The Service-Learning Brochure:
A Proposed Solution to the Problems of Service Learning in the Composition Classroom
Mary Hedengren and Jon Ogden
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like the idea of young people learning. Similarly, most people agree that it’s also nice to see young people serving. So it comes as no surprise that proponents of teaching social responsibility in first-year composition have combined these two ideals into the type of projects commonly referred to as “service learning.” This term is somewhat amorphous in its definition and vast in its scope—ranging from tutoring the homeless to mentoring young children to producing information encouraging local families to be involved in their public schools. In some ways, service learning is a relatively new development, seeking to combine the traditional responsibilities of the first-year composition teacher with those of a moral/social reformer. While there are a few instances dating back to the early 20th century of teachers giving students service requirements, the service-learning movement has largely been a product of the late 20th century, guided by such proponents as Bruce Herzberg, Linda Flower, Ellen Cushman, Aaron Schultz, and Anne Ruggles Gere.
Though service learning sounds good, we propose that in order for it to have a proper place in the first-year composition classroom, it must avoid pitfalls common to service-learning projects: unproductive time and unimproved writing. In this paper we will be wrestling with these acknowledged limitations and demonstrating how one particular service-learning project— a persuasive brochure—will ultimately prove beneficial to student writing. Our model of a service-learning persuasive brochure starts with institutional relations between the university and a community organization that is constantly in need of various brochures (a health clinic, for example, or a high school counseling center). Each semester, the teacher announces the assignment to the first-year composition students. Working in groups of three to five, students will compete to create a brochure that will actually be used in their community. After the teacher receives the final drafts of these brochures, he or she grades them and then sends them on to the representative of the community organization. This representative then chooses the best design and requests (if they find one that satisfies their needs) an electronic copy for publishing and distributing. This model effectively solves many of the problems inherent in service-learning projects, especially the problems of ineffective use of time and unimproved writing.
Ineffective Use of Time
In the last paragraph of his engaging article, “Service Learning and Public Discourse,” Bruce Herzberg, one of service learning’s biggest proponents, acknowledges a major shortcoming of service learning: “To be sure,” he says, “service learning doesn’t always work well. It requires a great deal of mere managing and arranging, and things can go terribly wrong” (qtd. in Glenn 451). For example, students have to travel to and from the site of service learning, and teachers must evaluate and approve the type and difficulty of the service-learning projects. Herzberg’s acknowledgment of this “mere managing” comes after he has outlined how professors might go about implementing service-learning projects and after he has presented the theory behind these projects.
Even Herzberg’s projects that have worked well had some flaws. A major problem with Herzberg’s model is that these service-learning projects can create ineffective grading and teaching procedures for the instructors. The sheer variety of these assignments (producing fliers, writing letters to the editor, posting something on the Web) may make it hard to have a uniform grading system and many instructors will get burned out from constantly micromanaging their students’ many different genres of service. For instance, if some students decide to join a school board to make their opinions public, while some are merely copying sections of a research paper onto an Internet discussion board, how could a teacher fairly assess their efforts? Such an open assignment may lead some students to produce quality work, but many may bristle at or at least have anxiety about the fairness of the assignment. The persuasive brochure assignment solves these problems. By creating a uniform standard for their students, teachers won’t need to worry about differences among student-generated service-learning projects. Using a standard brochure format will allow teachers to compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges or walnuts.
Again, while it may be a useful skill to research service organizations, the time it takes for the students to find organizations that are willing to work with the class and accept student submissions takes away from time spent learning principles of rhetoric and composition (more on this later). Not only do students lose time trying to identify those organizations willing to accept their service, but teachers also have a hard time finding fair grading standards. Our service-learning brochure project proposes that the university establish institutional relations with organizations that have continual need of brochures. All of this requires very little work on the side of the teacher or students, especially as the relationship between these institutions develops over semesters of cooperation.
