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Interview with Julie Grossman

How did you get your start in service-learning?
When I was in graduate school, I participated in the Preparing Future Faculty program. I have always been passionate about teaching, and at the same time I had an interest in social justice issues and how I could weave that into my position, but I really didn’t know how to get started. 
 
During this program, I was introduced to the concept of service-learning by a guest speaker from the University of Minnesota, Morris. I sat there the whole time thinking to myself, “You can really do this? You can take your students and do good work in the community and teach them about how to bring about positive change?” After that, I was totally hooked. 
 
After you first learned about service-learning, what were your next steps?  
My next step was to read case studies and articles. In addition to learning on my own, I approached a fabulous soil science faculty member named Terry Cooper, now retired, who taught the Introduction to Soil Science course. I asked him if he would let me develop a small service-learning component for his class because I wanted to try and see if it was really possible in a science course. He obliged.  
 
In that Intro course, we had students work for Clean Water Action. Some of the students were canvassing and others were filing paperwork. It was a little messy and I specifically remember trying to incorporate reflection into the course and struggling to figure out in my head “How do I incorporate their work canvassing into discussions? And, what’s the learning they are supposed to get out of filing paperwork?” So, that course was certainly an experiment, but it was important to start somewhere and start small because it allowed me to explore different approaches to using service-learning. 
 
What is different about the way you teach service-learning now?
Almost everything! I would have done things much differently if I had to do them again, but when I first started I didn’t have a mentor which made things more difficult. After my first try at service-learning with Terry’s class, I wanted to continue to improve my ability to incorporate community into my courses, which was much easier once I started teaching courses of my own. Then, I had full autonomy to build the service-learning into the structure and goals of the course. One of my courses incorporated a microbiology school project where students created lab activities for youth in the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood. Another partnered with a food shelf organization that wanted to develop gardens in their neighborhood. That course worked really well because I was able to maintain that partnership as an ongoing relationship over a period of six years. This allowed us to respond to community needs in ways we hadn’t been able to in the past. 
 
Can you tell me about the capstone course that you teach?
The service-learning course I teach most frequently is the senior level capstone course in the Food Systems major. The major builds a small service-learning activity in their introductory freshman-year course, then students have an internship, and by the time they arrive in their capstone class we hope they are prepared for a more robust experience. 
 
In the capstone course, we put them into small groups of 2-3, and pair them with organizations that are working to alleviate food system challenges and food justice. They work with those organizations for 45 hours over the course of the semester. The beginning of the semester is spent in direct volunteer work at the agency. During this time, we have them interview the staff to learn more about the history and context of the organization, as this helps them gain familiarity with their work. In the second half of the semester they complete a project that has been identified prior to the beginning of the term and that is related to course learning objectives. 
 
How do you incorporate reflection into this course? 
Reflection is key to the success of the course. It is what pushes students to see the community component as a learning experience and not just as volunteering. To me, that’s the difference between service-learning and volunteerism; that they are thinking about what they are learning. 

I use the DEAL (Describe, Examine, Articulate Learning) Model of critical reflection in my course because it is assessible. (Model and assessment rubric available here). First, I ask students to describe an experience they had in their service-learning work objectively and clearly. The next step, examining the experience, is a deeper dive into their personal, civic, or academic learning as it relates to course goals. Finally, they articulate learning using “I” statements to identify for themselves their most important take-aways. Articulating learning is about the students taking their experience and articulating what they would do differently in the future. This final step is accomplished through a 2-3 page essay. I have students complete this reflection cycle three times throughout the semester. 
 
In addition to teaching with service-learning, I understand you also use community-engaged methods with your research. Could you tell me a little more about that? 
My lab works to achieve agricultural sustainability, in particular with food production. For me, doing applied work is an integral part of what we do as agricultural scientists because we have to make sure that what we are doing is applicable to farmers. We have developed deep relationships with organizations that work with immigrant farmers and now many feel comfortable coming to us with their ideas and research questions. For example, they ask questions such as, “We have a period of time with no crops in the heat of the summer between our spring and fall seasons. Is there something we can plant?” So we have been working with them over the past couple of years to put soil-enhancing crops into that small window of time during the summer. 
 
They come up with the questions, we work with them to develop a project, and then we work together. The most important part is that they are comfortable coming to us with questions and it takes time to develop that relationship so they really feel like they can call on us and propose an idea. My graduate student helps develop that relationship by helping farmers harvest, bringing items back into town for them, and staying longer than she might need to just to have conversation. 
 
Additionally, I have an endowed chair position for a part of the next year through the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). The idea behind position is to deepen relationships with one of my partners -The Minnesota Food Association / Big River Farms- that works with immigrant farmers. This Association has an incubator farm where they teach and train immigrant farmers how to establish a successful farm business here in the U.S. They are the one partner I incorporate into both my service-learning courses and my research, and I now have time and space set aside through this endowed chair to allow me to develop the relationship further. As I said before, it takes dedicated time to develop these relationships but it’s worth it because our research is better in the end.
 
Do you have advice for junior faculty regarding community-engaged research?
Junior faculty who have a passion for community-engaged work can develop a research program in their science, and at the same time also develop a research program looking at the pedagogical practices involved in educating their students (if they have a high teaching appointment). There are a number of journals that will accept articles that show how service-learning strategies impact student learning outcomes. I believe we can’t just develop scientists that know how to run experiments. We also have to develop scientists that know how to problem solve in situations they haven’t yet confronted, how to communicate, how to work across difference, etc. Pre-tenure I was able to publish three peer-reviewed papers from writing about my experiences teaching students through service-learning activities. 
 
Additionally, faculty can submit to community engagement journals to write about the ways in which the service-learning or research has impacted the community. This is most relevant in cases where deep and sustained partnerships have been established, but it’s another way of framing the work. New faculty should think about which aspects of the experience they would like to write about and plan accordingly. So junior faculty shouldn’t shy away from it. They just need to be strategic about how it integrates with their teaching and research. 
 
Are there other resources you would recommend? 
Service-Learning in the Disciplines (available in the CCEL library) are great resources for faculty who are new to academic service-learning. There weren’t any specifically for agriculture but I drew heavily on environmental science and biology which were still useful to me. I also feel like it’s crucial to identify a mentor, and if you’re in the sciences it’s particularly helpful to find someone in the sciences. Regardless, finding someone in a field similar to your own can help you learn about the challenges you might encounter so you don’t have to experience all of them yourself. Lastly, for those interested in community-engaged research, I would recommend Susan Gust and Cathy Jordan’s Guide to Developing MOU’s. I used it with the Hmong-American Farmer’s Association before we started our project so we could all get on the same page before moving forward.