How Service Learning Constructs Ideal Citizens for the Nation

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How Service Learning Constructs Ideal Citizens for the Nation

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Part of the mission of U.S. postsecondary institutions is molding citizens for participation in democratic society. Service learning is a popular pedagogy to enact this formation. This dissertation highlights how mechanisms of domination accompany the aims of democracy within service learning practices. I offer theoretical and practical insights of how democracy and domination—often considered contradictory powers—are mutually reinforced through contemporary civic engagement efforts. I find that the framing of service learning projects, and how students are positioned within them, influence the direction of racial formation and the augmentation and/or disruption of ideal citizenship. Through three service learning sites—an after-school tutoring program, a labor union, and a Native Hawaiian land stewardship program—I illustrate how societal messages, rhetoric from instructors and site coordinators, and the roles expected of service learners set parameters around democracy while fostering hierarchies of bodies and knowledge. The analytic focus of this critical ethnography is on the discourses and interactions that occur within the processes of service learning. Using a year of data from university service learning classrooms, community sites, and in-depth interviews with students, faculty, administrators, and site coordinators, I examine how these processes encourage characteristics of ideal citizenship that support the nation-state. Informed by theories of racial formation (Omi & Winant, 2015) and neoliberal governmentality (Foucault, 1991; Raddon & Harrison, 2015), I illuminate how service learning relies upon and reinforces stratification as college students are hailed into civic responsibility, empathy, and individual transformation. Even when attempts are made to subvert the social rankings, other ones are strengthened, thereby demonstrating how challenging it is to untangle the twin forces of democracy and domination. This study addresses the dearth of service learning and higher education scholarship using critical ethnography. I invite scholars and practitioners to wrestle with whether and how the prized traits of citizenship taught through civic engagement projects sustain hierarchies and enforce social control as students learn to surveil themselves and others. I suggest that if scholars and practitioners desire social justice, we need to be overtly political, collectively join in solidarity with activist movements, and refrain from institutionalizing our efforts.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2019. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Vichet Chhuon. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 253 pages.

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Rost-Banik, Colleen. (2019). How Service Learning Constructs Ideal Citizens for the Nation. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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