College and university curriculums offer a growing number of service-learning courses. These programs allow students to perform community service and, as a result, develop a heightened sense of civic responsibility. In this essay I argue that relationships between higher education and social service institutions favor students rather than the disadvantaged groups with which they work. An undergraduate sociology course that I took in 1997 gave me the opportunity to do participant observation at a prison for juvenile offenders in Los Angeles, California. Drawing from an old set of field notes, I describe my experiences tutoring incarcerated youth. In retrospect I can place my experiences in a larger social context and reconsider the difference that I thought I was making.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Pacific Sociological Association conference in San Diego 2012. The author would like to thank Robert M. Emerson and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier draft. The piece also benefited from suggestions made by Kerry Ferris and Victor Rios. The American Council of Learned Societies supported the research and writing of this essay.