Teaching Writing Effectively
In addition to requiring time for management, many service-learning projects place teaching writing skills as secondary to helping students have a life-changing experience. Cheryl Glenn says as much in the opening chapter of The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing: “Working with people who are less educated and often less fortunate can be a true revelation for first-year college students, many of whom have never been discriminated against” (9). While this paradigm shift is beneficial to the students as individuals and as citizens, we believe that the only standard instructors should use in choosing assignments for first-year writing courses is whether the assignment will prove most beneficial for student writing. There is much beneficial about students being involved in service, but that is not necessarily the direct domain of the first-year composition course. Writing instructors cannot afford to make molding student ideology more important than or even equally as important as writing instruction because all time spent managing and arranging takes away from time spent teaching writing skills—as it is, we never have enough time to implement every theory and every possible writing project. Service-learning projects, to put it succinctly, should be considered only when they are the best option for improving student writing.
This stipulation narrows the possibilities of service-learning projects quickly. Tutoring people at a homeless shelter, something Ellen Cushman describes in her 2002 article “Hit and Run,” may help students solidify some basic writing skills—spelling and obvious grammatical errors—but it won’t likely teach them new skills. Even in the case during which instructors teach their students the skills first and then have the students teach these skills to those in the homeless shelter, instructors still have to consider the consequence of time spent traveling (in this case, students would be better served by teaching these skills to each other because of the traveling time saved and the advantage of having a common set of in-class experiences, etc.).
Of the projects that are commonly assigned to improve student writing (research paper, personal essay, critical/rhetorical analysis, opinion editorial, and brochure), the brochure seems to be the genre most suited to service learning. It’s what David W. Smit, in his book End of Composition Studies, calls a “public genre,” that is, one of those genres that “require a knowledge of common experience or knowledge in which people can become conversant by . . . simply participating in the larger civic culture” (174). In other words, the brochure is the genre of amateurs.
Contrast this to the research paper or the critical/rhetorical analysis assignments, which assume a degree of expertise that students mostly do not enjoy. These genres are described by Smit as “school genres,” which “have a very limited applicability” but that do have the potential to “[prepare] students for writing various genres in various contexts outside the classroom” (173–74). We have observed that most charitable organizations would be uncomfortable accepting the scholarly work of freshmen into the discourse of their experts.
While the opinion editorial and the personal essay also may fall under the category of “public genre,” they suffer from a lack of outlets for student publication, (although the opinion editorial perhaps less so, it assumes—again, only slightly more so—a position of authority to speak) and both genres are used by charitable organizations only periodically and rarely en masse, even to the degree of one from each twenty-student class. The brochure, though, is the generalist’s genre. It requires no original research (though it doesn’t necessarily preclude any, either) but focuses on synthesis of other more expert research into a general “public” discourse designed to be persuasive to other non-experts looking at a general overview of the topic. In addition, the brochure proves useful for student writing because it requires students to implement most of the lessons about rhetoric and composition they have learned throughout the semester. Because they know that the most persuasive brochure will not only receive a good grade but will also win the contest and be chosen by the client organization in the community, the students will be motivated to take the rhetorical situation into account while producing it. They know that good research, a keen analytical eye, and precise writing will make a better product. In other words, this assignment requires them to produce their best writing while maintaining the advantages of service-learning projects, such as student-community involvement and increased empathy for and understanding of broader social issues.
Let us be clear: we aren’t proposing getting rid of school genres altogether. Rather, we suggest that most school genres don’t lend themselves well to a service-learning assignment. Of the genres that are commonly assigned to freshmen compositions students, the brochure seems to be the most likely candidate for teaching students how to write better while making an impact on the community as a whole.
BYU’s Current Project
At Brigham Young University, the persuasive brochure is the last department-mandated writing assignment of the first-year writing course (English 150: Writing and Rhetoric). The brochure is usually due during the last week of the class, two or three weeks after the previous assignment—a 300-point persuasive research paper. By way of contrast, the brochure is worth only 100 of the 700 total points that come from the major writing assignments prescribed by the department. This assignment is often taught as an afterthought following the rigorous and high- stakes persuasive research paper. Many instructors admit to teaching the brochure assignment less enthusiastically and grading it less thoroughly than the other major writing assignments.
