The RSL Experience

Sophomore Megan Riordan has never had a homework assignment quite like this before.

While other Duke students might be spending the afternoon cracking open the books, Riordan carpools every Friday, along with sophomores Perry Holmes and Lauren Anderson, to Housing for New Hope, a nonprofit organization in Durham that works to prevent and end homelessness.


Through a class project, Riordan, Holmes and Anderson are filming an educational documentary for Housing for New Hope about the problems homeless men and women-specifically those that have felonies on their records-encounter in Durham as they try to get back on their feet.


With camera in tow, they tour housing projects, interview clients and listen to the often-powerful stories of men and women trying to keep their head above water in turbulent economic times.


Team members hope that the film can be used by Housing for New Hope to de-stigmatize the problem of homelessness in the community just as working with the organization has opened their eyes to the nuances of the issue.


“I’ve learned a lot about the issue in Durham. These homeless people are very hard working and very articulate-some of them are even college-educated-and they just fell on hard times,” Riordan said. “I don’t think they fit at all into the stereotype that exists.”


The project is a part of a class called “Civic Engagement and Public Policy (PubPol 196), taught by professor Kristin Goss in the Sanford School of Public Policy. With programming support provided by the Hart Leadership Program, Professor Goss revamped her course this spring to turn it into research service-learning course-the first in which every student must complete a RSL project.


Research Service Learning (RSL) is an emerging practice in higher education that allows students to serve a community partner organization while addressing a policy research question connected to the community’s needs. Community-based research projects help students explore the complexities of public work as it helps them sharpen their problem-solving skills on-the-ground.


“Research service learning is an action-reflection practice,” said Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program. “This community- based work is rarely easy, but there is something about it that is captivating and fulfilling. When you get into the problem-solving dimensions of the work we call it ‘learning to love the swamp.'”


“We want students to learn this practice because it helps them develop a greater capacity for complexity. If you get good at reflecting in the midst of action, that’s what helps you find your way through complexity.”


The RSL pedagogy at Duke grew out of collaboration between the Kenan Institute of Ethics and the Hart Leadership Program that gave grant money for students to do such projects over the summer. Ultimately, the summer program, called “Scholarship with a Civic Mission,” evolved into courses in the Public Policy department with a RSL component. The Hart Leadership Program has provided support for 11 such courses since 2006. This semester, the courses seem to be working better than ever before.


“We’ve tweaked the program to make it richer – and in doing so, we’ve raised the expectations,” said Andrea Marston, Research Service-Learning Coordinator for Hart. “By introducing more space for reflection, by inviting the community partners to come speak in class, and by creating smaller RSL groups, we’ve deepened the intensity of the experience for everyone involved. Students may be putting in more hours than they have done in the past, but they can see more clearly what they’re getting out of all that work.”


The RSL component was a natural fit for a class that seeks to study civic engagement as it currently exists in the United States, Goss said. “I study civic engagement as a scholarly enterprise so I wanted to teach a class on the basic component of civic engagement in public policy,” she explained. “It seemed very logical to have a RSL component that would hopefully help the students bring to life the academic material so they could see different incentives and disincentives for engagement on the ground.”


The other teams in the class are also working with policy issues about housing: a group of students is working with a cluster of Habitat for Humanity homes to analyze how the formation of a homeowner’s association would maximize engagement with the community. Yet another team is partnered with the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition to analyze how inclusionary housing policies can be applied to the city.


“It’s been very eye-opening for me. I think it’s great to give back to Durham and kind of foster ties between Duke and the community that we live in,” Riordan said. “Not only that, it’s been really interesting and fun and exciting to implement everything we learn in class on a day-to-day basis with our organization.”


Faculty members also attest to the benefits of the RSL mode of learning. A select group of the students in Rachel Seidman’s Public Policy 116 “Policy Choice as Value Conflict” class are completing an RSL project for extra credit, volunteering with organizations that focus on violence against women.


One team is helping director Ada Gregory of the Duke Women’s Center examining best practices for universities in cases of violence against women on campus and researching how the University can better respond to these incidents on campus. Another has partnered with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence to gather data about domestic violence-related homicides in hopes that the information will help to persuade lawmakers to enact new policies in the state. The third is lending their manpower to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides a safe haven to women and children who have been the victims of domestic violence.


The RSL component has proved to be a useful tool in illuminating the moral and ethical conflicts underlying policy issues-as is the course’s aim-as well as making students realize the all-too-common difficulties of working effectively within organizations that have “grand ambitions and miniscule budgets.”


“The idea is that the work in the community and the discussions in class will interact with each other in some ways. I’ve been working this semester to make that happen more fully,” Seidman said. “And it’s a really been a kind of awakening for some of the students in terms of that particular policy issue… Working with people who’ve devoted their lives to trying to make a difference in the world has been inspiring.”


The students who have been working on RSL projects for their part said they feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to engage with staff members and clients at their community partner organizations.


“It wouldn’t be worth if we were just a drain on the organization,” Holmes said. “With our project we are really doing something that they’ll be able to use. That’s the whole point-both the organization and the student benefits.”