Think Outside Yourself: Teaching Research Methods as an Entry to Service Learning and Christian Social Thought
Jonathan M. Bowman, Ph.D.
Professor, Communication Studies
Abstract: In the field of Communication Studies, much thought is given to the impact of teaching and the application of research from across the variety of traditions (e.g., rhetoric, social science, critical media studies). In many universities, conscientious faculty hope to discover how to extend the impact of one’s discipline to include assignments and activities that encourage students to further engage with their own faith traditions. Over many iterations teaching an upper division Communication Research Methods course, a service learning experience emerged that encouraged students to engage with the local nonprofit community and to consider practical applications of contemporary Christian social teachings. In so doing, students engaged specific, tangible outcomes and applications of communication theory and practice that further assisted local nonprofits in their work. Additionally, a number of students engaged with these social teachings in ways that strengthened their faith commitment while others, who were relatively unfamiliar with such teachings, saw them as invitational.
Keywords: faith traditions, research methods, nonprofit organizations, faith commitments, Christian social thought
One of the great things about being a faculty member on a college campus is the opportunity to participate directly in the lives of students. As a faculty member of faith, I am driven by not only a desire to see students’ lives changed and the world impacted, but also by a desire for students to engage their own faith as the primary framework for the application of principles of social justice. As a Christian social scientist myself, I have often struggled with how to discuss my own faith practices within my discipline—managing to bear witness to the teachings of Christ while also inviting students to consider their own faith development. At the same time, I also wanted a serving project that believing students could practice beyond just an abstract conversation. The field of Communication spends a great deal of time talking about the teaching and application of research from across the variety of traditions within our discipline, but I have often found that we could always use more practical guidance in how to make the bigger important issues (e.g., faith) resonate as part of our discipline within both classroom interactions and colleague conversations. Our discipline has a lot to say about messaging, relationships, justice, and service; rarely does our discipline situate those topics within the broader conversation about faith (generally) or Christ (specifically).
As a Protestant who works at a medium-sized Catholic school where less than 50% of students self-identify as Catholic, I teach at a university that encourages students and faculty to discuss issues of faith in and out of the classroom , even though many faculty members do not necessarily choose to do so. This project serves as an entry point to introducing service learning as evidence of a higher purpose, of a vocation in the traditional sense of the word, of the broader Christian social tradition, and of experiential education within a classroom context. I found that leading the discussions, reflections, and debriefs of the service learning experience ensured that all of these goals could be met to varying degrees, while simultaneously enriching my personal and spiritual commitment to an admittedly otherwise-dry course topic.
Service Project Description
When I first conceptualized this service learning project, undergraduate students were required to take an upper division social research methods course, often much to their own chagrin. The dry classroom descriptions of experimental design and basic statistics did not reflect an engaged learning experience. I wanted to get students to actively engage materials and also to “think outside themselves.” The best way I found to engage students in all of these practices was to have students work in small, agile groups in concert with local community partners to develop an answerable communication-driven question that would benefit a local nonprofit. The learning objectives for the activity involved describing and applying an experimental social science approach to the study of a communication question, one developed in concert with a regional nonprofit organization.
Students worked in groups to select and interact with a regional nonprofit that dealt with social issues, nonprofits that specifically focused on people who were different from the students themselves. Students then interacted with members of the leadership of that nonprofit to determine each nonprofit’s practical needs, developing a communication question that could be tested within the remaining ten weeks of the semester. At that point, students considered that mutually-reached communication topic and worked as a group, in consultation with me as their instructor, to create a manageable social experiment. They then conducted that experiment in a real-world setting (e.g., electronic data collection methods were not allowed) and marshalled data to advance an argument about their topic.
At the end of data collection, students were required to do rudimentary statistical analyses to provide support for accepting or rejecting their hypotheses (or, alternately, to provide justification for their answer to a research question). Each group then wrote up their project in a 25-page formal research paper format, presented the research to their classmates, and participated in an on-campus undergraduate research poster presentation fair; this fair was either organized specifically for the department or located more generally campus-wide across disciplines, depending upon the semester of instruction. Students were also required to give their final report to their community partner, in addition to any funds/goods/contacts that may have served as dependent variables or outcome measures in their project. To summarize, the project required each student group to have a conceptual, theoretically-grounded outcome for their nonprofit that would assist in future implementation; each group was also required to have a tangible outcome that immediately benefited the organization depending upon the study (i.e., canned goods, contact information for interested volunteers, cash donations, event attendance).
