A Synechistic Conceptualization of Othering: Social Ontological Questions in Service Learning

Authors: Claudia Bernasconi , Libby Balter Blume

  • A Synechistic Conceptualization of Othering: Social Ontological Questions in Service Learning


    A Synechistic Conceptualization of Othering: Social Ontological Questions in Service Learning

    Authors: ,


Expanded conceptions of I-Other relationships in critical service learning impact ideas of self, ways in which self is understood to be autonomous and/or relational, and holistic concepts of self and other/s. This manuscript engages core ontological questions in contemporary service learning: Can social epistemological and ontological approaches assist in questioning oppositional framings of us and them that are both the cause and the consequence of exclusion and individualism, such as “us doing for them” or “us thinking of them”? Mixed methods were used to evaluate course outcomes of a recurrent service-learning course at the School of Architecture and Community Development at University of Detroit Mercy. Pre- and post- surveys, were administered to graduate and K-12 students. Personal reflection questionnaires and one-prompt personal reflection essays were analyzed through the identification of emerging themes. Two distinct conceptions of self and other emerged:  a “dichotomic conceptualization” of self/other, and a “synechistic conceptualization” of self-in-other. Architecture students interrogated their roles as designers and community members and their own lived experience as they intersect issues of racial identity, education, and socio-economic status. We conclude that a synechistic service-learning approach counteracts narcissistic and competitive approaches in architecture and design education. 

Keywords: Architectural Education, Critical Theory, Pedagogy, Social Ontology, Synechistic Othering

How to Cite:

Bernasconi, C. & Blume, L. B., (2023) “A Synechistic Conceptualization of Othering: Social Ontological Questions in Service Learning”, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 29(2). doi:



Published on
22 Dec 2023
Peer Reviewed


Current cultural debates in service learning are permeated by an anxious awareness of the complexities of societal justice, diversity, and inequity. Contemporary divisiveness in opinions on self- and group-identities may exacerbate difficulties in reaching balanced, joint decisions in the social, environmental, and educational realms. However, the study of individuals, their close community groups, and the organizational structures in which they function allows for the understanding and acceptance that personal autonomy is a cultural construction (Gergen, 2011). In contrast to individualistic perspectives on being, a relational self refers to the idea that individuals are socially constructed and personal actions are dialogically constituted.

This article approaches questions related to service learning in the design field from a transdisciplinary perspective, adopting framings derived from both social pragmatic theory and a postructuralist perspective on service learning. Our goal is to understand how critical service learning can result in an expanded conceptualization of I-Other relationships that impacts ideas of self as autonomous and/or relational and promotes holistic conceptualizations of self and other(s). Social ontological approaches can be used in the context of service learning to explore transformative processes and go beyond a discussion of learning outcomes to tackle profound and long lasting impacts of the service learning experience on participants’ thinking about themselves and others. The study utilized relational ontology frameworks to capture a gradual transition of the conceptualizations of participants from oppositional framings of self as separate from others, such as “us doing for them” or “us thinking of them,” to synechistic conceptualizations of self-in-other, such as “we together.” A multi-year case study is presented to describe the transformation of ontological conceptualizations and trace multiple overlapping phases of this process. The underpinning of our study is the belief that theories and practices of teaching and learning must begin with the recognition of education as a process involving the person as a whole and that academic education is an addition to all learning taking place outside of the classroom. As a socially constructed process, education—and more specifically critical service-learning experiences—can foster the recognition of the whole as an entity extending beyond the person: a continuum that encompasses the self and others, understood and lived at the individual level through what this study terms a “self-in-other” conceptualization.

This study expands on current understandings of transformative pedagogies in design education and the transformative nature of service learning. The understandings emerging from this study, however, are relevant to educators across disciplines, consistent with the expectation that this type of education prepares students to serve clients, patients, and citizens in various contexts of society. In the conclusion of this paper, we propose a Transformative Process of Othering model and call for a radical ontological shift in the practice of education from an individual centered approach to a relational one. Relational design education requires students to design with others rather than for others and highlights important ontological aspects of engaged learning. In this way, we extend the focus on epistemological aspects of service learning, reciprocity of benefits for the community and students, and the role of reflection in the experience, which has been the dominant focus of studies in the design field (Gregory & Heiselt, 2014).

Service Learning and Epistemological Questions

It is commonly understood that the foundations of service learning can be traced to the works of Dewey (1938/1997) and Freire (1970/2000), who both framed epistemological questions in a social perspective through the introduction of ideas of experiential learning, the questioning of the neutrality of education, and the acknowledgment of its role as a tool either for the questioning the status quo or for conforming to it. Epistemological questions, interlaced with ideas of power and control, were at the center of ideas for innovation and disruption of established approaches in education in the 1960s and ’70s, together with ethical concerns related to underrepresentation of voices and perspectives in academia (Lyman & Corroto, 2010).

In subsequent decades, after initial experimentation, programs, and projects, service-learning approaches and theories evolved from initially framing learning as an individual endeavor to contesting top-down approaches to education. Service learning was centered around ideas of shared benefits (Sigmon, 1979) and reciprocity in learning (Furco, 1996), and conceptualized as a reflexive form of learning enacted through cycles of thought, action, and reflection (Jacoby, 1996). Attached to experiential learning, service learning has also been understood as cycles of concrete experience, cognitive reflection, and abstract theorization (Kolb, 1984). Thus, experiential/out-of-the-classroom learning is complemented and deepened with reflections and critical perspectives, both recognized as essential (Mitchell, 2008).

