethnic, and social stereotypes.

Service learning, we came to believe, must be paired with a multicultural education program that targets student awareness and focuses attention on structural inequality, cultural identity, and the historical and systemic nature of oppression. To give our curriculum this foundation, we designed a core course that, although taught across various disciplines, emphasizes these topics and incorporates service learning as an integral method of exploring them. To provide historical background, we chose readings such as Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America that examine the political economy informing the social construction of race and ethnicity.

We mainstreamed the core course, now called “Multicultural America,” by inviting departments to design their own sections in collaboration with us. Today it is offered in anthropology, English, film, history, sociology, and women’s studies. This arrangement provides departments an incentive to offer the course, since it meets their obligation to offer general education classes, adds diversity, appeals to younger faculty and faculty of color, and boosts enrollments.

As the core course evolved, we began to teach about “whiteness” and white privilege. White student attitudes of resistance to antiracist or multicultural education are all too familiar. Often students believe that America is a place where anyone can succeed by working hard and playing by the rules, and thus that people who are poor, illiterate, incarcerated, or trapped in dead-end jobs “got what they deserved.” Readings and videos on white privilege take the onus for antiracism off the students of color and help white students write reflectively about their service-learning experience, prompting them to see their own cultural identities and histories in a critical light. Crucial to this transformation are the relationships of trust, communication, and learning developed with people in the community. These relationships help students discard old stereotypes through the intercultural understanding made possible by engagement.

Program Outcomes

The combined curriculum of service learning and diversity education has measurable outcomes. In a survey conducted in spring 2006, 89 percent of students reported increased awareness of community needs; 62 percent felt service learning had enhanced their understanding of course content; and 76 percent felt they had increased their understanding of diverse cultures. Students regularly testify that service learning transforms and deepens their academic knowledge. Since many are freshmen or sophomores, they also find that this experience is vital to their evaluation of possible career choices and plans of study, and a number of those surveyed expressed increased interest in civic service.

By creating a general education program with a focus on critical multiculturalism and community engagement, we have revitalized the mission of the university, reconnected the campus to the world, and reinvigorated the academic experience of both students and faculty. In uniting several separate components (multicultural education, core requirements, service learning, advising, grants and fellowships, and special program events), and in positioning the community not as a “problem” or “deficit,” but rather as co-teacher, we have formed a new model for engaging students with diversity and civic affairs.

For full details on these UWM programs, see www.cc.uwm.edu.

Affiliated Courses: A Cultural Diversity Curriculum Example

In addition to the core Multicultural America course, over one hundred affiliated classes, including that of anthropologist Cheryl Ajirotutu, put the ideals of the Cultures and Communities Certificate program into practice. Ajirotutu collaborated with the residents and board of the Walnut Way community, a historically black neighborhood in Milwaukee, to design a course in which students conduct oral histories of residents, documenting the life of the neighborhood and contributing to the analytic history of race relations and urban change in Milwaukee. Early in the semester, Ajirotutu immerses her students in the study of anthropological approaches to oral history and instructs them in the use of audio and video equipment; students also attend orientation events in the neighborhood, such as volunteer sessions where they plant new gardens in vacant lots. In collaboration with the Walnut Way advisory board, a series of appointments for oral interviews is scheduled. Accompanied by an instructional assistant, students travel to the homes of residents, who often greet them with food as well as conversation. Over the course of the semester they write and revise the oral histories, thus gaining valuable skills in civic awareness, intercultural communication, composition, and critical thinking.

At semester’s end, the course holds two public forums, one on campus and one in the community, at which students read the narratives to an audience—including most of their subjects—to whom they then present copies of their work. These moving ceremonies are examples of reciprocal collaboration between the community and the university and illustrate how our community partners function as teachers and sources of knowledge. The products of this class extend into other courses as well; recently, faculty and students in the departments of dance and visual art read the archive of oral histories from the class. Dance professor Simone Ferro choreographed a production that was performed by students on campus and in the community, and artist Raoul Deal involved his students in creating the backdrop that served as the scenery for the dance production.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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