One reason why both students and teachers might seem dismissive of the assignment is that the current brochure assignment is entirely what Smit would describe as a “learning to think” or “learning to learn” genre—students are given a fictitious premise to complete for a fictitious audience and are graded by the teacher without their brochure being used in any practical setting. It is like a rhetorical thought experiment carried out on paper. If the brochures were taught instead as a capstone project, in which all the principles of persuasion and clarity from the previous assignments were applied to an actual audience seeking actual direction, both students and teachers would take the assignment more seriously. Using the brochure as a capstone project would help students feel more rhetorically competent. They’ve only had a semester’s worth of instruction in rhetoric and composition, but that’s an entire semester more than they had at the beginning of the class. While the first major written assignments are genres implying expertise, the brochure assignment implies little personal expertise in anything other than synthesizing information and presenting it in a clear and persuasive manner. Students are prepared by all of their earlier “school,” “learning-to-learn,” and “learning-to-think” genres to actually participate in public discourse—if only to the generalist degree required by a persuasive brochure.
How it Should Be Done
The service-learning project can take a high percentage of teacher input. Teachers can’t be expected to mirco-manage all of their students’ projects, but without teacher direction, the students may choose projects less effective for developing their written skills, be deceptive about the amount of work they did, and even provide the organizations with sub-standard final products, which end up being useless for the organizations. The service-oriented organizations themselves could provide the aforementioned kind of apprenticeship that Smit suggests, but this would divert resources from their primary function; they don’t want to be teachers in addition to service providers.
One possible solution to the problems of quality control and time constraints is to arrange the brochure assignment as a competition. Under this model, the service organization would serve as the framework for class work in competition. The teacher explains the needs of the service organization, and this organization effectively “commissions” the brochure that the organization needs most.
We recognize that this brochure assignment risks impersonality. Unlike visiting a homeless shelter, the students may never interact with those who will use their service. At times it may seem as though the students are just part of a firm that churns out brochures. To combat this, and to put a face to the project, we recommend having a guest lecturer come to discuss the service component of this project with the class, someone who can testify to the utility of the brochure. The guest lecturer might bring outdated brochures and show students how clunky the design has been. In addition to hearing from a guest lecturer, the students may be invited to see the final product at the company after the project is completed. Doing these things will close the gap between the students and those they serve.
Thus inspired, the students then work in groups or individually to produce a new brochure. The teacher collects the brochures, grades them for his or her own assessment, and then delivers them to the organization that chooses the most rhetorically effective brochure for distributaries. If none of the brochures meet the organization’s criteria, they are under no obligation to just choose the best of the bad. The more big-league the organization is, the more competition the teacher must employ. By having more examples, the organization can choose from a broader range of interpretations on the brochure. By having students delegate the different aspects of work on the brochure, the teacher can expect more cumulative hours to be put into each brochure.
Actually, both of these situations—writing in a partnership with an outside organization and writing within the institution of the university—manage to avoid what Margaret Himley identifies as a moral discrepancy of positions in service learning. The student “acquire[s] cultural capital by becoming the person who crosses borders and helps those less fortunate and has fun in the process” while those served are positioned as “needing help, being helpless, as having ‘totally different needs’” (421). She suggests that students in service-learning positions never actually join the community, but continue to view and be viewed as strangers. Our model may lessen some of this challenge. In the instance of working with established charitable organizations, the students aren’t positioning themselves as those who “help the less fortunate” but as those who help the permanent organization that helps the less fortunate—students are support, not strangers who swoop in to (temporarily) right wrongs. In the second instance, the students work within the university, the community in which they are not strangers generally, and for clubs into which they have already been initiated. Both kinds of service learning admit that those who know best serve best.