Several limitations of service learning have emerged during the last two decades, such as a possible limited impact on both communities and academic learning (Butin, 2003; Eyler et al., 2001) and the difficulty in assessing short-term and long-term outcomes due to the complexity and variety of participants and partnerships involved. More importantly, potential negative impacts of myopic approaches to service learning have promoted in students “truncated understandings of the nature of social problems” (Eby, 1998, p. 1), and disempower communities (Pompa, 2002). Some critics even have questioned the notion of benefits all together, advocating a more nuanced definition of relationships between institutions and communities (Mitchell & Humphries, 2007). Such critiques of service learning include feminist and poststructuralist approaches that have uncovered important interconnected issues of power, privilege, race, whiteness, and status in service learning (e.g., Butin, 2015; Green, 2001; Mitchell et al., 2012; Yep & Mitchell, 2017). This awareness of positionality and the questioning of borders (e.g., Mignolo & Tlostanova, 2006; Tlostanova et al., 2016) in critical service learning also reflect the transformative learning concepts of contextual border crossings (Kiely, 2005).

Critical Perspectives on Service Learning

Adopting a poststructuralist perspective on service learning, in this paper we critique service-learning initiatives that reinforce binary and simplistic “serving–served” relationships that can unintentionally strengthen prejudiced and stereotypical approaches towards underserved communities and lead to the definition by privileged groups of the needs of underprivileged minorities and the framing of such needs as deficiencies (Astin et al., 2000; Butin, 2003; Hernandez, 2018; Mitchell & Humphries, 2007). At the core of poststructuralist perspectives on service learning are the redistribution of power among all participants and stakeholders, the search for authenticity in relationships within and across groups, and the embracing of a social change and social justice perspective (Mitchell & Chavous, 2021). In critical service-learning courses, students can experience personal growth, become aware of preconceptions and prejudices, and gain a more complex view on societal issues as they learn to recognize the systemic versus individual nature of others’ needs and issues (Astin et al., 2000). Though many scholars have engaged in refining critical service-learning frameworks (e.g., Butin, 2015; Ganss & Baker, 2014; Kajner et al., 2013), several scholars have cautioned about the difficulty of achieving real social change in communities and of measuring tangible outcomes outside of academia (Latta et al., 2018; Santiago-Ortiz, 2019).

More recently, Vincent and colleagues (2021) have advocated for and defined a new framework for engaged learning defined as Critically Engaged Civic Learning (CECL), which interlaces critical service learning and civic learning pedagogical perspectives. This model builds on critical service-learning approaches and embraces an equity-based participatory framework to programs and projects, promoting a level field for all participants, fostering civic agency and social change, and attempting to altogether circumvent the underpowering implications of the term service in service learning.

Transformative Pedagogies

Service learning is considered a transformative pedagogy, a form of learning that can foster transformational learning processes and impact intellectual, personal, cultural, and political perspectives, among others (Kiely, 2005). Work by Hartman et al. (2018), Kiely (2005), and Swords and Kiely (2010) provides insight on transformative learning in community-based learning and service learning. Moreover, Kiely (2005) highlighted the limitations of focusing on outcomes of the learning, advocating, on the contrary, for a focus on “contextual and process mechanisms” in service learning, as well as denouncing a “deficit in studies that generate theory” (p. 5) and calling for researchers to generate theory regarding philosophical and epistemological dimensions of transformative service learning to avoid a “theoretically blurred” research focus in the field (p. 18). Some theoretical models exist to explain transformative learning process. For example, Mezirow’s model (1991, 2000) delineates a “perspective transformation” that takes place during the learning and that impacts how participants understand of their own identity. In consistency with Mezirow’s model, and in alignment with poststructuralists perspectives on service learning, Kiely’s Transformational Service-Learning Process Model (2005) brings transformative learning theories to the specific field of service learning, and acknowledges various stages of the learning process, including contextual border crossing and dissonance, the latter defined as “incongruence between participants prior frame of reference and aspects of the contextual factors” (p. 8) of the service learning experience, and a final connecting phase, which encompasses empathy and affect. His work recognizes the value of reflection in transformative pedagogies but also points to the underrepresented nonreflective learning that takes place through dialogue.

Pedagogy for the Design Field

In the field of design pedagogy, critical service learning is considered to be part of the broader family of action-oriented transformative pedagogies, which also include community engaged design or participatory design, design-build projects, and other out-of-the-classroom learning experiences (Salama, 2015). According to Salama, action-oriented transformative pedagogy, in its contextual nature, “provides an inductive collaborative problem-solving alternative to traditional domain-knowledge deducting learning,” and require students to engage in “listening, dialogue, action and reflection” (pp. 310–311). In this respect, transformative pedagogy in the design field, is a systemic pedagogy, opposite to a mechanist pedagogy, as it includes “active and experiential scenarios” (p. 317) and a focus on process and interdisciplinary thinking. In particular, design-build studios often include collaborative learning that bridges the classroom and partner organizations as projects go from ideas to actual construction, requiring collaboration and negotiation with many different stakeholders, and is associated with the building of relationships over time and with concrete, mutual benefits (Beaverford, 2013). More generally, some level of engagement with local communities and organizations is a natural component of the majority of design studios in architectural, urban, or planning education. Regardless of a service-learning component, students may visit the project site, meet staff from local organizations, and encounter neighborhood residents. In the context of such courses, students learn about the context and community, utilize this information as part of the design process, and may present resulting design ideas, models, or drawings to the partner organization or communities. Consistently, several studies on service learning in the design field prioritize the assessment of the reciprocity of learning experiences, focusing on outcomes and on what is “given back” to the community during the process, recognizing the time and effort required of the community to respond to the course expectations and activities (Gregory & Heiselt, 2014). Reflection is also used as a modus operandi in most design studios—even in courses where no engagement or service is included. In fact, Gregory and Heiselt (2014) have argued that reflection is often transitioned from traditional design studio to service-learning projects without proper training of faculty and students on further aspects of service learning.

