Department: Political Science
Course/Project: POL 222 – Urban Politics
Location: Winston-Salem, NC
Several years ago, Dr. Kathy Smith began noticing that some of her students’ eyes would develop a familiar “glazed over” appearance at the very mention of certain aspects of urban life that city dwellers take for granted. Over time, this vexing reaction became a minor impediment to the natural flow of class as Smith would have to pause to explain the mechanics of a particular function of city government before moving onto the substantive point at hand.
As this problem became more persistent, Smith discovered the elusive reason why the problem existed in the first place: many of her students were from rural or suburban areas.
Since these students had limited exposure to the buzzing political dynamic that is unique to urban city centers, Smith deduced that this background was the reason behind the disconnect in class.
“Because the center of political activity is often in urban areas, it dawned on me that my students would benefit from a course that would blend a traditional classroom experience with out-of-class participation in the complex network of agencies and organizations within a city,” Smith recollected. “My hope is that by getting students into the heart of this urban network, it will help them to better understand the policymaking process and what it means to fully engage in a community and its political systems.”
To complete the service learning component of the course, Smith’s Urban Politics students are asked to identify an organization in the Winston-Salem metropolitan area and volunteer at least twenty hours of their time working for the organization they select. The only parameter students are given during the selection process is that the work for a given organization must be non-religious and non-partisan. Otherwise, students are encouraged to pursue their interests in the process of seeking an engaging service learning experience.
Examples of organizations that students have chosen to work with are the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, the City of Winston-Salem Human Resources Department, the Ronald McDonald House, Animal Adoption and Rescue Foundation (AARF), and the ALS Association, among many others.
The service learning component supplements the challenging course work, and the two elements work in conjunction to expand upon a range of skills. The course as a whole is intended to develop the students’ creativity while also improving their organizational skills. Students must also think critically about the role of public and private institutions in society by viewing his or her service experience through the lens of assigned readings and class discussions, and vice versa.
Smith firmly believes that the addition of the service learning component has significantly enhanced her students’ overall experience in the course.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this has changed the dynamic of the class for the better,” Smith said. “The students have gained a much richer understanding of and appreciation for the mechanics of urban political systems, while many of the students have continued working with their particular organization even after completing the course. I could not be happier about how this course has developed over the last several years.”
Now that Smith has been offering the current format of Urban Politics for ten years, she has become somewhat of a veteran in the ever-expanding service learning ranks on the Wake Forest campus. As such, she has a few choice words of advice for other professors who are interested in incorporating a service learning component into their curriculum.
For instance, although Dr. Smith has rarely had difficulty working with partner organizations, she warns professors to be aware that not all organizations welcome Wake students with open arms.
“Since Wake uses community service as a way of disciplining students, a few organizations had a difficult time grasping the notion that a student can voluntarily undertake a service project through an academic course in the absence of punitive obligations,” Smith explained.
Dr. Smith also encourages professors to sufficiently monitor student projects to ensure that organizations are giving students meaningful work and substantial autonomy in project design and execution. Accordingly, professors should be prepared to remove a student from organizations when he or she is not given challenging assignments, Smith says.
Nevertheless, Smith maintains that service learning is an invaluable resource to her classes and she fully expects it to become a more prominent aspect of the Wake Forest experience in the future.
“Service learning brings the course material to life by allowing students to see and experience the topics we discuss each week. This helps students bridge the gap between some of the more abstract elements of the academic world and the real world, which is what a high quality education should do.”