Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Energizing Philosophy through Service: Service Learning in a Feminism and Philosophy Course—Ann Cudd (2005)

person winning a raceOverview

Adding an optional service learning component provided a better understanding of how academic coursework is connected to life, as well as increasing student enthusiasm for the curriculum.


Graduates from the Women’s Studies program pointed out a way to improve our program: mixing the course work that we offer with outside experiences relevant to those studies. Our alumni who had done either service learning or an internship found it significant. They said the opportunity for application helped them learn how to meld their course work with their life plans; furthermore, they enjoyed what activism added to book learning. Other graduates who had not done either service learning or internships noted its absence, and they told us that application is a critical part of the Women's Studies program. When I considered this feedback together with the ideas I had about service learning, I decided that adding service learning to course work would be the best way to prepare our students for their professional work.

In order to develop this portion of my teaching, I looked at other service learning portfolio work recently done at the University of Kansas (KU) and found two useful role models. In addition to their example, I also had to consider which of my courses would be most amenable to the addition of service learning. My area, Philosophy, often defies the addition of service components, but I decided that I could apply theory to practice for the course Philosophy/ Women's Studies 381, Feminism and Philosophy. I also thought that my work could serve as a model for others. In particular, I hoped that it would exemplify how academic rigor can be maintained while using service learning, a concern for some professors.


I introduced the service learning segment of the course on the first class day, and I had a lot of blank looks from students. However, I added incentives that I believed made it a viable option for students: if they did the service learning portion, they were exempt from writing two papers. I also thought that it was important for service learning be optional, because I had students from several different majors taking the course.

As the semester progressed, I tweaked the service learning requirement to strengthen its usefulness. For instance, I decided to ask the students to design electronic posters based on their project experiences. However, in order to do a complete job on the posters, the students had to develop content that I had not originally asked for. So, I made a deal with them: they could complete a shorter two-page reflection paper instead of a different, longer paper if they created a poster. Students who were presenting projects at the end of the semester used their posters in their final presentations. Those posters are now available for others to read on the Women's Studies website and can be viewed from this course portfolio, as well.

Student Work

The final projects, which included a presentation, were done in pairs or groups if students had worked at the same setting. I was very pleased with how these joint presentations turned out. The academic projects demonstrated to me that students stepped up when they did service learning. They did amazing things, they handled more than I anticipated, and they did more work than was necessary just to get a good grade. In fact, the work of the students was so exemplary that we featured one poster at our annual department banquet.

Through the work done on joint presentations, I think some students learned more than they would have otherwise. Not only did they come to understand the entity that they worked with and how it fit into our course learning goals, but they also developed ideas about public presentations, group skills, and electronic presentation formatting. This benefit extended the academic learning that I thought would come from the addition of a service learning component.


Service learning engages students with learning in more positive ways than I had anticipated. Doing this work captured student enthusiasm and got students excited about learning in ways that does not typically happen when book learning is the only educational strategy. This format answers the survey question that our graduates brought up about connecting the course work with outside experiences. It also led to deeper scholarly involvement for several students. Some students continued on with the volunteer work that they had done, and this has brought them employment opportunities.

I anticipate teaching with service learning again, and as such, I hope to further develop the relationships that I have established with the community entities involved. I asked the supervisors, “Was this really valuable for you or was it too much work?” The results were uniformly positive, even if I had questions regarding a student who had been working at a particular placement. We both benefited from this town-gown interaction, and I look forward to working with community entities in the future. When I teach this course again, I will also continue to make service learning optional, for the variety of students who enroll in this course suggests to me that while it works very well for many students, others may find writing more papers a better choice for their education goals.

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person kicking a ballBackground

A survey of our Women’s Studies graduates in a program review done three years ago revealed that students who had done service learning or an internship found it significant. They said that application helped them decide how to meld their course work with their life plans; furthermore, they enjoyed the activism and not just having book learning as the sole way they learned about their discipline.

In addition, a number of graduates who had not done either service learning or internships noted its absence, and they stated that application was a critical part of the Women’s Studies program. One student said, “I needed some more direction [in order] to know what to do.” I put their responses together with the ideas I had about service learning and decided that it would be a useful addition to our course work.

When I considered adding service learning, I looked at two KU models: Kim Warren and Charlene Muehlenhard. Prof. Warren recently used service learning with her history students and had successful results with it. Prof. Muehlenhard has worked with service learning students who initiated the work themselves through a faculty advisor. Her area of study is clinical psychology, and as such, she helped students find connections to clinical psychology organizations.

One consideration I had was that I see few courses in Philosophy where service learning would be appropriate. For instance, how would I do metaphysics as service learning? Getting the “learning” part into that topic with service is beyond me. But, it seems imaginable to add service learning to any applied ethics course. The ideas fell into place to add service learning to the course Philosophy/ Women’s Studies 381, Feminism and Philosophy. I thought this course offered a chance to apply theory to practice, which, in my opinion is the basic underlying benefit of service learning.