Within design education, a considerable and continuous change has occurred in the last three decades, from more autoreferential positions and top-down disciplinary approaches to the field of design in which the architect “knows more and better” than the client or community, to contemporary multidisciplinary approaches that include considerations of social, economic, environmental, and cultural perspectives on design, recognizing the value of collaboration in design and the importance and ethic imperative of listening to and learning from the community. This change is recognized and sustained by accreditation criteria for the field (e.g., National Architecture Accreditation Board, 2020). In the last two decades, changes in approaches to design education have led to an increase in community design opportunities, outreach projects, collaborative projects and partnerships with outside organizations (Salama, 2015). In the design field the motto “designing with, not designing for” is the current response to an increased awareness of the need for inclusiveness, social justice, and environmental preservation that is guiding new forms of design, such as collaborative design, participatory design, community-engaged design, and public interest design. In the context of this shift, action-oriented transformative pedagogies are expanding and an increased number of educators in the design field are experimenting with service learning (e.g., Angotti et al. 2011; Bernasconi & Blume, 2019; Bernasconi, 2021; Hardin et al., 2006).

In discussing service learning in design and planning, Angotti et al. (2011) include an overview of public interest design studios, participatory action research (PAR), and the emergence of community engagement in design as a form of teaching, research and service that is increasing valued and recognized in academic settings. This work is organized in four parts, each section presenting poignant title that summarized four core aspects of the discussion of service learning in the design field: (1) Beginning to see “The Other”; (2) Learning to Reflect and Evaluate; (3) Crossing Borders; and (4) Confronting Academic Boundaries. The focus of these service-learning projects is both epistemological, tackling “what and how we teach and learn” in the design field, as well as ethical, addressing “for whom” and “with whom” we design, framing design education around social justice perspectives. In this paper, we build on these understandings to focus on under investigated ontological questions in service learning for the design field.

From Epistemological Perspectives to Ontological Questions in the Design Field

Within critical service-learning, through the questioning of roles and identities that stem from engagement and experience, ontological questions emerge as prominently as epistemological ones. In fact, the role of service learning in the construction of students’ conceptualizations of themselves and others in relationship to gender, race, and status has emerged in various studies (e.g., Boyle-Baise, 1999; Harvey, 2000). Furthermore, as stated by Butin (2003), a poststructuralist perspective on service learning uncovers the sui generis nature of borders and issues and the question of “to what extent service learning supports and undermines our notions of […] teaching, learning, self, and otherness” (p. 1683).

In the design education field, epistemological questions and the related issues of power and knowledge call for the acknowledgment of core ontological questions, such as how we position ourselves and define our own identities and that of the others “for whom” or “with whom” we design. From an ontological perspective, the understanding of social contexts and issues and the questioning of relationships between authority, power, privilege, and knowledge are at the core of design pedagogies that critique current educational structures and their influence on and participation in current systemic structural injustices. As mentioned earlier, increased theorizing, enacting, and testing of multiple innovative pedagogical models in architectural education have led to community design studios, design-build courses, live-projects, design courses centered on inquiry-based learning, collaborative learning, and experiential learning, service learning, and civically engaged learning, several of which fall within the broad family of transformative pedagogies (Salama, 2015). Such pedagogies in the context of design, and more broadly professional education, focus on both the personal growth of students and their preparation and call to action to serve others and solve pressing contemporary urban, environmental, and sustainability and resiliency related issues. These models of transformative and critical pedagogies strive to “contextualize contemporary issues as active-learning instruments for proactive response” (Salama, 2015, p. 310), and support the transition of the curriculum from disciplinary approaches to multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches. These approaches acknowledge the breadth of pressing social issues for the envisioning of complex solutions and allow for exogenous interdisciplinarity because issues originate in the community rather than the academy (Klein, 2012). While doing so, service-learning courses in the design field not only approach real-world situations and issues, including by default interactions with outside groups and individuals, but also foster a form of learning that is endemically social and collective.

We argue that in addition to the study of epistemological and methodological dimensions, and of outcomes of transformative pedagogies, the study of the social ontological dimension can assist in further understanding how these models allow to surpass the understanding of education as a path to develop the ability to solve problems and may lead to an acknowledgement of its importance for development of the capability to collectively define problems. From an ontological point of view, we explore how these models contribute to the advancement of design pedagogy and the implications for architectural education and practice. Potentially, the social/collaborative and experiential nature of service learning promotes the reflective ability to think of oneself and others through a more complex lens and to construct new conceptualizations of self and others (Boyle-Baise, 1999; Butin, 2003; Harvey, 2000). Such questioning of relationships between self and others, aligns with a persistent recognition by design educators of the difficulties students face in walking in the other’s shoes (Robinson, 2015) and responds to calls for the building of students’ ability to design with, versus for, diverse others/communities through the encompassing of participatory approaches to education and the promotion of shared co-constructed/co-authored designs.

