Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Service in Society

I went to listen to a speaker yesterday at the Kaleidoscope Room in Newcomb. I believe the ability to listen to a variety of speakers (I listened to John Yoo when he came!) and be exposed to a variety of different perspectives on different subjects is one of the highlights of my student career. The difference between lectures in class and lectures outside of class is that they are usually subjects that are not covered by a typical "discipline" and might even be controversial!

Anyway, back to the lecture--- it was part of the Service in Society series, and the title was "Intellectual Inquiry: A Pathway to Engaged Citizenship." What was covered in the lecture though was not a speech about service in the traditional sense, as I expected, but more of a diatribe about the lack of acknowledgment and support of the service done in the academic field--- particularly her program at the Woodson Institute. However, Deborah E. McDowell, who is director of the Woodson Institute for African American & African studies, made several good points, which I would like to outline here.

1. Service, interpreted now days, means moving outside of the boundaries established by daily life
Deborah McDowell started off her speech talking about how "service" in her day, which meant driving the elderly neighbor to the hospital, building a church together, and cooking three meals for the friend on crutches, was actually called duty or responsibility. Service connotes the helping of people out there, and the recipients of service, they, were disadvantaged. In truth, we should consider what the relationship between those who service and those who are served really is. To do service, do we go to the "disadvantaged area" or can we look into our own environment? McDowell argues that service starts within the boundaries of your daily life. If service seeks to expose injustices and discrepancies-- what forms of inequalities exist within our own institutions? How do you base service on what you like to do, instead of what's "sexy" like ASB? In doing service, how are you engaging those whom you are serving and bringing them aboard the planning and action?

2. Lip-service by the University for Interdisciplinary programs, but a lack of monetary and structural support
This struck me because I am interested in Global Development Studies, a newly created interdisciplinary program, and the statement that the University "talks the talk," but doesn't "walk the walk" from the director of an interdisciplinary program worries me. There are structural and institutional differences inherent between a department and a program, which are most evident in the funding. Programs do not have enough funding to even hire a professor but must "borrow" professors from different departments.

3. The difference between a program and a department
This flows from what I said earlier, but another difference between a program and a department is the lack of acknowledgment by the academic community. The academic community is still skeptic about the validity of knowledge from an interdisciplinary program, even though the knowledge produced is as valid and precious as the knowledge that comes from a department. The freedom to cross and make connections across boundaries is what attracts students to interdisciplinary programs, but to hear that this freedom comes at the cost of validity is unnerving.

UVA is considered a very service-oriented student body, with Madison House boasting over three thousand volunteers. Yet, we tend to look afar when we are performing service. Let's go to "that part of Charlottesville" or "these elderly grandparents" need you to help. McDowell makes the convincing argument that in truth the places that need the most attention and that you have the most impact on are the places close to home. For McDowell, her academic program is home and she sees many aspects of it that need "service."