In evaluating the quality of the brochure, there becomes a trio of audiences for the students to please. As Anne Beaufort has pointed out in College Writing and Beyond, students already write for several discourse communities with every assignment they complete; most importantly, to students, and least explicitly, for an immediate discourse community of the class and the teacher—the one who gives the grade (37–38). The teacher in this situation would still have to grade all of the produced brochures—the project was completed, after all—in the context of coursework. The students in a writing class expect to get a grade for each assignment and a grade for the class, as well as credits towards graduation; there is little that can be changed about that situation for just one assignment.
The secondary audience comes from the liaison with the charitable organization. In Smit’s idealized situation, this liaison would be a “teacher-practitioner” who is familiar with both the “kind of discourse required in their discourse community” as well as the specialized knowledge of that community (166–67). At the very least, these liaisons should be qualified to choose which brochure is best fit to fulfill their organization’s needs. It is possible that there would be a discrepancy between the teacher’s evaluation of the best brochure as a “school genre” and the liaison’s evaluation of the best brochure as a “public genre,” but there is no need to think that students would find such a situation incongruous with the overall success of their brochure. Aside from the pride of seeing one’s work in print, it’s hard to say what would be the incentive for students to seek to please this audience, but a healthy sense of competition and usefulness may be sufficient for students to address this second audience.
The most explicit audience for students is, unfortunately, the one that least directly evaluates the finished product. Whether students are writing to convince their peers to support women’s sports or to persuade low-income parents to send their children to preschool, any results (an increase in ticket sales or enrollment) may be extraneous to the quality of the brochure. There are simply too many variables affecting ticket sales or preschool enrollment to attribute any change (or lack of change) to one brochure. This is the audience that, pragmatically, we will tell students that matters the most, but that audience will offer little to nothing by way of evaluation to the students. Feedback from those directly affected by the project, if there is any feedback, may take years to become evident. This is why Aristotle so famously called rhetoric the “practical art”: practical because it has the capacity to change things, and art because there is no magic formula to its efficacy. The students will have to enjoy the more immediate feedback from their instructors and the charitable organizations they aid.
In short, from teacher to organization liaison to intended audience, these brochures carry an increasing relevance to the audience; however, following the same audience progression, those audiences have exponentially less capacity to provide feedback to the students on their performance. Regardless, the many audiences and the element of competition will help motivate students to produce their best work on the brochure assignment.
As we conclude, we must admit that one of the weaknesses of this paper is the lack of hard evidence we have to support our stance. Unlike Cushman or Herzberg (two service-learning proponents we greatly admire), we don’t have hard evidence to prove that our ideas will work once put into practice. We believe that the theoretical approach we outline here will be successful when implemented and we believe that the approach serves as a potential answer to the shortcomings we see in other service-learning projects, but we also know that time will tell. In the meantime, we plan to implement these ideas and see how they will help our community. At the time of writing this piece, the BYU Student Health Center is beginning to enter an institutional relationship with some first-year writing instructors for producing well-written, well-designed, and much-needed new brochures. We invite other first-year composition instructors likewise to combine the brochure assignment and service-learning objectives and reap the pedagogical benefits of well-organized service learning.
Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2007.
Cushman, Ellen. “Sustainable Service Learning Programs.” College Composition and Communication 54.1 (Sept. 2002): 40–65.
Glenn, Cheryl, and Melissa A. Goldwaithe. “Preparing for the Course.” The St. Martins Guide to Teaching Writing. Ed. Cheryl Glenn and Melissa A. Goldwaithe. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 3–4.
Herzberg, Bruce. “Service Learning and Public Discourse.” The St. Martins Guide to Teaching Writing. Ed. Cheryl Glenn and Melissa A. Goldwaithe. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 441–51.
Himley, Margaret. “Facing (Up To) ‘The Stranger’ in Community Service Learning.” College Composition and Communication 55.3 (Feb. 2004): 416–38.
Smit, David W. The End of Composition Studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.