Ontological Assumptions in Education: From Individual to Relational

Critical service learning and transformative pedagogies often are situated within a traditional educational context that carries not only epistemological and methodological assumptions related to learning and teaching but also dominant ontological assumptions about individuals. Critical service learning and critically engaged civic learning, however, as new modes of experiential learning that build on the recognition of learning as a social endeavor, can assist in reframing the practice of education to embrace a radical ontological shift from an individual-centered to a relational ontology (Gergen, 2011). Gergen’s (2011) social pragmatic theory offers a useful perspective for uncovering conceptualizations of the individual and of social contexts that often constitute the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of mainstream approaches. He states, “that the concept of autonomous individual is a cultural construction – as opposed to an ontological essential – seems beyond debate at this juncture” and identifies Western individualism as the source of a “sense of fundamental loneliness, …a tension between self on one hand and community on the other” (p. 205). This ontological framework corresponds to and can be understood as the basis for traditional individualistic, exclusionary, and strictly disciplinary approaches to education which emphasize learning as individual development, pursuit, and success.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the interconnected and contextual idea of being in pragmatic social theory, defined as the recognition of individuation and socialization in the context of a continuity between personal identity, primary group (community), and social organization (society). Within this approach, Schubert (2006) situates the very idea of individuals and the process of individuation as relational, arguing that “individuation can only succeed on the basis of common views, only through ‘sympathetic introspection’ and through ‘understanding’ of others can actors create their own perspective” (p. 55). Within this framework a relational self refers to one who is a product of a process of socialization and therefore endemically not autonomous. A relational ontology stems from the recognition that “it is not the individual agents who enter into relationships, but relational processes that give rise to the very discourse of the individual” (Gergen, 2011, p. 207).

The concept of relational self can also be understood through ideas of ontological relationality, also termed strong relationality (Slife, 2004), and distinct from weak relationality. Slife (2004) distinguishes between weak and strong forms of relationality, arguing that interaction, reciprocal exchange of information and internalization of “outside” influences constitute weak relationality, in which identity “stems from what is ultimately ‘inside’” (p. 158), and which continues to be a type of individualism or atomism. To the contrary, Slife (2004) argues that in strong relationality identities cannot stem completely from what is inherent or “inside” them but must depend on how they are related to each other. In this form of ontological relationality, the outside is as important as the inside.

The ability to think of the self (one’s self) as socially constructed, immersed in a continuum with the other/s, undermines ideas of an autonomous self and allows important social epistemological and ontological questions to become relevant to pedagogical approaches in the design field and for education more broadly. For example, feminist scholars have identified the first step in approaching ontological and social epistemological questions as the understanding of self-positioning, acknowledging that “I am where I think” (Mignolo & Tlostanova, 2006, p. 215). Thus, the ability to think in a relational way about ideas, processes, and perspectives begins with admitting that I occupy a position that differs from that of others, and that this position will drive and shape ways of seeing, understanding, and acting. We argue that embracing relational ontology in practices of education can spur surpassing the limitations of individually centered education and better prepare students to become engaged designers.

Othering in Education

Othering, or otherness, has been understood through the lens of I-Other relationships, as a complex and paradoxical recognition of similarities and differences between an I and his or her others (Anheier & Juergensmeyer, 2012). As argued by Martin and Casault (2005) in relation to cultural diversity in architectural education, “People tacitly construct their personal and group identities against the ‘other’ or others as it is commonly through comparison, a process of figuring out how one differs from and how one is similar to another, that ultimately yields understanding and respect of self and other” (p. 3). At the center of othering are ethical and deontological questions interlaced with pedagogical ones. As stated by Simão (quoted in Anheier & Juergensmeyer, 2012), otherness is “a philosophical notion whose intrinsic dual character challenges us at the personal, cultural, political, and educational levels. It challenges us to think about how to promote human rights and welfare among persons who will always feel themselves, at the same time, very similar and very different one from the Other” (p. 1257).

The understanding of relationships between self and other/s has been increasingly at the center of questions of inclusivity, diversity, and equity in design education in the last few decades. Consistently, design educators have begun to embrace the idea of othering as an important component of learning and has emerged as a buzzword in the field as seen in a recent special issue of the Journal of Architectural Education (Southcott & Theodore, 2020). In the remainder of the paper, we illustrate how a recurrent critical service-learning project at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and Community Development (SACD) has fostered a form of othering that goes beyond comparisons of similarities and differences, revealing an ontological and epistemological shift from ideas of self as autonomous to ideas of self as relational, and allows for the definition of relational “synechistic othering” as distinguished from a comparison-based “dichotomic othering.”

Critical Service Learning in Design Education: Teaching and Learning the City

A service-learning course entitled Teaching and Learning the City has been offered to graduate students in the SACD at the University of Detroit Mercy since 2011. During a full semester, architecture students enrolled in the course collectively strategize, prototype, and facilitate design activities with one class of students at a K–12 public, charter, or private school in Detroit. The general goal of the course is to introduce graduate students to theories and questions of design pedagogy and to questions about education systems and processes, design, and communities, while the K–12 students engage in design ideas and creative work at various scales ranging from the building to the street, the neighborhood, and the city. At the start of each term, the overall course approach is discussed with the school principal, the art or science instructor, and community liaison staff to ensure that the course is complementary and connected to the current K–12 curriculum while also expanding it.

