New Service-Learning Director Looks Beyond the Discourse

New Service-Learning Director Looks Beyond the Discourse
Joan Clifford participates in a Community Action Project on October 14, 2022. (John West/Trinity Communications)

For the first time in 16 years, Duke Service-Learning will be led by a new director. 

Joan Clifford, an associate professor of the practice of Romance Studies, began her tenure as faculty director of the Trinity program this semester after taking over for long-time leader David Malone.

As Clifford settled into her new role by announcing the 2022-2023 Service-Learning theme, which will take faculty and students “beyond the discourse,” we sat down with her to talk about her history with Service-Learning, what comes next and why it matters for students.

To start, what attracted you to this job?

I’ve been involved with Service-Learning since early on in my time at Duke, on both a professional and a personal level. I have the unique position where my home department, Romance Studies, agreed for me to create a hybrid position, so I teach and have worked as a faculty consultant in Duke Service-Learning.

It's an extremely interesting opportunity to meet colleagues and network and see really innovative projects. Service-Learning courses develop connections between community and the curriculum; and faculty approach this in different ways. You know, it's a leap of faith when faculty members take on a Service-Learning course, mostly because it's a different way of teaching and it is a different way of learning for the students.

There are a lot of what we like to call “teachable moments” — unexpected situations come up where, maybe the students understand the theory side of it, but the practical applications are not as clear to them. So, there's a lot of need to be flexible and adaptable.

What I have found over the years is that the relationship with community partners is key to building a sustainable partnership where the faculty member really does have that personal commitment to really listen to the partners, to explore their needs and then craft the appropriate support that students can offer.

What are the kinds of differences you often have to work through to build those partnerships?

I'm coming at this from a language background. I teach Spanish, so there are quite a few opportunities in our area to support the Latinx community. But a lot of times, what we find with Latinx advocacy or support organizations is that they need assistance in English — for example, K-12 tutoring.

Our students, a lot of times, are very motivated to use their Spanish in the community to linguistically and culturally interact with the Latinx community. But sometimes the type of work needed by an organization doesn't necessarily fit with those particular goals that students have. So, we have to be very thoughtful and we have to be deliberate and we need to be very ethical in how we approach building these interactions.

Three people packing rice into boxes
On October 14, Service-Learning helped prepare food for delivery through Iglesia Emanuel. (John West/Trinity Communications)

That ties in nicely with this year’s Service-Learning theme, “Beyond the Discourse: Words Become Action.” Can you tell us a little more about where the theme came from and what it entails?

The theme has roots in the fact that during the pandemic we've seen great shifts in how we have been able to interact with the populations around Durham. We have offered some virtual options, and we can still contribute meaningful interventions, meaningful support to organizations and community members. But we are seeing that there is a real interest from student populations and community members to get back in person.

The other part that shaped this year's theme is the fact that academics talk a good game. They debate, they wordsmith. There's a lot of analysis of what is said and how it said. And we felt like it was important to look beyond the debate, beyond rhetoric, to really zero in on what the actions are that we as a campus can be taking.

So we have various programs that are going to move in that direction, including an event at the Iglesia Emanuel where we bagged beans and rice for their food pantry. We have a workshop on November 11 where we're bringing three community organizers to campus, and we're going to ask them to share some of their best practices about the strategies that work as they are building coalitions in communities within Durham. So we're hoping to really learn from the experts.

You’re taking over a position that was held by a Duke legend in David Malone. How are you approaching it, and what should students expect for the coming years?

I can reference the fact that we just saw the US News & World Report ranked us at number four in the nation for service-learning programs, so I think what we've been doing is being recognized as significant.

Duke is very invested in offering lots of different types of engagement, both curricular and co-curricular. We acknowledge that we're part of a bigger network of community engagement within Duke’s system. We're a very small team, but we're mighty.

We have reach into many different parts of the university, and that's really what we want to focus on. We want to build those collaborations to have a healthy ecosystem of equitable resources to build the infrastructure that really supports students. For example, transportation is a big barrier for students to get out into different neighborhoods. We're hoping there's a way that Duke can find a more stable and equitable system for offering transportation options to students.

We have also made a commitment to offer more resources and more outreach to STEM students. Among our cohort currently enrolled in Service-Learning courses, there are 37% in STEM fields, and we would like to see that grow.

What should students who are considering Service-Learning but still on the fence know about the program?

I would encourage students to consider how they are building their critical consciousness of our society, and I would have them pause and reflect on how they understand the systemic inequities within Durham. I think that your college years are a moment when you have the opportunity to take more risks or experiment a little bit with your world view, and I think having those on-the-ground experiences interacting with different members of our community present transformative moments.

We've been talking a lot about transformative learning, which is a framework based on the idea that, with dissonance, with those uncomfortable situations, you as an individual are pushed to reconsider how you think about the world, how you think about yourself in the world. And I think that being in a Service-Learning course, you are presented with different opportunities that you would not get if you are on campus and only in the classroom.

The service-learning field is really cutting-edge in terms of presenting questions around diversity and equity and anti-racism. I think if students are interested in exploring DEI, they should look into courses that integrate community-engaged pedagogy into their curriculum.