Even though I thought there were good reasons to use service learning, I was concerned that it would be a tough idea to sell. Both faculty and students see it as extra work: faculty worry about the extra planning and implementation time, and students are concerned about the time commitment needed for out-of-class work. Faculty members also tend to see service learning as not academic enough. I decided that by initiating a service learning component in my course, I would be leading by example. I believe this has already had an effect on some negative assumptions about service learning held by my colleagues.

Learning goals

Intellectual goals:

  • More perceptive about sexism, segregation, classism, racism and segregation (voluntary or not) along those dimensions of difference
  • More aware of diversity along a variety of dimensions: culture, ethnicity, social class
  • Aware of a wide variety of ways that women serve the community in ways that are not often publicly recognized or valued
  • See how empirical evidence, contextual knowledge informs and changes theory


  • Public speaking, leadership
  • Organizing events
  • Writing a reflective paper

Affective goals:

  • Empathy
  • Anger at injustice/inequality
  • Sense that their actions can change things

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person runningImplementation

On the first day of class, I presented information about service learning to the blank looks of students (see service learning handout). Most picked up a contract, though. I thought that it was a good incentive to say that if they did service learning they didn’t have to write two of the otherwise required papers. It also provided a way for students to lead discussion. They could report on their service learning project instead of presenting a philosophical article to the class.

I thought it was important for service learning to be optional, because I had students from different majors in the course. The split for this class was 27 Women’s Studies students and 14 Philosophy students. Most of the students in Women’s Studies had a commitment to women and activism, leading them to prefer a face-to-face service option. I offered a choice between a local and international service option, but no one took the international service option.  Obvious places to volunteer in a Feminism and Philosophy class are local rape crises centers or domestic violence shelters. However, these places require a very serious commitment by volunteers, because they must go through a long training period and make a significant time commitment. I realized that not all students interested in service learning would be able to meet those commitments in one semester’s time. So I also contacted agencies that serve children in daycare centers and schools, asking if they could use some help. All the choices included both service and learning. To make the service learning learning, students needed to do an activity they specifically designed for their population to address gender, race discrimination, or segregation and report on it. More specifically, students were also required to observe the construction of gender (and race and class) at the volunteer site, write about what they observed in journals they kept for each volunteer session, and then design an activity to engage their agency’s clients in ways that would address gender and/or racial issues in a creative, progressive, and provocative manner. To make the service learning service, they needed to do work requested from the agency such as tuck children in for naps, give them juice, etc.

As the semester progressed, I added another component to the service learning option. I asked the students to design electronic posters based on their project experiences. However, in order to do a complete job on those, the students had to develop content that I had not originally asked for. I made a deal so that this option would still be viable: they could do a shorter, two-page reflection paper instead of a different, longer paper if they created a poster. The students filled the poster format out electronically and emailed it to me, and I then emailed it to the computer center that put it into a form that I had designed. We used the Women’s Studies digital camera to take pictures that we added to the posters. It got the ball rolling—once one person did a poster, others did too. All the poster work was done by the end of the term, and the students used them in their final presentations to the class.

Fore more information about the project, see the two documents linked here:

Two examples of project
The different service learning projects began at different times in the semester. At Hilltop Child Development Center, the work began early in the semester. A volunteer commitment at this agency required a certain number of hours in order to participate. The Women’s Transitional Care Service (WTCS, a battered women’s shelter) also began early in the semester, for similar volunteer commitment reasons.

1. Hilltop Child Development Center
Students had to consider carefully what was appropriate for this age group regarding race and gender. One student was in a class of toddlers who had preverbal language skills, and she decided to look at gender/ mommy and daddy issues. Because of the toddlers’ beginning language skills, it is a challenge to fight gender or racial stereotypes without including lecture, a format that would clearly not be appropriate for this age. One student from my class wondered what young children would do with gender questions when the person’s gender didn’t match the stereotype of the job they were dressed for. She decided to investigate this by creating figures dressed to indicate certain professions or work and giving the preschooler tools that went with such jobs. What she discovered was that children had a difficult time giving a “cowgirl” character the correct tools, as they thought only “cowboys” should have those props, and the same with a dad holding a baby—the children were reluctant to give him a bottle. These results were enlightening, especially to the Hilltop teachers. I wonder if perhaps they had been somewhat unaware of how they enact gender stereotypes. I appreciate the openness of the staff to interact with the students about their service learning work. When the student gave her presentation, a staff member from Hilltop came to listen to it.