The graduate students are called to play a dual role of learners and teachers in the service-learning course as they learn course content as well as teach design principles and techniques at the K–12 school. The typical course structure involves 12 architecture graduate students and 25 younger students at the local school and builds on continuity of engagement, with members in each group remaining consistent throughout the semester. This structure allows for the gradual building of close relationships between the graduate students and the youth, with activities that include both a “class scale” introduction, a “table/team level” interaction during the activity with pairs of graduate students each working with one small group of students, followed by a “large-group” final discussion. In most cases, the graduate students and the younger students at the partner school differ with respect to age, educational level, ethnicity, and inferred socio-economic status. The diversity of the two groups and the off-campus, urban school context of the engagement offer the graduate students the opportunity to question their own roles as teacher and learner, designer, and community member.

A two-pronged preparatory approach takes place in the initial weeks of class prior to the beginning of the service-learning engagement at the partner K–12 school with the introduction of the graduate students to both a pedagogical perspective and the critical service-learning framework. Pedagogical and cognitive developmental theories with reference to the specific age group involved in the project and of key learning modalities and processes, such as adaptation, assimilation, accommodation, scaffolding, reflective thinking, prompting, guided participation, hands-on learning, and problem-based learning are introduced through readings and class discussions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 1

Cycles of designing, prototyping, facilitating, and assessing service-learning activities.

The graduate students’ personal experiences as learners in an architecture school and the outcomes of an initial meet-and-greet event at the partner school, during which students informally discuss ideas and interests with the younger students, together constitute the basis for prompting the graduate students to collaboratively plan a design curriculum for the K–12 students for the remainder of the semester. Graduate students work collaboratively as a class and in small teams to strategize, develop, prototype “in house,” and then introduce and facilitate design activities at the K–12 school. Attention is placed on activity sequencing and scaffolding of concepts as well as flexibility to reimagine activities based on feedback and assessment. Activities may range from collaging, mapping, architectural design and representation, neighborhood planning, to model building and larger design-built work installed in the community at the completion of the course (see Figures 2, 3, 4).

Figure 2
Figure 2
Figure 2

K–8 architectural design activity at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy in Detroit.

Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 3

Middle school architectural design activity at Gesu Catholic School in Detroit.

Figure 4
Figure 4
Figure 4

High school design-build work with Detroit Community Schools in Detroit.

Simultaneously, an overview of service learning, its evolution and central issues, as well as critical service-learning frameworks and critically engaged civic learning approaches (e.g., Vincent et al., 2021) are introduced through readings and class discussions to provide grounding for the interaction with the younger students. The course structure is organized around cycles of thought, action, and reflection (e.g., Jacoby, 1996), which are built in the course as cycles of designing, prototyping, facilitating, and assessing (see Figure 1) and allow students to collaboratively plan a design curriculum for each week and prototype activities when they meet as a group on campus, facilitate them at the partner school on a separate day of the week, and subsequently reflect on the outcomes and issues that emerged from the interaction at the following on-campus class meeting while preparing to launch a new activity. Feedback forms capture quick assessment post-activity, while weekly personal reflections support discussions. Additionally, personal reflection forms and personal reflection essays further allow students to make sense of the overall service-learning experience.


Mixed methods were used to evaluate course outcomes. Pre- and post- surveys were administered to the graduate students and the K–12 students. Survey data was useful in capturing general sociodemographic information about participants and type and level of exposure to service-learning experiences. Specific responses from the survey were not used for the present analysis due to inadequate sample size but provided contextual information. At the beginning, middle, and end of the semester, graduate students’ self-reflections were gathered through personal reflection questionnaires and one-prompt personal reflection essays. Sample questions included: What do I anticipate my role will be in this experience? (pre-reflection); What assumptions of my own, perhaps ones I didn’t know I had, have I become aware of? (mid-reflection); What does it mean to be a socially responsible and civically engaged person in my field? (post-reflection). These self-reflections were complemented by weekly notes from on-campus in-class discussions and on-site observations at the K–12 school. In addition, students completed an eight-question post-activities feedback form on the day the activity ended and assessed activities during the weekly in-class discussions that followed. Reflections were the most important element of the data and were analyzed through the identification of regularities in student responses (Marshall & Rossman, 1995), the recognition of emerging themes (Emerson et al., 1995), and the identification of positive, neutral, and negative indicators in responses (Dukhan et al., 2009).

In a first phase of the study, triangulation of all data collected in the reflection forms and the reflection essays through a period of seven years (2011–2018) allowed for the identification of several themes in service-learning outcomes. Students experienced personal growth and deeper thinking, became aware of preconceptions and prejudices, and gained a more complex view on societal issues as they recognized the systemic, versus individual, nature of needs and issues (Bernasconi et al., 2019; Bernasconi & Blume, 2019; Bernasconi, 2020a, 2020b). This new awareness also impacted their ideas on career paths and their own role as designers and community members (Bernasconi et al., 2020). Additionally, a follow-up study was conducted in 2020 by the first author consisting of in-depth semi-structured interviews of ten alumni from the course to further understand the long-term outcomes regarding forms of othering enabled by the service-learning course (Bernasconi, 2021). Interviews from this portion of the study were analyzed using the same methods.

In a second phase of the study clusters of relationships between themes were identified and use to understand how themes were relating to ideas of self, self and other, and self and society (Figure 5). Subsequently, quotes from reflection forms and the reflection essays were reviewed once more through the perspective how they reveal shifts in conceptualizations of I-Other relationships. The following discussion does not include analysis of specific themes but rather focuses on the identification of broader ontological processes emerging from the multi-year study in relation to conceptualizations of self and others and the definition of a proposed Transformative Process of Othering model (Figure 6, discussed later).