Integration of Faith and Learning
One of the more difficult parts of this project may seem to be the integration of one’s own faith into a project like the one detailed above. To the contrary, I actually found that the classroom conversation sprang quite naturally from my own institution’s mission and goals. My university highlights the importance of Christian social thought, a concept with which many long-practicing Protestants are admittedly unfamiliar. The Catholic branch of Christianity has long celebrated elements of the Bible’s social teachings—topics like justice for the oppressed, defense for the poor, and doing good in ways that align with modern social justice movements. To be clear, I’m not arguing that we Protestants have ignored such important Biblical exhortations. I’m just impressed with the way that my Catholic cousins have written about and institutionalized and made canon those principles that encourage us to think of others.
What about the Christian faculty member teaching at a large public or small liberal arts institution that is decidedly secular? The praxis of Christian social thought is right in line with common institutional goals of inclusion, of justice, of recognizing difference, and of celebrating the desire to make a positive change in the greater community. I remember my own significant experience decades ago as an undergraduate in a large lecture hall at the start of my first semester of college at a large public university. As I received the syllabus for a sure-to-be-grueling chemistry class alongside over 400 other students seated in the room, the faculty member introduced herself and highlighted her Christian faith explicitly, mentioning that such a faith perspective does not impede her ability to be a scientist but instead informs how she approaches life. I truly believe that no better witness exists for a millennial generation than a smart person (like the readers of this article) who actively considers the seeming contradictions in their intellectual and spiritual life, emerging on the other side with a faith that informs both their career and the way in which they approach the larger culture.
In my case, I selected brief summaries of the traditions of social thought, discussing with students how our shared experience with social justice would allow us to engage in ways that have been important for great thinkers over many millennia. It was very important for me that my students not engage in “justice tourism” by simply going once to serve food once in a soup kitchen or bring blankets to the homeless. To be sure, these are needed and admirable pursuits. Still, that short-term engagement did not meet my own goals for getting students to really think outside themselves over a significant period of time. Many students seemed surprised to start out a semester discussing social issues in this manner.
Project Evaluation and Reflection
To my great delight, I found that students really “got into” the project, as it was distinct from what they were expecting from an introductory research methods course. That being said, I certainly learned some things that needed alteration along the way in order to better engage students. The first two semesters that I ran the project, I selected a recognizable local nonprofit organization focusing on hunger and encouraged students to conduct a similar project. For some students, their personal commitment to food justice was a natural fit. For other students, however, the topic did not resonate deeply. I quickly realized that students were more likely to engage the project, to gain practical experience with a local nonprofit, and to actively give of themselves if the organization was one that they found personally relevant. In later semesters, student groups each selected a local nonprofit for themselves, contacting the nonprofit directly to determine the organization’s biggest communication-related question.
Having run this project at two separate institutions with similar demographics, this issue of difference became one of the most important student takeaways. Although there is great diversity in student experience in both institutions, the vast majority of students in my courses are most familiar with being part of privileged groups, whether racial or socioeconomic or even simply by virtue of their status at an elite institution of higher education. It became quite difficult for students in the groups to clearly conceptualize a shared sense of “otherness”—a clear requirement of the course if only as an opportunity for students to consider their own preconceived notion of in-group and out-group status. As a result, most students selected nonprofit organizations based upon clear demographic indicators: age (e.g., aged- or youth-focused organizations) or socioeconomic (e.g., organizations providing food, clothing, and/or job training to impoverished locals) factors being among the most common criteria for student selection. Even in these most obvious indicators of difference, students were able to empathize with dissimilar others and find points of connection. Many such connection points helped to reiterate the dignity of the individual as created in the image of God, reminding students that these previously unconsidered others had inherent worth. Students truly did encounter difference, not only in their own projects but also in the great diversity of projects that they encountered across the class(es) as a whole during the final project presentations.