All volunteers at WTCS are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer training in order to work at their shelter. I had established 20 hours as the number of hours for the entire service learning project, so I had to make an exception for the students who volunteered at WTCS. For instance, I helped adapt this time-heavy program to the service learning requirements by omitting the classroom activity each student had to lead. One of the WTCS staff members came to an early class session and spoke about their program to all of the students; they were the only entity that wanted to make a class presentation.

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person ice skatingStudent Work

The final projects, which included a presentation, were done in pairs or groups if the students had worked at the same setting. Several groups of students chose to do this, and I was very pleased with how the joint presentations turned out. Some of the students chose to do an electronic poster over the paper and their presentations included electronic posters. (See below for examples.)

I thought that the final project on the WTCS service learning was incredible (for a portion of the final project see Sheldon-Sherman and Funk). The students added their time together so they had the whole class period for a joint presentation. Watching it was like viewing a movie, as they had created a highly sophisticated use of PowerPoint. The students included music, poetry, and pictures. As it was the first project presented, the others in the class watched in awe and intimidation. While I would like to make this presentation available to the public on the Women’s Studies web site, its components take up too much room. In addition, the use of music and poetry brings up copyright permission issues, another difficultly in making it available in a public forum. We were able to present it at the annual Women’s Studies banquet. Another group, those students who volunteered at Hilltop Child Care Center, also gave a joint presentation about their individual projects, and they made their presentation work well, too (see Andra Boles for an individual Hilltop project).

The projects demonstrated to me that students step up when they do service learning. They do amazing things, they bite off more than I would have thought they could chew, and they do more than is necessary for only a good grade.

Although the service learning projects started out as individual work for a course project, that work can become extended beyond the boundaries of academic requirements. For instance, one student who worked with young adolescent girls on body image at West Junior High School later decided to work with another individual at the Emily Taylor Resource Center. The center needed volunteers, and this programs’ work was a good fit for our topic of study.

Examples of service learning journals (all PDFs)

Examples of Projects (Excluding Class Presentations; all PDFs)

Ballard Community Center Exposure
by Emily Black
Learning Journal
Final Project Evaluation

The Big Picture - Pinckney Elementary School
by Anne E. Barker
Learning Journal
Final Project Evaluation

Examples of electronic posters (all PDFs)

From the Inside Out meets Grrl Power at West Jr. High
by ******** and Alison Ryan
Final Project Evaluation

Volunteering at WTCS
by Jennifer Sheldon-Sherman

What We Teach
by Andra Boles
Final Project Evaluation

Women’s Transitional Care Services
By Jessica Funk
Final Project Evaluation

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person doing yogaReflections

I think service learning is worth doing again. Students put forth a better effort both in class and on their projects compared to what I normally expect in my class. As always, it depends on the individual student as to how well it goes, but the overall effect impressed me because of the quality of student work. I am happy to offer a learning option that students can get excited about. Service learning does this through its practical, physical involvement. Getting students’ entire being involved is a benefit of service learning that doesn’t happen in book learning. This is one way to capture a little bit of the young person’s enthusiasm, at least for my course.

After teaching this course with service learning, I have decided that I want to offer the course at least every other year so that I can keep contact with the community groups. This will help all of us maintain a relationship that doesn’t have to constantly be rebuilt from scratch, and that unity will make the situation better for the students. One way that I included the agencies was that I asked each supervisor for an evaluation, and after I received it and read it, I sent a note of appreciation to those supervisors. It was great to have a town-gown relationship, and I think it provided an excellent model of citizenship. I worried that the service learning projects meant we would be taking away from the community. As such, I asked the supervisors, “Was this really valuable for you or was it too much work?” The results were uniformly positive, even if I had questions regarding a student who had been working at a particular placement.

The service learning work has had a direct impact on student work and scholarly choices. One Hilltop student has made a commitment to work there, and she is very enthusiastic about that population. A service learning volunteer at WTCS applied for and received one of the two Women’s Studies scholarships for service learning. In addition to using service learning in this course, Women’s Studies and Philosophy have continued to develop other opportunities for application work. This is the third year we will receive funds to provide for two students to do service learning work over the summer. The course, Women’s Studies 650, gets scholarships through the Student Union Association funds for equal opportunity. The summer is a perfect time for students to do this work, and the scholarships will help others work in this venue again.

I am considering ways to tweak this course when I teach it again. One idea I am still mulling over is the international service option. I think this is a possibility, and the successful example of Professor Fiona Yap’s project has given me more ideas for it. I have decided that I am content with giving students a choice regarding whether or not they will do service learning. Because the course is cross-listed, students from different programs bring different needs to this course. For instance, I believe doing service learning may be less important for Philosophy students who already have an idea for life plans. But I wonder if my belief is accurate, as I spend less time teaching and advising these students than I spend with the Women’s Studies students.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio:

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