Review: Reciprocity as a threshold concept for faculty who are learning to teach with service-learning

Review by Janice Miller-Young, Director, Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Mount Royal University

In this article, Harrison and Clayton propose, and provide evidence for, the idea that reciprocity is a threshold concept for faculty who are learning to teach with the community service-learning pedagogy. The authors describe the concept of reciprocity as “withness” (Clayton, 2010) in that faculty leave the expert role behind in favour of working with students and with the community, which has “associated shifts in power, identity and authority”.

This topic is important and timely because as the authors state, “the pedagogy of service-learning is emerging as both a central mechanism for community-campus engagement and a high-impact pedagogy (Kuh, 2008)”.  They also provide a clear and convincing literature review, describing the counter-normative nature of this pedagogy, which “positions all partners in service-learning as co-educators, co-learners, and co-generators of knowledge (Clayton, 2010)”. In fact, for the literature review alone, this would serve as an excellent introductory article for faculty who are relatively new to teaching with this pedagogy, and for educational developers who are interested in supporting those faculty.

After a brief introduction to threshold concepts, Harrison and Clayton focus on three of their key elements: that they are transformative, troublesome and liminal (Meyer and Land, 2003, 2005). The authors describe and discuss each of these elements, drawing evidence primarily from two sources: a discussion that took place among faculty, staff, administrators and education consultants at a threshold concepts conference; and one faculty member’s autoethnographic examination of her own teaching with this pedagogy (Tilley-Lubbs, 2009).  It is difficult to determine how representative this data is since, for example, the number of participants, disciplinary backgrounds and levels of experience of those at the conference are not reported.  However, the authors do acknowledging that service-learning and teaching with reciprocity is not experienced by everyone in the same ways.  They conclude by suggesting several possible approaches to faculty development, ranging from immersing faculty in service-learning as students themselves (likely time and resource intensive), to workshops, to facilitating critical reflection on actual teaching experience.

One aspect this article does not address is whether the concept of reciprocity meets the other key elements which define threshold concepts: that they are irreversible, integrative, discursive, reconstitutive, and sometimes bounded (Meyer and Land, 2003, 2005).  Perhaps the authors were limited by article length? Perhaps future work is required? Or perhaps they feel that meeting three of the criteria is sufficient enough for reciprocity to qualify as a threshold concept? I would probably be satisfied with any of these possible reasons, but I would have appreciated the authors at least acknowledging and discussing this. On the other hand, this limitation does not reduce the article’s usefulness to faculty developers and it certainly makes room for more scholarship on this topic.

Harrison, B., & Clayton, P. H.  (2012).  Reciprocity as a threshold concept for faculty who are learning to teach with service-learning.  Journal of Faculty Development, 26, 29-33.


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