Examples of potential student projects can be gathered from my experience with this assignment. One group of students ran multiple canned food drives, each testing a different persuasion message based upon the literature, giving the solicited cans and a full research write-up to their contact at the food bank. Another group of students ran advertising for a local church youth group’s weekly meeting over a variety of different communication channels, and then talked to new attendees to measure which message they received. (Interestingly, last I heard the youth group was still benefitting from the bump in attendance, and also still used the recommended change in marketing initially established by the students.) Still other groups worked on donor solicitation for an art therapy program, evaluated the quality of messaging on a nonprofit’s website, or assisted with the selection of visual vs. verbal appeals depending on characteristics of the targeted donor.
The only requirements for nonprofit selection were that the organization had to have a local presence (either headquartered in the city or having a local chapter of a larger national organization) and had to have a mission that was focused on dealing with people who were somehow different from the students. This provided a major opportunity to discuss difference and social justice in the context of faith, drawing upon our own conceptualizations of what it means to consider difference as well as formal church teachings on human dignity and identity.
I’d also like to quickly advise interested faculty that the debrief portion of the class is among the most powerful and important moments for tying the course activities to larger issues of social justice, faith, human worth, and service. Without an intentional discussion and targeted questions, this could easily become a moment where students just walked away with an impression that they had a better grasp on the methods for conducting social research in an applied setting. Clearly, this is an incredibly important learning objective, but as I previously discussed, I find it essential to engage and discuss the role of faith, service, human dignity, and justice in the context of these group research projects whenever opportunities present themselves. I remember one group describing how it was only through the grace of God that none of them had yet ended up in the seemingly random situations that initially impacted the target population of one nonprofit. Such a sobering moment immediately prepared the members of the class for an excellent and engaged debrief, and this was just one among many different ways that we were able to push the conversation to a deeper level as a result of this project.
My hope for this social research methods project was that students would gain familiarity with nonprofits and service learning, have a productive experience with research design, and consider deeper life questions of difference and faith and social thought. Generally, this project far exceeded what I hoped to accomplish in terms of contact with local nonprofits. In subsequent semesters, I found that people may have kept in touch with a nonprofit leader, begun volunteering at the organization, or even were able to pursue formal internship opportunities. In addition, the university awarded the course a “C” designation for community service learning, an option I didn’t even realize existed until I was approached by members of the administration. Although some students found the project to be unwieldly at first (e.g., coordinating schedules with off-campus partners, or eschewing a reliance on mediated communication channels) they quickly found a routine and were able to make very smart decisions about their own research design independently by the end of the semester, critically engaging both their projects and the projects of their peers.
The most personally satisfying outcome of running this project over thirty courses, however, has to be the reflective engagement with issues of Christian social thought, issues of difference, and the opportunity to think outside the self. For students who already claimed to have faith, I believe the project encouraged them to think outside the Christian ghetto in which we people of faith so often find ourselves. For the myriad atheist, agnostic, or other “doubting” students on our campus, this moment of engagement with the principles of Christian social thought may have impacted their own perspective on the practical applications of fundamental Biblical teachings—teachings about the social good that are often overlooked in an increasingly insular world.
Is service learning easier than teaching straight from a textbook? Decidedly not. At the same time, I have found the investment of time and energy is relatively insignificant in comparison to the opportunity for my own gain in personal satisfaction. Even more so, the opportunity to engage students in practical issues of faith—or to introduce the Christian faith as a locus of the social justice movement—may serve as a tipping point for an otherwise uninterested student and have long-term impacts far beyond my own realization.
 Palmer, Parker J., Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999).
 Like those found in Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, Provers 31:8-9, Matthew 7:12, Jeremiah 22:3
 For example, see Francis, Pope. Laudato Si’: Encyclical Letter on Care for our Common Home. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015.
 A brief example of moving Christian thought beyond an insular community can be found in: Terry Mattingly, Beyond the Christian Ghetto: Why C.S. Lewis Has Endured. Evangelical Press Association. Retrieved 2018 from: https://www.evangelicalpress.com/ghetto/