Death by Punctuation

Death by Punctuation

NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.


Death by a Punctuation Mark: The Hyphen in 'Service-Learning'
By Mark Raygan E. Garcia, Director, Office of Information and Publications

The book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” gives a humorous reminder of the importance of punctuation marks. It tells of a panda who enters a restaurant and, after eating a sandwich, pulls out a gun and starts shooting at the customers.

When interrogated by the lone-living waiter, the panda tosses a wildlife manual and tells him to look up the definition of a panda.

The manual describes: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots, and leaves.

True enough; a single period can end a conversation. Exclamation points can provoke a thread of heated exchanges. Ellipses can connote uncertainty. Commas can mean unfinished business. Question marks can unleash trains of thought running on a track of punctuation marks. 

There is a long list of punctuation marks available online. Perhaps, one of those hardly used is the hyphen (-). Apple dictionary defines a hyphen as a “sign used to join words to indicate that they have the same meaning.” 

In the academe, the use of a hyphen between the words “service” and “learning” is a subject of debate. To some, a hyphen holds no significant difference. To others, it merges two thoughts, bringing about a whole new meaning.

This article reflects on the importance of a hyphen between “service-learning” – what Silliman University promotes.

Others would argue that a hyphen between service and learning (thus, service-learning) makes no difference. It sounds the same on the ear, hardly looks different to the eyes, and barely time-consuming to type in on the computer, or write by hand. 

A hyphen in service-learning, however, goes beyond it being a punctuation mark. It connotes interaction, unity, mutual exclusivity, and commonality of goals and direction. It facilitates the marriage of two varying concepts which, in economics, could be best differentiated as supply and demand: service being supply – the giving of what is in possession; learning being demand – the continuing desire to possess. More importantly, the hyphen allows for both concepts to interchangeably take on its individual roles, as one now cannot simply move forward without the other. 

In universities like Silliman, the hyphen represents the grade component of service-learning. This is where service-learning becomes a teaching pedagogy, fine-tuning extension, outreach and volunteerism into a formal venue of non-linear relations. As well, it necessitates the institutionalization of service-learning into the academic curriculum.

Schools, with its tri-focal function, have to find a point of merger for instruction, research and extension. A simple hyphen provides that common thread that connects the three together. Instruction provides the methodologies that would guide and optimize the sharing and learning process. Extension's entry is in finding out from the community their concerns and exploring means of addressing them within the students' limitations. Research comes in through journals and assessment that give a formal structure to converting what would from the classroom become a personal experience back into an academic activity that would provide more depth to the students' understanding of what the books offer.

This is where service-learning plays out more its role with the hyphen both (1) representing the link of schools to the larger community and (2) reinforcing the connection of the schools' mandate to their students and their social accountability to their external constituencies.

While a hyphen in service-learning provides the needed “push” for students to locate themselves in the larger scheme of things, its ultimate goal is to develop within the students the natural affinity to social concerns. Initially, service-learning is undertaken by students because it is an academic requirement – graduation depends on it. But the greater challenge is to translate the purpose from being selfish (for the grade) to being selfless (because this is the right thing to do). 

Value formation must, therefore, be a serious objective of service-learning. Without a conscious attempt at allowing both processes of knowledge development and of giving flesh to human conditions to influence the appreciation of the students of their role in the community, service-learning will be a limited academic experience. The challenge is to translate it into a broker-mediator of lifelong learning. It is only when the values developed or enhanced through service-learning are embedded into the human consciousness, becoming a lifestyle, can service-learning genuinely address oppression, poverty, social injustice, inequitable allocation of resources, and related social concerns.

Minus the hyphen, service and learning are ordinary terms that go by their respective definitions in the dictionary. They die at how they are perceived individually. An absence of a hyphen fails to harness the respective potentials of service and learning as distinct concepts and values. The same fails to combine both concepts of “service” and “learning” in bringing about a stronger symbiotic relationship which effects (and fast-tracks) positive change. 

Service becomes an undertaking to make an impact on the community, but there may be no intent to process the experience and make the same available for future generations' consumption. Service alone is an act that may be driven by either a responsibility or a set of values, and without formal methodologies to capture its dynamics, it may not be an asset that the next generation could tap. 

Learning, on the other hand, when not connected to service by a hyphen can simply be theoretical. It revolves within the confines of knowledge that is passed on (secondary) without affording the self to test it or dig deeper into the actual realities that support classroom discussions. In this case, learning struggles to connect to a personal experience; and in the absence or lack of one, it fails to ensure and achieve sustained interest. 

Measuring the effectiveness of service-learning as a teaching pedagogy is ultimately based on its impact on the self and the community. Academic institutions can only be genuinely successful when their students develop a natural connection to social issues and are able to consciously respond to them outside the realm of service-learning as an academic exercise.