Examining international school service-learning through a postcolonial lens: using autoethnography to decolonize the self

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University of New Brunswick


My research explores the relations of power that exist in the application of service-learning programs through international schools within the countries in which they operate. Using critical research and autoethnography, I examine my own experiences as a Community Service Coordinator for an international school in Tianjin, China, in the academic year 2007-2008, in order to illuminate the complexities, tensions, contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the delivery of service-learning programs in international school contexts. By juxtapositioning texts from my personal experiences as Community Service Coordinator in China, with my beloved childhood novel Little Women (Alcott, 2008, original 1868) and Mao Tse-tung’s essay “In Memory of Norman Bethune”, I illuminate the presence of colonial power structures still operating today through the delivery of service-learning programs at international schools. Using critical discourse analysis I identify how the problematic binary of ‘server’ vs. ‘served’ establishes the international school and its students in the position of relative superiority and echoes historical imperial values of philanthropy for the ‘good’ of the other. Furthermore, I make visible the dangers and possibilities in my ability, as Community Service Coordinator, to author the service-learning experiences of students in my classes. Throughout the research, I attempt to make visible how my storied formation has constructed a colonial view of the world, such that once recognized, I can begin to dismantle these structures and thus begin to decolonize my self in order to act more equitably and with more agency in my world, and within my pedagogy.