Figure 5
Figure 5
Figure 5

Service-learning outcomes from the Teaching and Learning the City course. Mapping of themes in connection to ideas of Self, Self and Other and Self and Society.

Results: Dichotomic and Synechistic Conceptualizations

The most prevalent outcome in relation to othering was the students’ overarching ability to gain a new perspective on themselves as social beings and to open up to a relational conceptualization of self. Epistemological questions related to authority and inclusion in the creation of knowledge and of the educational process, as well as social ontological questions related to structural issues and injustices stemming from new ideas about identity, diversity, and I-Other relationships permeated students’ reflections and responses. Allowing such questions to surface and delving into them in an intimate yet shared way during the service-learning course through personal reflections, group discussions, and collective actions, gave students permission to unveil preconceptions that drive ideas of self and others and delineated the gradual emergence of two distinct conceptualizations of othering: a “dichotomic conceptualization” of self/other, and a “synechistic conceptualization” of self-in-other.

Emergent Dichotomic Othering

The graduate students initially experienced ideas of others as separate and relative to their own actions, their own self-identity, and their perception of the identity of others, termed dichotomic othering. Due to the nature and scope of the service-learning course, the students were spurred to question teaching and learning roles and their own situation in life as it intersects issues of racial identity, education, and socio-economic status. The students had not previously visited the partner schools, nor even acknowledged the existence of the elementary, middle, or high school students with which they would later interact. Their moments of first meeting and acknowledging each other opened a lengthy ontological process that allowed students to question roles and identities. Through the process of othering, students acknowledged the other as distinct and separate but gradually began to trace connections to and from self and other, concurrently recognizing similarities and differences. Students initially focused on differences, assuming younger students would be less prepared, less eager to learn, and that it would be difficult to relate to them. These assumptions were gradually challenged during the service-learning course and gave way to graduate students’ sincere appreciation of the younger learners, as captured in this quote: “It was really impressive to see how an 8th grade student can absorb [an] architectural concept, analyze it and work towards it” (Final essay, 2016).

The process of admitting their own biases and assumptions also allowed the graduate students to understand themselves and reflect on how they relate to others. A quote that exemplifies this process refers to group discussions as helping confront these topics: “Unlike private reflection, this medium [group discussion] allowed the topics to be right in your face, and confronting them in the lives of my classmates gave me a very human way to look back at my own life” (Midterm essay, 2016). Students engaged in introspection and self-discovery throughout the course, as explained by this student: “I have learned a ridiculous amount of knowledge about children, teaching, thought process, and most of all, [about] myself.” “[this] I think was the most important part of this course: self-discovery” (Final essay, 2013).

The discovery of similarities came as a surprise to several of the students and allowed them to question a set of preconceptions and prejudices about the younger students of color. Openness to diversity manifested when differences receded, and similarities were forefront during interactions and subsequent reflections. One quote from a reflection essay exemplifies this process clearly: “I assumed these children would be very different from myself, but found they are very similar to us” (Post-reflection, 2013). Students referred to “us and them” while defining relationships: “It was very important to find an area of relation with them…” (Final essay, 2013). This conceptualization, while tracing connections and potential overlaps, reflects the relationship between two separate entities structured through a sense of distance in which they are considered fundamentally separate and autonomous, though in relation. In this way, dichotomic othering simultaneously allows for both relationship and separation while also fostering understanding and respect—yet still defines a boundary between “me and them” or “us and them” as exemplified in these quotes: “We learned more from them than they from us. We (as facilitators) learned of new and different realities in the urban context and shared ours with them” (Final essay, 2013); “…we learned from them as much as they learned from us” (Alumni interviews, 2020), but also captures a distance that allows relations, thought of as “…that space between myself and them. It’s just there’s this beautiful amount of respect, […] allowing to see them grow” (Alumni interviews, 2020).

Emergent Synechistic Othering

A second form of othering emerged as an outcome of the service-learning course, termed synechistic othering, linked to the understanding of self as relational, a conceptualization in which the self is understood not as a contained entity, but as socially constructed and individual actions as dialogically constituted (Gergen, 2011). Throughout the service-learning course students engaged in the questioning of roles, identities, and borders that allowed them to integrate new perspectives through a relational process which led to disidentification and border crossing (Šakaja & Stanić, 2011). Student self-reflections and responses indicated that they gradually developed what has been defined a sociological imagination (Astin et al., 2000), a more complex acknowledging and understanding of structural and interconnected social issues which allows for the surpassing of stereotypical and limited views on broad issues. Privilege and systemic structural disparities became stridently evident, and students felt humbled, admitting what had “been provided for me in my life” (Final essay, 2013), while others felt anger in voicing that “Not every child receives the same education, and this is frustrating” (Post-reflection, 2018). This impression persisted over time, as indicated by several interviews in the follow-up study, and exemplified by this quote: “I just don’t think I realized how privileged my upbringing was” (Alumni interviews, 2020).

Disidentification, border crossings, new forms of individuation, and the development of a sociological imagination allowed students to open up to a new conceptualization of othering as “self-in-other.” The service-learning experience led to ideas of belonging, responsibility, and mutuality, resulting in a call for action that was not driven by an “us for them” mission, but rather by a “we-together” one. Significantly, students expressed feeling “as a player in dialogue and not just the main character” (Post-reflection, 2016) and believe that service learning “is reflective, and sets you up with an opportunity to intimately view yourself as part of a whole” (Midterm essay, 2016). The use of the term dialogue is particularly effective in underlining the relational nature of self as “communication is inherently collaborative” (Gergen, 2011, p. 208) and has no meaning if unacknowledged by the other. Thus, interpersonal relationships become a medium for acknowledging a continuum that encompasses one’s own individuality and that of others.

Framing the self “as part of a whole” evokes the logic of the synecdoche, wherein individuals are the parts that signifies the whole. This integration eliminates the sense of autonomy and separation of the previously described dichotomic conceptualization towards a synechistic conceptualization of self-in-other in which relational processes are seen as an ontological prior (Gergen & Walter, 1998). Although it appeared that dichotomic othering is was the first form of othering to emerge through the service-learning experience, while synechistic othering emerged towards the midpoint of the course for some students, and toward the end for others, both forms coexist from that point, allowing students to simultaneously think and act in relation to others and as part of a synergetic whole, a “we are” foregrounding of connections and relationships. Interviews with alumni of the program also revealed that both conceptualizations remained over time, confirming the lasting impact of synechistic conceptualizations of othering.

A Transformative Process of Othering Model

The Teaching and Learning the City study allowed to understand important ontological processes and outcomes that took place in the context of a service-learning project within the design field. What the results suggest is that the real-world experience provided by the project, as well as the loose structure of individual and group cycles of thought action and reflection fostered important shifts in conceptualizations of I-Other relationships. Rather than sequential and independent, the transformative phases are dynamic and overlapping, each influencing and reinforcing the other. The ontological process begins with an encounter with others, the recognition of preconceived ideas, and their dismantling to form new perceptions; continues with the questioning of roles and borders, which facilitates new conceptualizations of self and self/others and the tracing of similarities and differences (dichotomic othering). Gradually sociological imagination is developed and allows for a common ground to emerge and accommodate new conceptualizations of self-in-other (synechistic othering). This leads to a newfound motivation to synechistic accomplishments and new perspectives on career plans and design (Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6
Figure 6

Transformative Process of Othering Model.

This process is imbued with concepts derived from postructuralist perspectives on service learning and from social pragmatic theory, and bears similarities in some of the phases and themes with Mezirow’s transformative learning model which identifies an initial “a disorienting dilemma” but concludes with the reintegration into one’s life based on one’s new perspective (2000, p. 22), and with Kiely’s model which includes, for example, contextual border crossing and connecting, as affective understanding and emphatic relationships building. Our proposed model explicitly acknowledges ontological transformation that blurs edges between self and others, through new conceptualizations of othering. In the proposed Transformative Process of Othering model, thinking of one’s self as a “part of a whole” is substantially different from feeling for others, connecting (Kiely, 2005), or “reintegration into one’s one individual life on the basis of conditions dictated one’s new perspective” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 22). In fact, while connecting or reintegration into one’s life based on one’s new perspective seem to refer to forms of weak relationality as defined by Slife (2004), the transformative process of othering, and in particular synechistic othering, is more affine with strong relationality, and with the concepts of recursivity and ontological turn, utilized in anthropology to indicate the ability to reflectively create new ways of thinking and invent new conceptualizations as a result of encounters with other(s) (Holbraad 2012; Holbraad & Pedersen, 2017). Synechistic othering also aligns with the concept of border thinking as an intersubjective model within feminist theory that envisions pluriversal and open categories versus fixed and exclusive categories and promotes the “building of an alternative world in which no one else will be an other” (Tlostanova et al., 2016, p. 217).

Relevance of Othering in the Design Field

Students in the service-learning course reported feeling called to become active community members who can contribute to change, as exemplified in this quote in which the student reported that service learning allowed her to “have a better understanding of the positive impact that can be done by someone” (Midterm reflection, 2016). This perception, clearly consistent with ideas of motivation towards synechistic accomplishments (Schubert, 2006), also persisted over time as overwhelmingly indicated by interview responses in the follow-up study: “…being able to get out into the community and into Detroit and into the classrooms of students and that experience …. makes you realize that you have this potential impact on our people” (Alumni interviews, 2020). A notable element of empathy and in-group identification is captured in the word “our” referring to people, versus a more abstract alternative wording which could have been used, such as for example “the community.” This finding is consistent with Kiely’s identification of the theme of connecting in service learning, as the ability of students to empathize and affectively understand. Moreover, his study indicates that deep connections developed during the service learning “remain with the students after the return home” (p.14), which is also true in our case as interviews took place several years after the service-learning experience. As argued in the theories of Cooley and Mead, the integration of new perspectives and conflicting expectations allows for new forms of individuation that motivate individuals towards “generalized and synechistic accomplishments” (Schubert, 2006, p. 69). In other words, the broadening of perspectives and the embracing of new ways of thinking about self in relation to others provoke new ways of thinking collectively and acting synergistically and thus may enable to promote social change leading to “…the establishment of new social norms and institutions” (Schubert, 2006, p. 69).

The relevance of othering in service learning, in both its dichotomic and its synechistic form, for architecture education is notable, as educators and practitioners strive to include community engagement in the design process, and schools include a growing number of outreach projects, public interest design studios, and community development programs. Students reported that the course impacted what they knew about themselves and their ideas about career plans and supported ideas of design as encompassing a process of listening to and engaging with the community. For example, one student stated “I wish to know my community personally and to be an active member. This experience has helped shape how I relate to people, especially of a different age” (Midterm reflection, 2016), while other students reported thinking that “…this is a very important course for young architects to take. Especially those that will be involved with making decisions in urban areas” (Post-survey, 2016) and that “… people think and perceive very differently and I know it is my job to adapt to others in the design process” (Post-reflection, 2013), in keeping with the previously discussed notion that “I am where I think.” In the follow-up study, perceptions about the influence of the service-learning course on ideas about one’s own synechistic role as designer remained consistent, for example: “We’ll never be successful as designers if we work in a vacuum” and that “I’ve also become a much better listener” as a result of the course. Another alum responded that the service-learning course brought “the clarity and the putting people at the center of the design” (Alumni interviews, 2020).

Discussion and Conclusion

The contribution of this study was assessing transformative processes in service learning from an ontological point of view. Findings from the study indicate that learning happened in the action/inter-action and dialogue, both within the graduate student group and across groups in conversations with the younger students, and awareness of such learning was facilitated through group and individual reflection. From an ontological point of view, the distinction between and the relative weight of reflective and nonreflective learning, which in transformative learning is controversial (Kiely, 2005), is here blurred. Social, contextual, and affective aspects of knowing and learning provide the basis for new conceptualizations which become intelligible through reflection. Actions were at the core of the gradual emergence of synechistic othering, in agreement with Sifle’s (2004) statement on strong relationality that “Practices are probably a person’s most important form of this strong relating, because practice require a relationship not only with our surroundings but also with our prior actions and the actions of others” (p. 159).

With Kiely (2005), we disagree with the idea that “what constitutes learning in service learning is individual reflection” and with the assumption that “without opportunities for reflection there is no learning” (p. 18). However, we also recognize that although relationality was constructed during action/interaction, a “sense of real” in regard to new conceptualizations was fostered through reflection, as words allowed for a new sense of being to emerge in students’ minds, and this awareness of changes in ways of thinking brought forth new conceptualizations of othering. Thus, in radically critiquing current educational models and opening up new directions and possibilities for education, the relationship between theory and action is central to social ontology’s application to understanding critical service learning and transformative pedagogies.

Moreover, very few studies on service learning focus on its ontological processes and theories. Bomber (2016) explores ethical aspects of transformative learning in International Service Learning and includes considerations regarding selfhood, openness and connectivity with self, and relational knowing, while Marichal (2010) focused on ontological shifts in relation to civic development and included notions regarding efficacy, value judgement, and identity. In a service-learning study conducted with kinesiology students, Grodesky and Ryan (2009), identified ontological change as “heightened sense of self and community, and a deeper appreciation for their chosen field” (n.p.). Furthermore, although relational ontology, more specifically, has been used to investigate ontological aspects of practice in psychology (Slife, 2004) as well as stakeholder in project management (Missonier & Fedida, 2014), to our knowledge there are no studies focusing on service learning in the field of design that have utilized such concepts.

In this paper, we have described a service-learning project in the field of architecture and design that resulted in transformative learning. Architecture students in the service-learning course interrogated their roles as designers and community members and their own lived experiences as they intersect issues of racial identity, education, and socio-economic status. The two conceptualizations of othering that emerged from the service-learning experience, “dichotomic conceptualization” of self/other and “synechistic conceptualization” of self-in-other, call for a more refined understanding of othering that goes beyond the idea of “putting oneself into the other’s shoes,” or of simply encompassing others in our decisions or plans. Furthermore, synechistic othering supports ideas of critical service learning as a path to social change and civic engagement, fostering synechistic motivation and agency in participants. As a result of the course, students reported feeling called to action in a common ground, aligned with several service-learning outcomes advocated by critically engaged civic learning, including increased self-awareness, a sense of civic engagement, and better understanding of communities (see Vincent et al., 2021).

The tackling of core ontological questions in design education and engagement in synechistic thinking promoted through service learning can counteract narcissist and competitive approaches that are both the cause and the consequence of exclusion and individualism, and promote empathy and ethical thinking (Brown & Moreau Yates, 2000). In a social change model, critical service learning and civically engaged critical learning can help address the “critical question” posed by Eric Hartman: “Who am I, how am I formed by and through others, and what must we do together to co-create more just futures moving forward?” (MacDonald et al., 2022), by fostering new understandings of self/others and self-in-others.

In this way, research on ontological underpinnings of education and ontological outcomes of service learning can contribute to disrupt dominant exclusionary models of education that are centered around disciplinary, top-down content delivery, and situated within the walls of a classroom and for the benefit of a selected privileged group. In our view, it is imperative to strive to go beyond limited interactions with “others” in design education, as those experiences will not produce a true conceptualization of continuity and unity between self and others, and may on the contrary at the worst promote “truncated understandings” of issues (Eby, 1998), and at the best only achieve weak forms of relationality. In critical service learning, the building of authentic relationships, the development of a sociological imagination, engagement in border crossing, and the embracing of relational conceptualizations of self, can lead to synechistic conceptualizations of othering which foster a sense of belonging, responsibility, and shared togetherness, and result in a call for action that is not driven by a “me and you” and an “us for them” mission, but rather by a “me-in-us” and a “we-together” one. Increased research on how relational ontology can further the understanding of service learning in general, and in the design field more specifically, as relational theories “generate an alternative mode of understanding human action, one that may possibly favor more cooperative and less agonistic patterns of action.” […] and “generate an intelligibility for the possible enrichment of human relations.” (Gergen, 1998, p. 115).


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